Fall and rise of faith

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 32-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at about 24 minutes). Or read the summary below.

The final chapter of Luke’s Gospel (chapter 24) tells us of the fall and rise of faith. Ordinarily in English, we’d talk about the ‘rise and fall’ of something, but in this narrative, the order is truly first the fall of faith and then the stumbling, feeble rise of faith. It is a story of the fragility of faith, and tell us about some of the key ingredients that help to build faith: walking, friends, scripture, fellowship, the Eucharist, and worship. It is through our encounters with these elements – in all of which Jesus is fully incarnated and present – that we discover faith. With all its ups and downs and faltering.

v1-10: The women visit Jesus’ tomb early on the third day, on Easter Sunday, and find it empty. But they encounter shining men, like angels. They rush back to tell the men.

v11: But the men “did not believe the women”. Just so. Perhaps a clear example of patriarchy, because Peter immediately goes to verify what they have said. Or perhaps a clear sign of the fall of faith.

v12: Peter finds the tomb empty, but is baffled. We goes away, wondering to himself what had happened. We applaud his thoughtful reflection. But there is a sense of Peter feeling disoriented and lost – wandering alone. His faith falters and falls.

v13: Still on that same day, two of the disciples leave Jerusalem to head to a village called Emmaus. It’s still Easter Sunday and already we see the start of a scattering of the disciples, a fragmenting of the fellowship that had sustained them for three years, and of a movement away from the centre of the Easter narrative – away from Jerusalem. Faith falters when we fall out of fellowship with each other and when we walk away from the church.

v14-18: As they walk a man joins them – it is in fact “Jesus himself” – but their eyes are kept from recognising him. So they engage him as a stranger, and we get insight into their true feelings and thoughts about current events.

v19: When they describe Jesus to this traveller, they use language associated with Moses – a great man, but just a man. A powerful prophet, but just a human prophet. All sense of Christ’s divinity and majesty, all the prophesies he mentioned, linking himself to the suffering servant in Isaiah, are forgotten. Faith has fallen.

v21: “We had hoped” they say – meaning the hope they had had, has now been lost. And they mention that “it is the third day since all this took place”. Somewhere they remembered Jesus saying that on the third day he would rise again. It was now the third day and there was no sign of him (or so they thought). Whatever shreds of hope – of faith – they had had were rapidly slipping away. Faith falls further.

v22-24. They mention the women – that the women “amazed” them – and confirm that the tomb was found just as they said. “But they did not see Jesus.”

v25-29: The traveller (Jesus, but still not recognised) then explains to them how everything in the first testament scriptures point towards Jesus. But still they do not recognise him. Though they appreciate him enough to persuade him to stay and join them for dinner.

v30: “At the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.”

v31: THEN!! Ah, this wonderful THEN! “Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him!” It was in this moment of sharing a meal together that they recognise him. No fanfare. No miracle. No sermon. No revelation. Just a simple meal, where Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread, just like at any other Jewish meal. And then their eyes were opened. Faith surges!

v32: And though he disappears from their sight, they then remember that as he taught them from the scriptures, their hearts were burning within them. Faith rises!

v33: Two two rush back to Jerusalem, still that same Sunday night. They rush back towards the fellowship with the other disciples and the women. Back towards the ‘church’ – the gathering of the believers in Christ.

v34: Simon had, in the meantime, also seen Jesus, and the disciples were exclaiming, “It is true! The Lord has risen!” Jesus, no longer just a prophet, but The Lord. Faith rises some more! And the two disciples share their story with the group. Through sharing faith continues to rise.

v36: In that moment Jesus appears among them, with his familiar post-resurrection assurance, “Peace be with you.”

v37-38: Immediately, however, they are startled and frightened, thinking him a ghost, troubled and doubting. Faith so quickly falls.

v39: Jesus’ response is to provide evidence: “look, touch, see”.

v41: But “they still did not believe it”! When faith falls, it struggles to rise.

v42: Jesus provides more evidence by eating food, to demonstrate that he is no ghost, but flesh and blood. But still no faith response.

v44-49: Then Jesus teaches, as he taught the two on the road to Emmaus. And he “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures”. We are not, however, told how the disciples received this and how it influenced their faith. Indeed, curiously, neither of Jesus’ teachings (in vv25-27 and vv45-49) appears to prompt a rise in faith.

v50-51: Jesus then goes out, blesses them and is taken up before their very eyes into heaven.

v52-53: THEN!! Ah, this wonderful THEN again! “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” Finally! Faith rises. In v32, faith rose through the simplicity of a shared meal, friendship and the symbolic breaking and sharing of bread. In v51, faith rose through the lifting up of the Son of God and of the disciples’ eyes towards heaven – a visual lifting up towards God.

Your faith, like my faith, like the disciples’ faith, rises and falls, falls and rises. It is seldom a nice smooth, continuous, upwards line. It ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, rises and falls. But we see in this narrative, with all the real humanity of humans, the important ingredients of walking, friends, scripture, fellowship, the Eucharist, and worship.

Featured image: “Supper at Emmaus”, by Caravaggio (1601-02) depicts the moment the disciples recognize Jesus, from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix.jpg

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/

Stepping out in Faith

Click here to listen to this 15-minute message.

When I look back over my life, I identify many moments that I regret. These are moments where I had the opportunity to do or say something, but didn’t. These are moments where I hesitated, was afraid or ambivalent, unsure of myself, or just plain lazy. Now, looking back, I wish I had seized those opportunities, despite the risk, and done or said what I could and should have.

In the readings set for today (Mark 1:14-20; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Psalm 62:5-12; Jonah 3:1-5,10), we see repeated instances of people NOT hesitating – Jesus’ calling his disciples, the disciples’ response to Jesus’ call, Paul’s attitude towards life while anticipating Christ’s return, and the people of Nineva responding in repentance to Jonah’s message from God. In all cases, people met an opportunity, and in all cases, they responded without hesitation. They stepped out in faith, taking up the opportunity that God presented to them.

In this sermon, I unpack these four readings, to see what they have to say to us about stepping out in faith. Each has a central life lesson, viz.

  1. Be quick to respond to God’s prompting (Mark 1:14-20)
  2. Time is too short to dither (1 Cor 7:29-31)
  3. God is dependable (Psalm 62:5-12)
  4. God will reward our faith (Jonah 3:1-5,10)

Let us be less hesitant, and step out in faith more readily.