He ascended into heaven

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

Ascension day is one of those days that Christians can easily miss – it takes place mid-week (on a Thursday) and is not a public holiday in most countries. And many would be hard pressed to give a good account of why the ascension is important. Fortunately, there are several online blogs that speak to the meaning of Christ’s ascension, e.g.,

But I find that the reasons many give are really descriptions of what Jesus does after his ascension – such as sitting at God’s right hand and sending Holy Spirit to us – rather than explanations of the ascension itself. Luke includes a narrative of the ascension both at the end of his Gospel narrative (Luke 24:50-51) and at the start of his sequel about the Apostles (Acts 1:9-10). Clearly, Luke thought the ascension was important.

Let me offer a way of thinking about the theological and practical significance of the ascension.

Let’s go back to the incarnation. In the incarnation God inserted God’s self into human nature at the conception. We can almost thinking that God integrated divine DNA into human DNA to create a new entity – a God-man – Jesus Christ. Orthodox theologians see the incarnation as central to salvation. God redeems and transforms human nature. (Click here to listen to a sermon where I set out the centrality of the incarnation in more detail.)

Let me suggest that in the ascension there is a similar but inverse process. As Jesus ascends to the Father, and as the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is reunited in the ascension, God the Son brings with him some aspect of human nature, including his body, which is woven into the being of God.

What is the evidence for this? Perhaps most importantly, Luke emphasises in both narratives that Jesus ascended bodily, much as he rose bodily. When Jesus rises from dead, he rises with his body – he does not leave it behind and rise as a spiritual being. Of course, his body has been transformed – it has both physical and spiritual qualities. But the BODY is important. We affirm this in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe … in the resurrection of the body”.

So too, in the ascension, Jesus rises with his body – he does not slough off his body, to release his spirit, which rises up to heaven. He ascends with his body. The disciples are described as “looking intently up into the sky as he was going” (Acts 1:10). It seems certain that Jesus physically rose up into the sky until he disappeared in the clouds.

Let me suggest, cautiously, that before the incarnation God did not have first-hand experience of what it is like to be a human being. God is spirit; God transcends time and space. But in the incarnation, God becomes a human being, with all of its limitations. God the Son experiences the joys and the pain of being human. He experiences friendship. He experiences betrayal, torture and death. When God the Son ascends bodily, these experiences are woven into the being of the triune God. God no longer just imagines what human life is like; God now truly and experientially knows what it is like to be human, with all its ups and down.

What this theology offers us in our daily life, is a deep assurance that God really knows what human life is like and what suffering feels like. God is not watching ‘from a distance’ (as Bette Midler so nicely sings). Rather, God is deeply immersed in our human experiences. So, when you are going through dark times, we can be sure that God is fully present with us in the darkness, experiencing them with us, sharing our pain and distress.

God is immediately available and fully experiences all we go through.

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Featured image: Jesus ascending into heaven by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

For God so loved

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the summary text thereafter.

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.

2020.04.22_John316Featured background image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWxBTHVhc3I

Where is God?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 11-minute message. Or watch the video below.

During difficult times, such as we experiencing now with the Coronavirus, many of us find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” And even, “How can God allow such suffering in the world?”

This question is formally called ‘theodicy’ – the doctrine of how a good God can allow evil in the world. Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries. Augustine generated a solution that is widely accepted by the church, illustrated in the graphic below (from https://www.slideshare.net/SharanpreetKaur/augustines-theodicy).

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But such answers provide little comfort when we are in the midst of suffering. These are intellectual and theological answers, not pastoral answers. Over the years, as I have grappled with this question in my own sufferings and particularly in responding to the suffering of others, I have reached two main conclusions:

First, God is always immanently present in our suffering. When God the Son incarnated into the human named Jesus of Nazareth, God fully entered into the human experience, with all its ups and downs. Ultimately, God experienced even death, on the cross, an experience God had not had until this moment. We read in John 11 of Jesus’ grief at the grave of Lazarus – he was genuinely distressed and saddened by the death of his friend and by his witnessing of the grief of Lazarus’ family.

Jesus was then, and always is, present in the midst of suffering. Where is God? He is right here, sharing our grief and pain, standing with us in the darkest of times. He is by no means far off and emotionally disengaged.

Second, while this is usually of little comfort in the midst of suffering, God repeatedly shows the capacity for bringing good out of bad. This does not make the bad good. No! The bad remains bad. But god has the capacity to give birth to good through bad. Paul assures of this in Romans 8:28, when he writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We this most dramatically on the cross. Humanity murdered, executed God the Son. This was a fundamentally bad and depraved thing we did. And yet through this, God gave birth to salvation for humankind, reconciliation and forgiveness for all who would seize it.

God is always working to bring good out of bad, giving us the capacity to transform darkness into light. This is not about persuading ourselves that a bad thing is actually good, but rather about being open to something good emerging out of the bad.

As we continue to journey through the crisis of COVID-19, which looks set to get worse before it gets better, I encourage you to keep turning towards God. I encourage you to ask the “Where is God?” question, because God wants to engage us honestly and sincerely with this tough question.

May God journey closely with you during this difficult time.

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Christ our light

Click here to listen to this 26-minute message:

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (which actually takes place on 6 January tomorrow). ‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation’ or ‘revelation’. Something is revealed and made known to us. What is this thing? Let me answer in thee steps.

1. Jesus is the light

Our key reading for today, from Matthew 2:1-12, about the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus, refers repeatedly to the star that the Magi see, interpret and follow. It is a light that they see that reveals the coming of a King, a saviour, and the follow it:

1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.

9-10 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

John 1:1-9 tells a similar story about John’s cosmology of Christ as the incarnate light:

1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

4-5 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6-9 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

The prophecies of old also speak to the coming of light into the world, as we see in Isaiah 9:2:

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Simeon, a righteous, devout and Spirit-filled man of God, prophesies similarly over the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple for a blessing, in Luke 2:29-32:

30-32 “For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

While all of these references to the light refer to Jesus as the light, Jesus himself refers to us as the light, in Matthew 4:14-16:

14-16 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

So, the narrative of Jesus being the Light is compelling. But what does it mean? What is he the light of?

2. Jesus is the light of God

Central to our (Western Church, i.e., Protestant and Catholic) understanding of the Epiphany, is that Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, as the Anointed One, as the Messiah, as God in the flesh. This leads us to the concept of the incarnation, which is foundational to everything we understand of Christ and his work among us. (Click here to listen to a previous message I’ve preached on the incarnation or here and here to read reflections on the incarnation and the kenotic U.) The incarnation is the idea that God emptied God’s self, pouring himself out to become smaller and smaller, more and more finite and situated, into a single cell, into an embryo.

For our friends in the Eastern Orthodox churches, however, Epiphany focuses not on the Magi but on the Baptism of Christ, where the revelation is not just about Christ, but about the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in essence, Epiphany lead us to a manifestation of the Triune God, made visible in the light that Jesus Christ brings into the darkest of places.

(If you are listening to this message, you might like to watch this video during this section of my sermon. It was playing on the screen while I presented it. Be patient – it takes several seconds before you’ll see anything. And be at peace – it was designed to be a subtle visual cue in the background, not a wildly exciting video.)

So, who is this light for?

3. Jesus is the light of the world

The importance of the Magi is that they were not Jews. They came from a long way away (for those days) – Persia (now Iran) or Yemen (where the ingredients for Frankincense and Myrrh are produced and a conduit of gold from Africa to the Middle East). Wherever they came from, their symbolic significance is that they were Gentiles, and thus represent everyone else who is not part of the ‘inner circle’.

In Jesus time, and even in the early church, this meant those who were not Jewish. The fact that Gentiles were among the first to worship Jesus (let’s not forget the shepherds, who represent rural, blue collar workers) indicates that the Gospel is for them also.

Today this means that the Gospel is for the LGBTQI+ community, for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. For the smart and not so smart. For the morally good and for the morally bad. For young and old, black and white, rich and poor. For everyone. No person is excluded from the great project of God to redeem humanity, as we read in many passages of the Bible, e.g.,

God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations. (Luke 2:30-31)

In short, Epiphany reminds us that:

Jesus is the light of God for the whole world

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Featured image from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2014/01/where-did-the-wise-men-come-from.html

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”.

Image may contain: 1 person

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: