Our Father

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

Luke 11:1-4 presents us the brief, well-known passage about Jesus teaching his disciples to pray using an earlier form of the Lord’s Prayer. He says,

When you pray, say,
‘Father…’

I’m stopping at this first word, because it represents a profound revelation and revolution in our understanding of God. In the First Testament of the Hebrew people, God was regarded as all powerful, fearsome, remote, almost terrifying. God was seldom referred to as ‘Father’, except when he was spoken of as being, for example, the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the Father of Israel. And God refers to himself as a father in a handful of passages. But people never prayed to or spoke to him directly as ‘Father’.

Jesus, by contrasts, shows himself engaging with God as his personal father, in an intimate, authentic, comfortable, loving way. In his prayers, he calls God ‘Father’. He reveals God in a new light – as approachable, caring, accessible. And he shows that God is interested in our daily lives, in the little things we experience and also in the big challenges we face.

And so, when he teaches his disciples how to pray, his first word is ‘Father’. We could almost stop just there with the Lord’s Prayer because that on its own is a radical transformation of our relationship with God. A one-word prayer – “Father” – is a great prayer!

Not everyone has good associations with ‘father’, however. Some of us have been abused by our fathers, abandoned by them, treated harshly by them. Some don’t know our fathers. Some would never share anything personal with our fathers. So, thinking of God as our ‘father’ might not be meaningful or helpful to everyone; indeed, it might raise a host of painful memories and feelings.

But let us remember that God is not a man and not an actual biological father. Rather, Jesus refers to God as father to reflect a relationship that for him was meaningful. We could think of God as parent (which is often how I refer to God in public prayer) or as mother or caregiver. And let us also consider that there could be healing for our woundedness when we experience a heavenly parent who is consistent, fair, engaged, loving, kind, protective, empowering and sincere, particularly if we have not experienced this with our human parents.

I encourage you today to enter into a more intimate and honest engagement with God in your prayers – both in your formal prayers when you sit down for the purpose of praying or saying a daily office, and in your informal prayers, muttered to God as you drive or worry about something or are grateful for something. God desires to have a parental relationship with us, in which we can rest in his arms and tell him everything that is on our heart, without fear or hesitation.

And so we pray:

Our father in heaven
hallowed be your name
your kingdom come
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and glory are yours
now and for ever. Amen

Featured image from https://valourdigest.com/7-things-a-son-needs-from-his-father/

Relying on Christ

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 8-minute message. Or watch the YouTube message below, or read the short text summary thereafter.

In Philippians 3:4b-15a, Paul shares his own experience of faith and in so doing holds up a mirror for us to reflect thoughtfully on our experience of faith. So often our faith gets caught up with our human activity – all the things we do to express our faith – prayer, giving, righteousness, attending church and so on.

But Paul says these things are comparatively worthless (garbage!) compared to faith that is reliant on Christ. Paul is not saying that we should abandon such things, but that by comparison with a faith that relies entirely on Christ, these things should not be central.

This passage is one of a few where Paul really opens his heart to us and shares his own faith journey, and so rather than preaching for long on the passage, I encourage you primarily to read, hear and digest the inspired words of the Apostle Paul.

Featured image from https://za.pinterest.com/pin/117938083965411553/

Forgiveness

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

Today we are reading from Matthew 18, which has a series of parables and teachings about the life of the church, culminating in a teaching on forgiveness. The central verse is, perhaps, v22, where, in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or 70 time 7 times).

The whole chapter speaks about relationships between us and our brothers and sisters in the church:

  • First Jesus  reminds us that greatness is relative, and that if we want to be great, we need to be like little children. (Mat 18:1-5)
  • He then cautions us to avoid doing anything that might cause others (“little ones”) to stumble. Indeed, he goes as far to say that we should mutilate ourselves, rather than cause someone to stumble. (Mat 18:6-9)
  • Then we get the parable of the wandering sheep. A shepherd as 100 sheep and one goes missing. He leaves the 99 to seek out the one. Jesus emphasises the great joy in heaven resulting from the rescue of the one, and refers to them again as ‘little ones’. This passage speaks about love seeking – God is always seeking us out, even just the one, even just a ‘little one’. God is seeking – we need to be seeking. (Mat 18:10-14)
  • Then we have a teaching about how to handle sin in the church – when our sister or brother sins. Jesus presents a nuanced series of challenges – first you go on your own, then you take one or two people with you (again quietly and personally), then you inform the church (presumably the leadership) and they go (again quietly and personally) to challenge the person, and finally, says Jesus, we “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”. We might think Jesus means to cast them out, to excommunicate them. But Jesus’ encounters with pagan Romans (Luke 7:1-10) and tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10) are to engage with them, not to cast them out. Love challenges and confronts, but in a way that embraces rather than rejects. (Mat 18:15-20)
  • Finally, we have the parable of the unmerciful servant, where a servant owes his king a lot of money, but cannot pay it back. He begs for mercy and the kind cancels his debt. The servant meets someone who owes him a few bucks, demands payment and when he cannot pay, he casts him into jail. The king is outraged at his lack of mercy, given that he had cancelled the far larger debt of the servant, and has him cast into jail. Love forgives, and is willing to forgive greatly and repeatedly. (Mat 18:21-35)
  • The passage ends with a warning, “Thus also my heavenly Father will do to every single one of you who does not forgive your brother or sister, and forgive from the bottom of your heart” (v35). Through these very strong and threatening words, Jesus is conveying the central importance of forgiveness. We have been forgiven much; should we not also forgive others?

Jesus teaching in this chapter presents a picture of a health church and of healthy human relationships – we do not look down on anyone; we are considerate of others and avoid causing them harm; we value the group but we also value the individual, even seemingly unimportant individuals; we challenge wrongdoing, but in a way that embraces and restores; and we forgive those who do wrong against us, again and again, in the same way that God forgives us, again and again. If we could do all this – in the power of Holy Spirit – what a church we would have!

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Featured image from https://www.practicalrecovery.com/prblog/how-to-forgive/

Gender, by God

Click here to listen to the audio of this 35-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. This is a longer-than-usual message, because this is such an important topic, that is so seldom spoken about. So, while 35 minutes is quite a long time, I urge you to set aside some time – particularly today, Women’s Day – to listen to this message.

Today – 9 August – is Women’s Day in South Africa. It’s a day when we celebrate women. But it is also a day when we confront the profound and relentless violence against and subordination of women in our society. The church must, on this day, give particular attention to its role in perpetuating, supporting and even advancing such patriarchal and misogynistic views and behaviours. My own church – the Anglican Church of Southern African – must take responsibility for our role in advancing violence against and oppression of women. And men, like me, must do the same.

So, in this message, I unpack four passages of the Bible – three in the Genesis creation story and one in the writings of Paul – that are often used to support patriarchy. I invite you to read the texts and see what they actually say and to critique how they have been used. Of course, the Bible was written in patriarchal times by people who held patriarchal views. But we are invited to read through their views to see the mind of God on the issues of gender inequality in the world.

This is an important and substantial topic, hence this is a rather lengthy message. I urge you to engage with it, as I think it will help to lay a foundation for thinking about gender relations in the world, in the church, in the workplace and in our homes.

