Today we celebrated All Souls, also known as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. In fact, it should be celebrated on 2 November, but we moved it today, since it’s Sunday. It is the day on which remember all those whom we have loved and lost – parent, family, friends, and others who have died. Later in the service we came up to light candles to remember and appreciate them.
Strictly, the ‘faithful departed’ mean those who died in the faith. But what about those who died outside the faith? What happens to them? And, indeed, what happens to the faithful departed? In this message, I try to explain the main teachings in the scriptures about what happens to us after we die. The truth is that the Bible presents rather mixed and even contradictory accounts of this, which can leave us a bit confused. Perhaps because no-one who has died, has come back to explain what happens. But what we can rely on in all this, is the grace and love of God, whose heart is open to humanity.
Psalm 130: 3-4 says, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness , so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” And late, the same Psalm encourages us to “put your hope in the Lord, for with the lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption”.
So, what happens to those die in the faith?
There are some verses that say our spirit goes immediately into the presence of God. Luke 23 tells of Jesus hanging on cross and saying to the one criminal hanging next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Today means today – not sometime in the future, but this very day. 2 Corinthians 5:8 is also thought to say that we transition immediately into the presence of God.
But other passages suggest we go to sleep for a period, until the last day. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 speaks three times about believers who were asleep – all those who died before Christ’s second coming would remain asleep, until he returned and woke them up with a the trumpet call of God.
Either way, it seems that our bodies will be resurrected only on the last day, when Christ returns – the second coming. Whether you’ve been cremated, or long buried and decomposed, or recently buried, God seems able to raise up our bodies. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 speaks about this, as well as several other passages about the resurrection, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:12-58.
And will the faithful departed then be judged? John 5:24 and 29 say ‘no’: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed from death to life … Those who have what is good will rise to live”. But 2 Corinthians 5:9-10 say ‘yes’: “So we make it our goal to please [God], whether we are home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
It’s all a bit confusing! Although we may not know the specifics of the mechanisms of what happens after we die, we can surely rest assured that we will experience the love, grace and forgiveness of God.
And what, then, about those who die without faith in Christ? What happens to them?
In John 3:36, Jesus is pretty blunt: “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
And John 5:29 reinforces this: “Those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
Again, in Luke 13:27, Jesus speaks about the narrow gate through which few will get, and the door closing and the owner saying, “I don’t know you! Away from me!”
It seems then that there is no hope for the ‘unfaithful’ departed. But, we must remember the repeated messages through the entire Bible about God’s great, extravagant and all-embracing love. This gives us hope, that maybe somehow God will find a way to win over the hearts of all or at least many people who died outside of faith.
For example, Lamentation 3:31-33 says, “For no-one is cast off by the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” This points us to the heart of God, which seeks good for every person.
Col 1:17-20 also speaks of God’s desire to save every person: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
And similarly in Ephesians 1:9-10 tells us that the mystery of God’s will is “to bring unity to all things iun heave and on earth under Christ”.
Since Christ died for the sins of the whole world, and not just for the sins of the faithful, universal salvation is at least a possibility. God’s love is radically inclusive, not exclusionary, and so there is the possibility that all could be saved. But God does not force himself on people – we have the right reject God. But it is perhaps hard to imagine unbelievers encountering the God of love face to face and denying his existence or rejecting his offer of a relationship. His love is almost irresitable.
And so, we try to win over those who do not believe, through our witness, our words and our prayers. And we continue to pray for those who have died outside the faith, that God will make a way for them to find salvation. We don’t have to understand how – that’s God’s business. But we can pray and hope and trust in the expansive and extravagant love of God.
Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:49-58).
It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.
This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.
Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.
So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.
Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.
This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.
Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”
And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.
In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.
And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.
And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.
So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.
But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.
We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.
At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.
My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.
And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.
I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.
But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.
For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?
And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.
The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:
The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).
In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.
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.
Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.
Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)
Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.
There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.
But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.
Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.
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.
John 12:23-28 narrates Jesus’ thoughts about his journey towards the cross.
Regarding his own death he shares:
Jesus describes his crucifixion as his “glorification”. He recognises that his journey to and through the cross will culminate in his glorification. So he ironically uses these terms interchangeably.
Jesus makes sense of his journey through the metaphor of ‘one for many’: if a single seed refuses to die, it remains one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds. In other words, through the the death of one man (himself) there is life for many (salvation of humankind).
Jesus is genuinely troubled, disturbed, in dread of this path that he has been called to follow. The journey to the cross is not easy for him. He wishes there could be an easier route. Let us not be glib in our perception of Jesus’ mission.
