St James wrote only one letter that is included in our Bible – a letter to all the churches. James is not one for subtlety. He pulls no punches. He says things as he sees them. His goal is to build up the church, and he is quite willing to challenge us to do so.
So, today’s message is an “if the shoe fits” message. If what I say today fits you or your church, put on the shoe. If it doesn’t, treat it as merely an interesting teaching or pass the shoe on to someone at another church who might need it.
In chapter 4, James provides a series of cautions and advice to churches that are experiencing internal troubles. And out of that I wish to draw three words of advice:
First, examine yourself. In the opening three verses, James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” And his answer is that it is things within ourselves – our own discontent, own own illicit desires, our own wrong motives. We have to start by critically examining ourselves, looking into a mirror that does not show us as we’d like to see ourselves, but that reveals our shadow side – our inner being. In short, deal with yourself first.
Second, submit to and focus on God. In verses 7-10, James calls us to turn away from ourselves and towards God. The primary purpose of coming to church is God. Fellowship with each other is vitally important, but follows after fellowship with God. When we take our eyes off Christ, we inevitably begin to devour each other and we put our souls in peril. We are to humble ourselves before God, to submit ourselves to God – these are words that speak of our recognition of how much we need God.
Third, stop breaking each other down. In verses 11-12, James says that when we slander or speak against our sisters and brothers in the church, we are breaking the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments – love your neighbour as yourself. James asks, “But you? Who are you to judge your neighbour?” There may well be individuals in a church who are harming the church – members and leaders of the church – and of course they must be challenged on this. But James cautions about judging, slandering and breaking down our sisters and brothers, turning against one another – it is not good for the church.
We need to be part of God’s solution for the church. We do NOT want to be part of the problem, working against God’s solution for the church.
Matthew 18:15-20 speaks about church discipline. Jesus provides us with both principles for church discipline and some practical steps that can be followed.
This specific passage is located within the larger narrative of Matthew chapter 18:
Jesus starts by advocating for humility; a warning particularly to those who think they are important people in the church, including church leaders (Matthew 18:1-5).
Jesus says we should be considerate of our sisters and brothers, not causing people to stumble while we stand on our rights (Matthew 18:6-13).
Jesus tells the parable about the lost sheep – the shepherd leaves (and even risks) the 99, while he goes in search of the one (Matthew 18:10-14).
Then we have today’s passage on church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
Immediately after that, we have Peter asking how many times he should forgive a sister or brother who sins against him. Seven times? (which to Peter probably felt very generous!) But Jesus, says, no! 70 times 7. And goes on to the parable of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven much (as we all are forgiven very much by God) but was unwilling to forgive another person a little (Matthew 18:21-35).
In combination, this chapter strongly emphasizes relationships of love. Love that is humble and little, love that is considerate, love that see the individual as of inestimable value, love that forgives and forgives, love that recognized how we have been blessed and seeks to pass it on.
This is the context within which Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ words about church discipline.
While we are instructed to challenge or confront sin – Jesus says, “Go! And point out their fault” – nevertheless, the way in which we do it, our purpose, our understanding of ourselves in this challenging role and our understanding the person being confronted, are all to be shaped by the deep love, consideration, valuing and forgiving that Jesus has presented to us in this chapter.
Perhaps the first thing to recognize in practice is that we are all sinners, so this is a case of one sinner confronting another sinner. This is not a situation of the righteous confronting the sinner. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The steps are really quite sensible:
Go directly to the person whose sin you have become aware of and point it out to them. Have a conversation with them, according to the principles set out above. And hopefully they will be able to hear you and the prompting of Holy Spirit and repent. (In the sermon, I share an example where I was the one being confronted regarding my own sin against another person in the church.
But if they don’t listen, go again with another one or two people, and try again. These other people are witnesses and may see that actually you are in the wrong in your assessment of the situation. They provide a third perspective.
But if the person still does not listen, then bring it to ‘the church’, by which Matthew probably mean the whole church, though perhaps today it would be better to bring it to the church leaders or elders. This is now a more formal and confrontational situation
But if the person still does not listen, then “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”.
This final step appears to suggest excommunication or ‘shunning’, though Jesus does not make explicit what he means. There certainly are other passages in the Second Testament that make provision for casting someone out of the church community. However, when we look at how Jesus treats pagans and tax collectors, we see that he reaches out to them, engages them, works to reconcile them and save them:
The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 was a pagan. Jesus engaged with her when she approached him, proclaimed her faith to be incredible, and healed her daughter from demon possession.
Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 was a tax collector. Jesus initiated dialogue with him, invited himself to his house to share a meal with him, and concludes by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Regarding both pagans and tax collectors, we Jesus working to reconcile, restore, include, forgive, save. Combining these examples of Jesus’ actual behaviour with pagans and tax collectors, and in light of the words just before this passage – “your Father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should perish” (Mat 18:14) – and the words just after it – “[forgive] not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mat 18:22) – we should conclude that the fourth step in Jesus’ practice guidelines is not about excommunication, but rather about persistent attempts to challenge and restore.
Paul summarises this very neatly in Galatians 6:1:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit [meaning we need check our own faith and conduct before we step in to confront someone else] should restore that person [not dump on them, not humiliate or belittle them, not shame them, not cast them out] gently [with kindness, consideration, sensitivity and above all, authentic love]. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted [be humble, watch out for pride, arrogance of complacency, because you might easily be the one caught in a sin next week].
Even though I emphasise God’s love as the central essence of God’s being, we see God behaving in angry, wrathful and violent ways. How are we to make sense of this? This message defines justice as follows
Justice is God’s love working to protect those who are vulnerable
As much as God stands up against those who harm God’s loved-ones, God also reaches out a hand of reconciliation, rooted in repentance and contrition. And God desires reconciliation between people, rooted in forgiveness. We call this restorative justice – love and justice.
Click here to listen to this 6-minute message. Or watch the video below. Or read the brief summary below the video.
As we move through the days of Holy Week, the set readings become increasingly somber and serious. We are progressing closer and closer towards Jesus’ death on Good Friday. Today’s reading is John 13:21-32, which tells of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. In verse 21, John writes,
Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me”.
The disciples immediately say to each other, “Surely not I! Who could he be referring to?” Jesus says,
“It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.”
He dips the bread into a dish and hands it to Judas. I imagine Judas, who was indeed planning to betray Jesus, looking at the piece of dipped bread in Jesus’ hand and wondering what to do. I imagine his thoughts racing, prevaricating – do I or don’t I?
He takes the bread from Jesus and eats it. I chooses betrayal. And so, Jesus’ path to the cross is set in motion.
This passage challenges us to recognise that each of us is also complicit in Jesus’ betrayal. Judas acts on behalf of me and of you. Our sin does not have a be dramatic or public; it can include the little things that we do and also the things we neglect to do. We each have helped pave the way to the cross.
We are thus called to repentance during these days of Lent and particularly over the coming few days. Let us pray Psalm 51:
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
God calls us to humility – in our relationship with God, and in our relationship with other people.
Luke 18:9-14 gives us the parable of the pharisee and tax collector, both at prayer.
The pharisee – a person who was devout, religious, righteous, obedient to God’s laws – stands and prays loudly about how wonderful he is and thanks God for not making him like those ‘other’ people (explicitly mentioning the tax collector). Jesus says that this person will not be justified before God, and that people like that, who exalt themselves, will be humbled.
The tax collector – a person who was regarded as dishonest, extortionist and reprehensible, and who Jesus often refers to when talking about sinful people – hides away in a corner, cannot look up towards heaven and can pray only, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Jesus says that this person will go home justified before God, and that a humble person like this will be exalted.
Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.
Of course, this ‘humility’ is not about self-denigration or having a poor self-esteem or negative self-image. Paul says clearly in Romans 12:3 that humility is about assessing our strengths and weaknesses honestly and accurately: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”
In our other reading for today – Hosea 5:13-6:6 – there is a dialogue between God and Israel:
God observes that when Israel was in need, instead of turning to God, they turned for help to people who did not know God. Therefore, God sent suffering to them, to help them admit their guilt (i.e. to humble them) and until they sincerely sought God’s face.
Israel then reflects that the suffering they have experienced is justified, and that despite God’s anger towards them, God will nevertheless heal them and bind up their wounds. They long to be revived and restored and to live in God’s presence. Twice they say, “Let us acknowledge God” – that word ‘acknowledge’ in Hebrew means ‘to know’ (as in knowing a fact), but also as in knowing or discerning something not obvious (such as the truth of someone’s intentions), and is used as a euphemism for sex (as in, Adam knew Eve and she fell pregnant). Israel desires to be humble before God and to truly and intimately know God.
God, the exasperated parent, responds positively. God reminds them that God’s desire is for mercy (hesed, meaning steadfast love and compassion) and acknowledgement (that ‘knowing’ word again), far more than empty religion (sacrifices and burned offerings).
Clearly, God calls us to humility – both in our relationship with God and in our relationship with people.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the period of 40 days of fasting and prayer that leads up to Easter. It is a time of preparation for Calvary.
We have three key readings today:
Matthew 6:1-16,16-21. Jesus emphasises that when we do things like giving to the needy, praying and fasting in a way that draws people’s attention to ourselves, our reward for doing it is people’s attention. God is no much impressed. But when we do these things quietly, secretly, then God (who sees what is done in secret) will reward us with treasures that last for eternity.
