A long story of God’s salvation

Click here to listen to the audio recording of today’s 17-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 25 minutes). Or read the short summary below.

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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)
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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)
  6. 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:

  1. God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
  2. 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
  3. Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
Featured image from https://davidjeremiah.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/an-assurance-of-salvation-verse-to-know-by-heart.jpg

A life of love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)

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

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

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

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

Filled with the Spirit

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the video of the message on Facebook video (the message starts at about 25 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Today we commemorate and celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. Mark 1:10 tells us that “as Jesus was coming up out of the water” the Spirit descended “on him like a dove”. Jesus’ ministry starts with him being filled will the Spirit. Surely, if the Spirit is important for his life and ministry, the Spirit must be important for ours also.

Indeed, all of our readings for today speak about the work of the Spirit. Genesis 1:2 tells us that when God was creating the heavens and the earth, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. Holy Spirit was there, partnering with God in creation. And Psalm 29:3 echoes these words: “the voice of the Lord is over the waters … the Lord thunders over the mighty waters” – suggesting that the Spirit and the Lord are one and the same God. Holy Spirit is active in creation.

In Acts 19:1-7, Paul met up with some of John’s disciples and asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. They say they did not – indeed, they did not even know there was a Holy Spirit. Paul lays his hands on them and “the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”. Much as we see in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, Holy Spirit equips people for ministry.

Clearly, the Spirit is essential for creation or creativity and for ministry. Luke 4:1 tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and that it was the Spirit who led him into the wilderness, where he was tempted. If Jesus needed to be filled with the Spirit, how much more do we need the filling of the Spirit? Paul is emphatic in Ephesians 5:18: “Be filled with the Spirit”.

Hopefully you are convinced that we need to be filled with the Spirit. If so, the question is ‘how?’ How are we to be filled with the Spirit?

Let me start by affirming that if you believe in Jesus – if you are a Christian – then Holy Spirit is already living in you. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” You cannot become a Christian without the working of the Spirit. So if you are a Christian, you already have the Spirit in you, whether you know it or not. Being filled with the Spirit then is something additional to this. (Remember that Jesus was already the Son of God when he was filled with the Spirit.)

How can we be filled with the Spirit? There is no formula for being filled with the Spirit. I offer some suggestions based on my own experience and the experiences I’ve heard from or seen in others:

  • Say a prayer asking Holy Spirit to fill you.
  • Ask someone to lay hands on you and pray for you to be filled with the Spirit.
  • Say a prayer in which you tell the Spirit that you surrender to the Spirit.
  • Bearing in mind that the Spirit is already in you, but that the Spirit might be shackled or chained, thus prevented from working fully, say a prayer in which you you unchain, unshackle and free-up the Spirit to work in you.
  • Identify specific areas of your life (e.g., your finances, marriage, mental health, sexuality) that you are keeping back from God and invite the Spirit to fill these areas of your life.
  • Do a walking prayer, saying “Holy Spirit fill me” as you breathe in and “I surrender to you” as you breathe out.
  • Or anything else that works for you…

I encourage you to seek the infilling of the Spirit. Not as a once-off thing, but as a regular thing. Being filled with the Spirit is not an event, but an ongoing way of life, in which we keep in step with the Spirit, like breathing. When we are filled with the Spirit, our faith will grow and flourish, our prayer life will deepen, we’ll more easily understand the Bible, and our ministry will strengthen and expand. This is what living in the Spirit is about.

Be filled with the Spirit!

Featured image from https://dg.imgix.net/why-was-jesus-baptized-en/landscape/why-was-jesus-baptized.jpg

The battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radical inclusion

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at about 29 minutes). Or read the narrative summary that follows.

Today we celebrate Epiphany – the revelation or revealing of Jesus Christ to the non-Jewish world, specifically, to the Magi. Traditionally, these were the three wise men or the three kings. The readings set for today (for Epiphany) tell the narrative of a great opening up (or revealing or understanding) of God’s salvation for all humankind.

We start in Isaiah with several prophecies of the nations (Gentiles, non-Jews) coming recognise the special call of Israel to be a light to the world. For example, Isaiah 59:19 says, “From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord, and from the rising of the sun [that is, from the east], they will revere his glory”. In Isaiah 60:3, we read, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn”. And Isaiah 60:6 seems to prophesy the coming of the Magi (the traditional ‘three kings’ or ‘wise men’), “All from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”

In the times of the First Testament, God had chosen to work with the Jewish people. They were his chosen people – the people of the covenant. But throughout that Testament, we see references, like those in Isaiah, to Israel leading everyone towards God. They were to be a priestly nation who would mediate God to the world.

Then, in Matthew 2:1, we read, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem … Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’.” When they found Jesus, “they bowed down and worshipped him” and “presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11), in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 60:6.

The importance of the Magi is twofold. First, they recognise Jesus as a king – not merely as a child. He was a person of great significance. And secondly, because they came from the east (probably somewhere in Persia or even further east) and were not Jewish, they represent the gentile nations. Their visit to Jesus and their recognition of him as King is the fulfilment of the First Testament prophecy, that the Messiah of the Jewish people would be a Messiah for all people. This is the epiphany – the revelation of Jesus to those outside of the Jewish faith.

Jesus’ ministry, as recorded in the Gospels, was primarily to the Jewish people. Jesus says as much (e.g., Matthew 10:5-6). However, there are numerous examples of Jesus reaching beyond the Jewish people to Gentiles. Still, the Good News that Jesus preached was primarily good news for Jews.

The outworking of the fulfilled prophecy comes with Paul and is explained very clearly in his letter to the Ephesians. Speaking to the Gentiles, Paul says “you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Paul is reiterating the First Testament position, that only the Jewish people were God’s chosen.

But Paul then shares his “insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit of God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:4-5). And what is this mystery? It is that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6).

Paul proclaims the great opening up of the Gospel message to all people, as was prophesied in the First Testament and according to the sign of the magi from the East. God’s chosen people are no longer only the Jewish nation, but anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. “In him and through faith in him, we may approach God, with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). “The barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) has been destroyed. The doors to the Kingdom of God have been flung wide open and all are welcome to enter!

What does this mean for us today? It means that our church doors must also be flung wide open so that all feel welcome to enter. There should be no barriers to people coming to Christ and coming to church. Every person, no matter who or what they are, should feel that they are welcome, loved and included when they meet us. We should be generous and inclusive.

If we are honest, we will admit that Christians can be some of the most judgemental, critical and exclusionary people on earth. And often also hypocrites – saying one thing but doing another. Christians frequently do not put into practice the open and inclusive Gospel that Jesus proclaimed, which was prophesied in the First Testament, and which we see unfolding throughout the Second Testament.

Jesus’ ministry was one of radical inclusion. He seems to go out of his way to embrace those who the world would regard as sinners and marginalised – prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman oppressors, lepers, demon possessed people, women, Samaritans, the dead and dying, and so on. Jesus repeatedly positions himself with those who one might think could not be the ‘chosen people’. He does this show, unequivocally, that the Gospel is a generous and inclusive message and that doors to the Kingdom of God are wide open.

And thanks be to God for that! Because this is what enables most of us – who are Gentile – to be included among God’s chosen people. Let us then walk in the footsteps of Jesus and of Paul, in the way we as individuals engage with people around us – always welcoming, always generous, warm, kind, tolerant, inclusive. And let us as a church – the parish of St Stephen – similarly be a church with wide open doors that welcomes anyone and everyone into the presence of God.

Featured image “Adoration of the Magi” by Albrecht Dürer (1504), from https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/adoration-of-the-magi/zwFGJLYuIszRRw?hl=en-GB

New Year’s resolve

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 19-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (sermon starts at about 20 minutes).

Today we read about Jesus’ bris or circumcision, eight days after he was born, in Luke 2:21-40. We meet two incredible people of great faith in the temple: Simeon and Anna. Both immediately recognise Jesus (remember he’s just eight days old) as the Messiah, the long-awaited one.

Given that New Year is almost upon us, I thought it might be useful to see what we can take from this passage to inform our New Year’s resolutions for 2021. Or rather, to inform our resolve for 2021. (‘Resolve’ has far greater strength of determination and commitment that a mere ‘New Year’s resolution’, which most of us probably break on 2 January!)

  1. Let us be resolute in our to devotion to Christ. Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man, filled with the Spirit of God, while Anna is described as an 84-year-old prophet, who virtually lived in the temple, worshipping, praying and fasting. Both of them embody a deep commitment to devotion to God. We can be determined to walk in their footsteps, through our devotion to Christ.
  2. Let us resolve to live out salvation for all of humankind. Simeon says, in vv 30-32, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Initially, the salvation that would come through Jesus was thought of as being only or primarily for the Jewish people – indeed Jesus’ ministry was mostly to Jews. But there is a growing awareness (with deep roots in the First Testament) that the salvation that comes through Christ is for the whole world. We can live this out in the way we live, work and speak. And at this time, in how we handle the challenges of Covid.
  3. Let us resolve work always for peace. In vv 34-35, Simeon recognises that Jesus’ life and ministry will not result only in peace and joy; there will be those who oppose him, there will be conflict, and eventually there will be death. But Jesus’ ministry is one of peace-building, love, forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us live out such a deep commitment in our daily lives. And let us also resolve to pray for the world, which is marred by so much discord, conflict and violence.

May 2021, which will continue to have its major Covid-related and other challenges, be a year in which we are more intentional in our resolve to be devoted to God, to live out his inclusive salvation and to work for peace.

Featured image “Simeon’s Moment” by Ron DiCianni, from https://www.tapestryproductions.com/product/simeons-moment-artwork-by-ron-dicianni/

Emmanuel – God with us

During Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas) we have been preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ into this world – God in human form – Emmanuel – God with us. Today, that advent – ‘the arrival of a notable person or thing’ – has come to fruition. We are not waiting for God to come to us; God is here with us. Christ is born!

I’m sharing two messages today – one that I preached last night, based on John 1, and one that I preached this morning, based on Luke 2. Both are about the coming of God into the world, but from different perspectives:

John presents to us the grand narrative about the coming of Christ into this world:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made … In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us … We have seen his glory!” (John 1:1-14)

Here we meet ‘The Word’ – the very Word of God, the thoughts of God, the knowledge of God, the power of God – who is the second person of the Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit). This Word is the foundation of the cosmos. He was there from before the beginning of time and space, working in partnership with Father and Spirit in the creation of everything that is. He is the very source of the fundamental elements of our existence: life and light – making all things possible.

And then, at a point in time and space, this Word transitioned from eternity, from infinity, from perfection, into this human world – the Word became flesh and “moved into our neighbourhood” (the Message). God became one of us, bringing life and light into our immediate vicinity. We could see him, touch him, speak with him.

God continues to live among us, in our neighbourhood. The Word made flesh. He makes his dwelling among us in this world.

And he makes his dwelling in you, in me, in every person who will allow him. Perhaps he has already set up his dwelling place – pitched his tent – in every person, and is just waiting for an invitation to move in. His space is there, ready and waiting, but just needing us to answer the knock on the door, the subtle invitation, the quiet whisper.

Luke presents to us a more domestic narrative about the coming of Christ into the world:

“Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlem to register with Mary who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (Luke 2:1-20)

Luke presents the coming of Christ as a family story, set against the political landscape. Rome – a colonial oppressor in Israel – required everyone to travel to their home town for a census. Mary – a teenager – pregnant and as-yet unwed – travels with Joseph. But they are unable to find a place to stay, and settle into what may have been a barn or cave or a corner of a house, with the animals. And there she gave birth to her son, Jesus. Such a simple way to tell us that God the Son had just entered this world – ‘and she gave birth to her firstborn’. No fanfare, no witnesses, no family support, not even a decent place to stay. In that place, God came into this world.

And then it is to the shepherds that God reveals this good news. They’re out looking after their sheep and the sky fills with angels who sing out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests”. It is these shepherds to go to visit Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. (The Maji appear in Matthew’s version and Mark and John don’t describe Jesus’ birth at all.)

We learn something of the humility of God from Luke’s narrative. It is mostly so underplayed. Only the shepherds see the angels, no-one else. In the first Testament, God is typically portrayed as great, awesome, powerful, the Creator of all. John’s narrative similarly presents us with ‘the Word’ – the cosmic Christ. But here we see God presented to us as a newborn – the most vulnerable and helpless of all humans, utterly dependent on his caregivers for his survival.

And we learn something of God’s willingness to work through the ordinary, and particularly through ‘the poor’ – those who are displaced, marginalised, labourers, homeless, hungry. We will see this again and again in Luke’s gospel particularly, but indeed in all the narratives about Jesus’ life and ministry. God leans towards those on the edges.

And so God is waiting to work in you and in me, to be born in us today. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, how educated or illiterate you are, how gifted or ordinary you are, how powerful or weak you are, how well-adjusted or dysfunctional you are, how rich or poor you are. God wants to be born in you and to grow up in you.

And so, if you have been skirting the edges of a commitment to Jesus or if you have made a commitment to him but are iffy in how you live that out day-by-day, perhaps this Christmas is the time when you want to say YES to the Son of God, and to allow the Word to move into that tent that he has already pitched in your heart. Perhaps this Christmas is the moment when you say YES to the birth of Jesus in your heart, and when you say YES to nurturing him as he grows in you in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and people. Perhaps now is the time to say YES to God.

The Nativity, by Gari Melchers, from https://the-end-time.org/2018/12/10/jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable-more-on-the-nativity-art-by-gari-melchers/

Reconciliation

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary that follows.

Today (16 December) in South Africa we celebrate Reconciliation Day, a day on which we remind ourselves of the great need for us to reconcile with each other, after generations and generations of racial oppression and exclusion. We still have a long way to go with this!

In 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, Paul writes at length about reconciliation. He explains that God has reconciled us to Godself; that God has been working all along to reconcile the whole of humanity – indeed, the whole of creation – to Godself; and that God has now entrusted this ministry of reconciliation to us:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Given that God has done so much to reconcile us to God’s self and given that we are given this great commission to carry out in Christ’s footsteps, how sad it is that there is still so much division among Christians! I do not refer only to divisions between denominations, but also divisions within a local parish, between members of the same local church. Such divisions are completely out of step with everything that God has been doing with humanity since the Fall. We are called to work for relational reconciliation among ourselves in the church.

Paul then goes on in Galatians 3:26-29 to emphasise that the work of Christ has been not only to towards relational reconciliation, but also towards structural or systemic reconciliation:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

These categories that Paul writes about – Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female – are the classic sociological topics of race, class and gender. These are the systemic and structural lines according to which most societies are still divided. Employment, poverty, inequality, social exclusion, crime, agency, violence, salaries and so on all run along the lines of race, class and gender – those very things that Paul says should have disappeared in Christ. Yet in the so-called ‘Christian world’, these lines run deep into the earth.

As followers of Christ, we are called to work to undermine and subvert and dismantle these lines. To stand up against racism, classism and sexism or patriarchy. Not to perpetuate them!

And Paul then goes still further in Ephesians 5:21 to emphasise that this reconciliation should be not only in church and the world, but also in our intimate relationships. Within our households, we need to work towards domestic reconciliation and harmony:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Such a simple verse! Christians tend to emphasise the next line (wives submit to your husbands), but Paul’s headline for this passage is that we all must submit to each other: husbands to their wives, wives to their husbands, children to their parents and parents to their children. When we are all submitting to each other, out of reverence for Christ, who has reconciled us to God, we will be united and harmonious. Mutual submission to one another builds reconciliation, dismantles inequality and fosters unity.

Let us reflect deeply on the reconciliation that God has already worked for us between us and God, and in grateful response to that, work for relational, structural and domestic reconciliation.

Featured image from: https://www.thesouthafrican.com/news/day-of-reconciliation-24-years-democracy-south-africa-reconciled/

Click here to listen to a previous sermon, from 2016, on this same theme, but from a different angle.

Rend the heavens and come down

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 17-minute message. Or watch the Facebook video (the sermon starts at about 24:30). Or read the text summary that follows below.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world – historically 2,000 years ago (which we celebrate at Christmas), in this very moment (Christ is continually coming into the world) and one day in the near or distant future (when Christ comes again). Today we reflect on the last of these – Jesus’ second coming.

Our reading is Isaiah 64:1-9, which opens with these powerful words, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” While this sounds like a joyful call for Christ to return, the passage is filled with caution and a call for critical self-reflection.

Let me summarise the flow of thought. Initially, there is a call for Christ to come down, to make the mountains tremble, to set fire to the world, to cause the nations to quake and to make his name known to his enemies. This passage seems to work from the assumption that there are clear enemies of God, and implicitly that we are in the right:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. (Isaiah 64:1-3)

Second, there is a similarly smug and self-satisfied view that God is inevitably on our side – that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, because we wait for Christ, we gladly do right, and we remember his ways. There is a complacency that we are right and thus God is for us – a complacency that easy slides into arrogance – an arrogance that easily slides into hatred and judgement of everyone else:

Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. (Isaiah 64:4-5a)

But third, it seems that Isaiah pauses and reflects. He becomes self-critical, as he writes, “But…” That ‘but’ initiates a series of recognitions that there is little difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. He faces up to our continued sin, our uncleanness, that even the best we do is like filthy rags, that we are shrivelled like a leaf, that the wind of our sins will sweep us away, and that we neglect to call on God’s name or to strive towards him. Isaiah recognises that, as a result, God hides his face from us and gives us over to our sin. And so he says, “How then can we be saved?”:

But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:5b-7)

And then, out of this stepping down, stepping back, looking within, critically self-reflecting, challenging himself and his religious community, Isaiah comes to some important realisations. He starts the next passage with, “Yet”, signalling that he has recognised something new. He discovers afresh that God is our father and we all are his children. That God is the potter and we are but clay in his hands. That God is merciful and does not store up anger against his children. That God sees us as we pray. And that we all are God’s people, all the work of his hand.

This last line is perhaps the most the important of all – having started by dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad, saved and lost; and then realising that we also are wrong, bad and lost – he realises that God is for everyone. God desires to save everyone. God longs to reconcile with all of us. And that we can be reconciled only through the work of Christ, not by us being ‘more right’ than anyone else:

Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)

As much as we long for Christ to return – for the rending of the heavens and the coming down of Christ – let us recognise that we are little different from anyone else. We are as dependent on Christ for our salvation as anyone else, because we are as sinful as anyone else. That when we become smug about our salvation or about how spiritual or righteous we think we are, we are actually moving away from God, not towards him.

And so let us be cautious, humble, critically self-reflective and watchful. As Jesus says at the end of Mark 13:24-37,

“What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!'”

Featured image from https://wp-media.patheos.com/blogs/sites/333/2019/12/aurora-borealis-69221_640.jpg

Gender, by God

Click here to listen to the audio of this 35-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. This is a longer-than-usual message, because this is such an important topic, that is so seldom spoken about. So, while 35 minutes is quite a long time, I urge you to set aside some time – particularly today, Women’s Day – to listen to this message.

Today – 9 August – is Women’s Day in South Africa. It’s a day when we celebrate women. But it is also a day when we confront the profound and relentless violence against and subordination of women in our society. The church must, on this day, give particular attention to its role in perpetuating, supporting and even advancing such patriarchal and misogynistic views and behaviours. My own church – the Anglican Church of Southern African – must take responsibility for our role in advancing violence against and oppression of women. And men, like me, must do the same.

So, in this message, I unpack four passages of the Bible – three in the Genesis creation story and one in the writings of Paul – that are often used to support patriarchy. I invite you to read the texts and see what they actually say and to critique how they have been used. Of course, the Bible was written in patriarchal times by people who held patriarchal views. But we are invited to read through their views to see the mind of God on the issues of gender inequality in the world.

This is an important and substantial topic, hence this is a rather lengthy message. I urge you to engage with it, as I think it will help to lay a foundation for thinking about gender relations in the world, in the church, in the workplace and in our homes.

  1. Genesis 1:27-28 tells us that both women and men are equally created in God’s image. It also tells us that they were both – as a couple, as a partnership – given authority to rule over the earth. There is no hint that the man is more created in God’s image than the woman, that he is important or more powerful than the woman. The man is not given dominion over the woman; instead both the woman and the man are given conjoint dominion over everything else. This is a picture of unity, equality and power-sharing between man and woman – a picture that is very much at odds with how life is lived in many homes today.
  2. Genesis 2:18-23 is part of the second creation story, where God recognises that it is not good for man to be alone and decides to create a ‘helper’ for him. Initially, God looks among the animals, but realising that none of these will do, God creates woman. The word ‘helper’ is often used to imply woman’s supportive, helping, subordinate role. But in v18 God recognises that man is somehow inadequate or deficient – unable to be alone – he is incomplete and needs a partner to make him whole. Therefore God creates a woman. The woman is there to help him be a whole person – this is by no means a subordinate role.
  3. Moreover, she is created from his rib, suggesting that they are equal – they stand side-by-side, joined at the rib – the midpoint between the head and the foot. God did not take Adam’s toe and create Eve’s collarbone so that Adam could stand on her head! Instead, they are created as the same, as equal, as partners. It reaffirms Genesis 1 – they are equal partners.
  4. Genesis 3:16-19 tells of God’s cursing of man and woman for their sin. v16 has a line that says “and he [your husband] will rule over you”. Many male theologians and scholars and ministers have used this verse to construct a theology that God’s divine plan for human relations post-fall is that men (husbands) exercise authority over women (wives). This is a profound perversion of the scriptures, because this is just one line out of several lines of curses, including that women will experience pain in childbirth (which humanity has constantly worked to reduce and to reduce maternal mortality).
  5. In addition to hers, there is a lengthy curse against the man (72 words to the man, compared with just 31 to the woman – the man’s curse is more than double the length of the woman’s!). God says that he will suffer and struggle to produce crops from the earth. And yet men have never accepted this as God’s divine plan for them! Men have worked, since they left Eden, to ease the burden of producing crops, through the use of slaves, animals, machines, genetic modification and most recently artificial intelligence. If the curse against men is not part of God’s divine order, why is the curse against women? It is simply patriarchy and misogyny at work!
  6. Overall, the creation story across Genesis 1-3, there is an overriding narrative of equality between woman and man. Even in the fall, both woman and man eat the apple and both woman and man are cursed. Everything is equal, parallel. Indeed, if there was any hint of gender inequality, it would be in favour of woman – she was God’s second attempt at creating a human (we are usually better the second time round) and her curse is shorter than man’s. But indeed, the dominant and pervasive narrative is one of equality and partnership between gender. This is God’s vision for gender.
  7. So, we do need to look also at the New Testament, and particularly to the writings of Paul. It is true that Paul was raised in a patriarchal society and household. He is certainly a patriarch and probably also a misogynist. He does write that men are the head over women, that women must be silent in church, etc. He clearly writes about male domination over women. This is how he was raised. There are, however, NO passages where Paul advocates or endorses, even tacitly, violence against women or the oppression of women. And just because Paul was a patriarch, does not mean God is a patriarch.
  8. Paul grapples with gender issues. He writes “there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28). He has some sense that in God’s eyes, there is no gender; but in his own thinking, he still sees and supports gender inequality. What we seem to be seeing in Paul’s writings is a developing insight into God’s view on gender equality, emerging and receding.
  9. 1 Corinthians 7:2b-5 presents to us a profoundly egalitarian view of gender relationships from the pen of Paul. It shows a perfect equality between women and men, equal exercising of power over one’s body, equal self-giving of oneself to one’s partner. It is an image of a very modern marriage. It is completely out of step with the traditional passages we quote from Paul on ‘wives must submit to their husbands’. If men are going to quote Paul on gender, let us quote ALL of Paul on gender, and recognise that here is a man whose views on gender are uneven. And this unevenness is best explained as Paul’s growing understanding of God’s view of gender equality.

In light of these challenges about God’s views – and Scriptures views – on gender equality, I suggest two principles that should inform and shape how we interpret scripture:

  1. First, we need to look at the whole of scripture when we formulate a position on something, like gender relations. We need to look at the whole body, and we need to understand the underlying mind of God, which we see most clearly expressed in the mind of Christ, which we best gain insight into in the Gospel narratives.
  2. Second, we need to separate custom from teaching, description from prescription. Just before the Bible writers believed the earth was flat and that the sky was a bowl over the earth, does not mean that the earth is actually flat and that there is actually a bowl in the sky. Even though they express this view in the Bible, e.g., in the Psalms, does not mean it is true or that God believes this. We are inclined to bring our cultural beliefs and impose them onto scripture – gender is a good example of this. Instead, we are required to bring God’s mind, expressed in the scriptures, and use these to sanctify and transform society. When it comes to gender, we impose our preconceived patriarchal beliefs on scripture, even though scripture advocates a far more egalitarian view on gender.

2020.08.09_St. Praxedes and Paul

Featured image of St Praxedes and St Paul, presented as equal co-workers for Christ, in the Basilica Santa Prassede, Rome, from here