Ignorance and ambition

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 20-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at 24 minutes).

James and John come to Jesus and ask him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask” (Mark 10:35-45). Such an audacious question! One can just imagine Jesus counting to ten. And perhaps looking at them and reminding himself that he really loves them. His response is so calm and measured: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Jesus responds to two main flaws in these two disciples: ignorance and ambition.

Ignorance

First, they are ignorant. Jesus says, “You don’t know what you are asking” – in other words, “You are ignorant in what you ask.” The disciples want to share in drinking the cup that Jesus will drink and in his baptism, without understanding that this is the cup of suffering in Gethsemane and the baptism is his death on the cross. They really have no idea what they are asking for, yet they are so caught up in their eagerness or self-importance, that they cannot see it.

We get something similar in Job 38:1-3, which we also read today. Job has been pitching for a confrontation with God for some chapters – he believes God is deeply mistaken in treating him so badly and wants to set the record straight. In the opening verses of chapter 38, God finally speaks to Job: “Who is this that obscures my plans with ignorant words?” (or “words without knowledge). “Brace yourself like a man [like a human, rather than like a God]; I will question you , and you shall answer me.” God then spends two chapters asking Job if he can do all the many things that God has done. In chapter 40:1-7, Job recognises his ignorance and says, “How can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth.” Yet, God is not done with him and goes at him for another two chapters.

The disciples, like Job, forget that they are human, not God; that their knowledge and capacity for understanding is limited, unlike God’s; and that they are therefore comparatively ignorant. Being ignorant is not a sin! We are just human, after all, and do not know everything. We cannot see across time and and space like God can. We cannot imagine multiple universes existing concurrently like God can. But there is a problem when we forget that we are just humans and fundamentally ignorant.

Ambition

In addition to being ignorant, James and John are ambitious – overly ambitious. They want to sit on Jesus’ left and right when he comes into his glory, that is, when he sits on his throne in heaven. Jesus quickly puts them in their place, saying “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” If it is not Jesus to grant – Jesus, who is the Son of God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity – how much more is not for the disciples to ask. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared” [by God the Father, we should assume].

He then goes on to speak to all the disciples about positions of power and authority. These are not fundamentally wrong or bad. Power is not intrinsically bad. However, he notes that there are some who lord their power over others, who exercise authority over others. These are people who want others to know and feel that they are the ones with power, while others are powerless and helpless. This is autocratic, oppressive and abusive power. This is the corruption of power. So Jesus says to the disciples, “Not so with you! Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” And he goes further to point out that even he himself – God the Son who he is – did not come to be served, but rather to serve and to die for us.

We learn about this also in Hebrews 5:7-10, where the writer emphasises that Jesus is obedient to his Father, and through that obedience, even to death, “he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Jesus is the epitome of ultimate power that is sacrificed for the common good, even at his own expense. This is the inverse of ambition. Again, power is not wrong – Jesus was ultimately powerful. But power used for personal ambition is corrupt and harmful. It is not the way of Christ.

In short

Jesus (like his Father) is always willing to engage us with whatever questions, frustrations, angers, accusations we have for God. In none of the passages we read today, do we we Jesus or God spurning anyone. However, we are also well advised to recognise our ignorance and lack of understanding, in comparison with God’s infinite understanding; and to see to serve rather than to have power. In so doing, we get closer to God, more aligned to God, more immersed into the way of Christ. This is the path to salvation. This is the path to Christ.

Featured image from https://angelusnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Kaczor_humility.jpg

Stewardship 4: A generously-giving church

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 23-minute message. Or watch the video recording on Facebook (the message starts at about 27 minutes).

If you want to skip the sermon and just watch the unscripted enacted “parable of giving back to God” with 13-year-old Zachary, watch the video below. Zachary blew us all away with his 50/50 deal!

This is the fourth in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. In week two, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Last week, we considered the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church. And today, we consider what it means to be a generous church, or a generously giving church.

Can we accept the following core principle? Everything that exists was made by God, comes from God and belongs to God. Everything: the cosmos, the earth, the plants and animals, water and air, life itself, and we ourselves. You and me. Even the things we have made as humans originate with God – we made them from materials that come from God’s creation, using the intellect and the capacity for learning that God gave us, made by people, whom God created. Everything comes from God and belongs to God.

