Trinity in practice

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 17-minute message. Or watch the video recording on Facebook here (the message starts at about 24 minutes).

The concept of the Trinity can be hard to get one’s head around. But when we get down to the basics, it is the understanding that the one God comprises three persons – Farther, Son and Spirit. The theology to explain how this works is hard to grasp. Eventually, we are invited to gaze upon and appreciate the mystery of God who is three-in-one.

In today’s message, I suggest there three key practical implications of worshipping a triune God:

  1. Since God has, for eternity, been three-in-one, a united collective rather than a singular entity, there is little room among Christians for othering, excluding, judging and discriminating. The three-in-one collective God created humanity to be in harmony with one another, much as God is harmony with God’s self. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, aging, homophobia and so on have no place the hearts of Christians. We need to be vigilant in examining our assumptions and judgements about others, and to repent of any form of othering.
  2. Father, Son and Holy Spirit were jointly involved in creation, according to Genesis 1, Proverbs 8 and John 1 (among many other passages). Creation was a collaborative, joint effort by God, with humanity coming along only right near the end. The natural world is the outpouring of God’s generous love and we should treat it as such. Each of us can do even just small things to protect the earth – switching off the tap when we brush our teeth, switching off the light when we leave a room, planting an indigenous tree or a few spekboom plants. None of these is particularly difficult, time consuming or expensive, but collectively can make a difference to the future of God’s planet.
  3. God’s entire mission for the salvation of humankind has been a collaborative and coordinated effort between Father, Son and Spirit. Each person of the Trinity had their own role and their time to lead, but everything they have done and continue to do has been of one accord, of one mission. In a similar way, the church can do its mission only through a collaborative effort, with the inputs of every member. The priest or wardens or lay ministers cannot do it – we all, every one of us, have to do it. Each person playing their part, whether big or small, is necessary for the church to do what it was put here to do.

Even if we cannot theologise the triune God, the Trinity, we can understand that God works in a collaborative and purposeful way to build healthy human relationships, to protect and nourish the earth and to accomplish God’s mission. We as the church are called to work in the same way.

Featured image of Ethiopian painting of the Trinity from https://twitter.com/DerilloEyob/status/1315268039668043783/photo/1

Continuous God

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 22 minutes into the video).

We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.

In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.

Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.

Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.

The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.

And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.

John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.

We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.

Featured image: John of Patmos watches the descent of New Jerusalem from God in a 14th-century tapestry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem)

Joining in Jesus’ Manifesto

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 20-minute message. Or watch a video of the message on Facebook here (the message starts at about 37 minutes).

Luke 4:18-19 presents to us Jesus’ first teaching according to St Luke, drawn from the prophet Isaiah. It has become known as Jesus’ manifesto, expressing his mission in the world:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Jesus concludes this passage saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”.

See Jesus’ focus on those who are marginalised, silenced, unaccepted, downtrodden, forgotten. And he declares that he will proclaim to them good news, set them free, recover their sign, set them free (again) and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. And then he declares that all of this is fulfilled today – by implication, fulfilled in him and through him. This is what he his busy doing right now – it is his manifesto, his activity, his mission.

If we call ourselves Christians, we surely must make this our manifesto also. We surely must participate with him in this work.

It may seem daunting to do this work. It may seem impossible. Indeed, it is impossible! We can do it only when we draw on the resources that God makes available to us, resources that are free and readily available to us. Three key resources emerge from today’s readings from Luke 4 and 1 Corinthians 12.

Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit is the first resource that we can draw on. She is always right by us, right beside us, right inside us. We don’t have to go anywhere to find her – she has already found us!

In Luke, we see Holy Spirit active in Jesus life leading up to his manifesto. At Jesus’ baptism, we read, “The Holy Spirit descended on him [Jesus] in bodily form” (Luke 3:22). Then Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan [where he had just been baptised] and was led by the [same] Spirit into the wilderness.” And forty days later, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14). And Jesus goes into the synagogue and reads the passage handed to him, which starts, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he [Holy Spirit] has anointed me to proclaim good news”. Do you see how prominent Holy Spirit is in this series of events? She is directing and enabling Jesus every step of the way.

In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul explains that “We [like Jesus] were all baptised by one Spirit … and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” Holy Spirit is active here again. Spirit is not just a dispenser of gifts. Spiritual gifts are not merely gifts that are ‘spiritual’. No! Rather, they are gifts given to us by Holy Spirit. They are Holy Spirit gifts, thus Spiritual gifts.

Holy Spirit is a person, just like God the Father and Jesus the Son are people. We can and should have a relationship with Holy Spirit. She partners with us, dwells in us, leads us.

Spiritual gifts

Holy Spirit brings to us and gives to us gifts of the Spirit. 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and 28 give us lists of the gifts of the Spirit. The lists are not the same – there are different things in the lists. This is because the lists are not exhaustive and absolute. They are illustrative – they provide just some few examples of the kinds of gifts Holy Spirit gives to us.

These gifts are given to us to equip us to join with Jesus in living out and bringing to fruition is his manifesto.

People might not recognise their own gifts. Often we can see their gifts more clearly that they can. If so, we should let them know that they are gifted in some way.

Each other

And we have each other! We are not in this alone. We are in this together. It is the community of believers, who we call ‘the church’, who are invited collectively to support each other in living out Jesus’ manifesto. Initially Paul writes, “We were all baptised by ONE Spirit so as to form ONE body” (1 Cor 12:13). This unifying of the diverse group of people in our community is accomplished by the one Spirit, who binds us together. Paul emphasises in 1 Corinthians 12 the diversity of the gifts, and how some may seem more or less important than others. But he repeatedly emphasises that every gift is important, and that it is the collective of gifts that makes us one body – every part is vital.

And later Paul goes further, by saying, “Now you ARE the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor 12:27). We are Christ’s body, diverse and unified by a common mission – Jesus’ manifesto – to live out Christ’s mission, Christ’s manifesto.

Featured image from https://media.thegospelcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/20101913/TGC_Holy_Spirit_Bible.jpg

Revealing God to the world

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 21-minute message. Or watch the video of the message on Facebook here (message starts at about 28 minutes).

We are in the season of Epiphany – epiphany meaning, God’s revelation of God’s self to the world.

John 2:1-11 tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle according to John: turning water into wine in Cana. I unpack this under three headings:

  1. Gifting. In this story, Jesus seems, perhaps, uncertain about his gifts. But his mother, Mary, is much more certain. She prompts Jesus to do something about the wedding banquet running out of wine. And even though Jesus is reluctant to get involved, she tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you”. She has confidence in Jesus, she recognised his gifting, and she prompts him to exercise his gifts.
  2. Common good. You’d think Jesus’ first miracle would be spectacular. A extraordinary miracle would help establish his brand as the Messiah. But instead, his first miracle, while exceptional (he made around 600l of choice wine), was rather everyday and ordinary – common. He addressed the rather domestic needs of a couple who had just got married. I really love Jesus for this miracle for the common good – it reminds us that he is interested in and willing to intervene in our daily lives.
  3. God’s revelation. John concludes this passage in v11 by saying, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” God’s glory is revealed through this miracle – the epiphany! And as a result of that, his disciples believed in him.

As Jesus exercised his gifting, for the common good, God was revealed and people believed.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 tells us about the gifts of the Spirit, and is part of a larger chapter about the church – the body of Christ – being made up of many parts, each of which is vitally important to the whole. I unpack this under the same three headings:

  1. Gifting. Paul tells us that Holy Spirit gives a gift or gifts to every believer. Every Christian receives one or more gifts, Gifts of the Spirit, according to the good judgement of Holy Spirit. Whether we recognise our gifts or not, whether we recognise them as gifts of the Spirit or just natural talents, we have gifts from Holy Spirit. People often don’t recognise their gifts – often others recognise them first, like Mary did with Jesus. In those cases, we may need to prompt someone else to recognise their gift.
  2. Common good. Paul tells us that the gifts are given not for personal use and benefit, but for building up the common good. Here ‘common’ refers not to the ordinary, but to the ‘collective’. The gifts are for the benefit of the community of believers, and indeed for the world. They are not intended to benefit us, but rather to help us benefit others. The only way we can contribute to the common or collective good is to exercise the gifts we have.
  3. God’s revelation. As we exercise the Gifts of the Spirit, God is revealed and people can come to believe in God. Our exercising of our gifts reveals the character and values of God, and shows people who God is and what interests and concerns God, and that reveals God and can draw people to God. We, as the collective – the church – need to reveal God, and we do this best when we exercise the gifts God the Spirit has given us.

And so, when we recognise, accept and exercise our gifts, we contribute to the good of the collective, and God is revealed to the world and people may come to believe.

Featured image from https://media.swncdn.com/cms/CCOM/67388-gettyimages-ipopba-gifts.1200w.tn.jpg

Great is God’s faithfulness

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 19-minute message. Or watch the video on YouTube. The whole Eucharist service is available (65 minutes), and the message starts at 20 minutes, and a song (Great is thy faithfulness) at 36 minutes. (With thanks to Symphonic Distribution Inc for not blocking the singing of this hymn.)

In Ephesians 1:3-14, Paul sets out in great depth and compact detail, his views on God and God’s relationship with us. This message is so timely in these days when we feel beset by Covid, together with the many other challenges we face in society. In a time like this, we need these words in Ephesians to take root in our hearts, where they grow and flourish. Paul’s writing is dense and compact, so I’ve extracted the words and phrases he uses and clustered them under three headings as follows:

The generous love of God

Blessed us, in the spiritual realm, very spiritual blessing, in Christ, in love, according to God’s pleasure, he has freely given us, redemption, forgiveness of sins, riches of God’s grace, bring unity to all things, under Christ, he lavished on us, according to his good pleasure.

These words speak about the extravagant, lavish, abundant, never-ending love of God that God pours out in a continuous and faithful stream into our lives. We are washed, saturated and soaked in the love of God. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from this love.

God’s plan and God’s sovereignty

He chose us, before creation, he predestined us, according to his will, all wisdom, all understanding, he purposed, when the times reach their fulfilment, predestined, according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.

God is King. God is in charge. God has a plan, God’s will shall deliver on that plan, God is sovereign. Sometimes it may feel that God has lost control and we are floating free in the ocean, battered by the storms of life. But God is always in control, and we are always in the palm of God’s hand, even (perhaps especially) when it doesn’t feel that way.

Our place as God’s beloved

You also were included, you were marked in him, with a seal, (the sign of Christ), a deposit, a guarantee, an inheritance, God’s possession, adopted, sonship.

God holds us firm. God has marked us with the seal of the Spirit. We were marked at our baptism with a cross, the sign of Christ – that sign does not fade or dissolve. God can spot us in the largest, densest crowd. God knows those who are his own – he does not lose sight of us. He has adopted us as ‘sons’ – as those who receive the full and complete inheritance of God, even though we are not God’s own offspring. We are utterly precious and valuable to God.

Featured image from: https://thepreachersword.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/ephesians-1-3.jpg

Appreciating the Trinity

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 19-minute message. Or watch the Facebook video (the message starts 27 minutes into the service). Or read the short text summary below – but this is really a message you need to watch or listen to as requires your active participation.

The church’s teaching on the Trinity (God as three persons in one being) is one of the most complex and difficult concepts for us to grasp. While 1+1+1=3, 1x1x1=1, and that’s kind of what we’re trying to get our minds around when we think about the Triune (three-in-one) God. God’s self-revelation to humankind was progressive: first, the world met only God the Father (in the First Testament); then later God the Son appeared (in the Gospels) and there was a gradual realisation that Jesus was not just a prophet or teacher, not even just the Son of God, but in fact God the Son; and still later (at Pentecost most clearly) God the Holy Spirit appeared (in Acts 2) and there was a gradual realisation that the Spirit was not a force or power, but also God.

The early church was now faced with the challenge of three divine persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) yet still holding to the believe that there is but one God, one divine being or essence. Gradually, over the first centuries after Christ’s earthly ministry, the church come to settle on the Nicene Creed that sets out the orthodox theology of a triune God: three divine persons somehow blended together in one divine being.

Many metaphors are used to make sense of God as 3-in-1: the three states of H2O, the egg, a clover leaf, a man, etc. All of these diminish God and tend towards the heresy of modalism – the idea that there is one God who manifests in three modes, ways of presenting to us or masks/faces. In other words, they tend to over-emphasise the oneness of God at the expense of three distinct persons. Modalism contradicts what we see in Scripture, particularly in Jesus’ words, where he clearly and repeatedly refers to the Father and the Spirit as being separate persons from himself and persons with whom he as a relationship.

It is, therefore, more aligned with the facts as we have them to start with the three persons of the Trinity and try to figure out how the three might be one being. In the recording of the sermon (particularly the video recording) you will see an exercise I do with the congregation to consider this three in one, the challenges of it, and the potential ‘solution’ to it (as much as one can hope for a solution).

We have to imagine what might be powerful enough to bind three distinct persons together into one being, and the only force powerful that I can imagine is love. A love that is so extreme, so fiery, so consuming, so utterly self-giving, so passionate, so deep in its joining, yet also so delighted in diversity and distinctness, that it welds the three persons together into one being. Love is thus the centre of the experience of the Godhead. And it is not that God was three and then become one; no! Rather, God has eternally been three persons in one being, joined together by ultimate love.

This itself is almost unimaginable, so the best we can do is to simply gaze upon a love so amazing, so divine, that three are one. And appreciate the depth and expansiveness of this love. And delight in the fact that this is what drove God to create everything that is – to share that love with us, so that we might share it among each other, and with God. We are therefore, most human and most divine and most in the image of God, when we live in relationships characterised by ultimate love. That is the centre of God. And that explains why Jesus is always going on and on about Love. It is the quintessential character trait of the triune God.

For those interested in reading up more about this, search for the terms perichorsesis and social model of the Trinity (or social trinitarianism). I’ve here provided Wikipedia links, which provide a good brief introduction to the formal theology that underlies this sermon. Beyond these, there are numerous volumes written on this.

Featured image by Joan Stratton, from https://pixels.com/featured/celtic-triquetra-or-trinity-knot-symbol-3-joan-stratton.html

Introducing Holy Spirit

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts about 29 minutes into the service). Or read the key points below.

1. Pre-existent Spirit. The Spirit of God has been present since before the beginning. Spirit was already hovering over the waters at the time of creation in Genesis 1:2. Holy Spirit has always been.

2. God – the third person. Holy Spirit is God, as much as Jesus is God and the Father is God. Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity.

3. Person just like God. Holy Spirit is a person, just as the Father is a person and the Son is a person. Holy Spirit has personality, emotions, intentions and actions. Holy Spirit is not a force, not a love that binds together Father and Son, not the breathe of God. Holy Spirit is a person. Thus we must (in English) refer to Holy Spirit with the word “who’, not “which”, for example, we must say, “The Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost,” not ‘which was poured out’.

4. Holy Spirit as a name. ‘The Father’ and ‘the Son’ are titles or offices. Similarly, ‘the Holy Spirit’ is a title or office. But when we talk with the Father and Son, we use their names: “Father”, “Yahweh”, “Jesus”, “Christ”, etc. What can we call Holy Spirit, then? I suggest we drop the definitive article “the” and call Holy Spirit “Holy Spirit”, as a name.

5. Pronouns. If Holy Spirit is a person with whom we can talk and relate, do we refer to Spirit as ‘him’? In the Bible, Jesus always refers to Holy Spirit with a personal pronoun: he, him. However, we know that God is not ‘male’, not a ‘man’. God transcends gender. So God the Spirit is no more male than female. So we can use either ‘he’ or ‘she’. Unfortunately, English does not have a gender-inclusive pronoun (‘they’ or ‘ze’ are being used, but have not yet caught on). So I prefer to use ‘she’, to contribute to a deconstruction of the misperception that God is male.

6. Gifts vs relationship. Christians often chase after the gifts of the Spirit, when rather we should chase after a relationship with Holy Spirit. Spirit is not a cash dispenser of spiritual gifts. Spirit is a person, who desires to be in relationship with us. And in the context of that relationship, she gives us gifts. The focus is the relationship, not the gifts.

