Today we celebrate Easter Sunday – the culmination of weeks of Lenten fasting and penitence, and a week of daily soul-searching services. On Good Friday, we watched our Lord’s life slip away on the cross and experienced darkness fall over the earth as the Light and Life of God was snuffed out. And then we waited, through Friday and Saturday – wondering, what might happen, how might this all turn out.
It is relatively easy for us, because we are so familiar with the outcome of the story. But for those first believers – such as Mary and the other women in Mark 16:1-8 – it must have been surreal and terrifying. The unthinkable had happened. No wonder Mark relates the confusion of the first women to arrive at Jesus’ grave, and their fear and silence after encountering what they thought was a young man (but probably an angel).
For us, though, we now understand and appreciate the resurrection of Christ as the fruit of Christ’s triumph over death, of God’s generous and complete forgiveness of sins of all humanity, of a profound and utter reconciliation with God, and the restoration of Christ as the light of the world. God gifts back to humanity the very one that humanity sought to extinguish, as a sign of their joint unconditional and extravagant love for humankind, and indeed the whole cosmos.
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!!
In Romans 6:3-11 we gain further insights from Paul into the ways in which our salvation follows the same path as Christ’s death and resurrection. In our baptism, we die to self in a watery grave; only to be raised again to new life in Christ, a life filled with Holy Spirit. In our service today we baptise little Onyedikachuckwu Christian Okafor – a visible sign of God’s salvation – and renew our own baptismal vows, said originally on our behalf as infants, and today renewed freely by ourselves.
Lord, you have nourished us with your Easter sacrament. Fill us with your Spirit and make us one in peace and love. We ask this through Jesus Chris our Lord. Amen.
Watch the video of today’s Good Fridayservice here. The Gospel reading and sermon start at about 25 minutes and continue for a total of about 25 minutes. If you want to hear me sing, you can also skip to about 1 hour and 18 minutes, as I lead the singing of “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle”.
Today is Good Friday on which we commemorate the suffering and death of Christ, the Son of God. Part of what is so remarkable, even shocking, is that it is not just Jesus the man who suffers and dies, but God the Son who suffers and dies.
From the moment of his incarnation, separating out the second person of the Trinity into human form, God began to experience life as a human. This reaches a climax on the cross, when the evil and darkness of this world crashes into the Son of God. It is the whole person of Jesus – with both his human and his divine natures – who suffers and dies on the cross – not just the human Jesus.
Christ experiences the sins of all the world – past, present and future – falling upon him, leaving him feeling dirty, tainted, defiled. No wonder he says, “I thirst”.
Christ experiences sin’s separation from God – an ocean of sin distancing him from the Father with whom he had already existed for eternity. No wonder he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.
Christ experiences the surprise of human love, and the ways in which compassion between people brings God into our midst. Thus he says to his mother, “Woman, here is your son” and to his beloved disciple, “Here is your mother”.
Christ experiences the grace of God, able to transform the darkest and most painful into a moment of salvation and glory. Thus he is able to say, “It is finished!”
Christ experiences death – the loss of life, the loss of this world, the loss of self. John writes poetically, “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit”.
As much as we might want to end today’s story with a ‘Happy Easter’, scripture does not permit this. We have to end with the darkness that covers that earth as the Son of God’s light and life is snuffed out. And we wait in silence and hope for his resurrection.
Tonight is Maundy Thursday, when we co-celebrate Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet and Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper (also known as the Eucharist or Mass). This year we read about these events in John 13:1-17 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. (I’ve preached about some of this before in a chapter in my book entitled the Kenotic U.)
What stands out for me this year is the extent of Jesus’ willingness to humble himself and serve humanity. Remember that this is God the Son we’re talking about. Not just a Rabbi, not just a priest, not a Bishop, not the Pope – God in human human form! Yet, Jesus, knowing his identity, gets up from the dinner table and strips down to his undergarments and dons a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Peter, is so uncomfortable with this demonstration of humility from his master. And one wonders about Judas, who has already decided to betray Jesus, and Jesus already knows this – yet Jesus washes Judas’ feet also.
And he offers them his body – broken for us – and his blood – shed for us – for our salvation. He calls us to remember this every time we sit down for a meal. For Christians who follow the sacramental tradition – like us Anglicans – we celebrate this Eucharist at least once a week, because we regard this as the central demonstration of God’s love for us and so we re-enact Jesus great service to humanity.
Jesus whole stance, throughout his life, was one of servanthood. He is the lamb of God, foreshadowed by the Exodus story in Exodus 12:1-14. A life of sacrifice, of service, of humility, of love, of other-centredness.
After washing their feet, Jesus gets up and dresses again and takes up his place at the table and teaches them:
“Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
And shortly thereafter he summarises his entire ministry (John 13:34-35):
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.
May God give us the courage to walk his path of service.
Today is the Wednesday of Holy Week. In tonight’s reading, from John 13:21-30, we read the catastrophic narrative of Judas’ decision to betray Jesus. Judas makes a conscious decision to betray his Lord, and thereafter Satan enters him, and then he goes into the night, into the dark. He makes a choice to turn away from the light. He abandons his belief in the light, ceases to walk in the light (choosing rather to walk in the dark) and relinquishes his sonship of God – all the things we reflected on last night in the message ‘Into the light‘. It is a tragic story, as when Judas finally realises what he has done, he can find no forgiveness and takes his own life. There is a cautionary tale in this – to believe in the light, to walk in the light and to become children of light.
Watch the video of this message at https://fb.watch/4AvYOqTk25/. The reading starts at about 20 minutes into the recording, while the sermon starts at about 31 minutes and runs for 14 minutes.
Today (25 March) we celebrate the Festival of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas Day, and on this day we celebrate the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. As it is written in Luke 1:30-33:
“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
While the Western (Catholic and Protestant) churches celebrate Christmas as the high point of the church calendar, the real miracle of Christmas takes place at the conception, nine months before. It is at this moment that God incarnates into human form. Mary is thus referred to as the ‘Mother of God’ or the Theotokos (or God bearer) because she carries and gives birth to God. It is not that she creates God! But rather that she bears God in her womb.
What is conceived in Mary is, from conception, a hybrid of human and divine natures in the one person of Jesus. This is a mystery, hard to fathom – the nature of Jesus Christ. But whatever it is, and however we understand Christ’s divine and human natures, it starts at his conception, not at his birth.
Let me suggest three reasons why this rather mysterious and mystical notion is important:
The conception demonstrates the enormity of God’s emptying out of God’s self on behalf of humankind (which we read about in Philippians 2) – we refer to this emptying out as ‘kenosis’. Typically, we think of God’s kenosis in the birth of Christ, but really it is in his conception. God – the omnipotent, eternal, omnipresent and all powerful God – folds down into a single human cell, then an embryo and then a foetus. The willingness of God to become so small is quite overwhelming – God pouring out God’s self for humanity.
The conception is a profound example of God’s choice to work in partnership with humans. We see this choice from the beginning of creation, when God entrusts creation to Adam and Eve. But here it is particularly profound. While others could assist in taking care of a newborn, only the mother can take care of an unborn. God the son was, during gestation, utterly and solely dependent on the young woman Mary. God was truly at the hands of this one person. God trusted her and entrusted God’s self to her.
And, drawing on Eastern Orthodox theology, in the conception, God inserts God’s DNA (so to speak, metaphorically) into human DNA. In so doing, God begins to change and save human nature itself. For Orthodox Christians, the conception is the foundation of salvation, because the very fabric of human nature is infused with the presence of the divine, and God begins (or continues and deepens) the work saving not just individual humans, but the nature of humanity.
Let us not let this momentous day slip by unnoticed. Let us give thanks to God for his incarnation at the moment of conception. And let us give thanks to Mary for being willing to bear God in her womb.
John 12:23-28 narrates Jesus’ thoughts about his journey towards the cross.
Regarding his own death he shares:
Jesus describes his crucifixion as his “glorification”. He recognises that his journey to and through the cross will culminate in his glorification. So he ironically uses these terms interchangeably.
Jesus makes sense of his journey through the metaphor of ‘one for many’: if a single seed refuses to die, it remains one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds. In other words, through the the death of one man (himself) there is life for many (salvation of humankind).
Jesus is genuinely troubled, disturbed, in dread of this path that he has been called to follow. The journey to the cross is not easy for him. He wishes there could be an easier route. Let us not be glib in our perception of Jesus’ mission.
Yet he resolves himself to his mission, his reason for coming and to the glory of God.
In the midst of this narrative, Jesus calls us to follow this same path:
If we want to serve him, he says, we must follow him and be where he is. And where he is at that moment is on the journey towards the cross. That is where we must follow him.
For sure, when we follow him, there will be glory – just as for him. Our Father will honour us if we serve Christ. But that is in the future. For now, we are called to a present path of suffering.
He cautions us to not hang tightly to this life, to be in love with this life. If we do, we will lose it. Rather, we must almost hate this life, by comparison, and rather invest in the life that is yet to come.
Many churches are teaching that Jesus’ desire for us is for our wealth, happiness, success, possessions and power. But there is no hint of such teaching from Jesus in John 12. Rather, we are to spurn such trappings of this life, and journey with him on his path.
During these last days of Lent, Jesus is calling us to journey alongside him towards the cross. Let us immerse ourselves in his journey. Let us walk close beside him. Let us accept the path of humility, service, laying ourselves down, suffering and dying to self and to this life.
We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.
However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:
During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.
Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.
The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!
But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:
The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”
We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:
The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)
As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.
Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.
I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:
God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
However, now the covenant has conditions:
Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
Males must be circumcised.
Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
God’s external law, which humanity must obey
Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
God now sets external laws by which we must abide
Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
The solution of the Law alienates us from God
Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it
There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:
God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
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.