Today’s set of compelling readings from Micah 6:8, Psalm 15:1-3, Matthew 5:3-10 and 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, point us to the heart of a God who is concerned for those who are marginalised, vilified and outcast. They also emphasise that our responsibility as Christians is to be merciful, kind, humble, inclusive and generous.
In light of these readings, today’s message addresses the complex and controversial topic of sexuality in the church, particularly homosexuality. This is a topic that has been long ignored and more recent has lead to deep divisions within the the church between those who are against and those who are for (or at least tolerant of) gay relationships. Many gay Christians feel deeply rejected by the church – not just for what they do sexually, but for who they are – for their very being, their humanity, which is experienced to be under attack by Christians and the church.
In today’s message, I endeavour to the following, which I encourage you to watch, listen to or read, using the links provided at the top of today’s blog.
Some clarification of terminologies, particularly the difference between gender identity (who I see myself as being in terms of gender – traditionally male or female) and sexuality (who I have sexually or romantically attracted to – traditionally heterosexual or homosexual). Both of these terms have become increasingly diverse and nuanced in recent years.
Developing an understanding of how the Scriptures were authored within particular historical and cultural contexts that differ vastly from contemporary society.
I address five broad points of discussion in this message:
The belief of many Christians that heterosexuality is God’s only legitimate sexual orientation. I’ll show that this is not true.
The belief of many Christians that the Bible does not anywhere say that gay relationships are okay. I’ll show that this is not entirely true.
The belief of many Christians that the Bible condemns homosexual relationships as an abomination. I’ll show that this is not true.
The point that among the numerous laws in the Bible, some Christians draw on preconceived cultural beliefs to justify their condemnation of homosexual relationships.
And the primary of love that is presented in Jesus Christ’s teachings and his example of radical inclusivity.
Based on the above discussion points, I draw 4 key conclusions:
In human relationships, God is most interested in the quality of our love.
God is not interested in the sex or gender of the person we love.
Marriage is sacred, a divine joining together, and must be protected.
Marriage (defined as a sacred joining together or union) is not restricted to a man and a woman.
And in light of this I hope that my parish and your church community would aspire to:
emulate Jesus’ example of radical inclusivity, diversity and love
create a church space where people of various sexual orientations feel welcome, accepted and loved
focus on and champion the quality of love in human relationships.
I do appreciate that the views of Christians on the subject of homosexuality vary widely, and that there are many that will view my understandings and interpretations of the Scriptures as false and heretical. Our views on this subject can be deeply divisive. Nevertheless, I take Jesus’ lived life (how he behaved with people he encountered) and Jesus’ spoken teachings about what is most important to God as the central guides to make sense of the rest of Scripture. He is God incarnate – he is the perfect reflection of who God is. He himself says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). I follow him.
John the Baptist is the one who prepares the world for the first coming of Christ, some 2,000 years ago. We, today, follow in his footsteps in continuing to prepare the world to receive Christ when he comes again. The world we live in now continues to grapple with many challenges.
Currently, we think of those many who have died of Covid-10: in South Africa, since the start of the pandemic, some 102 000 people have died, amounting to an average of about 102 per day since March 2020.
We continue to grapple with HIV and AIDS: 14% of South Africans are living with HIV or Aids, an average of about one in seven people.
We continue to see high Aids-related death rates: 86 000 this year alone, an average of 235 deaths per day – and the death rates have been rising over the past five years.
And gender-based violence remains a scourge of our society, with an average 115 women raped every day this year – a total of 45 000 so far this year.
It is into this broken and wounded world that we prepare for the coming of Christ. How do we do this? What are the guidelines we’re given in the scriptures set for today?
Matthew 3:1-12 presents John’s call to repentance, confession and baptism. He strongly confronts the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!” His words are confrontational and damning. He calls them to produce the fruit of repentance – it is one thing to repent, and another to demonstrate that repentance in your behaviour – the fruit. And he warns, all very challengingly, that if they fail to do so, they will be chopped down like an unproductive tree, or burned up in the fire, like the chaff from winnowing.
The story of John’s ministry in Mark’s gospel is a little softer: there he speaks of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew doesn’t make any mention of forgiveness. And Luke’s version incorporates both what Matthew and what Mark say. (And John provides a quite different version altogether.)
John, then, sets a pattern for us that is both encouraging and challenging. But what else can we learn from today’s readings about preparing the world for Christ?
Isaiah 11 presents a prophecy of the branch that will come from Jesse – King David’s father and, many generations later, forefather of Jesus. This passage opens with a repeated emphasis on the Spirit: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). Clearly, we cannot do anything without the enabling of the Spirit of God.
And in the following verses, Isaiah emphasises God’s concern for those who are vulnerable: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). Righteousness and justice are the keywords here.
And this is followed by the imagery of wolves, leopards and lions living in harmony with lambs, goats and yearlings, under the leadership of children (Isaiah 11:6). This is the kind of egalitarian and harmonious society that we are called to bring into being as we prepare for Christ’s return.
Psalm 72 continues some of these themes from Isaiah, notably God’s defence of the poor, vulnerable, needy, marginalised, silenced and outcast: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Here we see God taking sides – he aligns with the poor and against the oppressor. God is not neutral – he sides with those who are vulnerable. The Psalmist goes on, “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14). In those days, life was in the blood, so when the Psalmist says, “precious is their blood in his sight”, s/he is in effect saying that God sees their lives as precious and worthy of protection. Theologians call this “God’s option for the poor” or “God’s preference for the poor”.
When we wonder where we should stand on things, the Biblical answer is unequivocal – stand with those who are vulnerable. That is always where we will find God. And that is where we should be found.
Romans 15 invites us to take on the attitude of Christ: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:5-7). The result of thinking like Christ, is that we will accept one another – here again is a call to inclusivity and now also being non-judgmental. Indeed, in the previous chapter, Paul explicitly tells us to stop judging others: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). This was in the context of conflicts of various dietary laws of the diverse group of Jewish and Gentile Christians. But regardless of the topic of conflict, the principles remain: accept and do not judge. Be tolerant and inclusive. Celebrate diversity.
As we strive to be Christians who, like John the Baptist, are preparing the way for Christ’s return, we need to take up the examples we are given in the Scriptures: honest words, an invitation to repent and receive forgiveness, the presence of the Spirit, values of righteousness and justice, an option for the ‘poor’, and acceptance and tolerance. These constitute the mind of Christ. And as we embody and live out Christ’s mind, we will be preparing the world for his return.
Today we celebrated All Souls, also known as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. In fact, it should be celebrated on 2 November, but we moved it today, since it’s Sunday. It is the day on which remember all those whom we have loved and lost – parent, family, friends, and others who have died. Later in the service we came up to light candles to remember and appreciate them.
Strictly, the ‘faithful departed’ mean those who died in the faith. But what about those who died outside the faith? What happens to them? And, indeed, what happens to the faithful departed? In this message, I try to explain the main teachings in the scriptures about what happens to us after we die. The truth is that the Bible presents rather mixed and even contradictory accounts of this, which can leave us a bit confused. Perhaps because no-one who has died, has come back to explain what happens. But what we can rely on in all this, is the grace and love of God, whose heart is open to humanity.
Psalm 130: 3-4 says, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness , so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” And late, the same Psalm encourages us to “put your hope in the Lord, for with the lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption”.
So, what happens to those die in the faith?
There are some verses that say our spirit goes immediately into the presence of God. Luke 23 tells of Jesus hanging on cross and saying to the one criminal hanging next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Today means today – not sometime in the future, but this very day. 2 Corinthians 5:8 is also thought to say that we transition immediately into the presence of God.
But other passages suggest we go to sleep for a period, until the last day. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 speaks three times about believers who were asleep – all those who died before Christ’s second coming would remain asleep, until he returned and woke them up with a the trumpet call of God.
Either way, it seems that our bodies will be resurrected only on the last day, when Christ returns – the second coming. Whether you’ve been cremated, or long buried and decomposed, or recently buried, God seems able to raise up our bodies. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 speaks about this, as well as several other passages about the resurrection, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:12-58.
And will the faithful departed then be judged? John 5:24 and 29 say ‘no’: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed from death to life … Those who have what is good will rise to live”. But 2 Corinthians 5:9-10 say ‘yes’: “So we make it our goal to please [God], whether we are home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
It’s all a bit confusing! Although we may not know the specifics of the mechanisms of what happens after we die, we can surely rest assured that we will experience the love, grace and forgiveness of God.
And what, then, about those who die without faith in Christ? What happens to them?
In John 3:36, Jesus is pretty blunt: “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
And John 5:29 reinforces this: “Those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
Again, in Luke 13:27, Jesus speaks about the narrow gate through which few will get, and the door closing and the owner saying, “I don’t know you! Away from me!”
It seems then that there is no hope for the ‘unfaithful’ departed. But, we must remember the repeated messages through the entire Bible about God’s great, extravagant and all-embracing love. This gives us hope, that maybe somehow God will find a way to win over the hearts of all or at least many people who died outside of faith.
For example, Lamentation 3:31-33 says, “For no-one is cast off by the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” This points us to the heart of God, which seeks good for every person.
Col 1:17-20 also speaks of God’s desire to save every person: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
And similarly in Ephesians 1:9-10 tells us that the mystery of God’s will is “to bring unity to all things iun heave and on earth under Christ”.
Since Christ died for the sins of the whole world, and not just for the sins of the faithful, universal salvation is at least a possibility. God’s love is radically inclusive, not exclusionary, and so there is the possibility that all could be saved. But God does not force himself on people – we have the right reject God. But it is perhaps hard to imagine unbelievers encountering the God of love face to face and denying his existence or rejecting his offer of a relationship. His love is almost irresitable.
And so, we try to win over those who do not believe, through our witness, our words and our prayers. And we continue to pray for those who have died outside the faith, that God will make a way for them to find salvation. We don’t have to understand how – that’s God’s business. But we can pray and hope and trust in the expansive and extravagant love of God.
Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-58).
It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.
This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.
Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.
So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.
Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.
This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.
Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.
In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.
And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.
So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.
But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.
We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.
At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.
My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.
And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.
I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.
But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.
For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?
And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.
The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:
The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).
In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.
Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.
I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:
God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
However, now the covenant has conditions:
Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
Males must be circumcised.
Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
God’s external law, which humanity must obey
Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
God now sets external laws by which we must abide
Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
The solution of the Law alienates us from God
Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it
There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:
God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
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:
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).
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.
He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
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.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world – historically 2,000 years ago (which we celebrate at Christmas), in this very moment (Christ is continually coming into the world) and one day in the near or distant future (when Christ comes again). Today we reflect on the last of these – Jesus’ second coming.
Our reading is Isaiah 64:1-9, which opens with these powerful words, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” While this sounds like a joyful call for Christ to return, the passage is filled with caution and a call for critical self-reflection.
Let me summarise the flow of thought. Initially, there is a call for Christ to come down, to make the mountains tremble, to set fire to the world, to cause the nations to quake and to make his name known to his enemies. This passage seems to work from the assumption that there are clear enemies of God, and implicitly that we are in the right:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. (Isaiah 64:1-3)
Second, there is a similarly smug and self-satisfied view that God is inevitably on our side – that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, because we wait for Christ, we gladly do right, and we remember his ways. There is a complacency that we are right and thus God is for us – a complacency that easy slides into arrogance – an arrogance that easily slides into hatred and judgement of everyone else:
Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. (Isaiah 64:4-5a)
But third, it seems that Isaiah pauses and reflects. He becomes self-critical, as he writes, “But…” That ‘but’ initiates a series of recognitions that there is little difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. He faces up to our continued sin, our uncleanness, that even the best we do is like filthy rags, that we are shrivelled like a leaf, that the wind of our sins will sweep us away, and that we neglect to call on God’s name or to strive towards him. Isaiah recognises that, as a result, God hides his face from us and gives us over to our sin. And so he says, “How then can we be saved?”:
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:5b-7)
And then, out of this stepping down, stepping back, looking within, critically self-reflecting, challenging himself and his religious community, Isaiah comes to some important realisations. He starts the next passage with, “Yet”, signalling that he has recognised something new. He discovers afresh that God is our father and we all are his children. That God is the potter and we are but clay in his hands. That God is merciful and does not store up anger against his children. That God sees us as we pray. And that we all are God’s people, all the work of his hand.
This last line is perhaps the most the important of all – having started by dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad, saved and lost; and then realising that we also are wrong, bad and lost – he realises that God is for everyone. God desires to save everyone. God longs to reconcile with all of us. And that we can be reconciled only through the work of Christ, not by us being ‘more right’ than anyone else:
Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)
As much as we long for Christ to return – for the rending of the heavens and the coming down of Christ – let us recognise that we are little different from anyone else. We are as dependent on Christ for our salvation as anyone else, because we are as sinful as anyone else. That when we become smug about our salvation or about how spiritual or righteous we think we are, we are actually moving away from God, not towards him.
And so let us be cautious, humble, critically self-reflective and watchful. As Jesus says at the end of Mark 13:24-37,
Our primary readings for today are Matthew 25:31-46 and Ezekiel 34:1-24. Both readings focus on Christ as King – Ezekiel in the form of a prophecy and Matthew in Jesus’ own words about the return of the Son of Man. And both passages tell us the same thing about what Christ will do when he returns:
Christ will separate humanity
Christ will divide us in two groups: those on his right who will inherit eternal life and those on his left who will go away to eternal punishment. This splitting of the world into two distinct groups is hard for us to grasp and accept, but this is what the passages say.
Matthew divides the world into the sheep on Christ’s right and goats on Christ’s left. Ezekiel prophesies two further divisions. First, the sheep on the right and neglectful shepherds on the left. And second, a dividing of the sheep into the lean sheep on the right and the fat sheep on the left.
This separation that the Son of God will create leaves:
Sheep (lean/thin sheep) on the right
Goats, neglectful shepherds and fat sheep on the left
Surely, we want to be on Christ’s right!
Our passages give us clear, detailed reasons for this separation, which show that we have a great deal of control over which group we may be assigned to in future.
Matthew 25 makes it clear that the division is not based on our belief in Jesus as the Son of God, of our adherence to Christian doctrine, our participation in Church, our tithing, etc. No! Instead, the separation is based on kindness to those who are vulnerable. That’s it. Such a simple thing, it might seem. Just kindness. Compassion. Caring. The sheep who go to the right hand of Christ as those who care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25:40).
Ezekiel 34’s first separation is the shepherds from the sheep. The shepherds here are the leaders of Israel. In our time, the shepherds are the pastors of the church – ministers, priests, clergy – as well as lay leaders – wardens, councillors, elders, ministry leaders. God’s charge against the shepherds was that they did not take care of their flock. They were neglectful, so that the flocks became vulnerable to wild animals. Even worse, the shepherds were eating the sheep entrusted into their care! Thus the Lord says, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ez 34:10). Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for the flock, specifically by those into whose care the flock has been placed, i.e. church leaders.
And Ezekiel 34’s second separation is a separation within the flock of sheep – the fat from the lean. This is not a commentary on body size! Instead, the fat sheep are those members of a church who inflate themselves at the expense of others. The Lord says, “You [the fat sheep] shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak [lean] sheep with your horns until you have driven them away” (Ez 34:21). The separation is based on bullying, criticising and breaking down each other in a church. Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for each other within the flock.
How then do we turn to Christ’s right?
We as individuals – and we as a church community (for my congregation, it is the parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton) – can and should live our lives in such a way that we keep turning to Christ’s right, turning to the right, turning to Christ’s right. And we can do that on a day-to-day basis by showing kindness and compassion to those who are going through hard times, by caring for the God’s people if we hold positions of leadership in the church, and by treating each other kindly within the church community.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas – during which time we reflect on our preparation for Christ’s comings into the world – his first coming some two thousand years ago, and his second coming some time in the future.
Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 21:25-36, presents part of Jesus’ prophecy about the future, specifically, the Day of the Lord, or the day on which he will return, aka the ‘second coming’. He opens this passage with the words, “There will be signs…”
We all look for signs – signs about our past, to explain where we come from; signs about the future, so we know where we’re going; and signs about the present, to help us make sense of our current situations. In this passage, Jesus gives us insights into all of these.
Advent is a time of going back more than 2000 years, so we can look forward to the birth of Christ, whose birthday we will celebrate in a few weeks. In those days, people were looking for signs of the long-awaited Messiah. Now, today, we are looking forward to his second coming, and looking at the signs that foretell this.
Jesus’ teaching in Luke raises both the light and dark of Jesus’ second coming, some time in the future. He cautions us about the dangers and risks of that time. And he also encourages us to be faithful during these times.
Drawing on Christ’s teaching, I suggest that he calls us – in our faith, and also in our private and public lives – to cast one eye on the future and the other on the present. I explain why he says this and why it is a useful approach for contemporary living. I argue that we should live in the present, with roots in our past and looking forward to the future.
The story of Christ’s crucifixion confronts us with the dark-side of humanity. Having coming back from a visit to Rwanda last week, where I visited the genocide memorial in Kigali, where close to 300,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, this potential for darkness and evil is especially prominent in my mind. We each need to own up to the role that we played in the murder of Jesus Christ – a man who had nothing but immense love for the world.
Judas Iscariot is arguably the most tragic character in the Bible (John 13:21-32). He walked with Jesus for three years, but ended up betraying him into the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities for just a few coins. Too late, he recognised the horror of what he had done and attempted to repent and undo his evil deed. In despair he took his life.
We cannot blame Judas for Christ’s death, because we too betray Jesus and we too contribute to his death. And so, I suggest that we need to say “I am Judas” in recognition of our partnership in the execution of the Son of God. (I have adapted the ‘Je suis Charlie’ icon that was created after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015 – ‘Je suis Judas’.)
But , where Judas approached the religious leaders for forgiveness, we should rather approach Jesus, whose capacity for forgiveness is eternal. And where Judas was unable to forgive himself, we need to accept Jesus’ forgiveness and allow ourselves to be set free from sin and guilt. Thus, we can also say, “I am not Judas” (‘Je ne suis pas Judas’).