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

Into the dark

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.

Featured image from: https://assets.archpaper.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/DarkMatterUniversity_Primary.jpg

Thirst for God

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 11-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the short text summary after that.

Psalm 63 is a wonderful psalm calling us to a deeper dependence and reliance on God, much like thirsting for God.

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.

In this first section, David describes his deep longing for God as a thirsting after God. He was actually out in the desert and was probably actually thirsty. Our need for God needs to be more like a thirst. We think of the opening verses of Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. “

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.

In the midst of his thirst, David remembers a time when he has seen God, encountered God. We have those moments in our lives, sometimes only a handful – moments where we know for sure that God is real, present, engaged. These are touchstones that we take up and hold when we are going through difficult times.

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.

And then, David lies on his bed and ruminates on God. Often, when we’re stressed, we lie on our bed and ruminate about our worries and problems. But instead, David thinks about God. Notice how every phrase has the word ‘you’ or ‘your’ in it – David immerses his thoughts in God, calling to him from his bed.

Those who want to kill me will be destroyed; they will go down to the depths of the earth. They will be given over to the sword and become food for jackals. But the king will rejoice in God; all who swear by God will glory in him, while the mouths of liars will be silenced.

And finally, relying on his thirst and his previous experiences of God, David reaches a resolution of knowing, for certain, that God is on his side; as God is on your side. God will draw alongside you. God will take care of you. God will protect you. God will lead you through.

This morning, in the midst of whatever difficulties we are facing, we are encouraged to nurture our thirst for God and to recall and hold fast to those moments where we know we have been in God’s presence.

Married to God

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the video recording on YouTube. Or read the text summary that follows.

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.

Featured image from: https://iglesiatijuana.org/web/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Marriage.jpg

My eyes have seen

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 7-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below.

Today we celebrate the festival of the presentation of our Lord at the temple, in Luke 2:22-40. For Simeon, encountering the infant Christ was the pinnacle of his life, and so he says, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Seeing or encountering Christ is the high-point of our lives; everything else is a bonus, icing on the cake. Let us remember our first encounter with Christ, and put the rest of our life in perspective.

Featured image: “Simeon’s song of praise” by Arent de Gelder (1700-1710), from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aert_de_Gelder_-_Het_loflied_van_Simeon.jpg

Resurrection life

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary below.

I am taking a funeral later today for a parishioner who died of Covid. I asked his wife if she would like to pick a Scripture reading that she or her husband liked, and she selected Acts 24:15. I was quite surprised! I’ve participated in many funerals over the years and can never recall this verse being used. But it is a very apt passage, as I hope you will see.

I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:14-16)

Paul was currently under house arrest due to charges laid against him by the Jewish leaders. This continues for a number of years under various Roman rulers, and eventually he is transferred to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life. So, in today’s passage, Paul is both defending himself and declaring his faith. He is giving a testimony of what he believes. And this has four elements:

  1. He is a follower of the Way, which is how people referred in those days to Christians. Christianity was known as ‘the Way’ and Christians as followers (of the Way).
  2. He believes in the First Testament scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). In this way, he regards the First Testament as part of a Christian bible.
  3. He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
  4. He strives to keep a clear conscience with God and people, that is, to be on good terms with everyone.

The centre of the passage, however, is the third point about the resurrection.

First, he says that he has hope there will be a resurrection. This hope implies that there is more to life than just this life. Some people then and today believe that this life is all there is, and when we die, that’s the end. Paul says instead that there is a life after this life, the resurrection life. And so, while this life will end, there will be continuation of life in the resurrection life. And this implies that what we do in this life has implications for the next life. Our pattern of living is shaped not only by a present morality, but also by a recognition that how we live now will shape how we live the next life.

Second, Paul says something unique here – that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised. This means we are raised for judgement. As Jesus says, to separate the sheep from the goats. And judgement determines our eternal future.

Therefore, Paul says, he strives always to keep a clear conscience before God and humanity. Because this life impacts the next life, what we do now impacts our life then, and therefore it is important that we maintain good relations with God and humanity.

How do we do that? Paul says two things. First, we are urged to follow the Way of Christ. To model ourselves on him, to learn from him, to shape our behaviour on him, to assimilate his values. Second, we are urged to believe the Scriptures. We may not always understand them, we may prefer some passages over others; but we do have to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with the Scriptures. It is all Spirit-breathed and useful for living out our faith. So, Paul emphasizes that both our beliefs and our behaviour are important for Christian living.

The Covid pandemic is confronting us with the fragility of life – how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how easily we can lose life, even if we are young. It reminds us how precious this present life is and how we need to use it fully to develop and live out our faith. Acts 24:14-16 encapsulates the heart of Paul’s faith. Let us listen to Paul and follow Christ’s Way.

Featured image from https://www.ministrymatters.com/preach/entry/8904/resurrection-and-suffering-saints

Follow me

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message (low data, better quality sound, no picture) or watch the video of the sermon on Facebook (starts at about 30 minutes into the recording).

Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to follow him. In John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip – “follow me”. Philip goes to call his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, becoming one of the first evangelists. As Nathanael arrives, Jesus says some things about him, showing that he knows Nathanael, before they had even met. And then Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael sitting under a tree even before Philip had called him.

In this message, I share my own experience of being called by Jesus to follow him. It is not definitive, but provides just one experience of being called and (eventually) responding to God’s call.

Jesus remains the same today – he knows us and sees us. He knows where we are in life and in our relationship with him, and he sees where we are and what we are doing. And it with this knowledge of us, that Jesus calls us to follow him.

I thus urge you also to respond to the call of Jesus – to follow him. Put in the effort to build a relationship with Jesus – talk with him, read the Bible, come to church, talk with Christian friends, think about Jesus. He is ready and waiting for you. He is calling you to follow him. You just need to reach back.

Featured image from https://www.followmeretreat.org/

Journey of faith

Click here to listen to the audio of this 20-minute message (this has the lowest data usage and the best sound quality). Or watch the service on Facebook (the sermon starts at about 30 minutes – unfortunately the sound quality is very poor today). Or read the text summary after that.

The journey of faith is seldom easy or straight-forward, even when people present it in this way. And holding onto faith when we are in the midst of the storm or facing a rolling crisis like COVID19 is not always easy. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:18), Paul writes, “Give thanks in all situations for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul makes it sound simple – just accept that your challenging situation is God’s will for you in Christ – give thanks for it. Of course, it is not simple!

We have a great master class in how to journey in faith in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Mary, who we revere because she is the Christ-bearer (the Christotokos, or even more remarkable, the God-bearer or Theotokos), shows us that faith is not simple or straight-forward. She shows her own journey of faith. This journey is not a template or recipe for us – it is simply one example of someone making this journey But it may help the rest of us – particularly those of us who struggle with faith – to make peace with our journey of faith.

The well-known story is told in Luke 1:26-38.

Mary, an engaged but not yet married teenager from a small village called Nazareth, encounters an angel. He greets her warmly and kindly, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

But Mary’s first response is to be “greatly troubled at his words” and wonder “what king of greeting this might be” and to be “afraid“. The response of fear when encountering an angel seems to be almost universal in the Bible – most people who encounter an angel respond first with fear: Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:12-13 and the shepherds in Luke 2:9-10, for example. But, let us recognise that Mary does not immediately respond with faith or joy when the angel appears to her – her response is one of fear, trepidation, uncertainty, anxiety.

The angel – much as angels do in other passages – reassures her (“Do not be afraid”) and says that she has found favour with God. He explains that she will conceive a child and call him Jesus and that he will become a great king forever.

In Mary’s second response, we see that she is no longer afraid. She is now thinking, critically, about what the angel has said: “How will this be? Since I am a virgin?” Mary does not immediately accept the angel’s message. She asks what is surely an obvious question – how can I be pregnant if I’ve not had sex? Mary is realistic, pragmatic, critical. She does not just accept what the angel is saying to her. Let us imagine also (though this is not explicit in the passage) that she realises that a pregnancy at her age and without a husband will be scandalous and difficult. Let us imagine that she has some intuition about the implications of being the mother of the “Son of the Most High”. And let us imagine that she even anticipates the tragic loss that she will suffer as her son is taken from her. (These imaginings are captured so well in the song, Mary did you know)

The angel accepts Mary’s questions. He does not reprimand or challenge her. Instead, he provides further explanation and clarifies also that even her aunt, Elizabeth (in her old age), has conceived a child – John.

And now – only now – Mary accepts the angel’s message, saying “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled“. She accepts God’s will for her life, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. But at this point, her acceptance is just that – an acceptance, even a blind faith. It does not seem to be based on a full understanding. She submits, relinquishes, surrenders to the will of God – do with me as you wish.

Mary then visits her aunt Elizabeth and they stay together for some time. Luke 1:39-45 gives a clear indication that they talked about their experiences of pregnancy and of their place in God’s plans. One can easily imagine that they spent a great deal of time talking, sharing, reflecting, praying, seeking understanding.

And out of this sharing, Mary achieves faith with understanding, which is expressed powerfully in the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. Mary understands, for example, that God is a God of love and mercy – “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” And she also understands that there will be a righting of wrongs (a reversal of fortunes) – “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” She understands that through the great things God has done for her, God will bring justice for all those who are marginalised and oppressed.

Although we esteem Mary greatly, her journey of faith is not instant. She grapples and wrestles with what God wants from her, with the storm that she finds herself in. Her own journey is one of fear, questioning, acceptance and then understanding. Her faith journey is a process over time, not a turning point in time. Indeed, even in narratives where it appears that faith emerges at a point in time (such as Paul’s Damascus road experience in Acts 9), a closer read around the experience will show that there is a journey and that the turning point is a culmination of a longer process that came before and that works its way out after.

Mary’s faith experience is not a template for us. It an example of a journey of faith, of one whom we can revere as most highly favoured and blessed of all humans. If her faith journey is not not simple or straight-forward, why should yours be? If you are doubting your faith because it seems complicated, fragile, questioning, confused, and so on, be reassured that Mary’s faith was all these things also. And yet, she bore the Son of God. Faith is a journey. Just keep on with the journey and know that God is faithful.

 ‘The Annunciation’ (1437-46) by Fra Angelico from https://medium.com/thinksheet/symbols-in-art-the-annunciation-7347bddb89d

Our Father

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

Luke 11:1-4 presents us the brief, well-known passage about Jesus teaching his disciples to pray using an earlier form of the Lord’s Prayer. He says,

When you pray, say,
‘Father…’

I’m stopping at this first word, because it represents a profound revelation and revolution in our understanding of God. In the First Testament of the Hebrew people, God was regarded as all powerful, fearsome, remote, almost terrifying. God was seldom referred to as ‘Father’, except when he was spoken of as being, for example, the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the Father of Israel. And God refers to himself as a father in a handful of passages. But people never prayed to or spoke to him directly as ‘Father’.

Jesus, by contrasts, shows himself engaging with God as his personal father, in an intimate, authentic, comfortable, loving way. In his prayers, he calls God ‘Father’. He reveals God in a new light – as approachable, caring, accessible. And he shows that God is interested in our daily lives, in the little things we experience and also in the big challenges we face.

And so, when he teaches his disciples how to pray, his first word is ‘Father’. We could almost stop just there with the Lord’s Prayer because that on its own is a radical transformation of our relationship with God. A one-word prayer – “Father” – is a great prayer!

Not everyone has good associations with ‘father’, however. Some of us have been abused by our fathers, abandoned by them, treated harshly by them. Some don’t know our fathers. Some would never share anything personal with our fathers. So, thinking of God as our ‘father’ might not be meaningful or helpful to everyone; indeed, it might raise a host of painful memories and feelings.

But let us remember that God is not a man and not an actual biological father. Rather, Jesus refers to God as father to reflect a relationship that for him was meaningful. We could think of God as parent (which is often how I refer to God in public prayer) or as mother or caregiver. And let us also consider that there could be healing for our woundedness when we experience a heavenly parent who is consistent, fair, engaged, loving, kind, protective, empowering and sincere, particularly if we have not experienced this with our human parents.

I encourage you today to enter into a more intimate and honest engagement with God in your prayers – both in your formal prayers when you sit down for the purpose of praying or saying a daily office, and in your informal prayers, muttered to God as you drive or worry about something or are grateful for something. God desires to have a parental relationship with us, in which we can rest in his arms and tell him everything that is on our heart, without fear or hesitation.

And so we pray:

Our father in heaven
hallowed be your name
your kingdom come
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power, and glory are yours
now and for ever. Amen

Featured image from https://valourdigest.com/7-things-a-son-needs-from-his-father/

Relying on Christ

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 8-minute message. Or watch the YouTube message below, or read the short text summary thereafter.

In Philippians 3:4b-15a, Paul shares his own experience of faith and in so doing holds up a mirror for us to reflect thoughtfully on our experience of faith. So often our faith gets caught up with our human activity – all the things we do to express our faith – prayer, giving, righteousness, attending church and so on.

But Paul says these things are comparatively worthless (garbage!) compared to faith that is reliant on Christ. Paul is not saying that we should abandon such things, but that by comparison with a faith that relies entirely on Christ, these things should not be central.

This passage is one of a few where Paul really opens his heart to us and shares his own faith journey, and so rather than preaching for long on the passage, I encourage you primarily to read, hear and digest the inspired words of the Apostle Paul.

Featured image from https://za.pinterest.com/pin/117938083965411553/