Truth to Power

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The Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, verses 14-29, presents us with the grisly narrative of the beheading of John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod Antipas, on request of his step-daughter Salome, who was acting on instruction from her mother Herodias. It is a passage that is inserted abruptly in an unrelated narrative about Jesus’ disciples performing miracles and preaching the Gospel. What is the purpose of such a narrative?

In this message, I suggest it serves as a tale about power and corruption. And about our role in the face of such power and corruption. I make three points:

  1. We need to avoid the entanglement of sin and guilt.
  2. We need to recognise and speak truth to the power of the powerful.
  3. We need to accept the cost of discipleship.

Christianity is not just about fellowship and singing choruses. It is not just about the love of God. It is also about challenging power and corruption in the world, about speaking truth to power. It is about championing Kingdom values, such as compassion, integrity, the intrinsic value of every person, equity, justice, the sacredness of the earth. It is about standing against oppression, exclusion, domination, exploitation, injustice and abuse. It is about accepting, even embracing, that speaking truth to power may have negative consequences for us. Christianity is serious business!

(Richard Strauss composed a chilling opera about this narrative called Salome. Not for the faint-hearted! Here is a link to a recent production.)

Looking up, looking out

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We live in a world that seems to be doing not very well. Globally and nationally we face many challenges. And many of us face personal challenges as well. These can wear us down, challenging our faith, leading us to wish we could escape all of it.

In such times, most of us look up. We look up toward heaven, towards God, and wish that God would fix things up. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” says the Psalmist (121:1). Paul writes at length about this in 2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:5. He reminds us that the world and the body we live in are transient – they last but a short time and then are done. So, he longs for a more permanent world – heaven – where we can dwell for eternity with God, and where we will be doing considerably better than we are now.

So, we look up for a better future. We look up for life after death. We look up for an eternal reward. We look up for justice. We look up for comfort and solace. We look up for hope and courage.

It is good for us to look up.

But God also calls us to look out. God is not in the business of escapism. God is not inviting us to run away from or ignore or avoid the difficulties that we are facing in this world. Rather, God wants us, calls us, to be a co-worker with God in bringing into being the Kingdom of God in our midst. This was the ministry of Jesus – “the Kingdom of God is near”. Looking out means to look around us, to look at the world as it is, to really see what’s going on. Jesus always had his eyes wide open and was looking out. In English, to ‘look out’ for someone also means to care for someone.

We hear this sentiment in the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), when Mary begins to understand what God was doing through her, and the way she was participating in birthing the Son of God, who would order the world, turning tables, balancing books, righting wrongs. These were present things that Jesus would do, and Mary recognised that she was a participant in making this ministry possible. Mary was looking out at the world and seeing the role she and her son would play in confronting evil.

We hear this also in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), where Jesus prays not that we may escape to heaven, but rather that heaven will come to earth: “Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The rest of the prayer is about present realities: daily food, forgiveness, reconciliation, holy living, protection. His is a looking out prayer, not a looking up prayer. This prayer is about looking out at the world as it is.

Looking up and looking out are important Biblical principles for Christian living. In South Africa, during the years of struggle against apartheid, the Anglican church (which I’m part of) applied this principles. Our church services – sacramental, liturgical – are designed to help us look up to a God who is majestic, powerful, compassionate, gracious. We come to church, into a beautiful service, to escape the ugliness of the world outside; we come to church to look up. But, the Anglican church was also instrumental in undermining and eventually toppling the apartheid government and its laws; our church was looking out. THIS is what church is meant to be: Looking up and looking out.

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’).

Be Bold!

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In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), three servants are given a few million Rands each by their master. Two invest the money and make a profit – they are praised by the master when he returns. The third hides the money away and returns it in full when the master returns – the master is not pleased! What is the difference between these two? Not so much that two made money and one didn’t, but rather that two were bold in making the money work for them, while the third was timid and fearful. The master had wanted all three servants to be courageous, to take risks, to be creative, to use the opportunity they had been given.

This is what God desires of us. We are all given opportunities to serve God and to serve the world. God’s expectation is that we embrace these opportunities and use them to the full – being bold, being courageous, knowing that God is present with us to equip us, and stepping out in faith.

(Unfortunately, the recording cut off the last few minutes, where I encouraged my congregation to seek and utilise opportunities as they come their way. And to trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who equips, empowers and accompanies us as we step out.)

What the Gospel Says about Decoloniality

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Decolonisation and decoloniality are huge topics in contemporary South Africa, demanding that we engage with the legacy of centuries of oppression of African people by Dutch and British colonial powers and the Apartheid government. The question I explore in this message is what the Gospel has to say for Christians about decoloniality, that is, about living in a post-colonial society.

Matthew 22:15-22 is a well-known passage where Jesus says that we must “give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s”. It has often be used to say we must support the government of the day. It is one of the most political narratives in the Gospel texts, and forces us to engage with political issues.

This narrative took place against the first century backdrop of the Jewish people being under the oppressive colonial rule of Rome. A key part of Rome’s rule was a tax, called Census, that every Jewish person had to pay simply for having the audacity to be born Jewish. It was a deeply humiliating, subjugating and repugnant tax for Jewish people.

The tax was paid with a silver coin that had Tiberius Ceasar’s portrait engraved on it. Such an engraving was idolatrous to many Jewish people at that time, because it conflicted with the second commandment. And the inscription on the coin effectively said that Tiberius was the ‘son of God’ and ‘high priest’. Paying a ‘sin tax’ for being Jewish with such a coin was outrageous.

In this message I break open some important points that Jesus makes to determine what he really thought about how Jews at that time should live under colonial rule. These thoughts are useful for Christians today who live under a colonial government or under the rule of an oppressive or corrupt state, as well as those, like us in South African, who live in a post-colonial society, coming to grips with the present legacy of colonisation and coloniality.

This is a chewy message, requiring a close reading of the Gospel text, and careful application in its original and present day contexts. I hope that you may take the time to listen to this podcast and to engage with these thoughts.

Depths of Stewardship

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Stewardship or dedicated giving is an important dimension of the life of most churches and most Christians. It is about pledging to invest our time, our abilities, our resources and our finances into the work of God through the local church. Stewardship, however, runs the risk of becoming an administrative process of ticking off some boxes to settle our dues with our church, without really touching us or the world at a deeper level.

In this message, I draw on two verses from the Gospels – Matthew 21:33-34 – and show how this text points us to a far deeper and broader understanding of the importance of stewardship:

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.”

  • First, this passage echoes the creation narrative in Genesis 1, where we find God creating a world and placing people in it, with the task of taking care of that world, which is an expression of the love and being of God. This suggests that stewardship reaches right back into the very origins of humanity, and is rooted not just in some things we do, but in our identity. Being a steward (or gardener or farmer) is the foundational calling that God makes of all humanity. It means, among other things, that everything we do in life should champion and protect the environment.
  • Second, later in this parable (v43), Jesus reveals that the vineyard is, in fact, the Kingdom of God, which is the world under the loving rule of Christ, who reconciles all things together to himself. We, as his followers, are called to bring out the fruit of the Kingdom of God, or the fruit of the Gospel. This means, among other things, that everything we do should help to bring into being God’s Kingdom values, such as love, justice, mercy, equity, relationships, integrity and grace.

Stewardship, then, is not just about signing up to help make tea or work in a soup kitchen, nor is it just about pledging to donate money to the church on a monthly basis. It is an expression of our identity as people created to take care of creation and as people striving to transform the world into the Kingdom of God, through every breath we take, from rising until sleeping. In so doing, we let God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven.