Revealing God to the world

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 21-minute message. Or watch the video of the message on Facebook here (message starts at about 28 minutes).

We are in the season of Epiphany – epiphany meaning, God’s revelation of God’s self to the world.

John 2:1-11 tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle according to John: turning water into wine in Cana. I unpack this under three headings:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 12:1-11 tells 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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Let us gather again

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 20-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 27 minutes).

Jeremiah the prophet wrote and spoke during a time that included the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, which started around 597 BC and lasted about 60 years. During that time, Jewish people were not badly treated in Babylon, but keenly felt how dislocated they were from the world they knew, from the city of Jerusalem and from the temple there. Babylon may have been relatively safe, but it was not home and left them feeling alienated, fragmented and cut off from their faith and fellowship. On the other hand, a return to Jerusalem was a fearsome thought. It was a long way away, many enemies were there who wished them harm, and because of the destruction of temple and the city walls, they felt ambivalent about what might await them.

Does any of this seem familiar for us living under Covid? Many feel exiled to their homes, which are safe (though truly only relatively safe) and familiar. The world out there seems dangerous and threatening. Church, on the other hand, may feel like another dangerous place, fraught with risk, even though, at our church, church is probably safer than home, shops and workplaces.

The result of the avoidance of church and becoming reclusive at home is that we feel dislocated from our faith community and (in many cases) from God. For Christians, like for people of other faith groups, gathering together with the people of faith in worship of God is vital to our well-being and health. We are made for fellowship. We are made for corporate worship. Church is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Jeremiah 30 and 31 are part a sequence that focuses on the restoration of Israel.

Chapter 30 opens with God’s promise that God will bring God’s people back and restore their home:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will bring my people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their ancestors to possess,” says the Lord. (30:3)

Although they confront incurable illnesses, God will restore their health:

This is what the Lord says: ”Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing. There is no one to plead your cause, no remedy for your sore, no healing for you. … But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,” declares the Lord. (30:12 & 17)

God will restore and cultivate a community of faith:

“I will restore the fortunes of Jacob’s tents and have compassion on his dwellings; the city will be rebuilt on her ruins ,and the palace will stand in its proper place. From them will come songs of thanksgiving and the sound of rejoicing. I will add to their numbers, and they will not be decreased; I will bring them honor, and they will not be disdained.” (30:18-19)

God will make them a people of God:

“So you will be my people, and I will be your God.” (30:22)

God affirms that God’s love for God’s people is eternal and steadfast. Even in the midst of adversity, even in exile or death, God’s love is certain:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” (31:3)

God will gather the people of God, including those who are vulnerable, and restore them:

“See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labour; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son.” (31:8-9)

God will be the good shepherd, just as Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd:

“He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.” (31:10)

There will be a bounty – an abundance, an excess of good things. And sorrow will be a thing of the past:

“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.” (31:12)

And there will be a reversal of fortune, in which challenge and suffering will transform into abundance and joy:

“Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the Lord. (31:13-14)

Many of us have been living in exile – an exile imposed by Covid and the necessary lockdowns. For a time, this was necessary, to protect and preserve human life. But it has come at a cost. And that cost includes the loss of belonging to a community of faith. And with that loss easily comes a loss of faith itself – God seems remote.

But this way of living, while necessary at a time and still necessary in some cases now, is not the Way of Life. There is a time to be restored to our Jerusalem, to our temple, to our community, to our home. It is time – now at the start of January 2022 – to resume our gathering with the people of faith – in person where possible, and online where not. Far too many people have drifted away from church entirely and given up meeting. We need to gather again. We need to become again a people of God, and experience God’s healing, God’s shepherding, God’s love, God’s bounty, God’s presence.

Let us commit in this year 2022 to gather in Christ’s name and in fellowship with one another.

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Stewardship 2: A people-driven church

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 18-minute message. Or watch the video recording on Facebook (the message starts at 41 minutes).

This is the second in our series on stewardship, in which we are concentrating on what it means to be a church – the church of Christ. Last week, we reflected on what it means to be a God-focused (or Christ-centred) church. Today, we reflect on being a people-driven church.

What is a church?

Imagine a congregation that is without a minister. Will they still be ‘a church’? Yes, for sure! A community of the faithful, even if they are just a few, is a ‘church’.

Now imagine a minister without a congregation. Perhaps even a minister with a church building. Will she or he still be ‘a church’? No, they won’t. A single person, even a minister, does not constitute a church. They will be simply a Christian person in fellowship with God.

Fundamentally, ‘the church’ is defined by its people. It is the people who constitute a ‘church’, not the minister or priest. All too often, however, ministers think that they are the church. And all too often, parishioners thing the minister is the church. We here this particularly when parishioners use phrases like, “We’re here to support our priest” or “Our pastor will decide what we should do”.

Priesthood of all believers

1 Peter 2:4-10 provides us with solid teaching on what it means to be church, particular versus 4-5 and 9-10. Here Peter describes the church with the following images:

  • you are like living stones
  • you are being built into a spiritual house (or a temple of the Spirit)
  • you are a holy priesthood
  • you offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ
  • you are a chosen people
  • you are a royal priesthood
  • you are a holy nation
  • you are God’s special possession
  • you are to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light
  • you are the people of God (though previously you were not a people of God)
  • you have received mercy (though once you had not received mercy)

Martin Luther summarised this as “the priesthood of all believers”, drawing on the phrases ‘holy priesthood’ and ‘royal priesthood’ above. In the first Testament, priests were appointed to mediate between the Jewish people and God. They offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of the people. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. Only priests could engage God, not the people.

But with the coming of Jesus, who became our great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14-16), we have direct access to God through Christ. Jesus opened a direct pathway for all Christians to God. The writer of Hebrews says therefore, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence.” Jesus is the only one mediate between Christians and God – no priest can or should try to do this.

Moreover, we, collectively – all the people of God – the whole church – are called to mediate God to the rest of humanity, but witnessing to Jesus Christ. This is mission, and it is the mission of every believer.

One body of Christ

And so, we the church are called to be one people, one body, the body of Christ. Diverse for sure. But united in our shared relationship with God. There is thus no male nor female, no black nor white, no rich nor poor, no South African nor foreigner, no educated nor uneducated, no young nor old, no priest nor parishioner. We are all part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27) – every single one of us – and every part is vitally important – and every part must do its part.

Therefore, I say, a church is all about its people and must be driven by its people. We must be a people-driven church. It is all about YOU, not about the minister (we’ll talk about the role of the minister next week). Church is not like watching a movie, where you recline in a comfy chair with popcorn and cooldrink, while watching other professionals act things out on a screen. No! You are the actors and you must play your part in life and work of the church. It is all about you! You are the church. You drive the church.

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What kind of people are we?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 18-minute message (best sound quality). Or watch the video on Facebook (the sermon starts at 25 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Today, the central question I am asking is, What kind of people are we?

Or phrased differently, What kind of people ought we to be?

John the Baptist was the last in the line of First Testament prophets. He, like those who came before him, pointed the way to Messiah, the Christ, who appeared as Jesus of Nazareth. Mark 1:1-8 introduces John to us, telling that he came as a messenger in advance of the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, to prepare the way for the Lord.

John did this preparation by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was his clear message. And instead of pointing to himself or puffing himself up, he continually pointed to the one who was still to come, saying:

After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:7-8)

When John was a new-born, his father Zechariah said much the same about him in Luke 1:67-79. After eight verses about the coming Messiah, Zechariah finally gets to his own son, and in just four verses proclaims his mission:

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

And all of this was prophesied hundreds of years before by Isaiah in chapter 40:1-5. where he says:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

All of these passages have this in common:

John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort

John came, Jesus followed and John died. And then Jesus died, rose again and ascended to heaven.

We are now waiting for him to return. And while we wait:

We are to prepare the way for the second coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort

So, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, we need to consider who we are pointing to and what message we are proclaiming through our actions and words. In 2 Peter 3:11, Peter asks this penetrating question, “What kind of people ought you to be?” He asks this in the context of second coming of Christ Jesus. Given that he is coming back soon,

What kind of people ought we to be?

We at my parish, St Stephens in Lyttelton, South Africa, are currently conducting a survey among our parishioners about what kind of church we are and what kind of church we aspire to be. One of the questions we asked was, “What qualities, values or characteristics you would like St Stephen’s to embody?” We’re still busy with the survey, but here is what we’ve learned so far:

  • God focus:
    • Focus on God, honour God’s commandments, serve God
    • Prayer, spirituality, faith, hope, wisdom
  • Relational focus:
    • Love, care, kindness, compassion, tolerance
    • Friendliness, companionship, good relationships
    • Sense of community, collaboration
    • Honesty, authenticity
    • Equality for all
    • Family values

These qualities, values or characteristics align well with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

A church that embodied these kinds of values and qualities would surely be a church people would want to attend, and would surely help to prepare the way for the Lord’s return, and would surely be pleasing to God.

Let us be this kind of church!

Featured image: St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti

Making church work

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

St James wrote only one letter that is included in our Bible – a letter to all the churches. James is not one for subtlety. He pulls no punches. He says things as he sees them. His goal is to build up the church, and he is quite willing to challenge us to do so.

So, today’s message is an “if the shoe fits” message. If what I say today fits you or your church, put on the shoe. If it doesn’t, treat it as merely an interesting teaching or pass the shoe on to someone at another church who might need it.

In chapter 4, James provides a series of cautions and advice to churches that are experiencing internal troubles. And out of that I wish to draw three words of advice:

  1. First, examine yourself. In the opening three verses, James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” And his answer is that it is things within ourselves – our own discontent, own own illicit desires, our own wrong motives. We have to start by critically examining ourselves, looking into a mirror that does not show us as we’d like to see ourselves, but that reveals our shadow side – our inner being. In short, deal with yourself first.
  2. Second, submit to and focus on God. In verses 7-10, James calls us to turn away from ourselves and towards God. The primary purpose of coming to church is God. Fellowship with each other is vitally important, but follows after fellowship with God. When we take our eyes off Christ, we inevitably begin to devour each other and we put our souls in peril. We are to humble ourselves before God, to submit ourselves to God – these are words that speak of our recognition of how much we need God.
  3. Third, stop breaking each other down. In verses 11-12, James says that when we slander or speak against our sisters and brothers in the church, we are breaking the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments – love your neighbour as yourself. James asks, “But you? Who are you to judge your neighbour?” There may well be individuals in a church who are harming the church – members and leaders of the church – and of course they must be challenged on this. But James cautions about judging, slandering and breaking down our sisters and brothers, turning against one another – it is not good for the church.

We need to be part of God’s solution for the church. We do NOT want to be part of the problem, working against God’s solution for the church.

If the shoe fits, put it on.

Featured image from: https://www.xpastor.org/strategy/leadership/the-hidden-sources-of-church-conflict/

Stewarding our things

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 20-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

Today is our third Sunday in our four-part series on stewardship. We have already reflected on stewarding ourselves and stewarding our communion (our church fellowship). Today, we reflect on stewarding our things. By ‘things’ I mean all the things we have or own – our house, our car, our furniture, the space in the place we live, our books, our garden, and our money.

I’m going to focus on our money in this message, because money is in many ways a proxy for all our things – most of our things were purchased with money. But also, money is needed for the church to to be church and to grow – there are real costs associated with operating a church – salaries, rent, water and lights, supplies, and so on. So, we do have to think about the real costs of serving the communion (the local church) and of building God’s Kingdom (the mission).

In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul writes an extended passage about giving. The context is that the church in Corinth had promised to give Paul some money towards the spreading of the Gospel, but had not actually paid it over. So Paul tries in this passage to persuade them to pay it over, not out of obligation, but freely. This makes this passage quite relevant for the modern church, as we also need money from our members, but want members to give freely.

There are four primary themes about giving in this extended passage:

GIVE WHAT YOU CAN, ACCORDING TO YOUR MEANS

8:3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able…

8:11 …[give] according to your means.

8:12 For … the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

GIVE FREELY, BY YOUR OWN WILL

8:3-4 …they gave …even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.

8:8 I am not commanding you…

8:10 Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so.

8:12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable

9:7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion

GIVE GENEROUSLY, SO IT’S UNCOMFORTABLE

8:2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.

8:5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.

8:7 Since you excel in everything… see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

9:5-7 So I thought it necessary to … finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given. Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously… God loves a cheerful giver.

GIVE, AND YOU WILL RECEIVE

9:8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

9:10-11 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

Perhaps the most striking verse in these chapters is an extract from 2 Corinthians 8:7, “see that you also excel in this grace of giving”. Grace in Greek is charis which means a gift (like the gifts of the Spirit). Paul views giving as a gift, a privilege, an opportunity and something that God enables us to do.

As we come closer to the time when we make a commitment to contribute financially to the work of the church, I pray that God will stimulate in you this sense of the opportunity and gift of giving, and that you will be able to give freely and generously, according to your means.

Features image from:
https://elements.envato.com/coins-in-hand-hands-counting-a-few-euro-coins-a-ha-Z47B9H6

To each one … for the common good

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 6-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

1 Corinthians 12 is part of a longer narrative from Paul about the church. Chapter 12 focuses specifically on the gifts of Holy Spirit. This seems particularly apt for our focus this week on Stewarding our Communion (that is the fellowship of our church – see Sunday’s message on this topic). Verse 7 reads:

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Paul then goes on to list a variety of spiritual gifts (wisdom, knowledge, healing, and so on). And he concludes his paragraph, saying that “All these are the works of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.”

I want to make two quick, simple but vital points from verse 7:

  1. …to each one… Paul is clear here, and throughout this chapter, that EVERY ONE receives a gift from Holy Spirit. It is not just a privileged few, or those who are ordained, or those who have an up-front public ministry who have received a gift from the Spirit. It is EACH ONE. That includes you! You have received a gift – at least one, perhaps more – from Holy Spirit. You may not recognise it, but you have received it.
  2. …for the common good. The gifts are given to each one, but not for our own benefit. Rather, gifts are given for the collective – the common good – which I’ve been referring to as the COMMUNION. While gifts can be helpful in our personal spiritual life, their primary purpose is to build up the collective, to benefit all of us, to grow the church. When we horde the Spirit’s gift for ourselves, we are not stewarding it.

The challenge then is simple and direct:

  • What is your gift?
  • How are you putting it to work in the communion of the church?
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Stewarding our communion

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

Last Sunday we started a four-part series on stewardship, which I defined as taking care of the things that God has entrusted to each of us. Last week, we started with stewarding ourselves. Today, we reflect on stewarding our communion. And over the following two Sundays we’ll talk about stewarding our things and our world.

By stewarding our communion, I am meaning stewarding our church – particularly the local church of which you are member. I’ve deliberately used the term ‘communion’ rather than ‘church’, because ‘church’ too easily makes us think of the institution of the church – the denomination, its rules and statements of belief, its structures and hierarchies, and so on. While these are important, I’d like us to focus more on our fellowship, our community, our communion. Today, we reflect on how we create, nurture and sustain a communion of believers, focused on God and on God’s work.

Acts 2:42-47 provides a potent and familiar description of the early church:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

As you read this passage, and as we reflect on its themes, consider your own church and to what extent it evidences these four characteristics:

  • Fellowship. The early church was characterised by close fellowship between the believers. We see this in the following words from the text: fellowship, were together, meet together, and ate together.
  • Regularity. The members of the church fellowshipped together; not now and then, occasionally or sporadically, but regularly. Notice these words from the Acts passage: devoted, every day, and daily.
  • Inclusivity. The early church was one that welcomed everyone – doors were flung open and all members and newcomers were included. See these phrases: everyone, all the believers, everything, and added to their number those who were being saved.
  • Worship. And the early church focused on and cherished worship or liturgy – this was no social club, but a group focused on building the Kingdom of God. We see this in these phrases: apostles’ teaching, breaking of bread, prayer, wonders and signs, broke bread, and praising God.

How is your local church – your Christian communion, your fellowship – doing on these four characteristics? Covid-19, of course, has made a huge dent in these for many churches. Some have found ways of continuing to gather online. Others have not. Reflect on Covid’s impact on your communion and what this means for the future. But also reflect on how your communion was before Covid, so that we don’t blame Covid for everything.

What does your stewardship of your communion look like?

Perhaps your church is not doing great on these points. What could you do to strengthen this thing of God – the church communion – that God has entrusted into our care – your care? Let me suggest just three key things:

  1. You choose to exercise your own stewardship of your communion. A communion is made up of individuals. You are one of them. Take responsibility for your own engagement with and stewardship of your communion. Too often we are waiting for the clergy or church leadership to do things. Let each of us take responsibility for our own stewarding of the church. If each of us did, we’d be a communion. As Joshua said in 24:15, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
  2. Talk to others in your communion: especially those on the edge, those who feel disillusioned, those who feel alienated, those who have lost hope. Build communion with them, one-on-one, and draw them back into the larger communion.
  3. Pray. Pray without ceasing for your communion, for your church, the fellowship of believers. The communion is the Lord’s. He entrusts it to us for safekeeping and growth; but it is still the Lord’s. Ask the Lord to build the church.

Steward your communion

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Forgiveness

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

Today we are reading from Matthew 18, which has a series of parables and teachings about the life of the church, culminating in a teaching on forgiveness. The central verse is, perhaps, v22, where, in response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (or 70 time 7 times).

The whole chapter speaks about relationships between us and our brothers and sisters in the church:

  • First Jesus  reminds us that greatness is relative, and that if we want to be great, we need to be like little children. (Mat 18:1-5)
  • He then cautions us to avoid doing anything that might cause others (“little ones”) to stumble. Indeed, he goes as far to say that we should mutilate ourselves, rather than cause someone to stumble. (Mat 18:6-9)
  • Then we get the parable of the wandering sheep. A shepherd as 100 sheep and one goes missing. He leaves the 99 to seek out the one. Jesus emphasises the great joy in heaven resulting from the rescue of the one, and refers to them again as ‘little ones’. This passage speaks about love seeking – God is always seeking us out, even just the one, even just a ‘little one’. God is seeking – we need to be seeking. (Mat 18:10-14)
  • Then we have a teaching about how to handle sin in the church – when our sister or brother sins. Jesus presents a nuanced series of challenges – first you go on your own, then you take one or two people with you (again quietly and personally), then you inform the church (presumably the leadership) and they go (again quietly and personally) to challenge the person, and finally, says Jesus, we “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”. We might think Jesus means to cast them out, to excommunicate them. But Jesus’ encounters with pagan Romans (Luke 7:1-10) and tax collectors (Luke 19:1-10) are to engage with them, not to cast them out. Love challenges and confronts, but in a way that embraces rather than rejects. (Mat 18:15-20)
  • Finally, we have the parable of the unmerciful servant, where a servant owes his king a lot of money, but cannot pay it back. He begs for mercy and the kind cancels his debt. The servant meets someone who owes him a few bucks, demands payment and when he cannot pay, he casts him into jail. The king is outraged at his lack of mercy, given that he had cancelled the far larger debt of the servant, and has him cast into jail. Love forgives, and is willing to forgive greatly and repeatedly. (Mat 18:21-35)
  • The passage ends with a warning, “Thus also my heavenly Father will do to every single one of you who does not forgive your brother or sister, and forgive from the bottom of your heart” (v35). Through these very strong and threatening words, Jesus is conveying the central importance of forgiveness. We have been forgiven much; should we not also forgive others?

Jesus teaching in this chapter presents a picture of a health church and of healthy human relationships – we do not look down on anyone; we are considerate of others and avoid causing them harm; we value the group but we also value the individual, even seemingly unimportant individuals; we challenge wrongdoing, but in a way that embraces and restores; and we forgive those who do wrong against us, again and again, in the same way that God forgives us, again and again. If we could do all this – in the power of Holy Spirit – what a church we would have!

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Featured image from https://www.practicalrecovery.com/prblog/how-to-forgive/

Welcome & Reward

Click here to listen to the audio version of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text that follows.

Matthew 10 presents the narrative of Jesus sending out the 12 disciples to do his work in the world. The chapter is filled with all kinds of dire messages about how difficult this work will be: the disciples will be rejected, beaten, persecuted, threatened by Satan, etc. They are like sheep among wolves. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, and prophecies deep discord between family members. And finally he says that anyone who loves their family more than him is not worthy of him.

These are tough words! Being a disciple is not fun and games! It is hard, threatening, demanding work. 

By the time we get to verse 40, the disciples were probably feeling rather shattered by what was expected of them and daunted by Jesus’ expectations. But finally, in the last three verses there is a little respite:

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)

There are two messages here: one for the disciples (and all Christian workers) and one for all Christians:

  1. For the disciples (and all Christian workers), there is the encouragement that we will be welcomed by members of the church. The word ‘welcome’ appears six times in two verses. Welcoming suggests at least the following:
    • That Christian workers are embraced warmly by church members, valued, appreciated, encouraged, thanked, etc. This welcome is relational, personal, support.
    • That Christian workers’ subsistence needs are met. This appears particularly in the last verse which refers to “a cup of cold water”. I’m not advocating that Christian workers received sports cars and mansions! Definitely not!! But I am saying that Jesus promises that workers’ needs will be met by the church.
  2. For the Christian who does the welcoming, there is a promise of a reward – when we welcome a Christian worker, we welcome Christ; and when we welcome Christ, we welcome God the Father (and no doubt Holy Spirit also). The reward is not a pat on the back, community recognition or a medal. The reward is the very presence of God!

Finally, we note that Jesus seems to present some kind of hierarchy of Christian workers: the 12 disciples, prophets, righteous persons and little ones who are his disciples. The implication is that all Christians are Christian workers, whether you are an illustrious disciple or prophet, or ‘just’ a humble follower of Christ doing what you can – a ‘little fish’, so to speak. If this is the case – that all followers of Christ, all Christians, are Christian workers – then the welcoming that we do for each other is mutual – we welcome each other.

That means Jesus is describing the whole church as a working and welcoming community.

 

Featured image from https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/jesus-asked-the-right-questions/