Suffering and Glory

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Jesus provides us an example of faithful journeying along the path that God had set him, a path which lead into and through suffering. He follows this path, trusting that God is present and enabling, and believing that it is a path that leads to glory.

Jesus encourages us also to follow such paths, to understand the meaning and value of hardship, and to trust that through these experiences we will reap a reward of honour and glory.

Such insights are particularly meaningful as we journey through Lent and approach Easter, when Jesus pays the ultimate price for our sin.

This message is based on John 12:20-33.

A compelling calling

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In 1 Corinthians 9:16, the Apostle Paul says that he is ‘compelled’ to preach the Gospel. This expression is fascinating, as it gives us some unique insights into Paul’s psychology and spirituality, namely, how he experienced God’s calling on his life. By gaining some insights into Paul’s experience of being called by God, we can gain some insights into our own experiences of being called.

I draw some parallels between Paul’s experience of a compelling calling and my own experience. I myself feel compelled to preach. And when opportunities to preach are lacking, I feel discombobulated and distressed. I think there is a difference between God’s call, which is an objective calling from God, and the compelling call, which is our subjective experience of God’s objective calling pressing upon us.

And so, I am calling on Christians to seek the compelling call – that sense of God’s call being insistent and persistent, irresistible and urgent.

Drawing on an expression used in Isaiah 40, I ask: Do you not know? Have you not heard?

  1. That you are deeply and passionately loved by God.
  2. That God has a unique purpose for you in the world, that draws on the whole of who you are.
  3. That the Holy Spirit of God equips and empowers us to live out this purpose, together with God and within a community of faith.
  4. That God desires us to have a deeper and more profound subjective experience of that compelling calling.
  5. And that God deeply and passionately loves the whole world, and desires to be reconciled to everyone, and wants us to participate with God in achieving that.

It is my prayer that we – Christians – become a more purposeful and invested community, working in partnership with God, to spread the Gospel message of the Kingdom of God.

In this message, I recite a poem, which has been meaningful to me for more than a dozen years. It is called ‘What is this seed?’, in a book by Edward Tyler entitled Prayers in Celebration of the Turning Year (1978).

What is this seed that thou has planted in me
that I must bring to fruit
or pass my life in sterile waste?

What is this gift that thou hast given me
that I must in turn pass on
or it will destroy me?

What is it you are asking me to do
that I must do
or know my life defeated?

I ask, in Christ’s name

Ministry in Partnership

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Yesterday (6 January) was the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, when we celebrate the Magi visiting the Christ Child. This festival is important for at least two reasons. First, the Magi recognise the infant Jesus to be the Son of God, the King of Kings, because Christ has been revealed to them as God incarnate. Second, the Magi, coming from the East, represent the Gentile, non-Jewish world, and thus the message of Jesus is seen as being relevant not only to the Jews but also to all of humanity. Thus Epiphany represents the Gospel of the Son of God, incarnate in Jesus, for the entire world.

Against this backdrop, I look at the recurring themes that emerge from the three passages set for today: Genesis 1:1-5 (the Creation), Mark 1:4-11 (the Baptism of Christ) and Acts 19:1-7 (Paul’s baptism of John’s disciples with the Holy Spirit). Two main themes arise from these readings.

First, they all speak to new beginnings: a new creation, recreation through baptism, Christ’s new ministry on earth and Paul’s new ministry building the gentile church. This is relevant to us, on this first Sunday of 2018, as we think about what we want to do and accomplish this year, and who we want to be as followers of Christ.

Second, they all speak to participative ministry. Creation takes place through the collaborative work of God the Father (Genesis 1), God the Son (John 1) and God the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1). Jesus’ baptism by John (and Paul’s baptism of John’s disciples) involves the Triune God. Jesus’ willingness to undergo a baptism of repentance (which he did not need, as he was sinless) is an indication of his desire to participate fully in humanity – he was not only the Son of God, but also a son of man – one of us. And Paul and John were invited to participate with God in their baptism of others.

In all these cases there is participation: God participating with godself within the Godhead; God inviting humans to participate in divine mission; humanity participating with God in ministry; and people participating with other people for ministry. In short, there is no ministry that we do alone. We are not alone. Never alone!

Harking back to the Epiphany, we are all invited to participate with God in his great plan to reconcile the whole world to himself – to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God to every person. We do this with whatever gifts and abilities God has given us, and also with our weaknesses and inadequacies. We do it by aligning our values with Christ’s values, through living out these values in our behaviour and relationships, and through sharing our faith with people around us. But we always do it with God, with each other in a community of faith. We are not alone in ministry. We minister in partnership.

Depths of Stewardship

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Stewardship or dedicated giving is an important dimension of the life of most churches and most Christians. It is about pledging to invest our time, our abilities, our resources and our finances into the work of God through the local church. Stewardship, however, runs the risk of becoming an administrative process of ticking off some boxes to settle our dues with our church, without really touching us or the world at a deeper level.

In this message, I draw on two verses from the Gospels – Matthew 21:33-34 – and show how this text points us to a far deeper and broader understanding of the importance of stewardship:

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.”

  • First, this passage echoes the creation narrative in Genesis 1, where we find God creating a world and placing people in it, with the task of taking care of that world, which is an expression of the love and being of God. This suggests that stewardship reaches right back into the very origins of humanity, and is rooted not just in some things we do, but in our identity. Being a steward (or gardener or farmer) is the foundational calling that God makes of all humanity. It means, among other things, that everything we do in life should champion and protect the environment.
  • Second, later in this parable (v43), Jesus reveals that the vineyard is, in fact, the Kingdom of God, which is the world under the loving rule of Christ, who reconciles all things together to himself. We, as his followers, are called to bring out the fruit of the Kingdom of God, or the fruit of the Gospel. This means, among other things, that everything we do should help to bring into being God’s Kingdom values, such as love, justice, mercy, equity, relationships, integrity and grace.

Stewardship, then, is not just about signing up to help make tea or work in a soup kitchen, nor is it just about pledging to donate money to the church on a monthly basis. It is an expression of our identity as people created to take care of creation and as people striving to transform the world into the Kingdom of God, through every breath we take, from rising until sleeping. In so doing, we let God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

Resurrection Church

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On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.

Seeing from the Cross

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Today is Good Friday – a poorly named day in my view. It should be Dark Friday. The Passion Week is transformed to good on Easter Sunday, but not before. There is nothing good about Friday. But my opinion is unlikely to change centuries of tradition!

Today, at my Anglican community church in Irene, South Africa, we participate in a three-hour service, from 12pm to 3pm – the hours that Jesus hung on the cross. It is a kind of vigil, like the women who kept watch as Jesus hung there. It is one of the best attended services at our church, and most people stay the full time. Today, we used the Seven Last Words of Christ to structure our service. The priest, deacon and lay ministers shared the preaching. I preached on the passage from John 19:25-27, where Jesus says “Woman, behold! Your son. … Behold! Your mother.” (my translation).

The central thing that stands out for me is that Jesus SEES his mother and his friend (thought to be John, the disciple). And seeing them and their need, he invites them to SEE each other (the Greek for ‘behold’, or ‘here’ in other translations, means ‘Look!’ or ‘See!’). So, in this sermon I suggest four layers of meaning:

  1. The passage foregrounds the humanity, dignity and worth of women, as central to the story. We need to stand against patriarchy, violence against women, the silencing and marginalisation of women, the exploitation of girl children.
  2. The passage speaks about Jesus’ commitment to family and to intimate relationships. We need to invest in these relationships, in the domestic, because this is of interest to God.
  3. The passage suggests the great potential of the church to recreate the world. We should examine our own churches, asking if we are really doing what God wants us to, are we being who God wants us to be?
  4. The passage advances God’s concern and love for the whole of humanity. God sees us, knows us, recognises us, loves us, champions us, cries for us. And we should also.

Wishing you a blessed and joyful Easter 2016.

P.S. I struggled to find a picture that depicts what Jesus would have seen from the cross. The arts are almost entirely focused on Jesus on the cross – rightly so. But I found this one by James Tissot, a French painter, painted in c. 1890. For those receiving this by email, you won’t see the featured image for each of my sermons. Follow the link to my blog to see them.

When the World goes Mad

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Sometimes, the world seems to be going mad. On the morning of the day I preached this sermon, two terrorist attacks in Brussels left 31 or so people dead. IS claimed responsibility. Attacks like these, like the multiple attacks in Paris in 2015, make us afraid and want to withdraw from the world. Fear sets in. Muslims and Arabs seem dangerous. The world seems a threatening place.

In South Africa, we face increasingly racialised discourse, from all sides of the political and racial spectrum. Some people are calling for doing away with reconciliation and an increasing emphasis on racial identity and distinctiveness. These conversations elicit fear and uncertainty, prompting us to withdraw from each other into our safe comfort zones.

Jesus also experienced a world going mad. As religious leaders becoming increasingly threatened by him, his actions and his popularity, they set up traps to discredit and marginalise him. They plot to kill him. Indeed, they succeed in murdering him.

But through all this madness, Jesus does not withdraw, he is not cowed by fear, he does not avoid. Instead, Jesus continues to engage, to move towards, to step across boundaries. From where does he get this confidence in the face of considerable odds? He gets it from a confidence that his authority comes from heaven, from God. He knows that he is living out God’s will for him – to reconcile all things together within God’s family.

And so he remains steadfast. As we also need to remain steadfast. To not be cowed or afraid or marginalised. But to continue to live out the faith that we have inherited. A faith that hopes and trusts in a powerful God. A faith that engages and connects. A faith that steps across boundaries and embraces. A faith that loves.

Mark 11:27-33