He ascended into heaven

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

Ascension day is one of those days that Christians can easily miss – it takes place mid-week (on a Thursday) and is not a public holiday in most countries. And many would be hard pressed to give a good account of why the ascension is important. Fortunately, there are several online blogs that speak to the meaning of Christ’s ascension, e.g.,

But I find that the reasons many give are really descriptions of what Jesus does after his ascension – such as sitting at God’s right hand and sending Holy Spirit to us – rather than explanations of the ascension itself. Luke includes a narrative of the ascension both at the end of his Gospel narrative (Luke 24:50-51) and at the start of his sequel about the Apostles (Acts 1:9-10). Clearly, Luke thought the ascension was important.

Let me offer a way of thinking about the theological and practical significance of the ascension.

Let’s go back to the incarnation. In the incarnation God inserted God’s self into human nature at the conception. We can almost thinking that God integrated divine DNA into human DNA to create a new entity – a God-man – Jesus Christ. Orthodox theologians see the incarnation as central to salvation. God redeems and transforms human nature. (Click here to listen to a sermon where I set out the centrality of the incarnation in more detail.)

Let me suggest that in the ascension there is a similar but inverse process. As Jesus ascends to the Father, and as the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is reunited in the ascension, God the Son brings with him some aspect of human nature, including his body, which is woven into the being of God.

What is the evidence for this? Perhaps most importantly, Luke emphasises in both narratives that Jesus ascended bodily, much as he rose bodily. When Jesus rises from dead, he rises with his body – he does not leave it behind and rise as a spiritual being. Of course, his body has been transformed – it has both physical and spiritual qualities. But the BODY is important. We affirm this in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe … in the resurrection of the body”.

So too, in the ascension, Jesus rises with his body – he does not slough off his body, to release his spirit, which rises up to heaven. He ascends with his body. The disciples are described as “looking intently up into the sky as he was going” (Acts 1:10). It seems certain that Jesus physically rose up into the sky until he disappeared in the clouds.

Let me suggest, cautiously, that before the incarnation God did not have first-hand experience of what it is like to be a human being. God is spirit; God transcends time and space. But in the incarnation, God becomes a human being, with all of its limitations. God the Son experiences the joys and the pain of being human. He experiences friendship. He experiences betrayal, torture and death. When God the Son ascends bodily, these experiences are woven into the being of the triune God. God no longer just imagines what human life is like; God now truly and experientially knows what it is like to be human, with all its ups and down.

What this theology offers us in our daily life, is a deep assurance that God really knows what human life is like and what suffering feels like. God is not watching ‘from a distance’ (as Bette Midler so nicely sings). Rather, God is deeply immersed in our human experiences. So, when you are going through dark times, we can be sure that God is fully present with us in the darkness, experiencing them with us, sharing our pain and distress.

God is immediately available and fully experiences all we go through.

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Featured image: Jesus ascending into heaven by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

For God so loved

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

John 3:16 may be the most recognisable and widely-known verse in the Christian Bible:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)

Let’s break this verse down into its parts:

  • For God – It all starts with God, like in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God…”
  • so loved – This is the first use of ‘love’ in John’s Gospel, and it becomes a central word in his writing. This points to the extent of God’s love – God loved so much – extravagant, risky, inclusive, radical, transformative, saturating!
  • the world (kosmos) – God’s love is radically inclusive. God loves the whole world. In Greek, the kosmos. There is no-one and no-thing that is beyond the extravagant love of God.
  • that he gave – Out of this infinite love, God gives. He gives his Son. But this is not a giving, like one might give someone a cracker – the cracker is passive and is merely given. Here, God gives his Son, who is active – the Son participates in the giving, chooses to be given, gives himself.
  • his one and only Son, – God the Father gives God the Son, enabled by God the Spirit. The Son is God’s one and only, God’s beloved, God’s own heart. This is the profound self-giving of God’s self to the world.
  • that whoever – Jesus has already said God loves “the world”, which is radically inclusive of the entire collective of creation. Now Jesus brings this inclusivity down to the individual – whoever or whosoever. The Son gives himself to every individual– to you Martha, to you Stephen, to you Bongani, to you…
  • believes in him – The Greek for ‘believe’ can equally be translated ‘trust’. Believe too easily becomes ‘cognitive assent’, too easily becomes affirming a list of propositional statements about the Son. But Jesus wants more than just this – he wants us to trust him, to put our trust in him, to entrust ourselves to him. The ‘in’ in Greek is actually ‘into’, so we can confidently say, “whoever entrusts themselves into him”.
  • should not perish – Although we will all die, sooner or later, we shall not all perish or be destroyed. We have little choice about dying, but we do have a choice about perishing.
  • but have everlasting life. – And that choice is Life, with a capital L. The everlastingness of Life is not just about it continuing for a long time (eternal), but also to the quality of the Life, which can be enjoyed at this very moment. Jesus offers us Life: Life everlasting, Life abundant, Life to the fullest, Life eternal, Life in relationship with God.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

2020.04.22_John316Featured background image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWxBTHVhc3I

Look! The Lamb of God

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

This message is a call for us to see and look at Jesus, the Lamb of God. And to point him out others. This was the mission of John the Baptist, and it as much ours today.

We are still in the period of Epiphany, where we focus on the manifestation or revealing of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as God’s Chosen One. Our reading for this Sunday is John 1:29-37:

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One [or Son].”

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

Bruner, who has written a wonderful (1200 page) commentary on John, translates some of these verses differently, emphasising the use of present and continuous tenses in the original Greek, notably:

29 The next day John sees Jesus coming toward him, and he says, “Look! The Lamb of the God, the One who is taking away the sin of the world!

36 And John looked intently at Jesus as Jesus is walking by and he says, “Look! The Lamb of God!” 

I focus on these two verses in this message, as I have felt God speaking to me particularly insistently this week about verse 29. And I make five points:

  1. John sees Jesus coming and walking towards him. Jesus is always coming towards us, even if we are moving away from him. His trajectory is always in our direction.
  2. Look! John twice says, “Look!”. I like Bruner’s addition of the exclamation mark, as it emphasises that this is a call, an imperative. John wants us to stop drifting through life blindly. Or from being so focused on other things that we don’t notice Christ coming towards us. So he calls out, in excitement, perhaps even in alarm, “Look! Look out!”
  3. Jesus is taking away the sin of the world. This is a pretty packed little sentence:
    • John speaks about ‘sin‘, not ‘sins’. It is the condition of being sinful that Jesus takes away, rather than the individual sinful acts that we do.
    • John says that Jesus ‘is taking‘, emphasising that this is a continuous activity, that has already begun, is presently happening and will continue to happen in the future. While Jesus’ death on and resurrection from the cross are surely pivotal in salvation, God has been saving humanity through the Son from the time of the fall, throughout the First Testament, through Jesus’ incarnation, life and ministry, through his death, resurrection and ascension, by the outpouring of Holy Spirit, and continuing to today and into the future. The Son of God has been and continues to be in the business of taking away sin.
    • It is the sin ‘of the world‘ (the ‘cosmos’) that Jesus takes away, not just the sin of those who repent, those who believe, those who are members of certain churches or religions, those who adhere to certain church rules or doctrine. Scripture abounds with verses that reinforce that salvation is for and of the whole world (the cosmos). It is a radical inclusion of the entire created order – the cosmos!
  4. Salvation is thus possible for all, but we have to take hold of it. That’s why John keeps saying, “Look!”, and why we are told in verse 37 that John’s disciples leave John to follow Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. In the Eucharist or Mass, we celebrate and re-member this great work of God the Son.
  5. And finally, we, like John and his disciples, and like Jesus’ disciples (about whose calling we learn in the rest of John 1), are invited to continue John’s ministry of pointing people to Jesus. We remind people that Christ is coming towards them. We call them to ‘Look!’ We point them not to our denomination, our pastors, our worship, ourselves; but towards Christ himself. And we show through our lives, our inclusivity, our radical love and our walking towards others that he is indeed taking away the sins of the world .

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Featured image: Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness, by Annibale Carracci, ca. 1600, downloaded from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438813

Christ our light

Click here to listen to this 26-minute message:

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (which actually takes place on 6 January tomorrow). ‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation’ or ‘revelation’. Something is revealed and made known to us. What is this thing? Let me answer in thee steps.

1. Jesus is the light

Our key reading for today, from Matthew 2:1-12, about the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus, refers repeatedly to the star that the Magi see, interpret and follow. It is a light that they see that reveals the coming of a King, a saviour, and the follow it:

1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.

9-10 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

John 1:1-9 tells a similar story about John’s cosmology of Christ as the incarnate light:

1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

4-5 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6-9 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

The prophecies of old also speak to the coming of light into the world, as we see in Isaiah 9:2:

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Simeon, a righteous, devout and Spirit-filled man of God, prophesies similarly over the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple for a blessing, in Luke 2:29-32:

30-32 “For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

While all of these references to the light refer to Jesus as the light, Jesus himself refers to us as the light, in Matthew 4:14-16:

14-16 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

So, the narrative of Jesus being the Light is compelling. But what does it mean? What is he the light of?

2. Jesus is the light of God

Central to our (Western Church, i.e., Protestant and Catholic) understanding of the Epiphany, is that Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, as the Anointed One, as the Messiah, as God in the flesh. This leads us to the concept of the incarnation, which is foundational to everything we understand of Christ and his work among us. (Click here to listen to a previous message I’ve preached on the incarnation or here and here to read reflections on the incarnation and the kenotic U.) The incarnation is the idea that God emptied God’s self, pouring himself out to become smaller and smaller, more and more finite and situated, into a single cell, into an embryo.

