Resurrection Church

Click her to listen to this 25-minute message.

On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.

When the World goes Mad

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Sometimes, the world seems to be going mad. On the morning of the day I preached this sermon, two terrorist attacks in Brussels left 31 or so people dead. IS claimed responsibility. Attacks like these, like the multiple attacks in Paris in 2015, make us afraid and want to withdraw from the world. Fear sets in. Muslims and Arabs seem dangerous. The world seems a threatening place.

In South Africa, we face increasingly racialised discourse, from all sides of the political and racial spectrum. Some people are calling for doing away with reconciliation and an increasing emphasis on racial identity and distinctiveness. These conversations elicit fear and uncertainty, prompting us to withdraw from each other into our safe comfort zones.

Jesus also experienced a world going mad. As religious leaders becoming increasingly threatened by him, his actions and his popularity, they set up traps to discredit and marginalise him. They plot to kill him. Indeed, they succeed in murdering him.

But through all this madness, Jesus does not withdraw, he is not cowed by fear, he does not avoid. Instead, Jesus continues to engage, to move towards, to step across boundaries. From where does he get this confidence in the face of considerable odds? He gets it from a confidence that his authority comes from heaven, from God. He knows that he is living out God’s will for him – to reconcile all things together within God’s family.

And so he remains steadfast. As we also need to remain steadfast. To not be cowed or afraid or marginalised. But to continue to live out the faith that we have inherited. A faith that hopes and trusts in a powerful God. A faith that engages and connects. A faith that steps across boundaries and embraces. A faith that loves.

Mark 11:27-33

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 5: God’s Love Revealed Through The Cross

This is the fifth and final talk in the series on “Being God’s Beloved”, presented at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Irene, South Africa, on 9 April 2014. We conclude the talks by focusing on the Cross and Resurrection, and the way in which the sequence of events over the Easter weekend reveals God’s love to us.

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Being God’s Beloved: Talk 2: God’s Old Testament Love

On 19 March, we had the second talk in this series called “Being God’s Beloved”. This week, we considered the God of the Old Testament, and specifically the ways in which God’s loving heart is revealed throughout the Old Testament. We give particular attention to the story of Jonah, Nineveh and God.

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Being God’s Beloved: Talk 1: Who is Your God?

On Wednesday 12 March, we started the series of five talks on the theme of “Being God’s Beloved” at St Martin’s Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa. The first talk asks the question “Who is your God?” and gives attention to the essence of the Triune God and the creation of humanity. The 21 minute was part of a one-hour programme, involving prayer, small group discussion and large group feedback.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 3: The Heart of God

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

What do you think is the central characteristic of God? What is that quality that is at the heart of God? What is it that makes God God?

There are many different answers to this question. And perhaps, in truth, it is not an answerable question. It is even harder than answering the question, “What is the central characteristic of your most loved family member?” Or even “What is the central characteristic of me?” People are complex, with many characteristics – reducing that complexity to just one characteristic is not only impossible, but also silly. How much more so with God, who is infinite – infinitely complex.

Nevertheless, it is an important question to attempt to answer. We should treat any answer we get cautiously, tentatively, and humbly. But endeavouring to understand the heart of God is a worthwhile and credible undertaking.

Let us think back to before the beginning of time, before creation, before God was interacting with creation. What do we know of God then? What can we imagine of God then?

Before the beginning, before God created time and space, there was God. Just God. We believe that everything that is was created by God. That there is nothing that is that was not created by God. That everything that is not God was created by God. That’s pretty inclusive! One of the implications of this belief (this doctrine) is that before creation, God is all that was.

What do we know of God before creation? Truly, we know very, very little. This suggests a very short chapter for today!

But what we do know about God is that God existed as three-in-one. The triune God. Three persons with one nature (or substance or being) is how the church finally agreed to define the Trinity in the Nicean Creed that we recite today. A theology of the Trinity is not provided in the Bible. But Christians throughout the centuries, reviewing and  weighing up all of the evidence provided in the Bible and in our experience of Christ’s journey on earth, have repeatedly concluded that Father, Son and Holy Spirit all are God, distinct from each other in some way, yet one God, not three.

It gives me a headache! Like trying to imagine infinity. My brain is too small to adequately grasp it.

Happily, this is a devotional, not a systematic theology, so I am freed from the burden of having to define or explain it rationally. Instead, if you accept the doctrine of the Trinity, I invite you to work from that as a point of departure and see the implications of it. If you have difficulty accepting it, just suspend those for a few minutes and follow the path with me, and see if it speaks meaningfully to you.

Imagine this:

Timeless fellowship between Father, Son and Spirit. Perpetual, complete, whole, seamless, perfect, fulfilled, intimate, satisfying fellowship.  Intuitive mutual understanding. Never hurting – always cherishing. Always working together toward common goals. Never competing – always cooperating.

What word can we us to describe this kind of relationship?

Love

When we imagine God before creation, we come to one basic conclusion. That God is characterised by love. Eternal, complete and perfect love. A love so strong, so intimate, that the three-ness of God draws so closely together to become one. Three in one.

There is a Greek term for this: ‘perichoresis’. It has various English translations, the most common of which is ‘interpenetration’. The idea is that Father, Son and Spirit penetrate into or merge with one another so closely, so intimately, that they become one. It is a mutual indwelling – a reciprocal choosing to immerse one’s self into the other – Father into Son, Son into Spirit, Spirit into Father. Three distinct persons. But so mutually and lovingly woven together that they are, in fact, one.

The heart of God, then, is love, for this is the quality of relationship inherent in the triune God from before the beginning of time. The most prominent characteristic of God is love.

But, many of us have been raised to believe that the most common characteristic of God is holiness or righteousness. This theology emphasises the purity and perfection of God, a purity that is repulsed by sin and brokenness, a perfection that can associate only with perfection.

Of course, the gap between God and us is immense. God is infinitely more pure, holy, righteous and perfect than we are. The apostle Paul is right to associate us with filthy rags. We are very much not up to God’s standard.

Placing God’s holiness as central to the character of God, which many of the Christian traditions do, means that we are always confronted with God’s frown. God looks at us and frowns, because we don’t look right – we smell off. We are sin-tainted, fallen, and imperfect. What follows is wrath – God’s wrath is poured out against humanity because we are, fundamentally, repugnant to God.

There is much in the Bible to support this view. Much of the Old Testament emphasises God’s purity and our impurity. We think of the Ark of Covenant – so holy and untouchable that one, well-meant touch by Uzzah lead to his annihilation (2 Samuel 6:6-11). We think of the temple and its many courts, each drawing closer to the Holy of Holies. And that inner place was so holy and so filled with God’s presence that no-one could enter, save one person (the High Priest), only once a year (Yom Kippur), and with much ritual and prayer (Leviticus 2). There is certainly a strong narrative thread throughout the scriptures emphasising God’s transcendent purity and evidence of God’s wrath in response to our lack of purity.

The problem with this view of God’s essential character is that it is anthropocentric – it centres on humanity. This only makes sense in God’s relationship to humanity. Indeed, only to humanity after the Fall. In effect, this theology rests on ourselves, rather than on God.

But a true theology of God must rest on God and God alone, distinct from God’s relationship with creation. And the only meaningful way to do that is to imagine God before creation, so as to get to the God who was independent of humanity.

When we do that, the concepts of holiness and perfection lose their meaning. Holiness makes sense only in relation to that which is not holy. Similarly, perfection makes sense only in comparison with that which is less than perfect. Set alongside imperfect and sinful humanity, God is indeed perfect and holy. But when we reflect on God as God, God without comparison, God in God-self, these concepts are as dry as the dust that blows away in the slightest breeze.

Instead, what does remain, when we think of God as God, God alone, God before creation, is God in love. God’s love is inherent within the triune relationship between and within the three persons of the Trinity. It is not a characteristic that requires comparison with anyone or anything else. It is a characteristic that is fulfilled within the nature of God.

And thus, we can and should regard love as a far more fundamental characteristic of God than holiness or perfection. God is indeed holy and perfect and surely does not like sin. But these characteristics come after creation, perhaps even after the fall, and are thus secondary to God. They speak, at most, to God’s response to our brokenness. They do not point to the heart of God.

When we look into God’s heart, we will not find wrath. Judgement, rage, shunning and impossibly high standards are not to be found in the heart of God.

Instead, when we look into God’s heart, we find love. Complete, whole, seamless, all-embracing love. A love that is strong enough to satisfy God for eternity. A love that is powerful enough to bind three into one. A love that could have continued to exist forever without any creation.

This love remains at the heart of God. It was not somehow watered down in creation. It was not lost in the Fall. God does not set aside love in God’s relationship with you. God’s first thought when glancing your direction is not anger or revulsion. It is love. Surely, God gets angry! What parent does not get angry at their children? But this anger is on the surface. It is a momentary and situational response. It is not the bedrock of God’s character. Nor is it the predominant feeling of God towards the world. Nor is it God’s predominant feeling towards you.

When God digs down into the depths of the heart of God, God finds love. God’s most basic impulse is to love. God’s greatest joy is to love. God’s most authentic self-expression is love. As John writes in his first letter, “God is love” (1 John 4).

We have to look more closely at God’s heart – particularly those of us who have been well schooled to think of God as wrathful. We have to peer back through time, back through creation, to perceive what is truly God as God, what is essential to God, what was present in God before everything else. When we do so, we will find Love.

Meditation for the Day

Imagine God as God, before creation. Imagine the relationship that existed between Father, Son and Spirit, Imagine the love that they shared, that made them complete and one.

Prayer for the Day

Loving God, help me to unlearn what I have learned about who you are. Instil in me a deeper appreciation for the love that is in the heart of you. Help to me share in that love.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3

Being God’s Beloved: Day 2: Who is your God?

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

Where do we start with a journey like this? Since our goal is to be God’s beloved, we should start with God, shouldn’t we? This is one of the important things that I realised when I started imagining this book. Initially I thought this would be a book about love – meditations on love. But as I went along, I began to realise that a book about being loved by God is not so much about love, as it is about God. God is the one who does the loving – it is God who loves us, not some abstract notion of love.

So this book is actually about God – our topic is God – the God who loves us. And that, of course, raises the fundamental question of who is God. If God is a God of love, then the idea of God loving us ought not be that difficult. But if God is a God of something else, then the idea of God loving us can be quite a challenge.

So, here’s the question for you as you read and reflect today. Who is your God?

Some will object to this question. “God is God,” they will say. “There is no ‘your God’. There is only ‘God’.” They may fear that we are creating God in our own image. They are right, in one sense. God is who God is – “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). How we see God, who God is to us, does not change God. God is God’s own person. We do not get to dictate or even shape God’s character. And creating a personal image of God for ourselves that bears no relationship to the God who is, is not a smart thing to do.

But, we know God primarily in the context of our personal relationship with God. Yes, we can and do learn about God through God’s working in history, particularly through what is revealed in the Bible. And yes, God is who God is, independent of God’s relationship with me or you. But primarily, we know God as God relates to us. This is not so peculiar. It is true for all our relationships. We see people through our own eyes – we see them in the context of our relationship with them. All true knowing of people is relational – we know in relationship.

I am a university professor. If you asked my students who I am, they’d probably say I am a strict and demanding person. I have high expectations of them, I’m not easily satisfied, I’m pedantic about spelling and referencing, I demand punctuality and professionalism. (I see myself as also warm, supportive, responsive and helpful, but I’m not sure these are the qualities most of them would tell you about if you asked, “Who is your lecturer?”) I’m also a lay preacher at my church. If you asked my parishioners who I am, they’d probably say I am a warm, engaging, patient, listening and thoughtful person. (At least, that’s what I think they’d say if you asked, “Who is your lay preacher?”) These sound like two different people, don’t they? Truly, though, I am the same person – lecturer, lay preacher, father, husband, friend, employee, son, writer – Adrian is who Adrian is. But Adrian is experienced as a different person by different people.

