Love one another

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

I have been redeployed from the church I’ve attended for over 20 years (St Martin-in-the-Fields) to a new church, not too far away (St Stephens, Lyttelton) as part of my curacy. Today was the first time I have preached to this new parish, so it was a good opportunity to lay down what is most important to my faith and that what is most prominent in my preaching. And it is this:

God is most essentially and completely LOVE. The three persons of the Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) have been in eternal relationship with one another since before the creation of time and space. It is the profound love between these three persons that makes the one being. God created time and space out of a fullness of love. God created humanity out of a generosity of love, to be shared. And God’s actions throughout human history embody and describe love. Love that is fierce, generous, extravagant, radically inclusive, steadfast and unshakable.

Today’s reading from John 13:34-35 sets out Jesus’ command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In this message, I provide the context in which Jesus delivered this message – a context that represents on the crisis points in his ministry, characterised by betrayal, denial and isolation.

And I set out what is ‘new’ about old command to love, viz. the source of our capacity to love and the missional impact of our love for one another.

Let the love of God be the centre of your life.

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Link to featured image

Dying to live

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I am still reeling at the destruction of Notre Dame through the fire yesterday. That cathedral was a symbol of God’s presence in France, and its burning reverberates powerfully with me. The burned church evokes images of Christ’s death on the cross. Like the cathedral, Christ is damaged and destroyed. Its devastation leaves an empty shell. We are shocked, dismayed. How is this possible?

But in John 12:20-36, Jesus talks about his own death, not as something to be avoided, and not even as something inevitable, but as something necessary, intended, perhaps even desirable. He uses the analogy of a seed, that must die in order to produce more seeds.

And he also says that we who follow him, must similarly die; that if we love this life on earth too much, we’re in trouble; that we need to hold on to it just lightly. Instead, if we follow him, through death, we will be with him in glory.

He raises the question of what we have to die to today. Of what in our lives needs to burn to the ground, so that something new can spring forth.

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Feature image: Interior of Notre Dame following the fire on 15 April 2019, CNN.

The older brother

Click here to listen to this 21-minute message.

We all have, consciously or unconsciously, a hierarchy of people’s goodness to badness, of people’s worthiness of God’s loving attention or of salvation. Even if we believe in salvation through the work of Christ alone, we probably still can imagine people we think undeserving of eternal life.

This was the problem of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They were so focused on keeping God’s Law (see my related message on Jesus’ Law) that they could have nothing to do with people who were not righteous, people who were lower down on the hierarchy.

So when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with so called ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, they are horrified and mutter, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). They regarded such behaviour as being absolutely at odds with being a Godly person.

This prompts Jesus to tell three parables, intended to reveal God’s soft heart for “sinners and tax collectors”, for the lost, and to challenge the Pharisees’ misalignment with the God they sincerely followed:

  1. The lost sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4-7) Here, Jesus speaks of the lost one in a hundred.
  2. The lost coin. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8-10) Here, Jesus speaks of the one in ten.
  3. The lost son. “[Suppose] there was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11-32). One of them gets lost. Here, Jesus speaks of the one in two. (Though in truth, both sons get lost.)

In this parable (commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, ‘prodigal’ meaning financially wasteful) we meet a father and his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance up front, and then squanders it on wild living. Eventually he comes to his senses and, realising that his fathers servants live better than he is now living, returns to his father, acknowledges his sinfulness and asks to be hired as a servant. The father is overjoyed at the son’s return, hugs him, clothes him and throws a lavish party for him.

In most preaching about this parable, this is what we focus on. Rightly so, because it reveals the extravagantly loving heart of God, God’s willingness to reconcile with anyone who turns to God, God’s unconditional love. It exemplifies Jesus’ ministry, which is to find those who are disconnected from God, and welcome them back into fellowship with God. For example,

  1. In Jesus’ manifesto – his mission statement – he says (Luke 4:18-19):
       “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 favor.”
  2. And in his reflection on his encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus (the one who climbs a tree to see Jesus), Jesus concludes (Luke 19:10)
       “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

But actually, the narrative focus of the story is on the older son, whose attitude towards his wayward brother is the same as that of the Pharisees. Jesus wants the Pharisees (perhaps us also) to recognise themselves in the older son, whose attitude is so at odds with his father (who represents God, who in turn is represented by Jesus):

  1. The older son is angry, while his father is filled with compassion.
  2. He refuses to join in the feast the father is hosting, thereby distancing himself from his family.
  3. His father has to humiliate himself by leaving his guests to come out an plead with the older son.
  4. In his response to his father, the older son speaks with disrespect, saying “Look!” instead of “Father”.
  5. The son constructs his role in the family as one of slave, rather than son.
  6. He distances himself from his younger brother, referring to him as “this son of yours”.

This is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus (as the father in the story) in his engagement with sinners and tax collectors (as the younger son in the story). They said to Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”, just as the father in the story welcomed his younger son and threw a feast for him.

The father, however, recognises that this older son is also, in his own way, lost. He has lost his sense of fellowship with his father. He does not share his father’s values and outlook on the world. He has dissociated himself from his father’s family. But the father says:

  1. “My son”, even though the older son did not say, “My father”. He speaks with respect to his disrespectful son.
  2. He affirms that the older son is always with him (in relationship with him) and that everything that is the father’s is the son’s also, affirming his sonship.
  3. He refers to the younger son as “this brother of yours”, affirming the boys’ brotherhood.
  4. He reinforces the need to celebrate the return of the lost younger son, perhaps hinting that there would be a further celebration to celebrate the return of the lost older son.
  5. He concludes the narrative with the words: “He was lost and is found.”

As children of God, we (like the Pharisees) are urged to adopt the heart of God, as evidenced in the behaviour of the father in this parable, and to welcome and eat with so called ‘sinners’.

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This painting by Rembrandt van Rijn is called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ c.1662. The original hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The older son is depicted on the right, in a red cloak, looking rather disapproving, and distanced from the father and younger son on the left.

Notice also the father’s hands – the one on the left is smaller and thinner than the one on the right. Most people think Rembrandt was endeavouring to depict both the fatherhood and motherhood of God.

Henri Nouwen has written a book about this narrative and painting called, ‘The return of the prodigal son’. You can read some of it here on Amazon. Read particularly pages 71 and following, about the older son. Or click here for a brief reflection on this painting.

Humility

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God calls us to humility – in our relationship with God, and in our relationship with other people.

Luke 18:9-14 gives us the parable of the pharisee and tax collector, both at prayer.

  1. The pharisee – a person who was devout, religious, righteous, obedient to God’s laws – stands and prays loudly about how wonderful he is and thanks God for not making him like those ‘other’ people (explicitly mentioning the tax collector). Jesus says that this person will not be justified before God, and that people like that, who exalt themselves, will be humbled.
  2. The tax collector – a person who was regarded as dishonest, extortionist and reprehensible, and who Jesus often refers to when talking about sinful people – hides away in a corner, cannot look up towards heaven and can pray only, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Jesus says that this person will go home justified before God, and that a humble person like this will be exalted.

Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.

Of course, this ‘humility’ is not about self-denigration or having a poor self-esteem or negative self-image. Paul says clearly in Romans 12:3 that humility is about assessing our strengths and weaknesses honestly and accurately: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

In our other reading for today – Hosea 5:13-6:6 – there is a dialogue between God and Israel:

  1. God observes that when Israel was in need, instead of turning to God, they turned for help to people who did not know God. Therefore, God sent suffering to them, to help them admit their guilt (i.e. to humble them) and until they sincerely sought God’s face.
  2. Israel then reflects that the suffering they have experienced is justified, and that despite God’s anger towards them, God will nevertheless heal them and bind up their wounds. They long to be revived and restored and to live in God’s presence. Twice they say, “Let us acknowledge God” – that word ‘acknowledge’ in Hebrew means ‘to know’ (as in knowing  a fact), but also as in knowing or discerning something not obvious (such as the truth of someone’s intentions), and is used as a euphemism for sex (as in, Adam knew Eve and she fell pregnant). Israel desires to be humble before God and to truly and intimately know God.
  3. God, the exasperated parent, responds positively. God reminds them that God’s desire is for mercy (hesed, meaning steadfast love and compassion) and acknowledgement (that ‘knowing’ word again), far more than empty religion (sacrifices and burned offerings).

Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.

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Feature image ‘Kneeling in Prayer‘ by Nadine Rippelmeyer (2006)

Jesus’ Law

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In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus presents (albeit very briefly) his most comprehensive teaching on his view of Law of Moses. He says that he has not come to abolish the law, that the dot on every i and the cross on every t is vital, that the Law has not passed away, and that we need to practice and teach it. Many commentators (naturally) read this to mean that the First Testament Law is as binding on Christians today as it was on the people of Israel in years between Moses and Christ.

However, when we look at Jesus’ teaching and behaviour, even just within Matthew’s Gospel, we see him repeatedly massaging the Law, challenging the Law, even brazenly disobeying the Law – certainly as the Law was understood by the Pharisees of his day. For example:

  1. Matthew 5:21-48. Through the rest of chapter 5, Jesus uses the formula: “You have heard that it was said… But I tell you…” In this formula he, by his own authority, reinterprets the Law and in cases appears to overturn it. At its heart, he shifts the focus from the external letter of the Law, towards the heart attitude underlying the Law. And is so doing, makes keeping the Law much harder.
  2. Matthew 9:14-17. Here Jesus breaks the fasting laws. He is challenged on this, and explains that since the he is there, they should celebrate.
  3. Matthew 12:1-14. Here Jesus breaks the Sabbath laws – very important laws! He walks, he harvests and he eats, all on the Sabbath, and with his disciples. When challenged by the Pharisees, he even uses the Law to justify his breaking of the Law! And then he goes on to heal a man. In the parallel story in Mark’s Gospel (2:27), Jesus justifies his breaking of the Sabbath Laws by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”
  4. Matthew 15:1-20. Here Jesus breaks the dietary (Kosher) laws (specifically not washing their hands before they eat). His answer is quite wide-ranging. He says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (v11). And then he later explains in more detail: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them

How do we reconcile Matthew 5’s apparently strict teaching with the rest of Jesus’ teaching and his daily behaviour? They do appear to be at odds with each other!

I suggest the following:

  • Under the First Testament Law, people believed that keeping the Law lead to Righteousness (i.e. to a right relationship with God). Because of this, they invested in keeping the Law down to the smallest letter (the jot and the tittle in the King James version). And the Pharisees, in particular, were highly devout in unpacking what each Law meant, and how it had to be lived out in the daily life.
  • Under the Second Testament, Jesus teaches that Righteousness (i.e. having a right relationship with God) leads to the keeping of the Law. We are made right with God through Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. He is the one who, through his grace, makes us right with God, and we receive this righteousness through faith. Because of this, and in the power of the Spirit, we are enabled to keep God’s Law. But even this Law is not a legalistic ‘jot and tittle’ law, but a living, heart-based, relationship-centred Law. It is the Law of Love.

I end with a paraphrase of Matthew 5:17-20 by RT France (2007, pp. 190-191) in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

“Do not suppose that I came to undermine the authority of the OT scriptures, and in particular the law of Moses. I did not come to set them aside but to bring into reality that to which they pointed forward. I tell you truly: the law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that is points forward to will in fact become a reality (and is now doing so in my ministry). So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new regime, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.

“But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly: it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rulekeeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment.”

 

Turn to God

Click here to listen to this 18-minute sermon.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, when we reflect on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, and the way the devil tempted him during this time (Luke 4:1-13). Here’s the point I believe God wants us to hear from this passage today:

  1. Fasting from something makes that something a point of focus for spiritual tension.
  2. As a result, we’ll experience an increase in temptation related to that something.
  3. That creates increased opportunities to choose to turn towards God or to sin.
  4. Thus, fasting creates opportunities for us to turn to God.

Jesus experienced this during his 40-day fast. We experience it when we fast. Fasting creates these intensified opportunities to turn to God. It is the gift of the fast.

How can we turn to God? Here are two ways:

  1. Select a Bible verse that is meaningful to you and and relevant to what you’re fasting from. Memorise it. Whenever you feel tempted, recite the verse.
  2. Select a brief prayer that you can easily memorise and recite, e.g. the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Whenever you feel tempted, say the prayer.

Use the verse or prayer to remind you that you have made a commitment to God. Use it to help turn your focus towards God. Remind yourself that while breaking your fast may, actually, be trivial, remaining true to God is not.

Blessings as you journey through Lent.

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Featured image from https://thewellarmedwoman.com/blog/fork-in-the-road/