For our friends in the Eastern Orthodox churches, however, Epiphany focuses not on the Magi but on the Baptism of Christ, where the revelation is not just about Christ, but about the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in essence, Epiphany lead us to a manifestation of the Triune God, made visible in the light that Jesus Christ brings into the darkest of places.

(If you are listening to this message, you might like to watch this video during this section of my sermon. It was playing on the screen while I presented it. Be patient – it takes several seconds before you’ll see anything. And be at peace – it was designed to be a subtle visual cue in the background, not a wildly exciting video.)

So, who is this light for?

3. Jesus is the light of the world

The importance of the Magi is that they were not Jews. They came from a long way away (for those days) – Persia (now Iran) or Yemen (where the ingredients for Frankincense and Myrrh are produced and a conduit of gold from Africa to the Middle East). Wherever they came from, their symbolic significance is that they were Gentiles, and thus represent everyone else who is not part of the ‘inner circle’.

In Jesus time, and even in the early church, this meant those who were not Jewish. The fact that Gentiles were among the first to worship Jesus (let’s not forget the shepherds, who represent rural, blue collar workers) indicates that the Gospel is for them also.

Today this means that the Gospel is for the LGBTQI+ community, for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. For the smart and not so smart. For the morally good and for the morally bad. For young and old, black and white, rich and poor. For everyone. No person is excluded from the great project of God to redeem humanity, as we read in many passages of the Bible, e.g.,

God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations. (Luke 2:30-31)

In short, Epiphany reminds us that:

Jesus is the light of God for the whole world

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Featured image from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2014/01/where-did-the-wise-men-come-from.html

Who am I?

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

Today we ask the question, Who am I? Or more specifically, What is my identity as a Christian? This is the first of five themes in a series on stewardship, where we reflect on our role in taking care of God’s business in the world.

In this audio message, I make the following points:

  1. In John 15:1-10, the passage where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches, 11 times Jesus uses the term ‘remain’ (or ‘abide’ in the old Authorised Version): “Remain in me … and you will bear much fruit“. Here Jesus calls us to be rooted into him, to remain grafted into him. We recognise that without him, we can do nothing. So we depend on him.
  2. In the same passage, Jesus also speaks of remaining in us: “Remain in me as I remain in you“. This suggests an interdependence between God and us, in which God binds himself to humanity. We this most strongly evident in four moments in cosmic history: creation, covenant, incarnation and Pentecost. In each of these, God in some way limits himself or enters into agreement with humanity, binding himself and his work to us.
  3. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is both the source of our life (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”) and its destination (“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). In John 14:6, Jesus similarly emphasises that he is the way and the truth and the life. In other words, he is everything – there is nothing in our lives that falls outside of our connection to Christ.
  4. Our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God. Sometimes the church gives us rules or procedures or recipes we’re supposed to follow in our relationship with God. But this relationship is like any other relationship in our life. It is unique, personal and authentic. It is different for each of us, because, though God is the same person, each of us different, so his relationship to each of us different. God meets us right where we are. Whatever you find works for you in your relationship with God, do more of that.
  5. As much as our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God, it is also rooted in our relationships with each other. God did not create a single person (Adam or Eve); God created a couple (two people in loving relationship with each other), and immediately mandated them to procreate and become a family. 1 Peter 2:9-10 similarly emphasises that we are a community of people in relationship with other people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession … the people of God”. So, we have to invest not only in ourselves and our relationship with God, but also in our relationships in the church (however you want to define that) and the work of the church.
  6. Finally, our readings today call for decisiveness. Moses, speaking just before the nation of Israel crosses into the promised land, calls them to a decision (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “This day I … set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose! Choose life! … For the Lord is your life”.

Image may contain: 1 person

This banner, hanging at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Lyttleton, created by Eleanor Jappie.

Featured image from here.

Christ has no body but yours

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Today’s reading (John 14:23-29) speaks to us about the centrality of relationships in the Christian journey of faith.

First, we learn that relationship is central to God’s self. This passage is steeped in Trinitarian language: the sense that God, while one being, comprises three persons.

  1. John 14:23 “My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” This verse is unique in that it is the only passage where Jesus uses first person plural language to refer to himself and the Father operating as a unit. Jesus talks about himself and the Father as two distinct persons, working together.
  2. John 14:24 These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” Here, Jesus emphasises the unity of his words and the Father’s words. The Father and the Son speak from one mouth. It echoes John 14:10, where Jesus says, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”
  3. John 14:26 “…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Here, Jesus mentions all three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), operating in unity with one another.

God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are in eternal and loving relationship with one another, so powerful that they are one being. Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in Scripture, it is (for the vast majority of Christians) the most inevitable way of reconciling the oneness and the threeness of God that the Scriptures present to us. And this passage from John is one of those that does so strongly.

If nothing else, and perhaps most importantly, we learn from this that relationship is central to God and to God’s experience of God’s self. And if relationships are important to God, they must surely be important to us also.

Second, we learn that relationship is central to God’s mission on earth. Jesus message in John 14:23 is a response to a question from Judas, one of his disciples, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us [only] and not to the world?” Judas was concerned that the good news that Jesus was telling the disciples about was not going to be heard by everyone. His was a question about mission.

And Jesus answer is that God the Father and God the Son will come to the disciples (and by extension to all Christians) and make their home in us. This means that God’s showing of God’s self to the world will be through us. As God resides in us, we reveal God to the world.

This is an extension of the incarnation. When God the Son came into the world as a human, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, he was available to the world as just one man, with all the limitations of a single human. But when Jesus returned to the Father at his ascension, he sent Holy Spirit who fills up every Christian. Moreover, the Father and Son also come to dwell in us. In this way, Christ is incarnated in the world through the Body of Christ, the church, that is, through the community of believers. We are Christ’s body on earth.

Thus, God continues to work through God’s relationship with each of us and our relationships with everyone in our social environment – those at church, those in our families, those in our workplaces and play spaces, those in our communities, those we meet in passing as we shop, travel and live.

This reminds me of the prayer of St Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 1500s:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

I end this message by singing John Michael Talbot’s arrangement of this prayer.

(Note: This sermon was preached at a home for women with intellectual disabilities.)

Here are two beautiful performances of this prayer. Music by David Ogden.

 

 

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Link to featured image.

Jesus’ Anointing

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

We continue through the season of Epiphany in my church, which is the season in which we reflect on the manifestation or appearance of God in the world. This is particularly so in his Son Jesus Christ, who is the great shining forth of God’s presence in the incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.

Today we focus on the baptism of Jesus by John. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the baptism, God the Father speaks and God the Holy Spirit descends as John baptises Jesus and as Jesus comes up out of the water. But in Luke’s version of the baptism (Luke 3:15-22), things look quite different and it is less about his baptism and more about his anointing.

John is removed from the scene a few verses earlier, Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in passing as background, and the appearance of God happens as Jesus prays. Moreover, the language used (passive voice and infinitive clauses – people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised, heaven was opened, a voice came from heaven)) creates a sense of time being suspended. It is as if the globe stops spinning and all falls silent, as the heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends in bodily form and the voice of God is heard. It is a moment of mystery. It is an epiphany!

Luke accentuates this by echoing imagery and language from the prophetic literature and the Psalms of the First Testament, e.g.

  • Ezekiel 1.1 and 2:1-3:1, where the heavens open, Ezekiel is filled with the Holy Spirit and God appears, reaching out of the heavens towards Ezekiel, and commissions him for ministry.
  • Psalm 2:7, where God says “you are my son”.
  • Isaiah 42:1, where God speaks of his chosen servant, who he fills with Spirit, to bring justice to the world.

These passages reinforce what follows Jesus’ baptism in Luke: Jesus goes out in the desert for 40 days (Luke 4:1-13) and then into the synagogue, where he proclaims his manifesto – “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:14-30).

How wonderful it would be if we ourselves experienced such an epiphany! Sadly, for most of us, God speaks quietly and subtly, not in such dramatic ways. Yes, let us not doubt that God does call us, manifest himself to us, anoint us with Holy Spirit and commission us for service. We are as much called into God’s work as Jesus was.

 

Featured image from: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/why-was-jesus-baptized

The Word became flesh

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).

These majestic words open the Gospel according to St John, and continue over 18 verses in one of the most majestic hymns to the Christ. On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of an infant, a little child who promised hope and new life. But he was, after all, just an infant. By contrast, John presents us with the pre-existent second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Holy One. Magnificent, eternal, powerful, unfettered, transcendent.

We really cannot dissect and analyse such an image of Christ. Rather, we must merely apprehend it, gaze upon it, marvel at it. My own church tradition is low church, not high, but it is on days like today that I wish we had incense in my church, as its fragrance and appearance would serve to lift us up out of the intellectual to the mystical, and to merely and deeply appreciate the mystery of the Word.

This Word, who became flesh, and who made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). How amazing that God should became human, that God should shrink down to be merged with a single human cell at conception, and develop into a neonate, a son.

We, like John the Baptist, like John the beloved disciple, can only witness this gift of love, to see it and hear it and know it. And then to be witnesses to it, to proclaim it. The Word made flesh!

Here are today’s key readings:

Featured image from: https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/what-big-bang-theory-ncna881136

Opening bars of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel: https://www.amazon.com/Strauss-R-Also-sprach-Zarathustra/dp/B00EYVGAO6

Wondering where that music comes from? Here you are: