Our Father

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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

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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/

Who do you say I am?

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In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asks his disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” This is arguably the most central question of our faith as Christians. We are, after all, Christians. We are followers of Christ. Who Christ is – this person we follow, this person whose name defines our faith -is thus of central importance.

Jesus first asked, in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and the disciples run off a list of names: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These are all great prophets, and in some ways Jesus is the preeminent prophet. A prophet reveals God’s mind to us, opens up the truth of God to us. And certainly Jesus does do that. But they stop short. Jesus is so much more than ‘just’ a prophet.

So, if your answer to Jesus’ question is things like (for me) – my friend, my brother, my healer, my whole-maker, my teacher, my example, my comforter, my safe space, and so on – these are right (they are certainly not wrong!), but they don’t go far enough.

This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus engages in discussion about himself. He is doing identity work here – discussing who he is with his disciples. This takes place in chapter 16 of a 28-chapter book. So, it appears in the second half of the Gospel. Jesus is half-way through his journey with his disciples, and only now does he ask who they say he is. This is meaningful.

As Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, we tend to have an expectation that people must make a statement of faith in Christ as a prerequisite for conversion. But here, Jesus has allowed his disciples to walk alongside him and witness his life and his engagement with the world for a long time. And only now, much later, does he ask for a statement of faith.

The understanding of who Jesus is is not the prerequisite for faith, but the result of the journey of faith.

I converted to Christianity at age 16. At that moment, on the evening of 21 October 1984, I really didn’t know who Christ was. All I knew was that God was calling me and I had to respond to his call. It was only over years of journeying with him, through all the ups and downs of faith, that my understanding of who he is and of who he is for me has become clearer. And I anticipate in the following decades of my life, this understanding will continue to mature and deepen.

Peter’s answer, after having walked with Christ, is strong and certain: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In the Greek, the phrasing is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, of the Living One”. There were, in Peter’s time, as in our time, many Gods. He feels the need to qualify who he is referring to when he says ‘God’. He is not referring to just any God, but to the God who is alive, the Living God.

It is important for us to incorporate into our experience of who Christ is for us the insight that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, God the Son, the Logos, a member of the triune Godhead, the one who has been present since before time and will continue to present after time itself has ended. This is who Jesus is!

But what about you?
Who do you say I am?

Wrestling Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 31-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. I’m sorry this message is so long, but today’s reading is a seriously difficult passage and requires careful work. I do encourage you to watch the video and learn some profound lessons about Jesus and about faith.

Our reading today is from Matthew 15:21-28. The following translation is by Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew. I’m using this because he keeps closely to the sentence structure in the Greek, which I will show is important for making sense of this passage:

21. And Jesus left there and withdrew into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.
22. And look! a Canaanite woman from that region approached and was crying out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is horribly possessed by a demon!”
23. But he did not respond to her with a single word.
And his disciples came up to him and repeatedly asked him, “Get rid of her, will you; she keeps screaming at us!”
24. But he responded and said, “I was not sent to anyone except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25. But she came up, bowed down worshipfully before him, and said, “Lord, help me!”
26. But he responded and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
27. But she said, “Oh yes, Lord! Yet even the house dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.”
28. Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific; let it be done for you exactly as you want.” And her daughter was healed that very moment.

This is such a difficult passage, because Jesus expresses what appears to be deeply disrespectful, pejorative, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist views towards the Canaanite woman. In our contemporary society, which is so riddled with racism and hostility to all who are other (including immigrants, LGBTQI+, women, etc.). It reads like (what we would today call) hate speech.

So, I have titled this message Wrestling Jesus because there are three layers of wrestling taking place here.

First, I and we have to wrestle with Jesus. His words are very hard to understand and swallow. We have to engage honestly, thoughtfully, carefully with Jesus words. We have to avoid sanitising his words, while also making sense of his words.

Second, I suggest what we are reading is Jesus wrestling with himself. I suggest what we reading is like a Shakespearean soliloquy, in which Jesus speaks out loud his internal grappling or wrestling. I’ve done some colour coding to emphasise the structure:

  1. All of the sentences (except the last) start with ‘and’ or ‘but’. I suggest that what this does is to suspend time, to create a pocket of timelessness in which something can emerge. This continues until the last verse which finally has a ‘then’ – and then the story moves forward. We have a similar event in John 8:1-11, where Jesus kneels down and doodles in the same, while the men accuse the woman of adultery.
  2. Jesus’ name is not mentioned except in the first and last verse. In the middle verses it is just ‘he’. This depersonalisation contributes to the timelessness of the narrative.
  3. In two of the three ‘responded and said’, we are not told who he responded to. It is not clear who he is speaking to. It seems he may be just speaking, to himself; saying out loud what he is thinking in his mind.
  4. v24 suggests that Jesus’ wrestling is between his mission to the people of Israel (and they would subsequently have the mission of bringing the Gospel to the nations) and the needs of this individual woman in front of him who is not an Israelite.
  5. v26 has the terrible words that seems to say that Canaanites are dogs. In my view and that of some commentators, this is a well-known racist expression that was commonly used in those days, much as we have racist expressions for groups of people today. That Jesus would say these words in the presence of this woman is hard to swallow – it is painful and anti-pastoral. But perhaps Jesus is saying out loud what people say about women like her. And perhaps this is his wrestling.
  6. What he seems to come to through all this is that PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN MISSION (or law or religion or sexual orientation or politics or nationality, etc, etc, etc.). PEOPLE MATTER! Jesus seems to learn this from her.
  7. And then, in the final verse, we get a Then! Now time starts again and the story moves forward. “Then Jesus responded and said to her.” This is the first time he speaks to her directly. Everything before this, I suggest, is soliloquy. He is wrestling with his role and he learns from her what is most important, that people matter.

We see Jesus grow and learn. We see him rediscovering the truth that people matter. More than anything – including our theology, doctrine, denomination, politics, nationality, race, sexual orientation – people matter!

Third, the Canaanite woman wrestles with Jesus. She has a great need – her daughter is horribly possessed by a demon – and she is desperate for Jesus’ help. Even though she is not Jewish, she recognises who he is: Lord (the Messiahs, the Christ), Son of David (the culmination of Jewish prophecy about the line of David). Her faith, perhaps fuelled by her desperation, helps her to hear between the lines.

  • After her first appeal to him in v22, Jesus does not respond. He is silent. What she hears is not a disinterest, but “He’s not chased me away. He’s still here. I still have a chance.” And so she persists.
  • The disciples want Jesus to send her away, but Jesus says that he was sent to the house of Israel. What she hears is not that she is not part of the house of Israel, but that he has not said ‘no’ to her. There is still a chance. And so he persists. She grovels in front of him and cries out, “Lord, help me!”
  • Then Jesus quotes this racist expression. What she hears is not that she is trash, but that she can be a pet dog at his table, who is eligible to eat the scraps that fall from it. There is still a chance. And so she persists. She takes ownership of the label ‘dog’.
  • Now she is brilliant! She takes the expression that Jesus spoke out loud and turns it to her advantage. She turns his words against him. She wrestles him to the ground. She makes it impossible for him to say ‘No’.
  • Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific!” He sees her, speaks to her, recognises her, acknowledges her, yields to her. He uses the word ‘you‘ or ‘your‘ three times in v28. He recognises her as a person who matters, and he gives her what she has asked for with such faith and tenacity.

This woman teaches us to never, never, never give up prayer. Pray without ceasing. Do not lose hope. Wrestle God to the ground until he gives you what you are asking for.

Featured image: The Canaanite Woman, from the Très Riches Heurers du Duc de Berry. The Conde Museum, Chantilly. Downloaded from https://www.friendsjournal.org/woman-refused-take-no-answer/

In his joy

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This is the order Jesus gives for Christian life: we find the treasure, this fills us with joy, so we sell all our possessions (which are worth a fraction of the treasure), and we acquire (take ownership) of the treasure (Mat 13:44). The treasure is there at the start and the end; the joy is the immediate consequence of finding the treasure; and the sacrifice of possessions is really no sacrifice at all. This is the Christian life. Let’s find our joy in Christ!

Featured image from here.

Baking with Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below (highly recommended, as this is a message to watch, not just to listen to) or read the summary text after that.

Matthew 13:31-33 presents two tiny parables about two tiny things in the world: yeast and mustard seeds:

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about 30 kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

These parables emphasise:

  1. Jesus’ interest in the little things of life and God’s desire to work with the small things we bring to the Kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about little things regularly: sparrows that are worth so much, faith the size of a mustard seed, the individual hairs on our head which God counts, little children to whom belongs the Kingdom of God.
  2. God’s capacity – through the power of Holy Spirit and the love of Christ – to transform little things into big things, helpful things, things that build the Kingdom of God. A mustard seed grows into a large tree that provides shelter to humans and animals. Grains of yeast that turn a lump of heavy dough into an airy loaf of bread.

Recipe for poppy seed rolls

Ingredients

Dough

500 g all-purpose (cake) flour
1 sachet instant yeast
1 tsp salt
100 g granulated sugar
250 ml milk lukewarm
80 g butter, melted
2 eggs

Filling

200 g poppy seeds, ground in a blender until they form a paste
100 g butter
200 g walnuts, ground in a blender until they just begin to form a paste
100 g icing (confectioner’s) sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
10 ml ground cinnamon
4 egg whites

Frosting

180 g butter unsalted, softened, or margarine
360 g powdered sugar also known as icing (confectioner’s) sugar
120 g cream cheese at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
0.25 tsp salt

Instructions

Mix the first four dry ingredients, then add in the next three wet ingredients. Mix the dough and knead for 10 minutes, until elastic and smooth. Place in a bowl, smear with a bit of oil and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise. (Hint: heat your oven to 100 degrees Celsius, then switch it off, and place your bowl in the oven.)

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a pot and cook the ground poppy seeds in the butter for 2 minutes, then mix in the remaining ingredients to form a thick black paste.

Knock the risen dough down and roll out into a large thin rectangle, about 50-60 cm wide. Spread the poppy seed paste evenly over the dough. Roll the dough to form a long sausage about 50-60 long. (If it is a bit short, gently massage it until it reaches the required length.) Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into about 35 even pieces (about 1.5cm each).

Line a roasting tin with parchment and lay the circular buns in the pan. Prove for about 30 minutes or until about double in size. Bake at 180 C for about 20 minutes until golden brown.

Blend the frosting ingredients, beating well with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. When the rolls are cooled, spread generously with frosting.

If the rolls are a couple of days old, heat in the microwave for 15 second to get them back to a fresh state.

To offer ourselves

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Romans 12:1-2a:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

This passage offers us two sets of verbs:

  • Offer, sacrifice, worship – which speak to giving ourselves to God
  • Transform, renew – which speak to an inward-focused process

The passage also offers us two nouns:

  • Our bodies – which speaks to the embodied being that we are, crafted from clay and in-breathed by God’s Spirit
  • Our minds – which speaks to the immaterial being that we are, mind, emotion, thought, spirit

Together, these two verbs and these two nouns call us towards a complete offering of ourselves – a surrender, a relinquishment – to God.

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Feature image from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2013/03/off-the-cliff-of-surrender/

Journey with Jesus

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Between Easter and Pentecost we focus on people’s encounters with the risen Christ. Last week we reflected on Thomas’ encounter with Jesus some days after the resurrection. Today, in Luke 24: 13-35, we reflect on the two disciples who met Jesus while they were travelling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They don’t realise that it was Jesus until the very end. Their journey has three phases:

  1. They initially fellowship with Jesus, sharing their story of Jesus with this stranger and commiserating about his untimely death.
  2. Then Jesus teaches them about the Christ, drawing on the whole of the First Testament, explaining who the Messiah was prophesied to be and how these prophecies were fulfilled in the Christ. But still, they did not recognise Jesus.
  3. Finally, they shared a meal with Jesus – they broke bread together. And as Jesus, took, blessed (or gave thanks), broke and gave the break to them, their eyes were opened and they finally recognised him.