  1. Genesis 1:27-28 tells us that both women and men are equally created in God’s image. It also tells us that they were both – as a couple, as a partnership – given authority to rule over the earth. There is no hint that the man is more created in God’s image than the woman, that he is important or more powerful than the woman. The man is not given dominion over the woman; instead both the woman and the man are given conjoint dominion over everything else. This is a picture of unity, equality and power-sharing between man and woman – a picture that is very much at odds with how life is lived in many homes today.
  2. Genesis 2:18-23 is part of the second creation story, where God recognises that it is not good for man to be alone and decides to create a ‘helper’ for him. Initially, God looks among the animals, but realising that none of these will do, God creates woman. The word ‘helper’ is often used to imply woman’s supportive, helping, subordinate role. But in v18 God recognises that man is somehow inadequate or deficient – unable to be alone – he is incomplete and needs a partner to make him whole. Therefore God creates a woman. The woman is there to help him be a whole person – this is by no means a subordinate role.
  3. Moreover, she is created from his rib, suggesting that they are equal – they stand side-by-side, joined at the rib – the midpoint between the head and the foot. God did not take Adam’s toe and create Eve’s collarbone so that Adam could stand on her head! Instead, they are created as the same, as equal, as partners. It reaffirms Genesis 1 – they are equal partners.
  4. Genesis 3:16-19 tells of God’s cursing of man and woman for their sin. v16 has a line that says “and he [your husband] will rule over you”. Many male theologians and scholars and ministers have used this verse to construct a theology that God’s divine plan for human relations post-fall is that men (husbands) exercise authority over women (wives). This is a profound perversion of the scriptures, because this is just one line out of several lines of curses, including that women will experience pain in childbirth (which humanity has constantly worked to reduce and to reduce maternal mortality).
  5. In addition to hers, there is a lengthy curse against the man (72 words to the man, compared with just 31 to the woman – the man’s curse is more than double the length of the woman’s!). God says that he will suffer and struggle to produce crops from the earth. And yet men have never accepted this as God’s divine plan for them! Men have worked, since they left Eden, to ease the burden of producing crops, through the use of slaves, animals, machines, genetic modification and most recently artificial intelligence. If the curse against men is not part of God’s divine order, why is the curse against women? It is simply patriarchy and misogyny at work!
  6. Overall, the creation story across Genesis 1-3, there is an overriding narrative of equality between woman and man. Even in the fall, both woman and man eat the apple and both woman and man are cursed. Everything is equal, parallel. Indeed, if there was any hint of gender inequality, it would be in favour of woman – she was God’s second attempt at creating a human (we are usually better the second time round) and her curse is shorter than man’s. But indeed, the dominant and pervasive narrative is one of equality and partnership between gender. This is God’s vision for gender.
  7. So, we do need to look also at the New Testament, and particularly to the writings of Paul. It is true that Paul was raised in a patriarchal society and household. He is certainly a patriarch and probably also a misogynist. He does write that men are the head over women, that women must be silent in church, etc. He clearly writes about male domination over women. This is how he was raised. There are, however, NO passages where Paul advocates or endorses, even tacitly, violence against women or the oppression of women. And just because Paul was a patriarch, does not mean God is a patriarch.
  8. Paul grapples with gender issues. He writes “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). He has some sense that in God’s eyes, there is no gender; but in his own thinking, he still sees and supports gender inequality. What we seem to be seeing in Paul’s writings is a developing insight into God’s view on gender equality, emerging and receding.
  9. 1 Corinthians 7:2b-5 presents to us a profoundly egalitarian view of gender relationships from the pen of Paul. It shows a perfect equality between women and men, equal exercising of power over one’s body, equal self-giving of oneself to one’s partner. It is an image of a very modern marriage. It is completely out of step with the traditional passages we quote from Paul on ‘wives must submit to their husbands’. If men are going to quote Paul on gender, let us quote ALL of Paul on gender, and recognise that here is a man whose views on gender are uneven. And this unevenness is best explained as Paul’s growing understanding of God’s view of gender equality.

In light of these challenges about God’s views – and Scriptures views – on gender equality, I suggest two principles that should inform and shape how we interpret scripture:

  1. First, we need to look at the whole of scripture when we formulate a position on something, like gender relations. We need to look at the whole body, and we need to understand the underlying mind of God, which we see most clearly expressed in the mind of Christ, which we best gain insight into in the Gospel narratives.
  2. Second, we need to separate custom from teaching, description from prescription. Just before the Bible writers believed the earth was flat and that the sky was a bowl over the earth, does not mean that the earth is actually flat and that there is actually a bowl in the sky. Even though they express this view in the Bible, e.g., in the Psalms, does not mean it is true or that God believes this. We are inclined to bring our cultural beliefs and impose them onto scripture – gender is a good example of this. Instead, we are required to bring God’s mind, expressed in the scriptures, and use these to sanctify and transform society. When it comes to gender, we impose our preconceived patriarchal beliefs on scripture, even though scripture advocates a far more egalitarian view on gender.

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Featured image of St Praxedes and St Paul, presented as equal co-workers for Christ, in the Basilica Santa Prassede, Rome, from here

Eternity just here

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follow.

Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John to pray (Luke 9:28-31). While he prays, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a lightning flash. And he is seen talking with Moses and Elijah, the great heroes of the Jewish community.

The boundary that separates the ordinary, daily, lived world that we inhabit from the world of the divine, of eternity, of spiritual beings, of God – that boundary is momentarily breached. It is like a dividing curtain has been pulled aside and we are given a glimpse into heaven itself.

These two worlds – the earthly finite world and the heavenly eternal world – are always touching, pressed right up against each other. Indeed, there are people crossing over from one to the other every minute, as they die.

The materialistic world view – that we believe in only what we can see and touch, measure and weigh – has become so prominent in the world today. Many people have given up any belief in a spiritual realm, in an afterlife, in God.

Luke tells us that Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but that when they became fully awake, they saw his glory (Luke 9:32). He emphasises this because we all know that when we sleep and dream, anything is possible. The rules of this material world do not apply when we are asleep. Had the disciples been ‘sleepy’ when they saw Jesus transfigure, we could put their story down to them just dreaming. But Luke emphasises this – they were fully awake – all of their critical, rational faculties, all of their empirical senses were fully active when they saw the glory of Jesus revealed.

How wonderful it would be if we were all fully awake so that we too could perceive the eternal that is just here.

2020.08.06_Saint_Catherines_TransfigurationFeatured image of the apse mosaic of the Transfiguration scene from St. Catherine monastery in Sinai, available here. This is the oldest known image of the transfiguration, dating to AD 565-6.

Visit this website to learn more about this piece of art, as well as other artists’ depictions of the transfiguration: http://tamedcynic.org/the-transfiguration-through-art/

Jesus’ heart

Click here to listen to the audio of this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the short summary thereafter.

Today we focus on the Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-21. This is the ONLY miracle story to appear in ALL four Gospel accounts. It is clearly an important story for the Gospel writers. Perhaps something about it exemplifies Jesus and his ministry.

Usually, we focus on the miracle of the feeding, but today I invite you to focus on what we learn about Jesus’ heart. And Jesus’ heart reflects God’s heart. Here are five important things we learn about Jesus, that are relevant for each of us today:

  1. Jesus feels. The story opens with Jesus hearing of the execution of John – his cousin, friend and prophet. And he feels distressed about John’s death, he feels emotions, his heart is soft and responsive. So he withdraws, privately to a solitary place. Jesus grieves and feels. He is not unmoved.
  2. Jesus’ heart goes out. Even though Jesus tries to get away to be alone, crowds of people – thousands of people – follow him on foot. And instead of being irritated with them, he has compassion on them, his heart goes out to them. As he sees us and our difficulties, his heart softens, his heart fills with care.
  3. Jesus heals. As his heart fills with compassion, Jesus moves into action and heals people of their illness. The Greek word for ‘ill’ in v14 is used nowhere else in the New Testament. It is best translated ‘wretchedness’, meaning unhappy, broken-hearted, poor, downtrodden, ill. Jesus makes people whole, he restores them.
  4. Jesus embraces. The disciples want to send the crowds away, as they sent away children, lepers and others who wanted to speak to Jesus. But Jesus refuses. Instead, he instructs the disciples to feed the crowds, and invites the people to sit down on the grass. Jesus is crowd-centred, other-centred, generous, inclusive.
  5. Jesus multiplies. Jesus takes the tiny supplies of 5 loaves and 2 fish, and multiplies them to feed thousands. He is able to see through the smallness of what we offer, to the enormous good that God can do through them. He has eyes of faith that sees the potential of the tiny to do great work.

As continue to grapple through Covid, and the many challenges it presents to us, let us look into, let us gaze upon the heart of Christ – he who feels, whose heart goes out, who heals, who embraces and includes, and who multiplies. This same Christ is present for us today. Let us look for him and sit down with him and be fed by him.

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Featured image: Sacred Heart of Jesus by Joseph Fanelli (Oil on Linen) 1993 from here

In his joy

Click here to listen to the audio of this 5-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the short summary thereafter.

This is the order Jesus gives for Christian life: we find the treasure, this fills us with joy, so we sell all our possessions (which are worth a fraction of the treasure), and we acquire (take ownership) of the treasure (Mat 13:44). The treasure is there at the start and the end; the joy is the immediate consequence of finding the treasure; and the sacrifice of possessions is really no sacrifice at all. This is the Christian life. Let’s find our joy in Christ!

Featured image from here.

To offer ourselves

Click here to listen to the audio of this 7-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

Romans 12:1-2a:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

This passage offers us two sets of verbs:

  • Offer, sacrifice, worship – which speak to giving ourselves to God
  • Transform, renew – which speak to an inward-focused process

The passage also offers us two nouns:

  • Our bodies – which speaks to the embodied being that we are, crafted from clay and in-breathed by God’s Spirit
  • Our minds – which speaks to the immaterial being that we are, mind, emotion, thought, spirit

Together, these two verbs and these two nouns call us towards a complete offering of ourselves – a surrender, a relinquishment – to God.

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Feature image from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2013/03/off-the-cliff-of-surrender/

Come to me

Click here to listen to the audio of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary below.

Our reading today is Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

It seems strange that Jesus’ solution to our feeling burdened is to offer us a yoke, which is a heavy wooden pole used to join two oxen together so they can plough fields. This does not sound like a relief! However, in v30, Jesus equates the yoke with the burden. The truth is, we are already yoked – yoked to and burdened by the world and its worries. What Jesus offers is to replace our own heavy yoke with his yoke, which is ‘easy’ and ‘light’.

A yoke connects two animals together, so that they can work in partnership with each other, as they walk through their work in the world. This is what Jesus offers us: to be yoked to him, in partnership, walking together as we journey through life’s challenges. The idea of working together with Christ, as a team, as partners, is quite remarkable.

The idea of working together, of walking together, leads us to the next point, which is to “learn from” Jesus. Not “learn about me” but “learn from me”. He invites us to see how he moves through the world and to learn from that. We learn from what he says – particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, which came shortly before today’s reading. And we learn from how he behaves – how he interacts with those who are powerful and oppressive and those who are meek and humble. Chapter 11 speaks a great deal about these two groups. What better way to learn from a master, than to be yoked to them.

Jesus chooses to emphasise that we should learn from his gentleness and humility: “for I am gentle and humble in heart“. It is remarkable that God, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, who co-created the universe with the Father and the Spirit, chooses to describe himself as gentle and humble (or simple). His use of ‘in heart’ suggests that these qualities are essential to his being – they describe who he is, not merely how he acts. He is, deep in his being, gentle and humble. If God the Son chooses these qualities as essential to a description of himself, how much more should we not embody these same qualities of humility and gentleness.

The result of all this is that we will find rest for our soul. For those who are weary and burdened, soul-rest is very much what we need – rest, refreshment, deep peace. God promises us this frequently, e.g.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. (Psalm 23:1-3)

The sovereign Lord says: I myself will tend my sheep. I will make them lie down. I will search for the lost. I will bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak… I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:15-16, with slight rephrasing)

This is the kind of rest that we get, when we put down our burden, and take on Christ’s yoke, and walk together with him.

Featured image by Yongsung Kim, from Pinterest.

Two songs that were running through my mind all the while I prepared today’s message:

Go behind, go deep

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text after that.

Matthew 9:1-8 tells the story of a paralysed man, brought by his friends to Jesus. In verse 2, Jesus says to him, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” In most cases, Jesus heals people when they are brought to him. It seems to be almost an instinctive response – to reach out, touch and heal.

Why then does Jesus here not heal the man, but rather forgive him his sins?

Perhaps, for this man, the crux of his difficulty in life was not his paralysis, so much as his grappling with some aspect of sin or unforgiveness. It seems that Jesus puts his finger on the heart of this man’s concern. Truly, we don’t know, because we are told so little about the man’s backstory.

The root causes of our issues are not always on the surface. It is not always the obvious or what you can see that is ‘the issue’ that we need to deal with. Often, we need to go behind the issue to see what may be hidden, and to go deep into the root of the issue. A surface healing may do nothing more than to perpetuate the hiding what of what is behind or beneath, of that which is most in need of God’s love. Part of the Christian journey is to face the darkness of sin and suffering – the dark night of the soul. It is often in this dark place that God is able to work for our good.

In the Matthew 9 story, while it may appear that Jesus is ignoring the man’s suffering, he is, in fact, going straight to the heart of it. He actually says, ‘Take heart“. Or in other translations, ‘Be of courage’ (the word courage coming from the old French and Latin for heart – cor). Jesus goes to the man’s heart, rather than to the external. He goes behind the paralysis, and goes deep into his heart. And in response to this insight, Jesus proclaims his sins forgiven.

The man did not come for forgiveness, did not ask for forgiveness, did not confess his sins, did not show remorse for anything. It is not clear that he had any faith at all of his own. Thus, the forgiveness that Jesus proclaims is entirely the work of God – not the work of faith. God in Christ chooses to forgive this man’s sins and in so doing brings about an inner healing. He is made right with God, he is set free from guilt, he is made whole within himself.

By the time we get to verse 6, where Jesus says to the man, “Get up, take your mat and go home”, he has already been healed. Jesus does not say, “You are healed of your paralysis”. He simply says, “get up”, and the man gets up. He has already been healed! His paralysis seems to have been cured back in verse 2, as an outworking of the inner healing that Jesus had worked in his heart.

If there is a general principle that we can draw from this encounter, it is that God invites us, when we are suffering and struggling with life, to go behind the suffering and to go deep into the suffering, into the heart. There is healing in this. God meets us there in the darkness. We become receptive to God’s healing work, God’s forgiveness, God’s peace-giving.

Featured image from here.