7. Sanctification. We are saved through the enabling of the Spirit. Christ did the work for our salvation, but Spirit enables our regeneration (our being born again) and our sanctification (our becoming increasingly Christlike). We need Spirit for every moment of our journey as Christians.

8. Fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit are the result of having Holy Spirit residing in us, and of us relinquishing ourselves to Spirit. When we allow Spirit to work in us, we will begin to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and we will bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

9. Gifts of the Spirit. As much as we don’t run after gifts from Holy Spirit, we do need and desire the spiritual gifts, and Holy Spirit is the one who gives them to us, as she determines, to enable the building up of the body of Christ and to empower us for God’s mission.

10. Presence of God. And finally, Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who is present among us now. The Father and Son sit in heaven; but Holy Spirit is among us. So, we sometimes refer to her as the go-between God, because she connects us to God the Father and God the Son. When we experience the presence of God, we are experiencing Holy Spirit.

In light of all this, can we see how important Holy Spirit is? How wonderful it is to have a relationship with her? To experience her working in our lives? Holy Spirit has been poured out into the lives of all believers. Let us embrace her presence and grow in faith through her.

Featured image from https://www.livinggospelchurchrio.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Holy-Spirit.jpg

He ascended into heaven

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the video here on YouTube. Or read the text summary afterwards.

Today we celebrate Ascension Day – the day on which the risen Christ ascended from earth back to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. We get the narrative for this from Luke 24:46-53 and Acts 1:1-11.

It is helpful to think of history as divided into three main phases:

  1. Era of God the Father, which we get in the First Testament – humanity’s encounter with Yahweh.
  2. Era of the Son, which comprises the 30 years of life or 3 years of ministry of God the Son
  3. Era of the Spirit, which is the era we are living in now, where our most immanent contact with God is in the person of the God the Spirit

What bookends the Era of Son? It is inaugurated by the conception – when Mary conceives a child who is both human and divine. This is the incarnation, when God the Son leaves his glory and becomes smaller and smaller, emptying himself out, until he is no more than a single cell, an embryo. This is called the ‘kenosis’ – the emptying out of God, which you can read more about in a past sermon on the incarnation or another one on the mother of God.

After the incarnation at the conception, we have a continuing emptying out that leads ultimately to Jesus’ death on the cross. After that he rises from the dead, back to human life, and then he continues to rise in the ascension back to the right hand of God. I call this the Kenotic U, which you can read more about in a past message called The Kenotic U. Illustrate this way of thinking about history below.

So, Jesus’ ascension back into heaven completes his human life’s work on earth, which began with the incarnation (or conception) and concludes with his ascension. Now that he his back at the right hand of the Father, he intensifies his work of distributing forgiveness and reconciliation of humanity with God. This has always been and always will be his life’s work. And he sends Holy Spirit on Pentecost to continue his work in our immediate vicinity – right alongside and within us.

This Ascension Day, let us reflect on God’s continuous work on behalf of humanity and the great love that Christ has demonstrated for his children and the glory that he now enjoys again in heaven.

Featured image: The Ascension by Catherine Andrews, from https://www.lordsart.com/asbycaan16pr.html

Mother of God

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 11-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follows.

Today (25 March) we celebrate the Festival of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas Day, and on this day we celebrate the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. As it is written in Luke 1:30-33:

“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

While the Western (Catholic and Protestant) churches celebrate Christmas as the high point of the church calendar, the real miracle of Christmas takes place at the conception, nine months before. It is at this moment that God incarnates into human form. Mary is thus referred to as the ‘Mother of God’ or the Theotokos (or God bearer) because she carries and gives birth to God. It is not that she creates God! But rather that she bears God in her womb.

What is conceived in Mary is, from conception, a hybrid of human and divine natures in the one person of Jesus. This is a mystery, hard to fathom – the nature of Jesus Christ. But whatever it is, and however we understand Christ’s divine and human natures, it starts at his conception, not at his birth.