Psalm 51. In this Psalm, David acknowledges his brokenness and comes before God with empty hands. He does not pretend that he is something when he’s not. And he is honest about his sinfulness. He concludes that God will not despite or reject a broken spirit or a broken and contrite heart.
Isaiah 58:1-12. This passage (titled ‘true fasting’ in the NIV translation) emphasises that our fasting my (1) be wholehearted, not merely a performance or duty, and (2) must be matched with how we live out our faith in deeds of justice, compassion and rightness. When we just go through the motions, God will not answer. But when we are sincere and ‘walk the talk’, and call on God, he will say, “Here am I”.
In light of this, I make four key recommendations for prayer and fasting during Lent:
Turn to God – quietly and privately.
Repent of your sins – sincerely.
Align yourself with God – wholeheartedly.
Act on this alignment – purposefully.
Finally, I recommend a prayerful reading of Psalm 51 (NRSV).
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast [fling] me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Or listen to Bach’s Cantata based on Psalm 51 (music adapted from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater)
The story of Christ’s crucifixion confronts us with the dark-side of humanity. Having coming back from a visit to Rwanda last week, where I visited the genocide memorial in Kigali, where close to 300,000 victims of the 1994 genocide are buried, this potential for darkness and evil is especially prominent in my mind. We each need to own up to the role that we played in the murder of Jesus Christ – a man who had nothing but immense love for the world.
Judas Iscariot is arguably the most tragic character in the Bible (John 13:21-32). He walked with Jesus for three years, but ended up betraying him into the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities for just a few coins. Too late, he recognised the horror of what he had done and attempted to repent and undo his evil deed. In despair he took his life.
We cannot blame Judas for Christ’s death, because we too betray Jesus and we too contribute to his death. And so, I suggest that we need to say “I am Judas” in recognition of our partnership in the execution of the Son of God. (I have adapted the ‘Je suis Charlie’ icon that was created after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015 – ‘Je suis Judas’.)
But , where Judas approached the religious leaders for forgiveness, we should rather approach Jesus, whose capacity for forgiveness is eternal. And where Judas was unable to forgive himself, we need to accept Jesus’ forgiveness and allow ourselves to be set free from sin and guilt. Thus, we can also say, “I am not Judas” (‘Je ne suis pas Judas’).
South Africa, at the moment, has become a pot reaching boiling point, as racial tensions and anger mount. For some, reconciliation has become a dirty word, and for others there is fear that the reconciliation that was built up in the last 90s is under serious threat. Globally, we see similar breakdowns in relationships and rolling often violent fracturing of relationships – among the states of the former USSR, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa. And at a domestic level, we all too often experience broken and pain-filled relationships in our communities, with our neighbours and friends, and even in our families. How is it that we humans are so good at breaking fellowship?
This 20 minute message tackles these difficult issues and questions. Starting at the beginning of Genesis, I trace this origins of broken relationships: between people, with God, with the world and with ourselves. We call this ‘sin’.
Working through the First Testament, I show the many ways in which God, who created relationships and is in the business of reconciliation, worked to restore these fractures, and to build harmony and wholeness in humanity.
And then I show how Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection are the pinnacle of God’s work to redeem us, to restore us, to reconcile us.
And finally, drawing on Paul’s teachings in 2 Corinthians 5, I show how we are called to be agents of reconciliation, to join with God in bringing about reconciliation. I suggest four main ways that we can and should do this: accepting God’s offer of reconciliation with us, praying for those who have fallen out of fellowship, transforming our hearts of racism and sexism (and all the other -isms), and taking a step towards an estranged loved-one. In so doing, we build the Kingdom of God in our midst.
Often, in the busyness of life, we just go on. We walk the same way we walked yesterday. We go through the motions. We just do what needs to be done. We are not especially purposeful in how we live. We often don’t really think about the direction we are taking, and whether this path will lead us closer to or further away from God. This can be a dangerous way of living – like a zombie. And so the Apostle Paul says, “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12).
So, God calls us to repent. Repentance does not mean to beat yourself up. Rather it is about turning away from sin and death and turning towards God and life. It is about choosing to live in a way that rejects darkness, and embraces the light. It about giving up the negative things in life and taking up the positive. It about turning our back on the devil and walking towards God. It is about salvation!
God stands always with open arms and says “Come! 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. Listen! Listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on you. Turn to God, for he will freely pardon” (from Isaiah 55:1-7). God gives second, third, fourth chances – he is infinitely patient. God does not coerce or force – God invites and waits.
We need to challenge ourselves with this question – which way are we going? Are you walking towards sin and death? Or are you walking towards God and life? Such an important question, particularly during Lent – Which way are you going?
In this audio message (click here) we unpack this idea of turning away from death and turning towards life.