Yet he resolves himself to his mission, his reason for coming and to the glory of God.
In the midst of this narrative, Jesus calls us to follow this same path:
If we want to serve him, he says, we must follow him and be where he is. And where he is at that moment is on the journey towards the cross. That is where we must follow him.
For sure, when we follow him, there will be glory – just as for him. Our Father will honour us if we serve Christ. But that is in the future. For now, we are called to a present path of suffering.
He cautions us to not hang tightly to this life, to be in love with this life. If we do, we will lose it. Rather, we must almost hate this life, by comparison, and rather invest in the life that is yet to come.
Many churches are teaching that Jesus’ desire for us is for our wealth, happiness, success, possessions and power. But there is no hint of such teaching from Jesus in John 12. Rather, we are to spurn such trappings of this life, and journey with him on his path.
During these last days of Lent, Jesus is calling us to journey alongside him towards the cross. Let us immerse ourselves in his journey. Let us walk close beside him. Let us accept the path of humility, service, laying ourselves down, suffering and dying to self and to this life.
We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.
However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:
During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.
Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.
The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!
But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:
The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”
We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:
The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)
As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.
Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.
I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:
God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
However, now the covenant has conditions:
Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
Males must be circumcised.
Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
God’s external law, which humanity must obey
Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
God now sets external laws by which we must abide
Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
The solution of the Law alienates us from God
Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it
There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:
God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
I am taking a funeral later today for a parishioner who died of Covid. I asked his wife if she would like to pick a Scripture reading that she or her husband liked, and she selected Acts 24:15. I was quite surprised! I’ve participated in many funerals over the years and can never recall this verse being used. But it is a very apt passage, as I hope you will see.
I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:14-16)
Paul was currently under house arrest due to charges laid against him by the Jewish leaders. This continues for a number of years under various Roman rulers, and eventually he is transferred to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life. So, in today’s passage, Paul is both defending himself and declaring his faith. He is giving a testimony of what he believes. And this has four elements:
He is a follower of the Way, which is how people referred in those days to Christians. Christianity was known as ‘the Way’ and Christians as followers (of the Way).
He believes in the First Testament scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). In this way, he regards the First Testament as part of a Christian bible.
He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
He strives to keep a clear conscience with God and people, that is, to be on good terms with everyone.
The centre of the passage, however, is the third point about the resurrection.
First, he says that he has hope there will be a resurrection. This hope implies that there is more to life than just this life. Some people then and today believe that this life is all there is, and when we die, that’s the end. Paul says instead that there is a life after this life, the resurrection life. And so, while this life will end, there will be continuation of life in the resurrection life. And this implies that what we do in this life has implications for the next life. Our pattern of living is shaped not only by a present morality, but also by a recognition that how we live now will shape how we live the next life.
Second, Paul says something unique here – that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised. This means we are raised for judgement. As Jesus says, to separate the sheep from the goats. And judgement determines our eternal future.
Therefore, Paul says, he strives always to keep a clear conscience before God and humanity. Because this life impacts the next life, what we do now impacts our life then, and therefore it is important that we maintain good relations with God and humanity.
How do we do that? Paul says two things. First, we are urged to follow the Way of Christ. To model ourselves on him, to learn from him, to shape our behaviour on him, to assimilate his values. Second, we are urged to believe the Scriptures. We may not always understand them, we may prefer some passages over others; but we do have to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with the Scriptures. It is all Spirit-breathed and useful for living out our faith. So, Paul emphasizes that both our beliefs and our behaviour are important for Christian living.
The Covid pandemic is confronting us with the fragility of life – how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how easily we can lose life, even if we are young. It reminds us how precious this present life is and how we need to use it fully to develop and live out our faith. Acts 24:14-16 encapsulates the heart of Paul’s faith. Let us listen to Paul and follow Christ’s Way.
Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to follow him. In John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip – “follow me”. Philip goes to call his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, becoming one of the first evangelists. As Nathanael arrives, Jesus says some things about him, showing that he knows Nathanael, before they had even met. And then Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael sitting under a tree even before Philip had called him.
In this message, I share my own experience of being called by Jesus to follow him. It is not definitive, but provides just one experience of being called and (eventually) responding to God’s call.
Jesus remains the same today – he knows us and sees us. He knows where we are in life and in our relationship with him, and he sees where we are and what we are doing. And it with this knowledge of us, that Jesus calls us to follow him.
I thus urge you also to respond to the call of Jesus – to follow him. Put in the effort to build a relationship with Jesus – talk with him, read the Bible, come to church, talk with Christian friends, think about Jesus. He is ready and waiting for you. He is calling you to follow him. You just need to reach back.