These stones

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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.

Featured image from: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/e5/f1/6e/e5f16ead9dcbdebfd53bdb8c6c057dda.jpg

Women in God’s Eyes

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 27-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 30 minutes).

In our Gospel reading for today (Luke 13:10-17) we read a less familiar story about Jesus healing a woman who has been crippled – bent over double – for 18 years. He heals of her on the Sabbath, and for that he (and all those present) are reprimanded for seeking healing on the Sabbath. Come on any of the other six days of the week for healing, the synagogue leader says, but not on the Sabbath.

Jesus then compares the situation of his healing of this woman, with helping an oxen. He says,

“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, …whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

Jesus here is calling out the synagogue leader for his deep patriarchy, even misogyny. Because he regards a donkey as more important than a woman. The church has a long history of supporting patriarchy. Even in our Bible, there are numerous patriarchal passages. And the church too often upholds patriarch – that women are less than, less than men, less than human. Even women contribute to patriarchy. Research in South Africa by a colleague of mine (Prof Shahana Rasool) shows that women (mothers and aunts) are often the first person to tell a battered woman to return to her abusive husband. So, while today’s message is in many ways particularly for men to take up, it is indeed for all of us.

In this passage in Luke, we see Jesus doing five transformational anti-patriarchal things in these few verses (vv12-13, 16):

  1. He sees her – he picks her out among the crowds, recognises her as a human in need.
  2. He calls her – in the synagogues then, men and women were kept separate, like in orthodox synagogues today – he calls across the synagogue and calls her to him
  3. He speaks with her – he speaks words of healing to her: “Women you are set free from your infirmity”
  4. He lays his hands on her – he doesn’t merely touch her politely on the shoulder. He “put his hands on her” – almost unthinkable in those days.
  5. He affirms her – and then later he refers to her as a “woman, a daughter of Abraham”.

These five acts set for us an example of recognising the full humanity, and indeed, the divine createdness of women. There is absolutely no space here for patriarchy, and even less for misogyny. Jesus see her as a unique and individual daughter of God, a person in need, who is as deserving of the ministrations of God as any one else.

Indeed, we find narratives like this throughout the scriptures. Many women and some men have given up on the Bible, because it is so saturated in patriarchy; and unfortunately, this is true. I struggle with it myself, constantly. But, when we read the Bible closely, in the context of its own time, we find that the Bible frequently challenges deeply held cultural beliefs about the relationships between men and women, and about the the status and place of women in God’s plan. Scripture is, in many ways, countercultural when it comes to patriarchy. And these challenges seem as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.

Four quick examples – two in Genesis and two in John:

  1. In Genesis 1:27-28, the writer describes the creation of humanity – God created man in his image, male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them. Both are fully created in God’s image. It is not that man is in God’s image, and woman is in man’s image. No! Both man and woman derive their image directly from God. And then God goes on to mandate both of them (not just the man) to rule over earth, its plants and animals – both of them! There is nothing that says Adam should rule over Eve – no! Both of them are equally commissioned with the authority of God to jointly rule over the world. This is how God created humanity! Yet, so many churches teach something different about the differential authority of women and men. It does not exist here in Genesis 1!
  2. Two chapters later, in Genesis 3:16, we read the story of the fall of humanity. Both Adam and Even eat of the Tree of Life – both sinned. And God pronounces consequences of their sin on each of them. One of the consequences for the woman is that her husband “will rule over you”. There are Christians today who argue that this rule of husbands over wives is God’s plan for how gender relations are to be structured following the fall. Honestly, this is absolute rubbish! A consequence of the fall of humanity is patriarchy. It is not God’s desire for humanity. If it were, then all men should be out toiling in the fields to produce crops by the sweat of their their brow, because this is a consequence God gives to the man in v18. Yes, men are not doing that – they have invented machines to do it for them, or hired migrant labourers to work on their behalf for nearly nothing. Singling out this ONE facet of the fall, from all of the others, and raising it up to God’s plan for humankind post-fall, is a clear sign of patriarchy, and indeed of misogyny. It is NOT God’s desire! Indeed, Christ’s mission is to undo the effects of the Fall, including patriarchy, not to reinforce them!
  3. Let’s move to John’s Gospel. Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well on a very hot day (John 4:1-42). Knowing who she is – Samaritan, not Jewish; a woman of ill repute – Jesus engages with her in a deep theological conversation. They don’t talk about baking or raising children. They talk about complex matters of faith. And she becomes the first female evangelist, as she returns to her community to tell them all about this man she had met. Jesus engages with her as a human being; not as a woman per se. Her gender, and the social norms around the relationship between men and women, are completely irrelevant to Jesus – he simply walks over them. Patriarchy is no barrier!
  4. Lastly, let’s look at John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The male religious leaders bring the woman to Jesus and ask Jesus what they should do, in accordance with the Law. Note that the man is no where to be found! It’s takes at least two to commit adultery – but where is he? They say, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery”, meaning they were were caught in the act of having sex. So he was there having sex with her; where is he now? And Leviticus instructs that both the man and the woman must be stoned – not just the woman. In this highly hostile context, Jesus kneels down and doodles in the sand. I imagine that in response, all the men shift their focus from the woman to what Jesus is doing. In so doing, he redirects the ‘male gaze‘ away from her and towards himself. He spares her the shame and humiliation of this gang of men staring at her. He champions her dignity as a human being, as a child of God. And then he challenges the men, and of course they must go. And then, at the end, he holds her accountable for her sin – she really had sinned, she has the capacity and agency to make both bad and good choices – and he forgives her and sends her off to choose to sin no more. But in the process, he has dismantled the deep patriarchy and misogyny that was at work in this narrative.

