Today’s set of compelling readings from Micah 6:8, Psalm 15:1-3, Matthew 5:3-10 and 1 Corinthians 1:27-28, point us to the heart of a God who is concerned for those who are marginalised, vilified and outcast. They also emphasise that our responsibility as Christians is to be merciful, kind, humble, inclusive and generous.
In light of these readings, today’s message addresses the complex and controversial topic of sexuality in the church, particularly homosexuality. This is a topic that has been long ignored and more recent has lead to deep divisions within the the church between those who are against and those who are for (or at least tolerant of) gay relationships. Many gay Christians feel deeply rejected by the church – not just for what they do sexually, but for who they are – for their very being, their humanity, which is experienced to be under attack by Christians and the church.
In today’s message, I endeavour to the following, which I encourage you to watch, listen to or read, using the links provided at the top of today’s blog.
Some clarification of terminologies, particularly the difference between gender identity (who I see myself as being in terms of gender – traditionally male or female) and sexuality (who I have sexually or romantically attracted to – traditionally heterosexual or homosexual). Both of these terms have become increasingly diverse and nuanced in recent years.
Developing an understanding of how the Scriptures were authored within particular historical and cultural contexts that differ vastly from contemporary society.
I address five broad points of discussion in this message:
The belief of many Christians that heterosexuality is God’s only legitimate sexual orientation. I’ll show that this is not true.
The belief of many Christians that the Bible does not anywhere say that gay relationships are okay. I’ll show that this is not entirely true.
The belief of many Christians that the Bible condemns homosexual relationships as an abomination. I’ll show that this is not true.
The point that among the numerous laws in the Bible, some Christians draw on preconceived cultural beliefs to justify their condemnation of homosexual relationships.
And the primary of love that is presented in Jesus Christ’s teachings and his example of radical inclusivity.
Based on the above discussion points, I draw 4 key conclusions:
In human relationships, God is most interested in the quality of our love.
God is not interested in the sex or gender of the person we love.
Marriage is sacred, a divine joining together, and must be protected.
Marriage (defined as a sacred joining together or union) is not restricted to a man and a woman.
And in light of this I hope that my parish and your church community would aspire to:
emulate Jesus’ example of radical inclusivity, diversity and love
create a church space where people of various sexual orientations feel welcome, accepted and loved
focus on and champion the quality of love in human relationships.
I do appreciate that the views of Christians on the subject of homosexuality vary widely, and that there are many that will view my understandings and interpretations of the Scriptures as false and heretical. Our views on this subject can be deeply divisive. Nevertheless, I take Jesus’ lived life (how he behaved with people he encountered) and Jesus’ spoken teachings about what is most important to God as the central guides to make sense of the rest of Scripture. He is God incarnate – he is the perfect reflection of who God is. He himself says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). I follow him.
John the Baptist is the one who prepares the world for the first coming of Christ, some 2,000 years ago. We, today, follow in his footsteps in continuing to prepare the world to receive Christ when he comes again. The world we live in now continues to grapple with many challenges.
Currently, we think of those many who have died of Covid-10: in South Africa, since the start of the pandemic, some 102 000 people have died, amounting to an average of about 102 per day since March 2020.
We continue to grapple with HIV and AIDS: 14% of South Africans are living with HIV or Aids, an average of about one in seven people.
We continue to see high Aids-related death rates: 86 000 this year alone, an average of 235 deaths per day – and the death rates have been rising over the past five years.
And gender-based violence remains a scourge of our society, with an average 115 women raped every day this year – a total of 45 000 so far this year.
It is into this broken and wounded world that we prepare for the coming of Christ. How do we do this? What are the guidelines we’re given in the scriptures set for today?
Matthew 3:1-12 presents John’s call to repentance, confession and baptism. He strongly confronts the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!” His words are confrontational and damning. He calls them to produce the fruit of repentance – it is one thing to repent, and another to demonstrate that repentance in your behaviour – the fruit. And he warns, all very challengingly, that if they fail to do so, they will be chopped down like an unproductive tree, or burned up in the fire, like the chaff from winnowing.
The story of John’s ministry in Mark’s gospel is a little softer: there he speaks of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew doesn’t make any mention of forgiveness. And Luke’s version incorporates both what Matthew and what Mark say. (And John provides a quite different version altogether.)
John, then, sets a pattern for us that is both encouraging and challenging. But what else can we learn from today’s readings about preparing the world for Christ?
Isaiah 11 presents a prophecy of the branch that will come from Jesse – King David’s father and, many generations later, forefather of Jesus. This passage opens with a repeated emphasis on the Spirit: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). Clearly, we cannot do anything without the enabling of the Spirit of God.
And in the following verses, Isaiah emphasises God’s concern for those who are vulnerable: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). Righteousness and justice are the keywords here.
And this is followed by the imagery of wolves, leopards and lions living in harmony with lambs, goats and yearlings, under the leadership of children (Isaiah 11:6). This is the kind of egalitarian and harmonious society that we are called to bring into being as we prepare for Christ’s return.
Psalm 72 continues some of these themes from Isaiah, notably God’s defence of the poor, vulnerable, needy, marginalised, silenced and outcast: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Here we see God taking sides – he aligns with the poor and against the oppressor. God is not neutral – he sides with those who are vulnerable. The Psalmist goes on, “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14). In those days, life was in the blood, so when the Psalmist says, “precious is their blood in his sight”, s/he is in effect saying that God sees their lives as precious and worthy of protection. Theologians call this “God’s option for the poor” or “God’s preference for the poor”.
When we wonder where we should stand on things, the Biblical answer is unequivocal – stand with those who are vulnerable. That is always where we will find God. And that is where we should be found.
Romans 15 invites us to take on the attitude of Christ: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:5-7). The result of thinking like Christ, is that we will accept one another – here again is a call to inclusivity and now also being non-judgmental. Indeed, in the previous chapter, Paul explicitly tells us to stop judging others: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). This was in the context of conflicts of various dietary laws of the diverse group of Jewish and Gentile Christians. But regardless of the topic of conflict, the principles remain: accept and do not judge. Be tolerant and inclusive. Celebrate diversity.
As we strive to be Christians who, like John the Baptist, are preparing the way for Christ’s return, we need to take up the examples we are given in the Scriptures: honest words, an invitation to repent and receive forgiveness, the presence of the Spirit, values of righteousness and justice, an option for the ‘poor’, and acceptance and tolerance. These constitute the mind of Christ. And as we embody and live out Christ’s mind, we will be preparing the world for his return.
Today we did an Instructed Eucharist. This is a normal Anglican Eucharist service, the same as we do every Sunday, but with a commentary on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We learn about the meaning of the colours, the liturgy, our prayers, the readings, our gestures, the things on the altar, and why we do what we do.
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.
Our reading for today is a passage from the book of Joshua 4:1-7. It tells the story of the Jewish people crossing the Jordan river from the desert or wilderness where they had wandered for 40 years, into the promised land. As they cross the river, which parts much like the Red Sea parted when they fled from Egypt, the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel are instructed by Joshua to each collect a large stone, and carry it on their shoulder to the other side, into the promised land, into the camp where they would rest that night.
Joshua explains that these stones are
“to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
In today’s sermon, which I encourage you to listen to or watch, since it is too rich and compact to write down here, we review God’s engagement with humanity from Abram (later to become Abraham), Joseph, the migration of Jacob’s family to Egypt, the 100 or so years of good relations Jews had with Egyptians, and then the 100 or so years of slavery under the heavy burden of the Egyptians, the rise of Moses following his encounter with God in the burning bush, the plagues and the Jewish people’s escape across the Red Sea, their long and circuitous journey through the desert for 40 years, the death of Moses, the election of Joshua, and finally (in Joshua 4) the crossing of the Jordan river into the promised land.
In this long narrative, which extends over hundreds of years, we see repeatedly God’s engagement with and grace towards God’s people. And we see humanity’s faith in God rise and fall. And we see the remarkable things that happen when people align with God.
Thus, Joshua gathers these 12 stones to create a memorial that will remind the people of everything that God has done. As he says later in this chapter (4:21-24):
“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”
For us today, we need things (objects) that help to remind us of the good God who is well-disposed towards us and who desires us to flourish. We need things to remind of all that God has already done for us in the past, to nourish our faith that he will continue to do so in the future. These things – these stones – may be personal objects, or something in our church. For example, the eucharist we celebrate is a weekly reminder of God’s goodness – a memorial. For our parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton, South Africa, the church building is itself such a thing – these stones. It was built by hand by the members of the parish, from the digging of the foundations to the laying of the roof. We see a testimony in the very building within which we worship of what is possible when God’s people bring their time, their abilities and their finances to the work of God, and partner in faith with God for building God’s Kingdom.
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.
We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.
In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.
Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.
Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.
The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.
And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.
John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.
We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.
From the dawn of time, God has had his arms outstretched to receive and embrace us. God has always been open and receptive to us. He always has been like this, he is like this today, and he will remain like his into the future. This is permanent posture of God. Arms open and looking towards you.
When we feel disconnected from God, can’t perceive or feel him, feel abandoned – it is not God who has turned away. It is we who have turned away. Sin is one of the main causes of us feeling cut off from God – sin is us turning away from God. But God has not moved – he is still there.
Luke 13:1-9 tells of people coming to Jesus saying that some people who had died horribly must have sinned terribly to suffer such a death. But Jesus challenges this, and says they were no worse than anyone else. And then he cautions those who said this: “Repent, else you too will perish!” He then tells the parable of a fruit tree that was unproductive. The owner wanted to cut it down, but the gardener interceded for is, saying he’s car for it for three years and see if it produced fruit: if so, good; if not, then cut it down. The parable is not particularly confident about the tree becoming fruitful and being saved. Sin is serious – it can lead to our deaths.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13 also speaks of sin. The people of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years saw the most remarkable miracles – the plagues against the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, water gushing from a rock, manna from heaven every morning, the pillars of fire and smoke and so on. Yet, they repeatedly turned from God and engaged in all kinds of sin. And many died as a result. Paul says these are warnings for us, of how NOT to live our lives. And he offers a bit of hope: that God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear and that there will always be an escape route.
These two readings focus on the real risks of sin causing us to be estranged from God. But I say again: God has not moved! He is still there! His arms are still open to us!
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.”
Hear these repeated words from God: Come, come, come. Listen, listen, give ear. Eat and drink. Free, without cost. Good, delight, richest, everlasting, faithful, love, promise. These are words of God who is always facing us, with his arms always outstretched. This is the invitation to come to him, to quench our thirst, to eat and rest.
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.
Again, hear David’s response to the God of love, the God with open arms, the God who is always present and always available.
I encourage you, if you are feeling burdened and challenged by life, or if you are feeling that God is remote, to come to our Lord, who is the fountain of life, who offers food and drink to refresh your soul, at no cost, with no conditions.
We are in the season of Epiphany – epiphany meaning, God’s revelation of God’s self to the world.
John 2:1-11tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle according to John: turning water into wine in Cana. I unpack this under three headings:
Gifting. In this story, Jesus seems, perhaps, uncertain about his gifts. But his mother, Mary, is much more certain. She prompts Jesus to do something about the wedding banquet running out of wine. And even though Jesus is reluctant to get involved, she tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you”. She has confidence in Jesus, she recognised his gifting, and she prompts him to exercise his gifts.
Common good. You’d think Jesus’ first miracle would be spectacular. A extraordinary miracle would help establish his brand as the Messiah. But instead, his first miracle, while exceptional (he made around 600l of choice wine), was rather everyday and ordinary – common. He addressed the rather domestic needs of a couple who had just got married. I really love Jesus for this miracle for the common good – it reminds us that he is interested in and willing to intervene in our daily lives.
God’s revelation. John concludes this passage in v11 by saying, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” God’s glory is revealed through this miracle – the epiphany! And as a result of that, his disciples believed in him.
As Jesus exercised his gifting, for the common good, God was revealed and people believed.
1 Corinthians 12:1-11tells us about the gifts of the Spirit, and is part of a larger chapter about the church – the body of Christ – being made up of many parts, each of which is vitally important to the whole. I unpack this under the same three headings:
Gifting. Paul tells us that Holy Spirit gives a gift or gifts to every believer. Every Christian receives one or more gifts, Gifts of the Spirit, according to the good judgement of Holy Spirit. Whether we recognise our gifts or not, whether we recognise them as gifts of the Spirit or just natural talents, we have gifts from Holy Spirit. People often don’t recognise their gifts – often others recognise them first, like Mary did with Jesus. In those cases, we may need to prompt someone else to recognise their gift.
Common good. Paul tells us that the gifts are given not for personal use and benefit, but for building up the common good. Here ‘common’ refers not to the ordinary, but to the ‘collective’. The gifts are for the benefit of the community of believers, and indeed for the world. They are not intended to benefit us, but rather to help us benefit others. The only way we can contribute to the common or collective good is to exercise the gifts we have.
God’s revelation. As we exercise the Gifts of the Spirit, God is revealed and people can come to believe in God. Our exercising of our gifts reveals the character and values of God, and shows people who God is and what interests and concerns God, and that reveals God and can draw people to God. We, as the collective – the church – need to reveal God, and we do this best when we exercise the gifts God the Spirit has given us.
And so, when we recognise, accept and exercise our gifts, we contribute to the good of the collective, and God is revealed to the world and people may come to believe.