Including our money.

We may feel that we’ve earned our money, worked hard for it, deserve it and that it belongs to us. These are not untrue. But again, our capacity work, to learn to do our work and do it well, and the things we work with, and the self that is you who is doing the work – all of these were created by God, come from God and belong to God. Therefore, our money also is God’s. All of it.

It is a common misperception among Christians that our money belong to us, since we worked for it, earned it. This is neither true nor correct. We have to challenge this misperception many of us hold. This is vital to our being able to properly think about the money that we earn.

If we think of all the money we have as coming from God, then the small percentage of this money that we give to the work of God in and through the church, is really a blessing, because the large percentage of the money that we get to keep for our own use is a gift from God. A grace.

God invites us each to give proportionate to what we have. Traditionally, this would be ten percent of what you earn (gross or net – you decide). You could choose to give more than 10% or less than 10%, as you feel led. But having 10% in mind is a good point of departure to reflect critically on your attitude to and practice of giving.

The bottom line is that we – and you – have to give to God’s work.

It really is not optional. Everything you have is from God, and God expects you to give at least some small portion of that back to him. But God really doesn’t want you to do it grudgingly or sulkily, like a chore or unpleasant task. No! God loves a cheerful giver. God loves us to give out of gratitude for all we have already received from God, out of thankfulness, out of joy and out of the privilege to participate in God’s work in the world.

At our church, St Stephen’s Lyttelton, we’ll be doing our dedicated giving pledge next Sunday (3 October). During the coming week, give serious thought to how much of the money God has entrusted to you you will give back into God’s kingdom.

Featured image from https://news-ca.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/orig/tithing.jpg

Stewardship 3: A clergy-supported church

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 27-minute message. Or watch the video recording on Facebook (the message starts at about 46 minutes). This sermon was preached on the first Sunday after my appointment as Rector of St Stephen’s Lyttelton, by Bishop Allan Kannemeyer on 16 September 2021.

(Earlier in the service, I also tell a bit of the story of who I am when I’m not at church on the Facebook video, starting at 17 minutes and running for about 12 minutes. And for those who would like to know more about my research and what I write about as a professor of social work, you can watch my professorial inaugural lecture in 2018 on YouTube. It gives a nice overview of my life’s work as a researcher.)

This is the third in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. In the first week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Last week, we reflected on being a people-driven church. Today, we consider the role of the clergy in a people-driven, God-focused church: a clergy-supported church.

Last week I emphasised that the people are the church, not the clergy, and that even without clergy, a church is still a church; while a minister without a congregation is really not a church. I wish to reiterate one of the things I said last week: there is no mediator between God and people: You have direct access to God. Priests, ministers, clergy to not mediate between you and God. As Paul write, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

Clergy, therefore, are just one part of the body of Christ, performing their roles as equals with everyone else. Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, regarding a congregation that had split over those who preferred Paul and those who preferred Apollos. Paul makes it clear that neither of them are really very important: “7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything (referring to himself – Paul, and Apollos), but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building. … 16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9 & 16).

But, lest we think we can get rid of all our clergy, the Second Testament is full of references to clergy, under various names, such as apostles, oversees, deacons and elders. These are all people who are called, set apart and placed in positions of leadership, for example: Paul writes, “Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). An overseer, which is what Timothy was, is a kind of clergy person. Elsewhere Paul writes, This, then, is how you ought to regard us [apostles]: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Here again, Paul refers to clergy (apostles). But notice it is as servants of Christ, not leaders. Yes, also as those entrusted with the mysteries of God. Clearly, clergy are part of the Christian Church.

The expectations of these clergy is high. Dauntingly high! See some of the expectations that Paul and Peter have of those in Christian leadership:

1 Corinthians 4:2 “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”

1 Timothy 3:2-13 An overseer is to be above reproach, faithful, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, sober, gentle, peace-loving, not money-loving, a stable family, a mature Christian, good reputation among non-Christians, hold to the truths of the faith, a clear conscience, etc.