There is a great deal of patriarch in the Bible – the Bible was written in patriarchal times, mostly or perhaps entirely by men. We live today in patriarchal times. Our world is full of domestic violence (physical and verbal); of women getting passed over for promotion in favour of men; of the ways men silence, dismiss and diminish women; of the brutal rape of women and girl children; and of the exclusion of women from leadership in the church. There is certainly a lot of patriarchy in the Bible and in our church.

But there is no patriarchy in Jesus. No patriarchy in God. Our Triune God celebrates the full humanity of both men and women, and all gender fluid and nonbinary people. Jesus saw her, he called her, he spoke words of healing over her, he laid his hands on her and he celebrated her as a daughter of Abraham. How much must we follow in his footsteps.

Featured image by Barbara Schwarz, OP, “Jesus and the Bent Over Woman,” acrylic on canvas, 2014, from https://www.globalsistersreport.org/files/stories/images/Schwarz_JesusBentWomanPainting%20better%20color%20%281000×750%29.jpg

Peace, Division, Faith

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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 5:1-7

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

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.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

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.

Luke 12:49-58

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.

Indeed, before the conference was over, conservative Anglican bishops had already gathered and reiterated their rejection of gay relationships.

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**:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.

Featured image from https://www.needpix.com/photo/1311815/jesus-christ-christian-radical-revolutionary-holy-spirit-god-bible

Our Father

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Today we read Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to pray (Luke 11:1-13). It is a rich and invaluable teaching. Prayer is not easy for many of us, and Jesus’ template for prayer is worth using. Today, we focus on two words from the Lord’s prayer: “Father” and “daily”.

Father

Jesus starts his prayer with “Father”. Not “Our Father”. It is an indicating of his intimacy with God the Father, and the invitation to us to be similarly intimate and close with God. It also speaks of an informality that we can have in our communication with God. We’ve not all have good experiences of fathering – referring to God as our ‘Father’ might not be comforting for everyone. But in this passage, Jesus emphasises the goodness of Father God.

In Luke 11:11-13, Jesus describes God as a good parent, who gives his children good things. He reminds us that even if we did not have good fathering and even if we (who are fathers) are not good fathers, we all have a mental picture of a ‘good and loving father’. We many not have experienced it ourselves, but what we do know what it is. Jesus emphasises in this passage that God lives us to our ideal of good fathering.

Colossians 2:13-14, another of today’s readings, also emphasises the good God, who takes away our sin, who wipes us clean, who accepts us in love.

And even in Genesis 18:23-25, also one of today’s readings, we see Abraham reminding God of who God is – righteous, loving, forgiving, patient, tolerant.

God is a good parent and we are invited to be intimate and informal with God in our prayer.

Daily

In Luke 11:3, Jesus prays, “Give us each day our daily bread”. We are encouraged to bring our every day needs to God – our need for bread, a staple of life. God is not interested only in big challenges and global issues; God is also interested in the daily struggles of life. We are invited to bring everything to God.

We’re also invited to come to God every day in prayer. This verse uses ‘day’ or ‘daily’ twice. The bread we ask for is daily bread. We do not buy it in bulk for the month – we buy it fresh each day – it is daily bread. And we come every day (‘give us this day’ or ‘give us each day’) to God to receive it. God invites to come daily to God to pray for today’s needs.

Later in this passage (Luke 11:9-10), Jesus invites to ask, to seek and to knock. He reassures us that we we do so, we will receive and find and the door will be opened. Although we have all had experiences of prayers not answered, Jesus encourages us to continue asking, seeking and knocking. We don’t need to be shy in coming to God with our needs.

Luke 11:5-8 also tells the story of a man who comes to his neighbour in the middle of the night asking to borrow some bread, as he has unexpected visitors. His neighbour is not interested in getting up so late at night to give him bread. But Jesus tells us that the persistence of the man will eventually get his neighbour out of bed. He encourages us to persist in prayer. My NIV uses the phrase “shameless audacity” to describe this persistence – just keep on knocking and knocking, keep engaging with God.

We see this shameless audacity in Abraham in Genesis 18:26-33, as he haggles with God for mercy on the people of Sodom. He starts with 50 righteous or innocent people, and negotiates God down to just 10. Actually, Abraham shows a great deal of trepidation and caution, as he recognises he’s bargaining with the Creator. But he persists and is indeed audacious in the way he negotiates with God for mercy.

Engaging the Father daily

In many ways, this is the crux of our readings for today. God wants us to engage with him, persistently, shamelessly, audaciously. He is our Father – it gives him joy when we engage him. And he invites and encourages us to come daily into his presence. There is nothing too big or too small, too shameful and terrible to bring to God. He is the good parent who loves to engage with us.

Father, give us each day our daily bread.

Featured image from https://www.catholicherald.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/mans-hands-in-prayer_WEB.jpg

Jesus on unity

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 28 minutes).

Jesus’ last prayer before his arrest, according to John’s Gospel, is for all Christian believers (John 17:20-26). In this passage, Jesus prays for unity and oneness among believers. He prays:

  • That all of them may be one (v21)
  • That they may be brought to complete unity (23)

This oneness and unity is important to Jesus, because it is needed “so the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v23). Unity and oneness are part of the mission of the church, part of our witness to the world. Sadly, the church has not shown much unity over the millennia.

What does Jesus mean by unity and oneness? Does he mean that we should all believe the same things and agree on the same things – things about theology, doctrine, ethics, morality, church and so on? Actually, there is nothing in this passage about being of one mind or of having consensus on such matters.

When Jesus speaks about unity and oneness, he says things like:

  • Just as you are in me and I am in you (v21)
  • I in them and you in me (v23)
  • That the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them (v26)

Jesus’ explanation or description of oneness and unity is always relational – note the repeated use of the word ‘in‘. Unity is not about agreement, but about fellowship, communion, relationships. It is quite possible not to agree and still be in fellowship. Today we commemorate the Anglican Communion – a collection of Anglican churches around the world, in communion or fellowship with one another, but certainly not in agreement about everything. The Anglican church includes churches that are evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, Anglo-Catholic and liberal. There are lots of points of divergence, but still (albeit fragile) a communion, a fellowship.

A key biting point for the Anglican Communion is the LGBTQI+ issue. There is a wide range of divergence on this matter. The Anglican archbishop of the province of Uganda was in support of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced in 2013, which initially had a death penalty for homosexual acts; later amended to life in prison. When the Bill was thrown out on a technicality in 2014, the archbishop was unhappy, because he saw homosexuality as a fundamental threat to family life in Uganda. By contrast, the Episcopal Church of North America is fully welcoming of all LGBTQI+ people and recognises gay relationships as being as legitimate as straight relationships. The Anglican Communion has been severely strained by these divergent beliefs about sexuality and gender.

Jesus says nothing substantive about sexuality or gender. But he does say a great deal about love. The love he preached and lived out was inclusive – radically inclusive – and tolerant and accepting. He did not exclude people who society saw as ‘sinners’. And the bulk of his critical comments were directed towards religious leaders, typically pointing out their hypocrisy or rigidity. These things conflicted fundamentally with his teaching on deep and radical love for others. When we weigh up Jesus’ teaching, and the overall teaching of scripture, there is far more weight for loving our neighbour (including the neighbour we disagree with) than about set beliefs about sexuality and gender.

The unity that Jesus prays for is not about set beliefs or doctrine, as important and useful as both of these may be, but rather about open, inclusive and tolerant fellowship with one another. Our parish, St Stephen’s Anglican Church, in Lyttelton, has not spoken much about LGBTQI+ issues, until now. But in solidarity with our siblings in this community, we have opened our church to host the Be True 2 Me support group for transgender people. We are in fellowship with each other, regardless of the different views individuals might hold.

Feature image from https://qspirit.net/rainbow-christ-prayer-lgbt-flag-reveals-queer-christ/

Love like Jesus

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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.

Featured image from https://thesisterhoodhub.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/love-like-jesus_orig.jpg

Risen Christ

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Jesus meets his disciples in their rooms twice after his resurrection, according to John 20:19-32: first on the night of Easter Sunday and again a week later – this evening, the second Sunday of Easter. The first time Thomas was not there, and the second time, Jesus speaks directly to Thomas. In both accounts, there are three points of overlap:

  1. Jesus appears in the midst or among the disciples (vv 19 & 26).
  2. He greets them with the words “Peace be with you!” (or Shalom aleichem, in Hebrew) (vv 19 & 26, and indeed a third time in v 21).
  3. He shows them the wounds or marks in his hands and side (vv 20 & 27). With Thomas, he not only shows his hands and side, but also invites Thomas to put his finger or hand into Jesus’ hand or side.

What is the meaning of these three actions, which are repeated almost exactly on these consecutive Sunday nights?

Jesus appears in the midst of or among the disciples. Literally, Jesus appears in the middle of them. This is the most appropriate place for Jesus be – in the middle: in the middle of ourselves, in the middle of our family, in the middle of our church and in the middle of our community. In our church, we usually read the Gospel from the middle of the church and all those attending will turn to face the centre. This is to help us feel the presence of Christ in the centre of everything we do. In our church today we also baptised five children, and after the baptism we give each child or family a candle, with the words , “Christ, our light”. This to symbolises Christ as the light in the centre of our personal and collective lives, in the church and in the world. Our lives revolve around the risen Christ.

Shalom aleichem. Three times Jesus greets the disciples with these words. Often when Jesus meets with people, and when angels meet with people, they use the words “Don’t be afraid”, for example when Gabriel appears to Mary at the annunciation (Luke 1:30). Jesus’ words here (“Peace be with you”) are not another way of saying “Don’t be afraid”. The word Shalom or peace means far more than the absence of conflict. Rather, it means the presence of wholeness, completeness, balance, order, goodness, rightness. It is a rich words that speak of the fullness of life, as ordered by God. Through Jesus incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection, God has brought about peace with humanity, peace between God and us, order and wholeness. We might not always feel or experience this wholeness – life is often fractured and difficult – but the potential for shalom is there and made possible by the risen Christ.

Jesus showed his hands and his side. We don’t under what kind of body Jesus was raised with. In some ways, it seems like an ordinary body, and in other ways it seems more like a spiritual body. But whatever it was, the marks of his crucifixion are still visible, so much so that Thomas is invited to put his finger into the holes in Jesus’ hands and his hand into the hole in Jesus’ side. These are clear evidence that this is indeed Jesus who hung on the cross. His is whole and restored, but also marked by his sacrifice for humanity. Jesus is quite willing, in both appearances, to provide evidence to his disciples for who he is. He provides evidence that he is the risen Christ.

We live on this side of Christ’s earthly life. He is the risen and resurrected Christ, who invites us to join him in the resurrection life – a life that is more than just an ordinary human life, a life centred on and lit by Christ, a life of peace and wholeness, and a life that celebrates everything Jesus did for the salvation of humankind. We are a resurrection people. In our church today, we celebrated this with baptisms, a sign of dying to self and rising again in the new life of Christ. We share with Christ in his risen life.

Featured image from https://www.jesuits.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/easter-original.jpg

All who are thirsty

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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!

Listen to God’s words in Isaiah 55:1-3:

“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.

Isaiah summarises for us (vv6-7):

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.

And listen to David in Psalm 63:

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.

Featured image from: https://media.nationalgeographic.org/assets/photos/186/480/0e077d4d-9209-40d5-9fd5-4e51aeed7b37.jpg

God’s self-revelation

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Today we celebrate the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), where Jesus reveals his divine nature to three of his disciples. This event, which in our church we celebrate with the colour white, falls after a period of ‘ordinary time’ in the church calendar, which we celebrate with green, and Lent, which we observe with purple. This celebration is thus well placed as a link between a period of ordinary growth in the church and period of intensive penitence and critical self-reflection.

Furthermore, the transfiguration is located in our church calendar almost exactly at the midpoint between Christmas (two months and two days ago) and Easter Sunday (10 days less than two months from now). Each of these events – the birth of Christ, the transfiguration of Christ and the resurrection of Christ – are moments of God’s self-reflection, or epiphanies. God shows God’s self for who God is, in these key moments in the life of Christ.

Christmas focuses on the incarnation of God the Son in the form of the human Jesus. It is God’s emptying of God’s self – the kenosis – in which God immerses God’s self into human life and comes to live among us as one of us. It is also a story of the birth of a child – of hope, of new life, of a baby. The Christmas self-revelation emphasises the light and life of God in our midst.

The transfiguration shows us that Jesus is more than ‘just’ a teacher, more than ‘just’ a healer or miracle worker. He is revealed in all his divine splendour, as the Son of God, even more, as God the Son. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Jesus. Most of the time it is hidden from sight. But in the transfiguration, Jesus kind-of drops his human skin and reveals his divine nature to Peter, James and John. The transfiguration self-revelation emphasises the power and divine majesty of God in our midst.

Easter focuses on the discipline and love of Jesus for his Father, and for humanity, leading him to walk a path that he knows will lead to his humiliation, suffering and ultimately, his death. He knows this is a path of suffering, but he also knows that it is a path towards the salvation of all of humanity. Jesus’ Easter resurrection is God’s self-revelation of profound and reckless love for humanity.

These revelations of God’s self – of who the triune God truly is – as our focus as we enter Lent. God is the child that brings life and light. God is the divine being, filled with power and majesty. And God is our saviour, filled with love and compassion. It is into this God, this Christ, that we immerse ourselves during the coming period of Lent.

Featured image: JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. https://www.workingpreacher.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Mafa_Transfiguration_710.jpg

Let us gather again

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Jeremiah the prophet wrote and spoke during a time that included the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, which started around 597 BC and lasted about 60 years. During that time, Jewish people were not badly treated in Babylon, but keenly felt how dislocated they were from the world they knew, from the city of Jerusalem and from the temple there. Babylon may have been relatively safe, but it was not home and left them feeling alienated, fragmented and cut off from their faith and fellowship. On the other hand, a return to Jerusalem was a fearsome thought. It was a long way away, many enemies were there who wished them harm, and because of the destruction of temple and the city walls, they felt ambivalent about what might await them.

Does any of this seem familiar for us living under Covid? Many feel exiled to their homes, which are safe (though truly only relatively safe) and familiar. The world out there seems dangerous and threatening. Church, on the other hand, may feel like another dangerous place, fraught with risk, even though, at our church, church is probably safer than home, shops and workplaces.

The result of the avoidance of church and becoming reclusive at home is that we feel dislocated from our faith community and (in many cases) from God. For Christians, like for people of other faith groups, gathering together with the people of faith in worship of God is vital to our well-being and health. We are made for fellowship. We are made for corporate worship. Church is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Jeremiah 30 and 31 are part a sequence that focuses on the restoration of Israel.

Chapter 30 opens with God’s promise that God will bring God’s people back and restore their home:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,” says the Lord. (30:3)

Although they confront incurable illnesses, God will restore their health:

This is what the Lord says: ”Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you. … But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,” declares the Lord. (30:12 & 17)

God will restore and cultivate a community of faith:

“I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins ,and the palace will stand in its proper place. From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained.” (30:18-19)

God will make them a people of God:

“So you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (30:22)

God affirms that God’s love for God’s people is eternal and steadfast. Even in the midst of adversity, even in exile or death, God’s love is certain:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” (31:3)

God will gather the people of God, including those who are vulnerable, and restore them:

“See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labour; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.” (31:8-9)

God will be the good shepherd, just as Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd:

“He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” (31:10)

There will be a bounty – an abundance, an excess of good things. And sorrow will be a thing of the past:

“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.” (31:12)

And there will be a reversal of fortune, in which challenge and suffering will transform into abundance and joy:

“Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the Lord. (31:13-14)

Many of us have been living in exile – an exile imposed by Covid and the necessary lockdowns. For a time, this was necessary, to protect and preserve human life. But it has come at a cost. And that cost includes the loss of belonging to a community of faith. And with that loss easily comes a loss of faith itself – God seems remote.

But this way of living, while necessary at a time and still necessary in some cases now, is not the Way of Life. There is a time to be restored to our Jerusalem, to our temple, to our community, to our home. It is time – now at the start of January 2022 – to resume our gathering with the people of faith – in person where possible, and online where not. Far too many people have drifted away from church entirely and given up meeting. We need to gather again. We need to become again a people of God, and experience God’s healing, God’s shepherding, God’s love, God’s bounty, God’s presence.

Let us commit in this year 2022 to gather in Christ’s name and in fellowship with one another.

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