Who do you say I am?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eternity just here

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follow.

Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John to pray (Luke 9:28-31). While he prays, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a lightning flash. And he is seen talking with Moses and Elijah, the great heroes of the Jewish community.

The boundary that separates the ordinary, daily, lived world that we inhabit from the world of the divine, of eternity, of spiritual beings, of God – that boundary is momentarily breached. It is like a dividing curtain has been pulled aside and we are given a glimpse into heaven itself.

These two worlds – the earthly finite world and the heavenly eternal world – are always touching, pressed right up against each other. Indeed, there are people crossing over from one to the other every minute, as they die.

The materialistic world view – that we believe in only what we can see and touch, measure and weigh – has become so prominent in the world today. Many people have given up any belief in a spiritual realm, in an afterlife, in God.

Luke tells us that Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but that when they became fully awake, they saw his glory (Luke 9:32). He emphasises this because we all know that when we sleep and dream, anything is possible. The rules of this material world do not apply when we are asleep. Had the disciples been ‘sleepy’ when they saw Jesus transfigure, we could put their story down to them just dreaming. But Luke emphasises this – they were fully awake – all of their critical, rational faculties, all of their empirical senses were fully active when they saw the glory of Jesus revealed.

How wonderful it would be if we were all fully awake so that we too could perceive the eternal that is just here.

2020.08.06_Saint_Catherines_TransfigurationFeatured image of the apse mosaic of the Transfiguration scene from St. Catherine monastery in Sinai, available here. This is the oldest known image of the transfiguration, dating to AD 565-6.

Visit this website to learn more about this piece of art, as well as other artists’ depictions of the transfiguration: http://tamedcynic.org/the-transfiguration-through-art/

Why Jesus would say ‘Black Lives Matter’

Click here to listen to the audio of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the very brief textual summary that follows.

I appreciate that this topic will be controversial for many. I really encourage you to watch this message please and not just read it, particularly if you find the title problematic. At least, just listen to what I have to say, even if you decide you don’t agree with it.

But, very briefly, the main points are:

  1. Jesus died for ALL of humanity – for the whole world – and would thus say, without equivocation, ‘All lives matter‘.
  2. But Jesus would also confront us, saying that we do not live our lives as if all lives mattered.
  3. Jesus’ ministry consistently and deliberately positions himself with those who are vulnerable, oppressed, poor, or marginalised: women, Samaritans, lepers, prostitutes, menstruating women, the dead.
  4. Throughout his ministry – throughout the Gospels – Jesus enacts the message that Black lives matter, Women’s lives matter, Immigrants’ lives matter, Children’s lives matter, etc.
  5. Jesus is not saying the lives of the poor matter more than other people’s lives; but that their lives do not matter less than other people’s lives.
  6. Jesus is sensitive to power differentials and deliberately chooses to stand with those who are disempowered and often against those who are powerful. The story of the woman caught in adultery is a good example.
  7. Jesus sometimes engages with the powerful, but does so in a way that helps them to recognise and challenge their privilege. The story of Zacchaeus is a good example example.
  8. Jesus’ ministry is consistently one of bringing down the powerful and raising up the powerless – a reversal of fortunes. Mary’s Magnificat is a good sermon on this.
  9. In the new heaven and the new earth, all lives will actually matter in people’s lives experience. But in today’s society, this is not true. Today, all lives are not equal and not equally valued. And in this times, Jesus would be saying: Women’s lives matter, Children’s lives matter, Immigrant lives matter, LGBTQI lives matter, Black lives matter.

Jesus at the centre

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

John 14:6-11 is located immediately after the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet, as well as Jesus’ prediction of Judas’ and Peter’s betrayals. John 14 starts a four-chapter long sermon – Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his death.

In the opening of this section, Jesus presents himself as at the centre of our faith. He says to Peter, “You [already] believe in God [the Father]; [I now invite you to] believe also in me” (John 14:1). To believe in the Father is to believe in the Son. He goes on famously to say, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus places himself at the centre of our relationship with God the Father. It is through him that we encounter God. Jesus is the centre.

But lest we think that Jesus is setting himself up as the mediator between us and God, he goes even further, audaciously, to say that he and the Father are one. “If you really know me, you will not know my Father as well … Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father … Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is is in me? … I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:7-11). And just a few chapters earlier, Jesus had said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

Jesus is not merely a path to God. He is God. He is God the Son. He is locked into the Father and the Father is locked into him. In the very following passage (John 14:15-27), Jesus speaks about Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who will come to continue the work of the Father and the Son, once the Son has returned to the Father. When we relate to Jesus, we are relating to God, because Jesus is God.

Ultimately, sensing that Philip and the other disciples are grappling to grasp these complex and elusive concepts, Jesus says, “At least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” (John 14:11): You have heard me teaching. You have seen me heal people, raise the dead, feed thousands. You have witnessed me reaching out to women, tax collectors, lepers, prostitutes, menstruating women, disabled people, Samaritans and Gentiles. You have heard me speak truth to power and challenge rigid interpretations of the law. You have heard me proclaim a new Law that supersedes the Law of Moses.

What you are seeing is God at work among you!

Jesus must be at the centre of our personal and collective faith. The things of the church are helpful and perhaps even important. Jesus does not do away with them. But they must not be at the centre.

Jesus – the person Jesus – is the only one worthy of being at the centre.

He is our friend, our brother, our teacher, our healer, our saviour, our Lord, our very God.

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Featured image is the ‘glory window’ of the Thanksgiving Chapel in Dallas, Texas.

The Great Love of Jesus

Click here to listen to this 7-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text that follows after that.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the first of a trio of days called the ‘Triduum’, which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – the three days before Christ’s resurrection on Saturday. On Maundy Thursday evening we usually have a service that commemorates and celebrates two key events in Jesus’ life this day: the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet. These are two enormous demonstrations of the great, extravagant, generous love that Jesus has for all of humankind.

The Last Supper is a symbolic enactment of Jesus’ giving of himself to us – his body and his blood. He is about to pour himself out for humanity, and indeed for the cosmos. And so he takes and blesses bread and wine and gives them to his disciples as a metaphorical giving of himself to us, so that we have within us – which is why we consume the bread and wine – the presence of Christ.

During a Eucharist service, when I distribute the host – the body of Christ – I say the words, “Receive the body of Christ, broken for you, because he loves you.” I want people to experience that this bit of ‘bread’ is a tangible manifestation of Christ’s great love for them. Sometimes, I even press the host into the palm of their hand, until the person pushes back against me, to give an unmistakable physical experience of the presence of Jesus being pressed into their body.

The washing of the disciples’ feet speaks most clearly of Jesus’ servant attitude. He did not come to be glorified or worshiped or exalted. Rather, he came to serve. And this service is vividly demonstrated in his taking off his outer clothes, putting a towel around his waist and getting down on his knees to wash the feet of his followers. It shows again his self-giving and self-sacrificial love, and his willingness to give the whole of himself for our salvation.

In these two acts – the Last Supper and the foot washing – Jesus reminds you that he loves YOU. You who are reading this right now! Say your name out loud now ______________ and hear this message: God love you ______________ . He loves you profoundly and generously, utterly and unconditionally. Try to remember this during the rest of the day.

To help you remember, I suggest you periodically press your thumb into the palm of your other hand and think the words, “This is my body, broken for you, because I love you.”

Featured image from: https://baptistmag.org.nz/feet-washing/

Look! The Lamb of God

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

This message is a call for us to see and look at Jesus, the Lamb of God. And to point him out others. This was the mission of John the Baptist, and it as much ours today.

We are still in the period of Epiphany, where we focus on the manifestation or revealing of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as God’s Chosen One. Our reading for this Sunday is John 1:29-37:

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One [or Son].”

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

Bruner, who has written a wonderful (1200 page) commentary on John, translates some of these verses differently, emphasising the use of present and continuous tenses in the original Greek, notably:

29 The next day John sees Jesus coming toward him, and he says, “Look! The Lamb of the God, the One who is taking away the sin of the world!

36 And John looked intently at Jesus as Jesus is walking by and he says, “Look! The Lamb of God!” 

I focus on these two verses in this message, as I have felt God speaking to me particularly insistently this week about verse 29. And I make five points:

  1. John sees Jesus coming and walking towards him. Jesus is always coming towards us, even if we are moving away from him. His trajectory is always in our direction.
  2. Look! John twice says, “Look!”. I like Bruner’s addition of the exclamation mark, as it emphasises that this is a call, an imperative. John wants us to stop drifting through life blindly. Or from being so focused on other things that we don’t notice Christ coming towards us. So he calls out, in excitement, perhaps even in alarm, “Look! Look out!”
  3. Jesus is taking away the sin of the world. This is a pretty packed little sentence:
    • John speaks about ‘sin‘, not ‘sins’. It is the condition of being sinful that Jesus takes away, rather than the individual sinful acts that we do.
    • John says that Jesus ‘is taking‘, emphasising that this is a continuous activity, that has already begun, is presently happening and will continue to happen in the future. While Jesus’ death on and resurrection from the cross are surely pivotal in salvation, God has been saving humanity through the Son from the time of the fall, throughout the First Testament, through Jesus’ incarnation, life and ministry, through his death, resurrection and ascension, by the outpouring of Holy Spirit, and continuing to today and into the future. The Son of God has been and continues to be in the business of taking away sin.
    • It is the sin ‘of the world‘ (the ‘cosmos’) that Jesus takes away, not just the sin of those who repent, those who believe, those who are members of certain churches or religions, those who adhere to certain church rules or doctrine. Scripture abounds with verses that reinforce that salvation is for and of the whole world (the cosmos). It is a radical inclusion of the entire created order – the cosmos!
  4. Salvation is thus possible for all, but we have to take hold of it. That’s why John keeps saying, “Look!”, and why we are told in verse 37 that John’s disciples leave John to follow Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. In the Eucharist or Mass, we celebrate and re-member this great work of God the Son.
  5. And finally, we, like John and his disciples, and like Jesus’ disciples (about whose calling we learn in the rest of John 1), are invited to continue John’s ministry of pointing people to Jesus. We remind people that Christ is coming towards them. We call them to ‘Look!’ We point them not to our denomination, our pastors, our worship, ourselves; but towards Christ himself. And we show through our lives, our inclusivity, our radical love and our walking towards others that he is indeed taking away the sins of the world .

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Featured image: Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness, by Annibale Carracci, ca. 1600, downloaded from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438813

To be saved

Click here to listen to this 19-minute message.

Our Gospel reading for today is the rather curious passage from Luke 20:27-38, which involves a convoluted story about a woman who was married and remarried to seven brothers in succession, with the hope that one of them would impregnate her. The question asked of Jesus by the Sadducees was which of them would be her husband at the resurrection. It is a rather awful story, filled with patriarchal beliefs about women, marriage and child bearing.

I did not feel God leading me to preach on this passage today.

However, the point of the story is of interest. Jesus affirms that there IS a resurrection, that there is an afterlife, and that it will be wonderful. And this affirmation of Jesus – that life does not simply end when our bodies die – prompts us to think about salvation and what it means to be saved.

For that, we turn to our Second Testament reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 (I’ve bolded some of the key words):

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[b] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

What do we learn about salvation from this passage?

  • First, God chose us – God called us. Salvation is always God’s initiative. And God chooses and calls every person into fellowship with God. God’s mission is to reconcile the WHOLE world to God’s self, under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-14). When God calls us, God calls us by name. It is personal. God wants YOU personally. It is not just that God wants to save everyone, like some anonymous conglomerate of humanity. No! It is that God’s has chosen YOU personally, by name, and called you to be in fellowship with God, to be saved.
  • Second, we are saved through two main actions (according to this passage):
    • First, we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. When God calls us, Holy Spirit comes and resides in us. Spirit makes a home in our hearts, comes and lives inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:19). God works to transform us into the image of Christ, from the inside out, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
    • Second, we are saved through our belief in the truth. And what is this truth? Jesus Christ is truth (John 14:6; John 8:31-32). We can do nothing to attain salvation; salvation is in its entirety the result of Christ’s work, through creation, his incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of God. We can’t add to this. All we can do is respond to the truth of it. And ‘to believe in’ something or someone is much the same as ‘to trust in’ someone or even better, ‘to entrust ourselves’ to someone. We entrust ourselves into the truth of Jesus.
  • Third, the result of this salvation is that we get to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not so much that we become glorious, but that we bask in the radiance of God’s glory. We can be confident that when we die, we enter into the enjoyable and wonderful presence of God. Jesus spoke about this in our earlier reading (Luke 20:36): “they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
  • Finally, because of all of this, we are encouraged to stand firm and hold fast to our faith. Sometimes, maybe often, our faith is frail and feeble. Sometimes life gets on top of us. Sometimes we succumb to sin. Sometimes pain, suffering and illness burden us. Sometimes evil in the world – violence, hatred, exclusion, oppression, poverty and injustice – overwhelm us. In these times, especially, God calls us, urges us, to stand firm in and to hold fast to Christ.

In Paul’s final words in this brief passage, he offers a blessing. I liked this blessing so much, we read it four times during the service, twice as a blessing, with my hand outstretched. I again stretch out my hands to you in blessing, saying:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

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Jesus’ Law

Click here to listen to this 13-minute message.

In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus presents (albeit very briefly) his most comprehensive teaching on his view of Law of Moses. He says that he has not come to abolish the law, that the dot on every i and the cross on every t is vital, that the Law has not passed away, and that we need to practice and teach it. Many commentators (naturally) read this to mean that the First Testament Law is as binding on Christians today as it was on the people of Israel in years between Moses and Christ.

However, when we look at Jesus’ teaching and behaviour, even just within Matthew’s Gospel, we see him repeatedly massaging the Law, challenging the Law, even brazenly disobeying the Law – certainly as the Law was understood by the Pharisees of his day. For example:

  1. Matthew 5:21-48. Through the rest of chapter 5, Jesus uses the formula: “You have heard that it was said… But I tell you…” In this formula he, by his own authority, reinterprets the Law and in cases appears to overturn it. At its heart, he shifts the focus from the external letter of the Law, towards the heart attitude underlying the Law. And is so doing, makes keeping the Law much harder.
  2. Matthew 9:14-17. Here Jesus breaks the fasting laws. He is challenged on this, and explains that since the he is there, they should celebrate.
  3. Matthew 12:1-14. Here Jesus breaks the Sabbath laws – very important laws! He walks, he harvests and he eats, all on the Sabbath, and with his disciples. When challenged by the Pharisees, he even uses the Law to justify his breaking of the Law! And then he goes on to heal a man. In the parallel story in Mark’s Gospel (2:27), Jesus justifies his breaking of the Sabbath Laws by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”
  4. Matthew 15:1-20. Here Jesus breaks the dietary (Kosher) laws (specifically not washing their hands before they eat). His answer is quite wide-ranging. He says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (v11). And then he later explains in more detail: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them

How do we reconcile Matthew 5’s apparently strict teaching with the rest of Jesus’ teaching and his daily behaviour? They do appear to be at odds with each other!

I suggest the following:

  • Under the First Testament Law, people believed that keeping the Law lead to Righteousness (i.e. to a right relationship with God). Because of this, they invested in keeping the Law down to the smallest letter (the jot and the tittle in the King James version). And the Pharisees, in particular, were highly devout in unpacking what each Law meant, and how it had to be lived out in the daily life.
  • Under the Second Testament, Jesus teaches that Righteousness (i.e. having a right relationship with God) leads to the keeping of the Law. We are made right with God through Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. He is the one who, through his grace, makes us right with God, and we receive this righteousness through faith. Because of this, and in the power of the Spirit, we are enabled to keep God’s Law. But even this Law is not a legalistic ‘jot and tittle’ law, but a living, heart-based, relationship-centred Law. It is the Law of Love.

I end with a paraphrase of Matthew 5:17-20 by RT France (2007, pp. 190-191) in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

“Do not suppose that I came to undermine the authority of the OT scriptures, and in particular the law of Moses. I did not come to set them aside but to bring into reality that to which they pointed forward. I tell you truly: the law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that is points forward to will in fact become a reality (and is now doing so in my ministry). So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new regime, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.

“But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly: it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rulekeeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment.”

 

The Word became flesh

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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: