Who am I?

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

Today we ask the question, Who am I? Or more specifically, What is my identity as a Christian? This is the first of five themes in a series on stewardship, where we reflect on our role in taking care of God’s business in the world.

In this audio message, I make the following points:

  1. In John 15:1-10, the passage where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches, 11 times Jesus uses the term ‘remain’ (or ‘abide’ in the old Authorised Version): “Remain in me … and you will bear much fruit“. Here Jesus calls us to be rooted into him, to remain grafted into him. We recognise that without him, we can do nothing. So we depend on him.
  2. In the same passage, Jesus also speaks of remaining in us: “Remain in me as I remain in you“. This suggests an interdependence between God and us, in which God binds himself to humanity. We this most strongly evident in four moments in cosmic history: creation, covenant, incarnation and Pentecost. In each of these, God in some way limits himself or enters into agreement with humanity, binding himself and his work to us.
  3. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is both the source of our life (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”) and its destination (“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). In John 14:6, Jesus similarly emphasises that he is the way and the truth and the life. In other words, he is everything – there is nothing in our lives that falls outside of our connection to Christ.
  4. Our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God. Sometimes the church gives us rules or procedures or recipes we’re supposed to follow in our relationship with God. But this relationship is like any other relationship in our life. It is unique, personal and authentic. It is different for each of us, because, though God is the same person, each of us different, so his relationship to each of us different. God meets us right where we are. Whatever you find works for you in your relationship with God, do more of that.
  5. As much as our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God, it is also rooted in our relationships with each other. God did not create a single person (Adam or Eve); God created a couple (two people in loving relationship with each other), and immediately mandated them to procreate and become a family. 1 Peter 2:9-10 similarly emphasises that we are a community of people in relationship with other people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession … the people of God”. So, we have to invest not only in ourselves and our relationship with God, but also in our relationships in the church (however you want to define that) and the work of the church.
  6. Finally, our readings today call for decisiveness. Moses, speaking just before the nation of Israel crosses into the promised land, calls them to a decision (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “This day I … set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose! Choose life! … For the Lord is your life”.

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This banner, hanging at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Lyttleton, created by Eleanor Jappie.

Featured image from here.

Christ has no body but yours

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Today’s reading (John 14:23-29) speaks to us about the centrality of relationships in the Christian journey of faith.

First, we learn that relationship is central to God’s self. This passage is steeped in Trinitarian language: the sense that God, while one being, comprises three persons.

  1. John 14:23 “My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” This verse is unique in that it is the only passage where Jesus uses first person plural language to refer to himself and the Father operating as a unit. Jesus talks about himself and the Father as two distinct persons, working together.
  2. John 14:24 These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.” Here, Jesus emphasises the unity of his words and the Father’s words. The Father and the Son speak from one mouth. It echoes John 14:10, where Jesus says, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”
  3. John 14:26 “…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Here, Jesus mentions all three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), operating in unity with one another.

God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are in eternal and loving relationship with one another, so powerful that they are one being. Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in Scripture, it is (for the vast majority of Christians) the most inevitable way of reconciling the oneness and the threeness of God that the Scriptures present to us. And this passage from John is one of those that does so strongly.

If nothing else, and perhaps most importantly, we learn from this that relationship is central to God and to God’s experience of God’s self. And if relationships are important to God, they must surely be important to us also.

Second, we learn that relationship is central to God’s mission on earth. Jesus message in John 14:23 is a response to a question from Judas, one of his disciples, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us [only] and not to the world?” Judas was concerned that the good news that Jesus was telling the disciples about was not going to be heard by everyone. His was a question about mission.

And Jesus answer is that God the Father and God the Son will come to the disciples (and by extension to all Christians) and make their home in us. This means that God’s showing of God’s self to the world will be through us. As God resides in us, we reveal God to the world.

This is an extension of the incarnation. When God the Son came into the world as a human, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, he was available to the world as just one man, with all the limitations of a single human. But when Jesus returned to the Father at his ascension, he sent Holy Spirit who fills up every Christian. Moreover, the Father and Son also come to dwell in us. In this way, Christ is incarnated in the world through the Body of Christ, the church, that is, through the community of believers. We are Christ’s body on earth.

Thus, God continues to work through God’s relationship with each of us and our relationships with everyone in our social environment – those at church, those in our families, those in our workplaces and play spaces, those in our communities, those we meet in passing as we shop, travel and live.

This reminds me of the prayer of St Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 1500s:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

I end this message by singing John Michael Talbot’s arrangement of this prayer.

(Note: This sermon was preached at a home for women with intellectual disabilities.)

Here are two beautiful performances of this prayer. Music by David Ogden.

 

 

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Link to featured image.

The Word became flesh

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).

These majestic words open the Gospel according to St John, and continue over 18 verses in one of the most majestic hymns to the Christ. On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of an infant, a little child who promised hope and new life. But he was, after all, just an infant. By contrast, John presents us with the pre-existent second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Holy One. Magnificent, eternal, powerful, unfettered, transcendent.

We really cannot dissect and analyse such an image of Christ. Rather, we must merely apprehend it, gaze upon it, marvel at it. My own church tradition is low church, not high, but it is on days like today that I wish we had incense in my church, as its fragrance and appearance would serve to lift us up out of the intellectual to the mystical, and to merely and deeply appreciate the mystery of the Word.

This Word, who became flesh, and who made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). How amazing that God should became human, that God should shrink down to be merged with a single human cell at conception, and develop into a neonate, a son.

We, like John the Baptist, like John the beloved disciple, can only witness this gift of love, to see it and hear it and know it. And then to be witnesses to it, to proclaim it. The Word made flesh!

Here are today’s key readings:

Featured image from: https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/what-big-bang-theory-ncna881136

Opening bars of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel: https://www.amazon.com/Strauss-R-Also-sprach-Zarathustra/dp/B00EYVGAO6

Wondering where that music comes from? Here you are:

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 4: Jesus Christ: Embodiment of Divine Love

This is the fourth in the five-part series on “Being God’s Beloved”, delivered at St Martins Anglican Church in Irene, South Africa, on 2 April 2014. In this talk we focus on Jesus Christ as the embodiment of Divine Love, giving attention to his life (incarnation), ministry and teaching.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 20: The Kenotic U

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

In Philippians 2:5-11 Paul writes, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This magnificent Christ Hymn is a description of Christ’s incarnation, humiliation and glorification. I find it helpful to visualise this as a U:

Kenotic_U

On the left is the descent of Christ, through the incarnation, into human form, into the darkness of humanity, leading to his humiliation[1] and suffering. At the bottom of the U is the lowest point, his death on a cross. And then there is the ascent on the right, starting with “therefore God exalted him” leading to his glorification as the universal Saviour. This is the great story of Christ’s salvific work – his willingness to give up everything in order to join with humanity and win our redemption.

Today we give particular attention to the left side of the U, the descent. This descent is known as kenosis, a Greek word that means ‘emptying out’. Kenosis describes what the Second Person of the Trinity did in order to become human, and is thus central to the incarnation. Kenosis does not mean that the Son ceased to be God – gave up the divine nature.[2] The Nicene Creed says that two natures – both human and divine – coexisted in the one person of Jesus Christ. Colossians 2:9 also affirms that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” However, there is clearly an emptying, a diminishing and a humiliation in this passage from Philippians.

What is this emptying, this kenosis?

First, we learn that the Son let go of “equality with God” and “emptied himself”. The latter phrase is how some English Bibles (e.g. the NASB and NSRV) translate the Greek word kenosis. This may be a separating out of the Son from the perfect integration of the Trinity. Remember that Father, Son and Spirit had, from before the beginning of time, existed in perfect unity, harmony and loving relationship. This is the timeless essence of God and all that God had ever known. But the incarnation involved a separating out of one of the persons of the Holy Trinity, in order to take on a different kind of life – life as a human. This separating would require the Son to let go of – to not grasp – equality or unity with God.

Other translations of the Bible use “made himself nothing” for kenosis. We should not interpret that being human means to be nothing – we have seen by now that humans are far from ‘nothing’. Perhaps, rather, “nothing” describes the experience of the incarnation for the Holy Trinity. Perhaps the Son’s experience of emptying himself was one of becoming “nothing”. The radical contrast between the fullness, perfection, wholeness and relatedness of eternal triune fellowship and the isolation, finiteness and smallness of the incarnation may well have been experienced as becoming nothing. This is particularly so if we remember from yesterday that the incarnation took place at the level of a single cell, not the infant. The eternal and infinite Second Person of the Trinity was emptied into a strand of genetic material. That is an unimaginable diminishment. “Nothing” could well be what it felt like.

I think that the most helpful way of thinking of the kenosis is as a ‘becoming small’, being ‘diminished’. The omnipresent Son, who could be in all places and all times simultaneously, becomes constrained in a single, initially exceedingly small, body, a body that can be in only one place at one time. Surely that is an emptying out? A becoming nothing? It is a profound and complete limitation that the Son accepts in becoming the individual called Jesus of Nazareth. It seems that similar limitations were placed on the other divine attributes, such as God’s omniscience (knowing everything) and omnipotence (being all powerful). The Son must be fed, cleaned, clothed, burped and educated, just like any other infant. The Son is constrained, limited, confined and restricted in a way that God has never experienced. This is a whole new learning opportunity for God!

Second, we learn that the Son takes on the humble nature of a servant. The term ‘form’ (used by the NASB and NSRV, for example) is probably more appropriate here than ‘nature’ (used by the NIV), because we recall that in Jesus Christ we fully find both the divine nature and the human nature. So it is not that the Son changed natures. Rather, two natures – divine and human – became integrated. What is stressed here, however, is servanthood and humility. Twice Paul writes about becoming human: “being made in in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man.” These two phrases are sandwiched between two other important phrases: “taking the very nature of a servant, … he humbled himself.”

Becoming human certainly involves a diminishing, a becoming small. But the kenosis is more than just becoming human. It is also becoming a humble servant. One might have thought that if God were to incarnate into human form, it would be a splendid form. The God-man should be magnificent, big, imposing, powerful, wealthy, gorgeous, charismatic and well placed in society. But instead, this incarnation is into a person of no significance. The Second Person of the Trinity becomes a nobody, a servant. Small wonder that Jesus speaks out in support of the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) and the “little ones” (Matthew 18:10). That is exactly what the Son became – a little one, a least of all people, a humble servant.

Third, kenosis leads ultimately to death. And not just any death – “death on a cross.” One might think that a God-man, even one born tiny and raised in obscurity, would grow up to be a superhero. We think of Hercules in Greek-Roman mythology, born of Zeus and a mortal woman, who had superhuman strength. In modern times, we might think of Superman. Surely this would be the destiny of God incarnate? Instead, Jesus dies prematurely and painfully on a cross, a most excruciating and humiliating death.

Jesus’ entire human existence from conception to death is characterised by kenosis – relinquishing divine status and privilege, becoming small and insignificant, having no authority or stature, dying in disgrace. The first half of this Kenotic U is a disappointingly sad story. Of course, there is another side to the U. The cross, which lies at the base of the U, is both the last step of his humiliation and the first step towards his glorification. We know that there is a happy ending that is heralded with the resurrection, leading to a glorious ascension and a magnificent glorification at the right hand of the Father, culminating in a universal recognition of his greatness. But at this point in our journey, that is still a long way off.

Today, as we reflect on the kenosis, as an important aspect of the incarnation, I invite you to reflect on the extent of love that must have motivated the Second Person of the Trinity to take this tremendous dive into humility. How much love must the Triune God have had to elect this course of action? Not even thinking of the cross, how great must God’s love be to take on human form, to limit God’s self to such an extent? Surely, only infinite love could motivate such a choice? Surely this is a love that is willing to risk everything, willing to give up everything, willing to lay down everything? This is love come down in human form.

Meditation for the Day

What would your own kenosis entail? What would you have to empty out of yourself to become nothing? What would it feel like to empty yourself like this? Now reflect on the kenosis of the Son. What does that mean to you?

Prayer for the Day

Jesus Christ, I thank you for the great gift of yourself to us, to me, and the extent to which you were willing to give up for me. Give me courage to walk in your footsteps.

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[1] ‘Humiliation’ in ordinary language means to be publically embarrassed and shamed. It also has a theological meaning, which is similar, but more expansive. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 27) says that, “Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross; in being buried, and continuing under the power of death for a time.”

[2] Erickson, M. J. (1985). Christian theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House, p. 735.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 19: The Incarnation

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

Today marks an important transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. God’s love is continuous across both Testaments – there is no change in God’s attitude and feelings towards us. However, the New Testament heralds a new way of expressing that love! God now comes in person into humanity in the form of Jesus Christ. This is the greatest demonstration of God’s love since the creation. And it allows us to encounter God is a completely new way. God’s coming into the world – the incarnation – is a radical shift in God’s engagement with the world, and sets in motion a wonderful new experience of Being God’s Beloved.

You may recall that on Day 7, when we looked at Exodus 3, we heard God say:

  • I have seen…
  • I have heard…
  • I am concerned…
  • I have come down…

God drew near to Israel in their time of suffering in Egypt.

And now God draws near again, but in a new and profound way – God becomes human.

When we think of the incarnation, many of us think of the baby Jesus born in a manager, which we celebrate at Christmas. But in fact the incarnation took place roughly nine months before, at the conception. It must, surely, be at the conception that the incarnation took place, otherwise what we have is a human baby who is subsequently infused with God’s spirit – and that is no incarnation at all.[1]

Exactly how this works, we cannot be sure. But let us consider the possibility that in some mysterious way, by the Holy Spirit, there is a blending together of human and divine. Mary’s genetic material is spliced together with God’s to form a being who is both fully human and fully divine – two natures in one person, as the Nicene Creed says. It is at the conception that God incarnates into human form – God is woven into the very fabric of Jesus’ genetic makeup, forming a completely new entity: a God-man. This happens at a cellular level, starting with a single cell.

This is an important point, because it points to God’s new work of salvation, which starts at this conception. Let us think back to Genesis 3. Adam and Eve, created in perfection, chose to turn away from fellowship with God. We call that turning away ‘the Fall’, because in that moment something happened not only to Adam as an individual, but to the whole human race. The whole of humanity fell. Indeed, we can say that human nature fell. Something went wrong with who we are as people. As we heard Schaeffer say on Day 17, we are ‘glorious ruins’.

Paul writes about this in Romans 5:12, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” He continues to say this over the following verses (5:15-19): “…many died by the trespass of the one man… The judgement followed one sin and brought condemnation… by the trespass of one man, death reigned through that one man… the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men… through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners.”

In these verses Paul expresses the consequence of the Fall – the sin of one man, Adam – as death, judgement and condemnation. It is human nature that was damaged by the Fall, and that resulted in estrangement from God – the intimate fellowship that Adam and Eve had experienced in the Garden, was shattered and they were cast out into the world. Paul emphasises repeatedly that the action of ONE man impacted the MANY; indeed the ALL. In other words, Adam’s sin (and we should not forget Eve too) changed humanity.

Therefore, the incarnation is a tremendous start to God’s plan to unravel the knotty mess that Adam made. By God inserting Godself into human DNA, God begins to transform humanity at a genetic level. The incarnation is not merely a human being with a particularly large dose of Spirit. The incarnation points to an interweaving of human and divine, to form an integrated, indivisible, whole person. In doing this, God begins to redeem human nature. This does not mean that the incarnation brings salvation to every individual person. Rather, it means that the fabric of what it means to be human is redeemed. God opens up the path to a total transformation of our being, just as Adam’s sin led to a total transformation of our being.

Paul writes about this too in Romans 5:12-20. Throughout this passage, he contrasts Adam with Christ – two individuals, whose lives impacted not only on themselves but on the whole of humanity. Adam impacted us negatively – sin, death, judgement and condemnation – while Christ impacted us positively: “…how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! …the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification… how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. …the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. …through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (5:15-19).

In these verses, which parallel the verses about Adam, Paul expresses the consequences of Jesus’ work: grace, justification, righteousness. And just as Adam’s individual sin impacted the whole of humanity, Jesus’ individual gift impacts the whole of humanity. Yet, twice in this passage, Paul says, “how much more” – Adam impacted everyone, but Jesus impacted everyone even more – the cure is much more powerful than the disease.

Paul picks up this theme again in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49, where he explicitly contrasts Adam as “the first man Adam” and Christ as “the last Adam”. And in the same passage he writes of the “first man” and the “second man”.

Thus, the incarnation is Jesus coming into the world as a renewed and restored kind of human, infused from conception with the divine, setting in motion the redemption of humanity, of human nature, that continues through his ministry and teaching, culminating in the cross and resurrection. This whole sequence of work makes possible the salvation of humanity, and our transformation into the likeness of God.

Roman Catholic and Protestant theology (in other words, the Western Church) has tended to emphasise the cross as the heart of salvation, and this is certainly correct. But the Church Fathers and the Eastern Church (such as Russian Orthodox theology), while recognising the importance of the cross, also emphasised the importance of the incarnation as being central to God’s plan of salvation. Irenaeus, for example, writing in the second century, stressed that the “incarnation itself was redemptive, not merely a necessary step toward either Christ’s teachings or the cross event. Rather the becoming human of the Son of God – God’s eternal Word (Logos) experiencing human existence – was what redeems and restores fallen humanity if they let it. … For Irenaeus, then, the incarnation was the key to the entire history of redemption and to personal salvation. The incarnation was itself transformative… In a literal sense the entire human race is ‘born again’ in the incarnation. It receives a new ‘head’ – a new source, origin, ground of being – that is unfallen, pure and healthy, victorious and immortal. It is ‘fully alive’ – both physically and spiritually.”[2]

One of my books on salvation has a section entitled, “The incarnation: God’s basic act of forgiveness.”[3] I love this title! Think about this. Human nature had fallen into ruin through Genesis 3. Despite everything that we’ve been saying so far about God’s love, let us not forget that God is also holy and righteous, and that sin really is unpleasant for him. It may help to think of sin as something that smells really bad. A couple of days ago, my neighbour laid down fresh manure in their garden – it smelled something awful and invaded every corner of our home. Sin is something like that for God.

And yet in the incarnation God chooses to come close to humanity. God chooses to not just to come close, but to come into humanity. Yet even more than this, God becomes one with humanity! Despite our brokenness and inadequacy, despite the stink of humanity’s sin, God decides to merge God’s divine nature with our human nature. Does that not shake you to the core?

What would motivate God to do such a thing? What could be so powerful as to persuade God to pinch his nose, so to speak, and dive into the smelly world of humanity?

Just one thing: LOVE.

God’s eternal and persistent love for humanity – God’s chesed (God’s loving-kindness tied up in a covenant that God made with humanity) – is extravagant. This love is not genteel, polite, proper, tightly controlled and neatly expressed. It is wild and enthusiastic and joyful and energetic and risky and beautiful! From this heart of extravagant love, God plunges into human existence, taking on all of our ugliness and embracing us just as we are – in our human nature.

This choice – this act – is a demonstration of forgiveness. It is, as Gaybba says, “a basic act of forgiveness.” Not basic in the sense of simple; but basic in the sense of a foundation – the incarnation is the base of forgiveness. It is the first and radical step in God’s great new plan for salvation of humankind.

It is here that God begins to unravel the effects of the fall. It is here that God begins to change the fabric of our being. It is here that God bridges the sin-divide between us and God. It is here that we see God’s love in action.

Meditation for the Day

Consider what it means that God incarnated into the genetic material of humanity. Reflect on God’s demonstration of forgiveness in becoming human.

Prayer for the Day

Precious Saviour, I thank you for coming into the world, for becoming one of us, for becoming like me. Transform me, from the inside to the outside, into your likeness.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] There are, of course, many different perspectives on the incarnation, held fervently by sincere and true Christians. Feel free to differ from me – I do not have exclusive access to Truth. But these are views that I hold fervently and that make sense to me in light of what I understand in the Bible, of theology and my experience of God. If nothing else, let my thoughts stimulate your own thoughts.

[2] Olson, R. E. (1999). The story of Christian theology. DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity Press, pp. 74-75.

[3] Gaybba, B. (2005). Soteriology. Pretoria: Unisa Press, p. 40.

Christ – The Delivered Deliverer

Click here to listen to this 28 minute sermon.

Today we study the passage from Matthew 2: 13-23 which reports on the flight of Joseph and his family from Bethlehem to Egypt and his later return to Nazareth in Galilee. It will be helpful if you have a copy of the passage in front of you before you listen to the recording. If you can’t lay your hands on one quickly, here is a link to an online Bible.

Sometimes, when we read this and similar passages, we get caught up in the events of the narrative and lose sight of the theological meaning that Matthew wove into the text. We read the scripture from our own, Gentile perspective, rather than from the perspective of Matthew’s audience – Jewish Christians, steeped in the Old Testament narrative and theology. In this sermon we peel back the layers to uncover some of the deeper messages that the original readers would have understood.

What we get from this is a deeper insight into Jesus as saviour and redeemer. At one level, the story is about the infant Jesus delivered from a paranoid and violent ruler (Herod). At a deeper level, the story is about Jesus as the deliverer of humanity, the new Moses inaugurating a new Exodus, embodying the new and true Israel.

May Christ rise in your heart as you reflect further on the great miracle of God coming into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the long awaited Messiah.