In hindsight, they realised that they had encountered Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Ultimately, it is in the taking, thanking, breaking and giving that they recognise Jesus. This is what Jesus did in Luke 9:16, when he fed the five thousand. And also just a few days before at the Last Supper in Luke 22:19. This celebration of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Communion, Mass, Divine Liturgy) was the clincher, following fellowship and teaching, that reveals Christ to them.

This narrative follows the same pattern of the early church in Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Now, our passage in Luke 24 doesn’t mention prayer, but prayer is (essentially) talking with and listening to Jesus. Prayer is just conversation with God. And this is what the two disciples were doing, even though they did not realise it, during the long walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus, as they journeyed with Jesus: they were talking with God.

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Featured image Emmaus Road, by Chinese artist He Qi. https://alfayomega.es/106963/emaus-de-la-decepcion-a-la-alegria

Seeking Jesus

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The story of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Jesus in John 20:24-29 is one of my favourites and Thomas is the disciple with whom I identity the most. Thomas is unfairly labelled a doubter. He did not doubt Jesus. He doubted his friends – the other disciples. He wanted to see and experience Jesus first hand. He was unwilling to take on a second-hand faith. He wanted to know Jesus for himself. And so Jesus appears to him and invites him to see and touch his hands and the hole in his side.

It seems Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus, but immediately experiences a surge of faith and cries out, “My Lord and my God!” In effect, he falls on his face and covers his eyes because he knows that he is in the presence of God the Son.

This reminds me of the story of Job, who was a man blessed by God, a man who had everything. For whatever reason, he then loses everything. He goes into a kind of ‘lockdown’, where he loses his possessions, his family, his health, his well-being, his freedom. Two of his friends join him in his despair and provide comfort for a few days and then engage in a lengthy debate with him to persuade him that his faith must be insufficient. God would not punish a righteous man – he must have done something wrong. But Job persists that he is righteous and wants to meet with God to present his case.

And then in Job 38, God appears and over the course of four chapters presents his credentials to Job, much as Jesus presented his credentials (the holes in his hands and side) to Thomas. God meets Job in his unhappiness and questioning.

In Job 42:1-6, Job’s response to encountering God is to throw himself down and cover his eyes – “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes”. But before that he proclaims his faith: “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you!” Job had had a second-hand faith – what he had heard from others or from the scriptures. But now, God had appeared to him in person, and his eyes had not see him. And recognises that he is in the presence of God the Father.

God eagerly desires to engage you in your faith, as he does me in mine. And God also eagerly desires to engage you in your doubt, as he does me in mine. God is not turned away by uncertainty, by questions, by doubt or by the need for ‘evidence’. Instead, God turns towards us and engages us. Let us continue to seek Jesus, for this is exactly what he wants from us: Seek him and you shall find him.

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Featured image: ‘Thomas Sees Jesus Wounds’ by Gloria Ssali, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/thomas-sees-jesus-wounds-gloria-ssali.html

Waiting for God

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The Saturday in Easter Weekend is one of the most peculiar days in the Bible and in the Christian Calendar. There has been a huge and distressing build-up to Good Friday. And then tomorrow, Easter Sunday, is a huge celebration of life over death. But the day in between seems to be a non-day. A day on which time is suspended and the universe holds its breath. Even the Gospel stories are almost entirely silent on this day:

  • John entirely skips the Saturday Sabbath, making no reference to it at all.
  • Luke tells us that the women “went home and … rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”
  • Mark simply says, “When the Sabbath was over”.
  • Matthew is the only one to say something substantial about what happened on Holy Saturday. Matthew recounts that Chief Priests and Pharisees went to Pilate on Saturday, asking him to seal the tomb to prevent the disciples from hatching a hoax that Jesus had risen on the third day. Bizarrely, in doing so, they broke the Sabbath Law that was so important to them.

It seems the Gospel writers felt as we do that Saturday is a between-times in which time seems suspended. We wait with bated breath to see what God will do in response to our murder and execution of the Son of God. We wait to see if Jesus will rise on the third day as he promised. We wait to see if there is life after the death of the Messiah.

We wait: silent, hoping, praying, anticipating…

For this reason, I have taken to referring to this day as
Silent Saturday.

A prayer for today:

Lord Jesus, I wait in solidarity with you
and pray for your triumph over death. Amen

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