1 Peter 5:1-3 Elders (could be clergy and/or lay leaders) are to be shepherds of God’s flock, watching over them, doing so willingly (not because they are obliged to), not pursuing dishonest gain (integrity in the workplace), eager to serve (no mention of leading), not dominating the people, being a worthy example for others.

(Peter’s focus on shepherding, which Jesus picks up when he describes himself as the ‘good shepherd’, causes me to like the term ‘pastor’ and the ‘pastoral’ role. I try to think of my role in the church as shepherding.)

These expectations honestly daunt me. In truth, these are expectations of all Christians. But there is far less wriggle-room for clergy. We are expected to deeply embody these values and to set an example of Christ to those we minister to.

To be sure, the Bible contains numerous examples of bad leadership from clergy, and we see and hear God’s judgment against them. I regularly read Ezekiel 34, to remind myself that God is not playing around when it comes to God’s expectations of church leaders. Here is just an extract from this chapter:

God says, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves [on their flock]. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. (Ezekiel 34:2-10)

Let us admit that most of us have had experience of church leaders who failed us in their pastoral responsibilities; who have not lived up to these expectations. And let us admit also how their actions may have harmed the church and us as individuals. This is the sad reality of the church – pastors do fail us.

To be sure, God will judge the shepherds, elders, overseers, apostles, deacons and priests when they (when we, when I) fail to live up to God’s expectations. We go into the ministry knowing this, with fear and trembling.

But we ourselves should recognise the humanity of clergy, avoid judging and strive to forgive when we’re let down. We can’t hold on to resentment. We need to learn to forgive, to let go, to move on. Else we get stuck in a vicious cycle of anger and hurt, that keeps us trapped and unable to experience God’s love and healing.

As I take up today the role of Rector of St Stephens, Lyttelton, I wish to articulate my commitment to you as your pastor. I will certainly fail at times and let you down, but this is what I will strive for during my time among you. And I invite you to (kindly) pull me aside and point out those times where I fail. I will do my best to hear, learn, repent and do better:

  1. I will strive always to be kind, compassionate, inclusive and loving.
  2. I will listen, be open-minded, hold to a people-driven church, be responsive and flexible to your needs.
  3. I will endeavour to be fair, impartial and consistent, and also honest and direct.
  4. I will ask God to help me be consistently Christ-centred, Word-based and Spirit-led.
  5. I will use the gifts God the Spirit has given me – leadership, teaching and pastoring – to guide, equip and support you. We are a clergy-supported church.
  6. And I will try hard not to get in God’s way. God forbid that I become a stumbling block to the work God wants to do among us!

And so I invite you all us to work together in partnership to build God’s kingdom in and through St Stephens.

Me supporting the Mother’s Union to do what they do best (12 September 2021)

Bread of Heaven (Part 1)

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 31 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Our reading this morning is from John 6:1-21. We will be spending five weeks on this chapter. I think that this is the most consecutive Sundays we spend on any chapter in the Bible. (I stand to be corrected.) This is because we receive here some of Jesus’ most profound and important teaching – about the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven. It starts with a story about ‘real bread’ and becomes a story about ‘Real Bread’ (Bruner’s commentary on John).

In the first 15 verses of John 6, we are introduced to bread. It sets the scene for the rest of the chapter. We can read this story at two levels: on the ground floor, it is a story about Jesus feeding 5000 men from five small barley loaves and two small fish – a story of compassion and care; on the first floor, it is a story about an invitation to faith – faith in Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.

The ground floor – a story about caring

Jesus is on the mountain side and he sees a large crowd heading his way. John writes “Jesus looked up and saw”. Jesus is always looking up and seeing. We get this again and again in the Gospel narratives. He has his eyes open and sees the needs of those around him. If you listen to my messages over the past month, you’ll hear it over and over. He sees. And he has compassion.

So he asks his disciples how they can arrange bread to feed the people. It is a huge ask, of course, with 5,000 men, plus children (we know there are children there, because soon we meet a ‘boy’ in v9) and women (if there are children, there are surely women). So, there were perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 people! Andrew brings a boy who has a little bit of food – not much more than a snack. Jesus gives thanks for the food and distributes it to the people. (One wonders what the boy thought about having his lunch annexed by the Andrew and Jesus!) Everyone eats their fill, so much so, that there are 12 large baskets (big baskets that could hold a man) of leftovers of the barley bread.

