During this Lent 2023, we are reflecting on Christ’s repeated command to “love one another“. (Remember that ‘one another’ and ‘each other’ refers to our brothers and sisters in Christ, that is, our local and global congregation. This is not to say that we don’t need to love people outside the church! No!! But it is true that Jesus emphasises the love we have for one another within the church, because it is by this that people will know that we are his disciples and will become curious to find out more about this Jesus.)
This week we focus in on the many passages that describe this love that we have for one another as being characterised by acceptance and unity.
In John 17:20-26 Jesus emphasises this unity. In John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples and then for all believers, including us in the future who came to believe through their message. He prays “that all of them may be one”, and again “that they may be one”, and then clarifies that he’s praying that we (Christians) may be one “as we are one” – that is, as Christ and the Father are one. That is the quality of oneness that Jesus wants us to experience with each other! The same kind of oneness that the Father, Son and Spirit experience within the Holy Trinity. And so Jesus continues to pray “that they may be brought to complete unity” – not just any old unity, not just grudging agreement or apathetic compliance, but complete unity. Jesus has very high expectations for the kind of closeness and harmony he wants us to experience among each other in the church.
And he then says, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Sjoe, that’s a big ‘THEN’! It means that our oneness, our unitedness, is a condition for our witness. In other words, if we are fractured, splintered, out of touch with each other, unloving and critical towards each other, all these things – then we cannot be Christ’s witness to the world. Remember what Jesus said just a few chapters earlier: “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). It cannot be clearer than that, can it? We have to be unified, we have to be one. It is Jesus’ core command.
So, how is the church doing? I leave you to reflect on how your own local church community is doing in relation to unity and oneness. But when we look more broadly at my denomination - the global Anglican Communion - like many denominations, eish, we are doing badly. Our church is on the brink of fracturing right now, over different views of sexuality and gender, and particularly over what defines a marriage. I think there is nothing wrong with different views on things - difference can be refreshing and difference is built into the New Testament image of the church (as we'll soon see). But when different views become hostile dogmatism, toxic judgement and name calling (like 'apostacy' and 'blasphemy' and 'heresy'), then we have totally lost what Jesus has called us to - to unity and oneness. Such dogmatic stances are a recipe for disaster.
But let us continue to unpack what the Scriptures have to say about love as acceptance and unity. In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul picks up on Jesus’ words about the love that the Father has for him being in us, and that he may be in us just as the Father is in him. This is the language of interpenetration – that we are bound up together as one, as a body, where all the parts are interconnected. This image of the church as the Body of Christ is most fully developed in 1 Corinthians 12. This chapter is so well known that I’m not going to talk about it here, but it is a great chapter to read again in this context.
In Ephesians 4, though, Paul writes repeatedly about oneness. In verses 4-6 he uses ‘one’ seven times! “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Those last words are again about interpenetration, aren’t they?) This oneness of the church community is strongly emphasised in Paul’s thinking.
But he quickly goes on to speak about the diversity of the church community: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service” (Eph 4:11-12). Here we have extensive diversity – different gifts, abilities and roles – a kaleidoscope of difference.
Paul deftly hold these apparent opposites – oneness and diversity – together. In v12 he says that all these parts of the body are “held together by every supporting ligament”, that Christ “is the head” that helps us walk in the same direction” (v15), which enables the “the body of Christ [to] be build up until we all reach unity in the faith” (v12-13), that we must “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v3) and that this requires us to “be completely humble and gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love” (v2). All this language speaks of intention, commitment and effort towards unity – it won’t just fall out of the sky – we have to work at it. We have to work at love.
When it comes to the things of the church and to the witness of the church to the world, Jesus and Paul repeatedly emphasise both our diversity and our unity. But UNITY or ONENESS is always the overriding message. And LOVE is the key, essential and only strong-enough force to bridge the gap between unity and diversity. We must love one another, we must accept each other and be united, we must become one body, we must celebrate and accept differences – this is Christ’s repeated command: acceptance and unity.
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.
One of the foci of the Bible is on the past. Lots of references to ‘remember’ – remember when I brought you out of Egypt, remember when I led you into the promised land, remember Abraham and Jacob, remember where you came from, etc. Our region focused on ‘remembrance’ last year (2022). In our parish, and perhaps in your church also, there are good things to remember and also bad things to remember. Churches are seldom always happy all the time – we go through ups and downs, storms and rainbows. This is certainly true in my church.
Our readings today speak of such troubled times. 1 Cor 1:10-18 speaks about divisions and quarrels in the Corinthian church, with members aligning with different leaders and sowing descension between between them. And Isaiah 9:1-7 similarly speaks of darkness, oppression, a bar across one’s shoulders, distress, gloom and defeat. And later Isaiah 58 speaks of the yoke of oppression. There are many hard times in most churches. Some of this might be hidden from many members of a church, but when you look closely, there it is.
We want something better! For 2023, we want a better experience of church. And so, our region this year is focusing on ‘identity’ in 2023. The question to answer is, “Who are we?” What are we about? What’s important to us? What characterises us? Sometimes we say nice things about our identity, but don’t actually live the out. We need to walk our talk. At the start of last year, our parish did some strategic planning about identity and came up with values like being Christ-centred, generous, united, a family/community, a sense of belonging, caring and so on.
Back to Isaiah 9:1-7 where we read about some of these ideas: light, overcoming oppression, the shattering of the yoke, peace, justice and righteousness. And Psalm 27 – what a magnificent and uplifting Psalm!! – speaks about light, salvation, dwelling in God’s home, sheltered by God, seeking God’s grace and (my favourite line), “to gaze on the beauty of the Lord”.
Actually, at this point in the sermon, I went to sit with the congregation and joined them in looking forward into the sanctuary. I invited them to imagine God standing up there in the front and us just gazing on him. We spend some minutes doing just what. What a wonderful experience it was to sit quietly in God’s gracious presence and to just be and to feel his love.
And then we come to Matthew 4:18-23, about Jesus’ calling of the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew, and the other brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee. They were all fishermen, out on the Sea of Galilee catching fish. Jesus stands on the water’s edge and calls them, “Hey you! Follow me! With me you’ll catch people instead of fish! Come!” No hesitation from any of them! None!! Peter and Andrew: “At once they left their nets and followed him.” James and John: “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”
It’s incredible really. Jesus was not well known at that point. He had no followers, no reputation, no means, nothing. But something in his call must have been so compelling that without a second thought they all left their livelihood, their families, their community and followed Jesus, and remained faithful disciples until they died.
At this point in the sermon, I went around the church touching people on their shoulder and calling them, “Jesus is calling you to follow him… He wants you to partner with him… He wants you to work alongside him.”
This invitation is incredible. God’s modus operandi, from Genesis 1, has always been to work in partnership with people. He could do everything and anything himself without us. But he chooses and desires to work in partnership with us. What a mind-blowing opportunity – to work alongside God, to be a co-worker with and partner of God.
This is what we want to do more of in our parish this year. This is who our identity is. We want to be a church that partners with God in accomplishing God’s goals and living out God’s values. As a start, we want to become an increasingly caring and compassionate church. We want to see each other, know each other, reach out to and support each other, take care of and care for each other. Jesus says that when people see how we love each other within the church, then they will know that we are his disciples and will be drawn to him. So, that’s our main churches main programme for the first half of 2023 – to strengthen our capacity to care. We will do this through two main initiatives. First, during Lent, which start in a couple of weeks, we will focus our teaching on caring for and loving one another, and after Easter, we will run a series of short training sessions on how to be a better, more attentive, more caring friend – not a counsellor or therapist, but a good friend.
In this way, we will be responding to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and build our identity as people after Jesus’ heart.
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.
The theme of our readings for today – particularly our Gospel reading – is “You choose – one way or another”. The readings are quite challenging and unsympathetic. Jesus is quite matter of fact about saying that it up to us to decide what we do.
Luke 9:51-62 presents four stories in rapid succession. In the first story, Jesus and the disciples are on their way to a Samaritan village. But the villages are not interested in meeting Jesus. The disciples are outraged and want to call down fire from heaven to wipe out the village. They’re really emotionally invested in the villagers being receptive to Jesus’ message and so feel anger that they are not receptive. But Jesus rebukes his disciples, not the villagers, and says they should go off to another village. It is like Jesus shrugs his shoulders or says ‘meh’ or ‘whatever’. His attitude seems to be that they are free to choose whether they want to engage him – free to choose one way or the other.
This gets reinforced with the three very short stories at the end of the chapter about three men, two of whom say they will follow Jesus and one whom Jesus calls. But each has some or other excuse about not following him right away. The reasons are reasonable and valid – a desire for some comfort, the need to bury one’s father or wanting to say goodbye to his family. These are hardly terrible crimes. But Jesus is quite unsympathetic – follow me or don’t follow me – you choose. To the last man, Jesus says, quite harshly, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God”.
We get a similar attitude, albeit in a different context, in 2 Kings 2:10, where Elisha is preparing to take over Elijah’s ministry. He asks Elijah for a double portion of his spirit. Rather presumptuous and ambitious, remembering that Elijah is arguably the second most important person in the First Testament (after Moses). Elijah’s response has a similar shrug to Jesus. He says, “It will be yours – otherwise, it will not.” This time is less about Elisha’s choice and more about God’s choice, and of course God does choose for Elisha. But there is still this shrug.
When we get to our third reading in Galatians 5, we get a softer response from Paul about these choices we’re called to make. Paul is more invested in trying to persuade us of the importance of following Christ. He exhorts us: “do not let yourself be enslaved” (v1); “So I say, live by the Spirit” (v16) and “Let us keep in step with the Spirit” (v25). And he provides some warnings about the consequences of not following Christ: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (v15) and “I warn you, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v21). And then he goes still further by listing for us the “acts of the flesh” (vv19-21) (sins that distance us from God), which he says are “obvious”, and the “fruit of the Spirit” (vv22-23) (behaviours and values that align us with God).
God is not begging us to follow him. He does not pressure us. He does not force us. Rather, God presents himself to us – here I am, I am God, I am the Son – and invites us to choose – one way or the other. We get to choose. And we mostly know what God wants for us. We mostly know God’s values, ethics and love. And we mostly know what God does not desire. We just have to choose whether we follow in God’s way or we don’t. It’s up to us to choose.
It is thus striking the extent to which we persist in doing the things God tells us not to do and to not do the things God wants us to do. This often plays out most strongly in our relationships with our loved ones.
The worst thing that can happen to us with God is not God’s wrath – at least then God is engaged with us. The worst thing is when God just moves on. That Samaritan village had such a remarkable opportunity to meet God in the flesh – and they said “no thanks”. And Jesus said, “cool” and moved on to the next village. How terrible it would be for us to have all these opportunities to know about God and to know God, and to throw it away because we repeatedly choose not to follow his path, but rather our own. We really owe it to ourselves to look critically and carefully at our behaviour and values, and interrogate to what extent they are aligned with God’s. Let us choose God, choose life.
From the dawn of time, God has had his arms outstretched to receive and embrace us. God has always been open and receptive to us. He always has been like this, he is like this today, and he will remain like his into the future. This is permanent posture of God. Arms open and looking towards you.
When we feel disconnected from God, can’t perceive or feel him, feel abandoned – it is not God who has turned away. It is we who have turned away. Sin is one of the main causes of us feeling cut off from God – sin is us turning away from God. But God has not moved – he is still there.
Luke 13:1-9 tells of people coming to Jesus saying that some people who had died horribly must have sinned terribly to suffer such a death. But Jesus challenges this, and says they were no worse than anyone else. And then he cautions those who said this: “Repent, else you too will perish!” He then tells the parable of a fruit tree that was unproductive. The owner wanted to cut it down, but the gardener interceded for is, saying he’s car for it for three years and see if it produced fruit: if so, good; if not, then cut it down. The parable is not particularly confident about the tree becoming fruitful and being saved. Sin is serious – it can lead to our deaths.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 also speaks of sin. The people of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years saw the most remarkable miracles – the plagues against the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, water gushing from a rock, manna from heaven every morning, the pillars of fire and smoke and so on. Yet, they repeatedly turned from God and engaged in all kinds of sin. And many died as a result. Paul says these are warnings for us, of how NOT to live our lives. And he offers a bit of hope: that God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear and that there will always be an escape route.
These two readings focus on the real risks of sin causing us to be estranged from God. But I say again: God has not moved! He is still there! His arms are still open to us!
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.”
Hear these repeated words from God: Come, come, come. Listen, listen, give ear. Eat and drink. Free, without cost. Good, delight, richest, everlasting, faithful, love, promise. These are words of God who is always facing us, with his arms always outstretched. This is the invitation to come to him, to quench our thirst, to eat and rest.
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.
Again, hear David’s response to the God of love, the God with open arms, the God who is always present and always available.
I encourage you, if you are feeling burdened and challenged by life, or if you are feeling that God is remote, to come to our Lord, who is the fountain of life, who offers food and drink to refresh your soul, at no cost, with no conditions.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next Sunday, we start a new church year, beginning with Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into the world. But the Feast of Christ the King is the culmination of everything we have done over the past year, and climaxes with a celebration of Jesus Christ as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
In both the first and second testaments, there are passages that describe Jesus as King and God the Father as King: Moses can see only the back of God, not God’s face in Exodus 33, Daniel see one like the Son of Man in Daniel 7, and Isaiah sees God (but does not describe God; only the seraphim) in Isaiah 6. In all cases, God is powerful, magnificent and awesome, beyond words. They went out of their minds at their experience of the greatness of God. We get similar hints of this in the second testament with Christ: Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigure before them, and are overwhelmed by Christ in his glory (Matthew 17, Mark 9 & Luke 9). Hebrews 1 tells us Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being. And Revelation 1 describes John’s vision of Christ, including blazing eyes, feet like burning bronze and a double edged sword coming out of his mouth! John tells us that he feel at Jesus’ feet as though dead!
Our limited human minds cannot begin to comprehend or even see the full glory and magnificence of God as King.
And yet, in both testaments, God reveals God’s self most fully, not in such demonstrations of power, as much as in God’s love and concern for and solidarity with those who are vulnerable.
For example, both Psalms 146 and 147 present the magnificence of God, e.g., “He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them”; “The Lord reigns forever”; “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” and “He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast?”
But interwoven with these references to the power of God the King, we get verses like the following: “He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow” in Psalm 146, while in Psalm 147: “The Lord gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord sustains the humble.”
The power and awesomeness of God is most fully revealed in God’s tender-heartedness, his compassion, his concern for the marginalised, his solidarity with the oppressed, and so on. And the most complete and full revelation of the heart of God is in the person of Christ, who is (as we read in Hebrews) the exact representation of God the Father. We think of Jesus, healing, touching, listening, seeing, walking, helping, weeping – all of these reveal the heart of Christ the King.
Our Gospel reading for today (John 18: 33-37) has Jesus talking with Pontius Pilate about Jesus as King. Jesus is persistently unwilling to refer to himself as a ‘king’ – twice he his pushed by Pilate: are you a king? And both times Jesus declines to answer directly. He is willing, though, to acknowledge that he has a kingdom (not of this world and from another place). I think he makes this concession, because a ‘kingdom’ emphasises the people who live in the kingdom more than the king of the kingdom. He is comfortable to speak about his people, the citizens his of kingdom, but not about his stature as ‘king’.
And in the end he says to Pilate, “You say I am a king”, in other words, you’re saying, not me. But, “in fact, the reasons I was born and came into the world [was not so much to be humanity’s king, but] to testify to the truth.” And what is truth? (as Pilate mockingly and cynically asks) The Truth is that God is, at the core and essence of God’s being, love. That is the ultimate truth of the Gospels and of God’s self revelation to humankind. That God is concerned for us and stands with us and fights for us and protects us and love us. This is Christ the King.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our Gospel and New Testament readings today are nicely synchronised.
Mark 7:1-23 has Jesus telling us that we are not defiled by disregard of human customs nor by what we put into our bodies (though he is talking here about religious purity (see verses 1-8 for context), not about drugs, alcohol, sugar, etc.), but rather by what comes out of our hearts and mouths (sexual immorality, theft, envy, arrogance and so on). He emphasises that it is what comes out of our mouths that is important, not what we put into our mouths.
Jesus criticises the religious leaders of his time for for emphasising human norms of behaviour and forsaking the command of God. And what is the command of God? Simple. To love God and to love our neighbour. These are the most important things in life – more important than any other command. Human rules about how to behave, what to eat, how to eat and so on, are irrelevant when it comes to our standing before God. What is important is what is in our hearts and how this comes out in our attitudes, words and actions. What should be in our hearts and what should manifest in our lived lives is LOVE – love for God and love for others.
James seems to have remembered this teaching from Jesus and picks it up in his letter, James 1:19-27, where James says that we should be quick to listen to others and to the Word of God (these are the things we should quickly allow in) but that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger (speaking and anger are things we should be slow to put out).
Being quick to listen means to be open and receptive to people around us, to make time for them, to be interested in and concerned for them. Our default response to people should always be to slow down and listen, listen with care, listen carefully, and listen with love. And we should also be quick to listen to the word of God – to the scriptures – which he says is “planted in us” (v21) like a tree, that can take root and grow and produce fruit. And the fruit of this Word/tree is our attitudes, words and actions – these should emerge out of the Word that we have allowed to grow in us, out of the love of God in our hearts.
On the other hand, James cautions us that we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. He is clearly speaking about our relationships with other people – in v27 he says that the religion that God wants (accepts as pure and faultless) is for us to to look after widows and orphans in distress (that is, to take care of those who are vulnerable) and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (that is, not to conform to human customs and worldly norms of behaviour).
James speaks particularly about the tongue, which he says we must “keep a tight reign on”, like a wild horse that is ready to bolt. He actually speaks at length about the dangers of the tongue in chapter 3, where he says, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” We have to watch (and yes, even censor) our words, because they are more powerful than we think – whether they are words of healing and restoration or words of criticism and judgement.
Rather, says James, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. This reminds me of how God is often described in the scriptures, as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (e.g., Psalm 86:15). We should be like God – quick to love and slow to anger.
There has been a shift in the world since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. He and his followers shifted social norms about how we use words. Speaking out whatever we think about people, and saying it bluntly and without regard for kindness or niceness has become a new norm. The attitude of not self-censoring and saying whatever one wants has been valorised – made into a virtue. We think we have a right to say whatever we want and that any kind of consideration of how our words might impact someone else is just a form of bleeding-heart leftism, political correctness or a sinister censorship of our right to free thought.
But no! This is completely out of alignment with the example and teaching of Christ and of his disciples! For Jesus, love and consideration for others is THE highest command (along with loving God) and checking what comes out of heart and mouths is clear in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7. James takes up Jesus’ teaching and unpacks it even more, with strong warnings about reining in (i.e. censoring) our tongues. Just read James 3 and see for yourself.
The path of the Christ-follower involves being full of love, quick to listen, slow to speak, abounding in love and desiring to build up others. Our words matter. This is the way of Christ.
We complete our five-part series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:56-69. Over the past four weeks, Jesus has been consistently redirecting us to himself and presenting himself to us as the source of life. Among other things, he has show that:
He cares about us.
He feeds us, meets our physical needs, abundantly.
He redirects us from earthly things to heavenly spiritual things.
He directs us towards himself.
He invites us repeatedly into a relationship with him.
He says he is the bread of life, come down from heaven
He invites us to feast on him.
He offers us and the world eternal life.
Now the question is: How will you respond to all this?
There are two sets of responses in our reading: the response of the larger group of Jesus’ disciples and then the response of the 12 disciples, voiced by Peter.
The response of Jesus’ disciples
Today’s reading indicates that Jesus’ teachings are hard – who can accept them? What is it about Jesus’ teaching in John 6 that is hard to accept, offensive? In part, it is his claim that he came down from heaven (John 6:42) and in part that he invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:52). On the one hand, he is too heavenly and on the other hand he is too earthly and fleshy. He is too high and too low!
Jesus responds to the first point by asking how they will feel when they see him ascending back into heaven (John 6:61-62). If his claim to have come down from heaven is hard to accept, how much more witnessing him ascending back into heaven! And he respond to the second point by saying they should forget about earthly flesh and concentrate on spiritual flesh and words, which are full of Spirit and life (John 6:63).
But, recognising that his teachings are hard to understand, Jesus acknowledges that some do not believe and some who believe will fall away. It is our choice whether or not we believe in him. Yet, it is important for us also to know that God the Father enables our faith, enables us to believe and even to accept hard, difficult teachings. Indeed, three times in this chapter, Jesus emphasises that it is the Father who inspires and enables our belief:
The Father enables us to come to Christ (John 6:65).
God is sovereign. God does the drawing of our hearts towards Jesus. We rely and depend on God to enable and inspire our faith. And so we pray to him when our faith frays.
Nevertheless, many of Jesus disciples turn away and leave him. God does not force them to stay or force them to believe. We have free well to listen to God’s call and to follow him. God may give, draw and enable our faith, but he does not coerce – we still choose.
The response of Peter
Finally, Jesus turns to the 12 disciples – they are not among those who turned away and left. He asks them, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67). The phrasing of the Greek implies a ‘no’ answer. Jesus is hoping that they will not join the others who have turned away.
Peter’s reply is wonderful:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:68) Peter knows the options out there, and concludes that they are all wanting. Even if Jesus’ teaching is hard to fathom, he can think of no better options. And besides, despite the difficult of Jesus’ teachings, he recognises that these are words of eternal life. Not words about eternal life, but the words of eternal life! Jesus very words are Life itself! As Jesus said earlier (v63), “the words I have spoken are full of the Spirit and of life.”
“We have come to believe to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69) Here Peter describes a process – the same process that we have been following these past five weeks: there is a process (“we have come”) of learning to trust Jesus and to entrust ourselves into Jesus (“to believe”) that leads to knowledge about who Jesus is and what he means to us (“and to know that you are the Holy One of God”). There is a process of trusting Jesus that leads to us knowing him.
All of this (this entire chapter 6 in John’s Gospel) has been about drawing us closer into a trusting relationship with Jesus, redirecting us from the things of the world to himself, and learning to trust that he himself, as the bread that has come down from heaven, is the source of all the nourishment that we need, of life, of Spirit.
Again, the question is: How will you respond to all this?