Let me suggest three reasons why this rather mysterious and mystical notion is important:

  1. The conception demonstrates the enormity of God’s emptying out of God’s self on behalf of humankind (which we read about in Philippians 2) – we refer to this emptying out as ‘kenosis’. Typically, we think of God’s kenosis in the birth of Christ, but really it is in his conception. God – the omnipotent, eternal, omnipresent and all powerful God – folds down into a single human cell, then an embryo and then a foetus. The willingness of God to become so small is quite overwhelming – God pouring out God’s self for humanity.
  2. The conception is a profound example of God’s choice to work in partnership with humans. We see this choice from the beginning of creation, when God entrusts creation to Adam and Eve. But here it is particularly profound. While others could assist in taking care of a newborn, only the mother can take care of an unborn. God the son was, during gestation, utterly and solely dependent on the young woman Mary. God was truly at the hands of this one person. God trusted her and entrusted God’s self to her.
  3. And, drawing on Eastern Orthodox theology, in the conception, God inserts God’s DNA (so to speak, metaphorically) into human DNA. In so doing, God begins to change and save human nature itself. For Orthodox Christians, the conception is the foundation of salvation, because the very fabric of human nature is infused with the presence of the divine, and God begins (or continues and deepens) the work saving not just individual humans, but the nature of humanity.

Let us not let this momentous day slip by unnoticed. Let us give thanks to God for his incarnation at the moment of conception. And let us give thanks to Mary for being willing to bear God in her womb.

Featured image of Theotokos from https://myocn.net/celebrating-theotokos-throughout-year/

Resurrection life

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary below.

I am taking a funeral later today for a parishioner who died of Covid. I asked his wife if she would like to pick a Scripture reading that she or her husband liked, and she selected Acts 24:15. I was quite surprised! I’ve participated in many funerals over the years and can never recall this verse being used. But it is a very apt passage, as I hope you will see.

I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:14-16)

Paul was currently under house arrest due to charges laid against him by the Jewish leaders. This continues for a number of years under various Roman rulers, and eventually he is transferred to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life. So, in today’s passage, Paul is both defending himself and declaring his faith. He is giving a testimony of what he believes. And this has four elements:

  1. He is a follower of the Way, which is how people referred in those days to Christians. Christianity was known as ‘the Way’ and Christians as followers (of the Way).
  2. He believes in the First Testament scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). In this way, he regards the First Testament as part of a Christian bible.
  3. He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
  4. He strives to keep a clear conscience with God and people, that is, to be on good terms with everyone.

The centre of the passage, however, is the third point about the resurrection.

First, he says that he has hope there will be a resurrection. This hope implies that there is more to life than just this life. Some people then and today believe that this life is all there is, and when we die, that’s the end. Paul says instead that there is a life after this life, the resurrection life. And so, while this life will end, there will be continuation of life in the resurrection life. And this implies that what we do in this life has implications for the next life. Our pattern of living is shaped not only by a present morality, but also by a recognition that how we live now will shape how we live the next life.

Second, Paul says something unique here – that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised. This means we are raised for judgement. As Jesus says, to separate the sheep from the goats. And judgement determines our eternal future.

Therefore, Paul says, he strives always to keep a clear conscience before God and humanity. Because this life impacts the next life, what we do now impacts our life then, and therefore it is important that we maintain good relations with God and humanity.

How do we do that? Paul says two things. First, we are urged to follow the Way of Christ. To model ourselves on him, to learn from him, to shape our behaviour on him, to assimilate his values. Second, we are urged to believe the Scriptures. We may not always understand them, we may prefer some passages over others; but we do have to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with the Scriptures. It is all Spirit-breathed and useful for living out our faith. So, Paul emphasizes that both our beliefs and our behaviour are important for Christian living.

The Covid pandemic is confronting us with the fragility of life – how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how easily we can lose life, even if we are young. It reminds us how precious this present life is and how we need to use it fully to develop and live out our faith. Acts 24:14-16 encapsulates the heart of Paul’s faith. Let us listen to Paul and follow Christ’s Way.

Featured image from https://www.ministrymatters.com/preach/entry/8904/resurrection-and-suffering-saints