Many of us believe that Jesus performed a miracle, in which he multiplied that little bread into much bread. Others believe that when people saw Jesus’ (and perhaps also the boy’s) generosity and compassion, they were moved to share what they had with those who had less. And so, what we see is a social miracle about people moved to caring and sharing. Either way, this is a story about Jesus caring for others – caring for our everyday needs. As we often pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Bread is life in come communities. In others, it is maize meal porridge. In others, it is rice. Every society has a staple food that provides the foundation of life. Jesus cares about this and wants people to have food in their stomachs. And to have it abundantly.

The first floor – a story about faith

The feeding of the 5000 is an important miracle story in the Bible. It is the ONLY miracle, taking place between Jesus’ baptism and his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that appears in ALL FOUR Gospels. There is no other miracle that appears across all four Gospels, except this one. And in John’s gospel, it introduces a lengthy chapter about the spiritual meaning of Real Bread. Still, even on the first floor, the real bread is just bread. But the interactions between Jesus and the others are an invitation to faith.

John tells us that the event takes place just before the Passover festival (v4). The Passover symbolised, as it still does, liberation and redemption from slavery in Egypt, God standing up for the people of God, God caring for God’s chosen ones. It is central to Jewish faith, like the cross is central to Christian faith. This cues us that this is a story about faith.

Seeing the large crowds, Jesus invited Philip to faith: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” For sure, this is a big ask – it is a big crowd. But Philip was there in John 2, when Jesus changed water into wine – a lot of wine, a lot of really good wine! Jesus invites Philip to have faith. A faith response might have been, “Lord, I can’t imagine where we could get or afford so much bread. But I know you can make a plan! If anyone can feed this many people, it is you!” That would be a faith response, particularly after witnessing the water into wine miracle. Instead, all Philip can see is the large crowd. He loses sight of Jesus. His faith fails him.

Andrew shows a little faith, however. He finds a boy with some food. He emphasises the smallness of what the boy has: “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (v8). And then his tiny bubble of faith pops: “But how far will they go among so many people?”

Yet, that is all Jesus needed: a tiny morsel of faith. He takes those small loaves and small fish and gives thanks for (literally ‘eucharists’) them and feeds 5000+ people. Jesus is not constrained by the size of our faith. Andrew’s faith is feeble, small and easily fizzles. But what is important is not so much our faith, as the one in whom we place our faith: Jesus is more than capable of calming our storms, feeding us, healing us, helping us. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is God incarnate. He can do anything.

It is only in the collecting of the leftovers that the disciples and the people recognise a miracle has taken place. I think Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers so they can see and touch the miracle, much as Jesus does with Thomas in John 20 – “Put your finger here; see my hand”. As Thomas was invited by Jesus to see, touch and respond in faith, so were Philip and the other disciples invited to see, touch and respond in faith. And so are we. Particularly during times of turmoil, illness, loss, distress and hunger.

Postscript

Immediately after the story of the feeding of the 5000, we have John’s version of the story of Jesus walking on the water (see my sermon on this same story from Mark’s Gospel, a month ago). The disciples are alone in a boat on a lake in a storm and struggling to make headway. Jesus sees their plight and walks across the water to them. They are terrified to see him, but he says, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid“, and he climbs into the storm-rocked boat with them – he chooses to be in the boat in the storm with them – and immediately, they find they have reached the other side of the lake, where they were headed.

Jesus remains more than capable of riding out and calming the storms in our lives.

Featured image from https://www.kitchensanctuary.com/artisan-bread-recipe/

Growing seeds

Click here to listen to the audio recording of today’s 18-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at 32 minutes). Or read the short summary below.

Mark 4:26-29 provide a short parable about the Kingdom of God, a parable that has no similar parallel in any of the other Gospels, and that is sandwiched between two much more familiar parables about the kingdom – the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. It is worth spending a bit of time reflecting on this less-well-known parable:

Jesus also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like: a person scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether they sleep or get up, the seed sprouts and grows, though they do not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, they put the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” 

As we approach this parable, we must ask, “What does this story tell us about the Kingdom of God”, since Jesus uses parable almost exclusively in his teachings about many things, including the Kingdom. As Mark writes a few verses later, “Jesus did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:34).

A few interesting things to note about this brief parable:

  1. The human character is referred to only as ‘a man’ or ‘a person’ and then simply as ‘he’. This suggests that the human is not an important character in this story.
  2. The rich part of the story is what happens between the two actions of the person – between scattering the seed on the ground and harvesting it. Between these, the person does nothing. This focus of the story is this in-between space between human actions and in which God works.
  3. While the human character is thin and peripheral, two other non-human characters have prominent roles, both of which are preceded with a definite article (the) instead of the ‘a’ used for the human:
    • “The seed sprouts and grows”. It is clear that the human does nothing to enable this. It is something the seed does on its own. This is what seeds do.
    • “The soil produces grain”. It is clear that the human again does nothing to enable this. It is done by the soil. Indeed, Jesus emphasises this by preceding the phrase with “all by itself” (αὐτομάτη / automatē) – the soil produces a crop of its own accord, through its own volition.
  4. These activities of these two characters, who show agency and power, are a mystery to the human, who does “not know how” it happens.
  5. Those who garden or farm will know that to produce good crops (or flowers, etc.) you need good soil. If you have good soil, you’ll have good produce. It’s all about the quality of the soil. Those who garden will also know that there is nothing you can do to make seeds grow – that is something they do themselves – all you can do is ensure conducive conditions for growth.

From this analysis of the parable, I suggest Jesus has three main lessons for us regarding our place and work in the Kingdom of God:

  1. We must scatter spiritual or evangelical seeds. Our words and our actions must scatter Kingdom of God seeds around the world.
  2. We must work to ensure that the soil into which we scatter the seeds is well composted and conducive for growth. We get the most detail from Jesus on this in Mark 4:1-20. We can do this by nourishing and nurturing the values of the Kingdom – justice, love, inclusivity, generosity, truthfulness, integrity, humility, service, sacrifice, etc.
  3. We must trust God to do what God does, which is to make seeds grow and to produce a crop for harvest. This is in God’s domain. We cannot make seeds grow in another person; only the Spirit of God can do that.

Featured image from https://middleburgeccentric.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Scatter-Seeds-2.jpg

Christ in the world

Listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message here. Or watch the message on YouTube here. Or read the text summary that follows.

Towards the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). It seems that Jesus wants his disciples to be immersed in the world. Indeed, he reinforces this in verse 18, when he prays, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world”, with his double use of “into the world”. Christians, therefore, cannot stand apart from the world. We need to be invested in and participate in the world.

But in his prayer, Jesus also prays that we may be protected “from the evil one”. I suggest that he is praying that we don’t get co-opted into the ways and values of the world, whose master is the evil one. Jesus wants us in the world, but not of the world; active in the world, but not colluding with the values of the world, that is, the values of Satan.

It reminds us of the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus prays both “thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven” and “deliver us from evil”.

John 8:2-11 provides us with an example of how Jesus implements this. A woman who was caught in the act of adultery is brought to Jesus by a group of men (teachers of the law and Pharisees). We don’t hear about the man who was engaged in adultery with her, which already tells us something is not right. They want Jesus’ opinion on what should be done. Jesus doodles in the dust – we’re not sure what he is writing. Perhaps he is weighing up the sins of the woman and the sins of each of the men.

When he stands up it is clear from his responses to the men (“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”) and the woman (“Go now and leave your life of sin”) that both the men and the women were sinful. Jesus then appears to lift up and suspend their sin – it is something they have in common – all are sinners. And what is left once their sin is lifted away?

A massive power differential. The men, as a group, as leaders and as men in a patriarchal society, have far greater power than the woman, as an individual and as a woman in a patriarchal society. The degrees of power between them are enormously disparate.

In light of that, Jesus opts to stand with the woman. He stands in solidarity with the one who is less powerful, more marginalised, more poor. This is Jesus’ pattern throughout his ministry. Scholars have come to call this Jesus’ “option for the poor“, because he repeatedly opts to stand with the poor. Not because they are less sinful than anyone else, but because they are less powerful, more vulnerable.

In the world right now, we are deeply disturbed by the escalating violence in the Middle East, between Palestine and Israel. This is a fraught situation, with a long history going back decades and even centuries. There are no easy answers. And whatever one says, one may be judged to be wrong. Nevertheless, let us attempt to apply Jesus’ method to this situation.

Both Israel and Palestine (and Hamas) have used and are currently using violence against each other. Each side blames the other for their use of violence, making it hard or even impossible to say who started it. Let us, then, like Jesus recognise that both sides use violence and lift or suspend that, for now. Not for ever, just for now. What is left once violence is lifted away?

A massive power differential. Israel, compared to Palestine, is wealthy, has powerful allies, has large amounts of land, has tremendous resources to protect itself. Palestine is impoverished, lacking in infrastructure, with very little access to the world, with few powerful allies and with increasingly little land and freedom. The degrees of power between them are enormously disparate.

In light of that, where would Jesus stand? He would stand in solidarity with the one who is less powerful, more marginalised, more poor. He would stand with Palestine. Not because Palestine is less sinful than Israel, but because they are less powerful, more vulnerable. This is Jesus’ option for the poor. He opts to stand with the poor.

And so we too should stand with the poor and not collude with the evil one who would prefer us to stand with the powerful. While it is good to pray for peace in that region of the world, it is better to pray for justice. Once the violence stops, the problems that fuel the violence will still not be resolved. These problems have existed for decades. They are fundamentally about justice for Palestine. Let us pray for justice for Palestine that leads to peace with Israel.

Featured image from https://unjppi.org/index.html

The way of service

Click here to watch the video of tonight’s message – the reading and sermon start at about 21 minutes and continues for 20 minutes.

Tonight is Maundy Thursday, when we co-celebrate Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet and Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper (also known as the Eucharist or Mass). This year we read about these events in John 13:1-17 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. (I’ve preached about some of this before in a chapter in my book entitled the Kenotic U.)

What stands out for me this year is the extent of Jesus’ willingness to humble himself and serve humanity. Remember that this is God the Son we’re talking about. Not just a Rabbi, not just a priest, not a Bishop, not the Pope – God in human human form! Yet, Jesus, knowing his identity, gets up from the dinner table and strips down to his undergarments and dons a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Peter, is so uncomfortable with this demonstration of humility from his master. And one wonders about Judas, who has already decided to betray Jesus, and Jesus already knows this – yet Jesus washes Judas’ feet also.

And he offers them his body – broken for us – and his blood – shed for us – for our salvation. He calls us to remember this every time we sit down for a meal. For Christians who follow the sacramental tradition – like us Anglicans – we celebrate this Eucharist at least once a week, because we regard this as the central demonstration of God’s love for us and so we re-enact Jesus great service to humanity.

Jesus whole stance, throughout his life, was one of servanthood. He is the lamb of God, foreshadowed by the Exodus story in Exodus 12:1-14. A life of sacrifice, of service, of humility, of love, of other-centredness.

After washing their feet, Jesus gets up and dresses again and takes up his place at the table and teaches them:

“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

And shortly thereafter he summarises his entire ministry (John 13:34-35):

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.

May God give us the courage to walk his path of service.

Featured image from: https://clergystuff.com/daily-devotions/a9up3ynpgva5w35rwzbhqaj9zjy7pz

A life of love

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

Today is surely a watershed moment for the world: 20 January 2021, the end of Donald Trump’s administration. Whether or not one is an American, this change of administration will surely impact the world in one way or another.

This is not a sermon about America or American politics, however. Rather it is a sermon about what defines a Christian. When we look at the American right and left, who are so profoundly divided at this time, and yet who both comprise large numbers of Christians who believe that their politics is aligned with their Christian faith, we must ask, What does it mean to be a Christian? How can Christians, who follow the same book of teachings, be so polarised when it comes to their beliefs, practices and policies?

Perhaps one of the reasons is the weight that different groups of Christians give to different parts of the Bible. While we (are exhorted to) believe that “all Scripture [that is, the whole of the Bible] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), if we base our Christian beliefs, practices and policies on the first Testament (the Old Testament) more than on the Gospels, or even on the rest of the second Testament more than on the Gospels, then something is wrong.

The Gospels present to us the very life, ministry and teaching of God the Son. These are not subsequent interpretations of Christ’s ministry, but Christ’s ministry itself. If we want to see God, we must look at his Son; and we get his Son in the Gospels. Jesus Christ’s life, as recorded in the Gospels, must be the template for Christian belief, practice and policy. And all the rest of the Bible must be interpreted through the Gospels.

Ironically, our reading today is not from the Gospels, but from Paul’s letter, where he writes about the central message we get from the Gospels: live a life of love.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)

The life of a Christian must be rooted in love. This passage is not about love for other Christians, but love for all humanity. Paul emphasises the love that God had for us before we were saved – the love that led to God’s forgiveness of us and of Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice to God – these are about God’s love for us before we were saved, and thus the example is for how we love the whole world.

Love is the foundation of Christian life. Indeed, these verses are part of a larger passage which opens as follows:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. (Ephesians 4:17-18)

In other words, Paul sees this ‘life of love’ as constituting a fundamental difference between Christian life and non-Christian life. Our love for others is what is supposed to define us as Christians and differentiate us from everyone else. Indeed, Christ himself gives us this great command:

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. (John 13:34-35)

This love for other people (and indeed for the whole of creation) is fundamental to what it means to be Christian. It is only after all this, that Paul then says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3) and then goes on to talk about morality. Morality is important, but the life of love is even more important. When we place morality above love, we are out of step with Christ, who consistently placed love above everything else. If you are placing morality above love, you must go back to the Gospels and see how Jesus lived, what he said and how he related to people.

What is most important and definitive in the life of Christ is the life of love, which is a love that is radical and inclusive. It is this kind of love that is supposed to inform our beliefs (how we understand God, ourselves and the world), our practices (how we life our life moment by moment) and our policies (or politics).

We pray for the people of America and their new president. We pray for a drawing closer together of the American people, a reduction in polarisation and anger, and a greater rooting of life in the Gospel message of love for one another. And we pray also for ourselves and our nation, which has its own challenges.

Featured image from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/17240411047269719/

The battle

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

Covid-19 has been spreading at an alarming rate in recent weeks. We have more new cases and more deaths than we had at the height of the first wave back in July and August 2020. And we hear of whole families infected with Covid and even dying of Covid. We ought to be greatly concerned about Covid. Let us think of Covid as the enemy of humanity and an agent of the devil. Covid does everything that is the antithesis of God and works against God’s vision for humanity.

We draw on Exodus 17:8-13 for today’s message:

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Let us think of the Amalekites as Covid – our common enemy. Everyone is working to fight off this enemy:

Joshua and his soldiers are like those who are fighting Covid directly – frontline health workers, those developing vaccines and the President and his team.

Moses, together with Aaron and Hur, are up on the hilltop praying for Joshua and his team as they battle the enemy. Let us imagine that we are Moses, Aaron and Hur.

We can and ought to be praying against Covid. Prayer is not just a psychological thing that we do. It is real engagement with God and has a real impact on the real world. Prayer is hard – Moses struggles to keep his hands above his head holding the staff of God. We have to persist, to persevere in prayer.

And as Moses struggles, Aaron and Hur come alongside him. They help him to sit and then each help him hold up his arms, so that Moses can continue his work of prayer. Aaron and Hur work together to support Moses, who prays on behalf of Joshua.

In a similar way, we need each to do our part in supporting our collective efforts against Covid. These are quite simple: wear a mask, maintain physical distancing and avoid large gatherings. When we each do our part, we make a collective difference and contribute to the common good of all humanity.

And finally, let us take heart that God is present also in this collaborative effort: Aaron and Hur work to support Moses as he prays to God to enable Joshua and his team to fight off the enemy. There is no ‘let go and let God’ in this narrative. Each member of Israel had a role to play – each did their part. Together, working collaboratively, working in partnership with God, they were able to win the battle.

Dear friends, let us pray for God’s salvation and let us each do our part to support and protect each other, so that we win the battle against Covid.

Featured image from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/af/a1/53/afa153c86da28cdfcf52e0091fc0035e.jpg

The world

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 21-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary that follows.

1 John 2:15-17 presents us with a challenging text:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

How is it that John tells us not to love the world? Must we hate the world? Or distance ourselves from it? And from the people who live in it? These questions are made yet more challenging because John uses the Greek word agape for ‘love’, which is the kind of self-sacrificial love we use for Jesus’ love for us. How then do we make sense of this passage?

When presented with difficult passages, we should always look at the text in context. The immediate context is the letter that John is writing. And a broader context that I often find useful is the life and teaching of Christ – what we learn in the Gospels. From Jesus, we learn much of value about loving the world, for example, in John 3:16-17, Jesus says to Nicodemus:

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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Clearly, from this passage, God loves the world extravagantly, so much so, that he sent his Son, Christ, into the world. Not to condemn or judge the world, but rather to save it, to heal it, to reconcile it to God. Indeed, this teaching comes across in numerous places throughout the Second Testament. John, as the author of both the Gospel and the letter, cannot be meaning that we must hate the world or even not love it. His meaning must be more nuanced than that.

Let’s look at another passage, from Luke 10:25-37. Here Jesus is asked by an expert in the Law what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers with the Great Commandment – to love God and to love one’s neighbour. Because ‘neighbour’ could easily be interpreted to mean just those close to me, people who are like me, the expert rightly asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan – the Samaritan is the neighbour – a person who was not part of the Jewish community or faith. In effect, Jesus says, ‘Everyone is your neighbour’. Or even, ‘The world is your neighbour’. Again, John can certainly not be implying that we love only other Christians and not love ‘the world’ – this would be against Christ’s own teachings.

When we look more closely at John’s letter, we read:

For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

Here John gives a more nuanced explanation of what he means by ‘the world’. It is not actually the world itself or its people, but rather worldly values, which are often at odds with the values of Christ.

All too often, Christians assimilate the values of the world and turn them into pseudo-Christian values. As wise Christians, we need to be critical about what we hear and what we accept. We need to look at the values of our church, the values that our pastors/ministers/priests preach about, and how our church behaves, and critically evaluate whether they are aligned with the values and behaviour of Christ. This is John’s message.

Let me give three examples:

  1. Materialism. The world has become increasingly materialistic, and this passion for money and things, for wealth and possessions, has come into the church in the form of prosperity teachings – that God wants you to be rich and that being rich is a sign of God’s favour. But this worldly value “comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16). Rather, Jesus’ life was characterised by simplicity, contentment and generosity. Material things, that Christians so often chase after, will “pass away” – they are but dust.
  2. Me first. There is a growing self-centredness in the world’s values. We see this at the individual level, but also at national levels, with the rise of nationalism (e.g., my country first) and the withdrawal of countries from regional or global collectives. But this is a worldly value, not seen in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ life is characterised by other-centredness, not self-centredness and by an attitude and practice of service or servanthood. His ministry and the life of the early church was rooted in collectivism – things held in common and shared, so that everyone had enough. The self becomes one part of the Body of Christ, which is his Church, each one playing their part for the greater good.
  3. Entitlement. Emanating from the previous two is a sense of entitlement – that I am owed and deserve everything good, and that everything bad is an unfair imposition. This intolerance for difficulty in life is a worldly value, not Christian. Instead, Jesus embodies the path of suffering. While, as God the Son, he was entitled to power and authority, he poured himself out and became nothing, taking the form of a servant. He teaches that we should not expect rewards here on earth, but rather that we should build up treasures in heaven, as those are the ones that will last, that count. And he sacrifices himself for the good of the world. There is no entitlement in the life of Christ, and no place for it in the lives of Christ’s followers.

Dear friend, let us heed John’s warning to not become entangled in the values of this world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – and in particular to not allow these values to be assimilated into Christian teaching in our church. As John says, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Let us hold firm, then, to the life pattern and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Featured image from here

I would like, at the end of this year, to pay tribute to the people in (I think) the Democratic Republic of the Congo who wove the Kuba cloth that has been my backdrop for all my sermons during 2020. I purchased this cloth in Zambia several years ago and have treasured it as a work of great skill among African artists. I have been pleased to have it as my backdrop this year.

Next year, I’ll be using another beautiful African fabric called mud cloth (bogolanfini), probably handmade in Mali. Click here for the history of mud cloth.