Today we celebrate Easter Sunday – the culmination of weeks of Lenten fasting and penitence, and a week of daily soul-searching services. On Good Friday, we watched our Lord’s life slip away on the cross and experienced darkness fall over the earth as the Light and Life of God was snuffed out. And then we waited, through Friday and Saturday – wondering, what might happen, how might this all turn out.
It is relatively easy for us, because we are so familiar with the outcome of the story. But for those first believers – such as Mary and the other women in Mark 16:1-8 – it must have been surreal and terrifying. The unthinkable had happened. No wonder Mark relates the confusion of the first women to arrive at Jesus’ grave, and their fear and silence after encountering what they thought was a young man (but probably an angel).
For us, though, we now understand and appreciate the resurrection of Christ as the fruit of Christ’s triumph over death, of God’s generous and complete forgiveness of sins of all humanity, of a profound and utter reconciliation with God, and the restoration of Christ as the light of the world. God gifts back to humanity the very one that humanity sought to extinguish, as a sign of their joint unconditional and extravagant love for humankind, and indeed the whole cosmos.
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!!
In Romans 6:3-11 we gain further insights from Paul into the ways in which our salvation follows the same path as Christ’s death and resurrection. In our baptism, we die to self in a watery grave; only to be raised again to new life in Christ, a life filled with Holy Spirit. In our service today we baptise little Onyedikachuckwu Christian Okafor – a visible sign of God’s salvation – and renew our own baptismal vows, said originally on our behalf as infants, and today renewed freely by ourselves.
Lord, you have nourished us with your Easter sacrament. Fill us with your Spirit and make us one in peace and love. We ask this through Jesus Chris our Lord. Amen.
God has always been working for our salvation and continues to do so today. This work culminates the life, death and resurrection of Christ, hence Jesus says we need to be born again. This salvation work is motivated by God’s great love, kindness, mercy and grace towards us (Ephesians 2: 1-10). Even though we were dead in our transgressions and sins – deserving of God’s wrath – God does everything to save us. Jesus himself says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-21).
God’s stance towards you is always open armed – always.
God is always open towards you even if you don’t believe in him – always.
God is always moving towards you – always.
God is always turned towards you, even when you turn away from him – always.
God is always turned towards you, even when you sin – always.
God always reorientates himself towards you as you move through life – always.
God is always positively disposed towards you – always.
God always loves you – always.
God is always kind towards you – always.
God is always full of grace and mercy towards you – always.
God is always hoping you will respond to him – always.
Today is surely a watershed moment for the world: 20 January 2021, the end of Donald Trump’s administration. Whether or not one is an American, this change of administration will surely impact the world in one way or another.
This is not a sermon about America or American politics, however. Rather it is a sermon about what defines a Christian. When we look at the American right and left, who are so profoundly divided at this time, and yet who both comprise large numbers of Christians who believe that their politics is aligned with their Christian faith, we must ask, What does it mean to be a Christian? How can Christians, who follow the same book of teachings, be so polarised when it comes to their beliefs, practices and policies?
Perhaps one of the reasons is the weight that different groups of Christians give to different parts of the Bible. While we (are exhorted to) believe that “all Scripture [that is, the whole of the Bible] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), if we base our Christian beliefs, practices and policies on the first Testament (the Old Testament) more than on the Gospels, or even on the rest of the second Testament more than on the Gospels, then something is wrong.
The Gospels present to us the very life, ministry and teaching of God the Son. These are not subsequent interpretations of Christ’s ministry, but Christ’s ministry itself. If we want to see God, we must look at his Son; and we get his Son in the Gospels. Jesus Christ’s life, as recorded in the Gospels, must be the template for Christian belief, practice and policy. And all the rest of the Bible must be interpreted through the Gospels.
Ironically, our reading today is not from the Gospels, but from Paul’s letter, where he writes about the central message we get from the Gospels: live a life of love.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)
The life of a Christian must be rooted in love. This passage is not about love for other Christians, but love for all humanity. Paul emphasises the love that God had for us before we were saved – the love that led to God’s forgiveness of us and of Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice to God – these are about God’s love for us before we were saved, and thus the example is for how we love the whole world.
Love is the foundation of Christian life. Indeed, these verses are part of a larger passage which opens as follows:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. (Ephesians 4:17-18)
In other words, Paul sees this ‘life of love’ as constituting a fundamental difference between Christian life and non-Christian life. Our love for others is what is supposed to define us as Christians and differentiate us from everyone else. Indeed, Christ himself gives us this great command:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)
This love for other people (and indeed for the whole of creation) is fundamental to what it means to be Christian. It is only after all this, that Paul then says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3) and then goes on to talk about morality. Morality is important, but the life of love is even more important. When we place morality above love, we are out of step with Christ, who consistently placed love above everything else. If you are placing morality above love, you must go back to the Gospels and see how Jesus lived, what he said and how he related to people.
What is most important and definitive in the life of Christ is the life of love, which is a love that is radical and inclusive. It is this kind of love that is supposed to inform our beliefs (how we understand God, ourselves and the world), our practices (how we life our life moment by moment) and our policies (or politics).
We pray for the people of America and their new president. We pray for a drawing closer together of the American people, a reduction in polarisation and anger, and a greater rooting of life in the Gospel message of love for one another. And we pray also for ourselves and our nation, which has its own challenges.
I encourage you to listen to this message. I have the strongest sense that this may be a Word from God for you. It is from Psalm 31:21-22
Praise be to the Lord, for he showed me the wonders of his love when I was in a city under siege. In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!” Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help.
John 3:16 may be the most recognisable and widely-known verse in the Christian Bible:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (KJV)
Let’s break this verse down into its parts:
For God – It all starts with God, like in Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning, God…”
so loved – This is the first use of ‘love’ in John’s Gospel, and it becomes a central word in his writing. This points to the extent of God’s love – God loved so much – extravagant, risky, inclusive, radical, transformative, saturating!
the world (kosmos) – God’s love is radically inclusive. God loves the whole world. In Greek, the kosmos. There is no-one and no-thing that is beyond the extravagant love of God.
that he gave – Out of this infinite love, God gives. He gives his Son. But this is not a giving, like one might give someone a cracker – the cracker is passive and is merely given. Here, God gives his Son, who is active – the Son participates in the giving, chooses to be given, gives himself.
his one and only Son, – God the Father gives God the Son, enabled by God the Spirit. The Son is God’s one and only, God’s beloved, God’s own heart. This is the profound self-giving of God’s self to the world.
that whoever – Jesus has already said God loves “the world”, which is radically inclusive of the entire collective of creation. Now Jesus brings this inclusivity down to the individual – whoever or whosoever. The Son gives himself to every individual– to you Martha, to you Stephen, to you Bongani, to you…
believes in him – The Greek for ‘believe’ can equally be translated ‘trust’. Believe too easily becomes ‘cognitive assent’, too easily becomes affirming a list of propositional statements about the Son. But Jesus wants more than just this – he wants us to trust him, to put our trust in him, to entrust ourselves to him. The ‘in’ in Greek is actually ‘into’, so we can confidently say, “whoever entrusts themselves into him”.
should not perish – Although we will all die, sooner or later, we shall not all perish or be destroyed. We have little choice about dying, but we do have a choice about perishing.
but have everlasting life. – And that choice is Life, with a capital L. The everlastingness of Life is not just about it continuing for a long time (eternal), but also to the quality of the Life, which can be enjoyed at this very moment. Jesus offers us Life: Life everlasting, Life abundant, Life to the fullest, Life eternal, Life in relationship with God.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
We all have, consciously or unconsciously, a hierarchy of people’s goodness to badness, of people’s worthiness of God’s loving attention or of salvation. Even if we believe in salvation through the work of Christ alone, we probably still can imagine people we think undeserving of eternal life.
This was the problem of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. They were so focused on keeping God’s Law (see my related message on Jesus’ Law) that they could have nothing to do with people who were not righteous, people who were lower down on the hierarchy.
So when the Pharisees see Jesus hanging out with so called ‘sinners’ and tax collectors, they are horrified and mutter, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1-2). They regarded such behaviour as being absolutely at odds with being a Godly person.
This prompts Jesus to tell three parables, intended to reveal God’s soft heart for “sinners and tax collectors”, for the lost, and to challenge the Pharisees’ misalignment with the God they sincerely followed:
The lost sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” (Luke 15:4-7) Here, Jesus speaks of the lost one in a hundred.
The lost coin. “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8-10) Here, Jesus speaks of the one in ten.
The lost son. “[Suppose] there was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11-32). One of them gets lost. Here, Jesus speaks of the one in two. (Though in truth, both sons get lost.)
In this parable (commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, ‘prodigal’ meaning financially wasteful) we meet a father and his two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance up front, and then squanders it on wild living. Eventually he comes to his senses and, realising that his fathers servants live better than he is now living, returns to his father, acknowledges his sinfulness and asks to be hired as a servant. The father is overjoyed at the son’s return, hugs him, clothes him and throws a lavish party for him.
In most preaching about this parable, this is what we focus on. Rightly so, because it reveals the extravagantly loving heart of God, God’s willingness to reconcile with anyone who turns to God, God’s unconditional love. It exemplifies Jesus’ ministry, which is to find those who are disconnected from God, and welcome them back into fellowship with God. For example,
In Jesus’ manifesto – his mission statement – he says (Luke 4:18-19): “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And in his reflection on his encounter with the tax collector Zacchaeus (the one who climbs a tree to see Jesus), Jesus concludes (Luke 19:10) “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
But actually, the narrative focus of the story is on the older son, whose attitude towards his wayward brother is the same as that of the Pharisees. Jesus wants the Pharisees (perhaps us also) to recognise themselves in the older son, whose attitude is so at odds with his father (who represents God, who in turn is represented by Jesus):
The older son is angry, while his father is filled with compassion.
He refuses to join in the feast the father is hosting, thereby distancing himself from his family.
His father has to humiliate himself by leaving his guests to come out an plead with the older son.
In his response to his father, the older son speaks with disrespect, saying “Look!” instead of “Father”.
The son constructs his role in the family as one of slave, rather than son.
He distances himself from his younger brother, referring to him as “this son of yours”.
This is exactly what the Pharisees did to Jesus (as the father in the story) in his engagement with sinners and tax collectors (as the younger son in the story). They said to Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”, just as the father in the story welcomed his younger son and threw a feast for him.
The father, however, recognises that this older son is also, in his own way, lost. He has lost his sense of fellowship with his father. He does not share his father’s values and outlook on the world. He has dissociated himself from his father’s family. But the father says:
“My son”, even though the older son did not say, “My father”. He speaks with respect to his disrespectful son.
He affirms that the older son is always with him (in relationship with him) and that everything that is the father’s is the son’s also, affirming his sonship.
He refers to the younger son as “this brother of yours”, affirming the boys’ brotherhood.
He reinforces the need to celebrate the return of the lost younger son, perhaps hinting that there would be a further celebration to celebrate the return of the lost older son.
He concludes the narrative with the words: “He was lost and is found.”
As children of God, we (like the Pharisees) are urged to adopt the heart of God, as evidenced in the behaviour of the father in this parable, and to welcome and eat with so called ‘sinners’.
This painting by Rembrandt van Rijnis called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ c.1662. The original hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The older son is depicted on the right, in a red cloak, looking rather disapproving, and distanced from the father and younger son on the left.
Notice also the father’s hands – the one on the left is smaller and thinner than the one on the right. Most people think Rembrandt was endeavouring to depict both the fatherhood and motherhood of God.
Henri Nouwen has written a book about this narrative and painting called, ‘The return of the prodigal son’. You can read some of it here on Amazon. Read particularly pages 71 and following, about the older son. Or click here for a brief reflection on this painting.
The story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) is well-known to most people. It is, in John’s version of the Gospel story, the first act by which Jesus reveals his glory to people. It is an epiphany – an appearance or manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, showing Christ to be God incarnate, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
But before all of that, the changing of water into wine is an act of kindness that reveals to us the interest and care that God has for us. God is interested in and cares about all the daily events in our lives – our concerns and worries, the stumbling blocks and hurdles that we encounter, and our hopes and aspirations. God is not so preoccupied with the great events of the universe that God has no time to attend to the small details of our personal life. Jesus’ assistance with the wedding in Cana, where the wine for the celebrations had run out, is evidence of this.
That the first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel is at a wedding is itself no coincidence. It points to God’s interest in human relationships, in love, in the connections between couples and between families. This reveals the heart of God, which is filled with love for us.
The miracle itself is also performed quietly and unobtrusively, unlike many of the miracles churches sell to people today, which are spectacles. Without any fanfare, Jesus asks some servants to ‘fill’, ‘draw’ and ‘take’, and only they and his mother knew that a miracle had been performed. It was almost done in secret.
As a result of this, his disciples entrusted themselves to Jesus; they put their faith in him, they believed into him. Because they saw that he had both power and compassion.
This miracle, however, also has layers of meaning that deepen our appreciation for this story. First, there are many pointers towards this being a story of Christ’s work to bring salvation to humanity, which we commemorate in the Eucharist (also known as the Holy Community or Lord’s Supper). Second, the wedding banquet is an image used throughout the Bible to point towards God’s great plan to reconcile the world to God’s self, culminating in a great eschatological wedding between us and God and a generous banquet.
At this grand level of the whole of cosmic history,
and at the level of Christ’s work for the salvation of humankind,
and at the level of a wedding in a small village where the families ran out of wine
– at all these levels – this story speaks of God’s care for us. Yes, God loves us. But, in addition, God cares. God cares about and responds to the little and the big things in our lives and God willing and able to respond to them.
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.