People know us, and form a picture of who we are, in the context of their relationship with us. In the same way, we get to know people and form a picture of who they are, in the context of our relationship with them. That is how we know people.

In exactly the same way, we get to know God and form a picture of who God is in the context of our relationship with God. Our experience of God is who God is to us. And our experience of God, if authentic, points to something in heart of God. God may be different things to different people, because God meets us where we are, with our hopes and fears, with our experiences and scars. But we should recognise that there may be more to God than our own experience of God – God is multifaceted and we may have seen only a few of those facets.

So, as we engage with the question of who is our God, we look to our experience of and relationship with God, because this provides us with the most immediate insights into God. But we should also leave space to learn that God may be more, indeed, that God is more than what we have experienced. There is an ongoing journey of discovery open to us.

But there is more. It takes two to tango. It is not just that God meets each of us uniquely in the context of a unique relationship. It is also that we, ourselves, are unique, bringing ourselves into the relationship with God. Who we are, what we have experienced in life, what we have learned over the years, influences how we see God. For better or for worse, we do not see God as God truly is. We see God through the eyes of experience.

Our backgrounds shape, and sometimes distort, how we see God. Some of us, for example, were molested or hurt in various ways as children by our fathers or by father figures. This can influence how we see God, particularly when God is presented to us as Father. For some of us, God becomes the good parent who shows us what we ought to have experienced from our fathers. This can be healing and restoring – God saves us from bad fathering. For others, God is tainted by our painful experiences and it is hard to pray, “Our Father in heaven”. Every mention of God as father can evoke trauma and fear, ultimately destroying our relationship with God.

So, this question, “Who is your God?” speaks not only to God, but also ourselves. It requires us to look in the mirror and ask, “Who am I?” We need to open ourselves to the possibility that we may be distorting God because of our experiences or learning. Perhaps our picture of God is not authentic.

But there is still more! How we see God, who God is to us, changes us! We become who we are, in part, by how we see God. Our image of God is very important to our own development as human beings, as social beings and as beings in relation to God. So this question, “Who is your God?”, is important for yourself.

Let us then come back to this question. Who is your God? Or if you prefer, Who is God to you?

We need to find a place where we can experience God authentically, where we have a relationship with God that is true and genuine, so that who God is to us becomes more closely aligned with who God really is. A good place to do that is in the pages of the Bible. One can also do this in nature, in conditions of poverty, in a community of faith, through adversity – we can and do encounter God authentically in many contexts. But an important place is in the pages of scripture. This is because in the Scripture, we encounter God in relation to other people. And we begin to see God’s self-revelation over many years. As we see God in action, in fellowship with people, we begin to see God.

The problem with the Bible, however, is that God is multifaceted and varied. We can easily pull out passages where God is vengeful, wrathful, violent, dismissive, and hypersensitive. And we could build a picture of God on those texts. Many have done so, and many of us struggle with the remnants of these images as we relate to God today.

So, I suggest that instead of looking at small individual passages, we need to look at the broad sweep of history, of extended passages and recurring themes in the Bible, of the entire Bible story. It is as we step back from the details and look at the whole, that we begin to get a clearer sense of who God is. And as we do that, we begin to develop our experience of who our God is, of who God is to us.

As I have done this, I have increasingly been struck by God’s love. While there are many examples of God not behaving lovingly, the broad biblical narrative – the Bible story – is a great love story. God repeatedly shows God’s love for individuals and nations and the whole world. God’s love is the dominant theme of the Bible.

It is my hope that as we continue on this journey together, as you reflect on the God who is revealed to us in our lives and in the Bible, that you will find an answer to this question, “Who is your God?” And that, perhaps, you will discover that your God is the one who loves you.

Meditation for the Day

Try to put into words (or if you prefer, into a picture or music or dance) who God is to you.

Prayer for the Day

Lord God, I ask that you reveal yourself to me in new and authentic ways today. Help me to discover more of who you. Open my heart, open my eyes, to perceive you, to move into a deeper relationship with you.

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