To be saved

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Our Gospel reading for today is the rather curious passage from Luke 20:27-38, which involves a convoluted story about a woman who was married and remarried to seven brothers in succession, with the hope that one of them would impregnate her. The question asked of Jesus by the Sadducees was which of them would be her husband at the resurrection. It is a rather awful story, filled with patriarchal beliefs about women, marriage and child bearing.

I did not feel God leading me to preach on this passage today.

However, the point of the story is of interest. Jesus affirms that there IS a resurrection, that there is an afterlife, and that it will be wonderful. And this affirmation of Jesus – that life does not simply end when our bodies die – prompts us to think about salvation and what it means to be saved.

For that, we turn to our Second Testament reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 (I’ve bolded some of the key words):

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[b] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

What do we learn about salvation from this passage?

  • First, God chose us – God called us. Salvation is always God’s initiative. And God chooses and calls every person into fellowship with God. God’s mission is to reconcile the WHOLE world to God’s self, under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-14). When God calls us, God calls us by name. It is personal. God wants YOU personally. It is not just that God wants to save everyone, like some anonymous conglomerate of humanity. No! It is that God’s has chosen YOU personally, by name, and called you to be in fellowship with God, to be saved.
  • Second, we are saved through two main actions (according to this passage):
    • First, we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. When God calls us, Holy Spirit comes and resides in us. Spirit makes a home in our hearts, comes and lives inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:19). God works to transform us into the image of Christ, from the inside out, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
    • Second, we are saved through our belief in the truth. And what is this truth? Jesus Christ is truth (John 14:6; John 8:31-32). We can do nothing to attain salvation; salvation is in its entirety the result of Christ’s work, through creation, his incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of God. We can’t add to this. All we can do is respond to the truth of it. And ‘to believe in’ something or someone is much the same as ‘to trust in’ someone or even better, ‘to entrust ourselves’ to someone. We entrust ourselves into the truth of Jesus.
  • Third, the result of this salvation is that we get to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not so much that we become glorious, but that we bask in the radiance of God’s glory. We can be confident that when we die, we enter into the enjoyable and wonderful presence of God. Jesus spoke about this in our earlier reading (Luke 20:36): “they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
  • Finally, because of all of this, we are encouraged to stand firm and hold fast to our faith. Sometimes, maybe often, our faith is frail and feeble. Sometimes life gets on top of us. Sometimes we succumb to sin. Sometimes pain, suffering and illness burden us. Sometimes evil in the world – violence, hatred, exclusion, oppression, poverty and injustice – overwhelm us. In these times, especially, God calls us, urges us, to stand firm in and to hold fast to Christ.

In Paul’s final words in this brief passage, he offers a blessing. I liked this blessing so much, we read it four times during the service, twice as a blessing, with my hand outstretched. I again stretch out my hands to you in blessing, saying:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

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Christianity made simple

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The theme I was allocated for today’s sermon was ‘Make it simple’. Make it simple! What a theme!! I’m good at making things complex, nuanced and sophisticated; not at making the complex and (ultimately) unknowable simple.

So I start this message by sharing my testimony of how I became a Christian on 21 October 1984.

I then use the four readings allocated for today to pull out two main themes:

  1. Psalm 116 uses the phrase “I call on the name of the Lord” four times, emphasising that in response to both the highs and lows of life, we are to choose to call on God’s name.
  2. Joshua, in Joshua 24:14-18, calls people to choose this day who they will follow: God or not God.
  3. In Ephesians 4:25-5:1, Paul exhorts Christians to “be kind and compassionate” to other people and to “walk in the way of love”.
  4. And in Luke 6:27-36, Jesus says, “to you who are listening I say: Love”. This is always his command and call, the most basic command that he gives and the one that he gives most frequently. This time, he ups the ante by calling us to ‘love our enemies’, because loving those who love us is something everyone does. We who follow Christ, however, are called to more than that.

Together, these readings present to us a very simple (albeit not easy) approach to Christianity:

Choose God

Choose love

It is really as simple as that. And while these sound like two things, they are in fact one, because God is love (1 John 4:8). So, in truth, at its simplest level, being a Christian means:

Choose the God of love

Let it be so.

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A Community of Faith Seeking Christ

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Today, being the first Sunday after Easter, we have the classic reading from John 20 about Thomas, the one who wanted first-hand evidence that Jesus had, in fact, risen from the dead. Thomas is my favourite New Testament character – I identify fully with his pattern of doubt seeking faith.

But John 20:30-31 lets us know that John’s Gospel is written, primarily, to introduce unbelievers to the Gospel message: “these have been written that you might believe”. So, Thomas is less an example of doubtful-faith for Christians, as he is an example of a faith-seeking non-Christian.

In light of this I help my congregation to re-read this passage from that perspective, and particularly to consider what this passage tells us about being a community of faith that creates a receptive space for those who are not Christians. I make three points:

  1. Not everyone who comes to our church is a Christian, let alone an Anglican Christian. This means we need to to make our services more seeker-friendly.
  2. People living in our area today are modern, questioning, skeptical, not impressed with authority and open to a plurality of truths. This means we need to be accommodating, open to various views, comfortable with difficult questions, comfortable with not having answers to those questions and comfortable with multiple answers to those questions.
  3. People are, nevertheless, looking for answers. This means we need to have thought carefully and deeply about some of the important questions of our time.

I remind my congregation that we are an Anglican church. Part of what that means is that we have a generous orthodoxy. We are like a large tree with expansive branches that provide shade for many people. Within the Anglican communion are charismatics, evangelicals, fundamentalists, social gospelists, liberals and sacramentalists (Anglo-Catholics). It is not that we Anglicans don’t know what we believe; it is rather that we are humble in our belief, acknowledging that we might be wrong, and thus open to others believing differently.

I suggest that this Anglican stance may be because, while we believe that truth (doctrine) is important, we believe that relationship is a bit more important. Thomas’ statement of faith (My Lord and my God) was not prompted by the evidence he got from Jesus, but by his encounter with the person of the risen Christ. It was his relationship with Jesus that stimulated his faith. And so it should be for us.

So, we we’re aiming to be a church that learns from Thomas. We aim to be a community of faith that creates safe relational space for others to seek and find Christ.

I am Judas

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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’).

Resurrection Church

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On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.

Reconciliation

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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.

Gender in the Kingdom of God

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God’s vision for the Kingdom is one in which all of humanity is related to each other in relationships of equality, dignity, respect and peace, under the sole headship of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:9-10). But in South Africa, as in many parts of the world, women do not enjoy this Kingdom. Women and girl children are all too frequently the victims of abuse, violence, exploitation, domination and subordination. I have been harshly confronted with this over the past 33 years, since I was a young teenager. We live in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women.

But the church has typically been silent and even complicit in this oppression of women. This is often because people of faith interpret the Bible through the lens of their culture, and most cultures are patriarchal – thus we come to the Bible with preconceived notions of gender and ‘find’ support for our ideas in the Bible. And of course the Bible itself was written in patriarchal societies by people who endorsed patriarchal beliefs. But while the Bible is surely filled with patriarchal passages, there are also many passages that have been invalidly used in support of patriarchy – texts have been distorted to serve the interests of men in power. What is required, in fact, is that we allow the Scriptures to interpret our culture, so that our culture is redeemed and transformed into the image of the Kingdom of God.

In this sermon, I take two passages that have, for thousands of years, been used to support the subordination (and often abuse) of women by men, and read them closely and carefully to show that they really do not provide support for male superiority or female subordination, but rather for equal partnership between the genders.

Genesis chapters 1 to 3 lay the foundation for our understanding of God, creation, humanity and the divine-human relationship. But far from endorsing gender power differentials, these chapters (specifically 1:28, 2:22-23 and 3:16) endorse both domestic and commercial partnership and equality between women and men, and depict patriarchy (a husband’s rule over his wife) as sin.

Paul, of the New Testament, was almost certainly a chauvinist, and grapples with the implications of there being “neither male nor female … in Christ” (Gal 3:28). Ephesians 5, with it’s infamous verse about wives submitting to their husbands, must be located against 5:21, which calls for mutual submission within the household of God. Using three pairs of power-differentiated relationships (wife-husband, child-parent and slave-master) Paul first introduces the cultural norm of submission/subordination for the less powerful person, though with a bit of a spiritual spin; and then a counter-cultural requirement for submission by those in power. Read as a whole, this passage calls for mutual submission or consideration in all human relationships, particularly when there are cultural power differences.

Through all of this, I am calling for people of faith to set aside their cultural assumptions as they read the Bible; to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, in choosing to unlearn racist, sexist and colonialist ways of thinking and relating; and to not stand by silently when women are humiliated or oppressed.

Blog image from http://www.borgenmagazine.com/10-examples-gender-inequality-world/