Turn to Christ’s right

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 21-minute message. Or click here to watch the video on Facebook (start play at about 18:10 to watch just the sermon).

Today is the Festival of Christ the King – the last Sunday of the church’s annual calendar and the day on which we celebrate Christ as the King of the Universe.

There are numerous passages in the Bible that present Christ as not just a great teacher, healer and prophet, but also as the King of the Kingdom of God, as the King of Universe, as the Cosmic Christ, For example, Matthew 25:31, Ephesians 1:20-22, Philippians 2:9-11 and Colossians 1:15-19.

Our primary readings for today are Matthew 25:31-46 and Ezekiel 34:1-24. Both readings focus on Christ as King – Ezekiel in the form of a prophecy and Matthew in Jesus’ own words about the return of the Son of Man. And both passages tell us the same thing about what Christ will do when he returns:

Christ will separate humanity

Christ will divide us in two groups: those on his right who will inherit eternal life and those on his left who will go away to eternal punishment. This splitting of the world into two distinct groups is hard for us to grasp and accept, but this is what the passages say.

Matthew divides the world into the sheep on Christ’s right and goats on Christ’s left. Ezekiel prophesies two further divisions. First, the sheep on the right and neglectful shepherds on the left. And second, a dividing of the sheep into the lean sheep on the right and the fat sheep on the left.

This separation that the Son of God will create leaves:

  • Sheep (lean/thin sheep) on the right
  • Goats, neglectful shepherds and fat sheep on the left

Surely, we want to be on Christ’s right!

Our passages give us clear, detailed reasons for this separation, which show that we have a great deal of control over which group we may be assigned to in future.

Matthew 25 makes it clear that the division is not based on our belief in Jesus as the Son of God, of our adherence to Christian doctrine, our participation in Church, our tithing, etc. No! Instead, the separation is based on kindness to those who are vulnerable. That’s it. Such a simple thing, it might seem. Just kindness. Compassion. Caring. The sheep who go to the right hand of Christ as those who care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25:40).

Ezekiel 34’s first separation is the shepherds from the sheep. The shepherds here are the leaders of Israel. In our time, the shepherds are the pastors of the church – ministers, priests, clergy – as well as lay leaders – wardens, councillors, elders, ministry leaders. God’s charge against the shepherds was that they did not take care of their flock. They were neglectful, so that the flocks became vulnerable to wild animals. Even worse, the shepherds were eating the sheep entrusted into their care! Thus the Lord says, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ez 34:10). Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for the flock, specifically by those into whose care the flock has been placed, i.e. church leaders.

And Ezekiel 34’s second separation is a separation within the flock of sheep – the fat from the lean. This is not a commentary on body size! Instead, the fat sheep are those members of a church who inflate themselves at the expense of others. The Lord says, “You [the fat sheep] shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak [lean] sheep with your horns until you have driven them away” (Ez 34:21). The separation is based on bullying, criticising and breaking down each other in a church. Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for each other within the flock.

How then do we turn to Christ’s right?

We as individuals – and we as a church community (for my congregation, it is the parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton) – can and should live our lives in such a way that we keep turning to Christ’s right, turning to the right, turning to Christ’s right. And we can do that on a day-to-day basis by showing kindness and compassion to those who are going through hard times, by caring for the God’s people if we hold positions of leadership in the church, and by treating each other kindly within the church community.

It’s kind of simple really!

Keep turning to Christ’s right

Early 20th Century reproduction of a 6th century mosaic, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/466573

He wants it all!

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

In Luke 11:42-44, Jesus issues a series of ‘woes’ (or warnings) against the Pharisees, who were a group of highly religious, devout Jewish people. They were also religious leaders, so these woes are issued against both those who think of themselves as highly religious and against those who are occupy leadership positions in the church (including both clergy and laypeople).

Today, we focus on just Luke 11:42:

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

Jesus draws a contrast between tithing (specifically tithing of food, but we can apply it equally to tithing of money) and justice (which can be considered the love of neighbour) and the love of God.

Jesus draws this contrast frequently in the Gospels. It is the contrast between the inner (heart) life and the outer (public) life. He repeatedly calls for alignment between these two, and he speaks out particularly harshly against those who emphasise the outer life and neglect the inner life.

The story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4 illustrates this very nicely:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

While outwardly, the rich gave more money than the widow, they gave only a tiny percent of what they had, while the little she gave was all she had. The percentage of what is given is more important than the absolute amount that is given. The motivation for giving is more important than the absolute amount given. The external appearance of the money is not important; rather, the inner heart out of which the money is given is what is important to Jesus.

Jesus also emphasises social justice in this passage, as well as love of God. In Luke 10:27, Jesus answers the question about what we must do to inherit eternal life with the Great Commandment:

“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”

This vertical and horizontal love is absolutely foundational to what it means to be an authentic Christian or follower of Christ. Jesus issues these woes against the Pharisees because they had neglected these fundamental expressions of authentic faith – they had neglected to love God and they had neglected social justice.

We would, however, be wrong to conclude that Jesus is saying the outward expression of faith is unimportant, and only the heart is important. NO! In fact, Jesus stresses that BOTH are important! He wraps up this verse:

You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

Tithing – giving of our material resources – remains important! He wants:

  • Social justice
  • Love of God
  • Our money

In short, Jesus wants it all!

Featured image from https://img3.goodfon.com/wallpaper/nbig/8/92/love-heart-romantic-tree.jpg

What to do about evil

Click here to listen to the audio of this 22-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the introductory text message after that.

Today’s message is from Matthew 13: 24-30, in which Jesus tells the parable of the weeds. It is followed, later in the chapter, by Jesus’ explanation of the parable (Matthew 13: 36-43). Preachers are generally expected to ‘have all the answers’ when they preach the Word of God, but in truth, preachers are just people like all other people.

The passage set for today is – for me – an exceptionally difficult passage, because (a) Jesus’ message seems to contradict his own consistent message through word and action and (b) Jesus appears to be telling us to do nothing about evil in our midst, but rather to leave it until the end of the age, the Day of judgement. If we were to live according to this passage, we would have allowed evil to flourish over the past 2000+ years since Jesus preached this message.

So what are we do with a message that seems fundamentally wrong. Was Jesus mistaken?

I encourage you listen to the audio recording or watch the video to see my grappling with the message and how I try to make sense of it. Evil in the world – and evil in our midst (our family, community, workplace, church, etc.) – is a serious matter and warrants our critical engagement and reflection.

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.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 16: God’s Love and God’s Justice

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

Having spent many days reflecting on God’s love, some may be becoming a bit anxious that God seems soft, even spineless. Where are the standards, the commandments, the consequences? Ideally, we might like to live in a nice, mushy, lovey-dovey world, but in truth we live in a fallen world where people do bad things to other people. Where does God’s love fit into that? What about justice, punishment, judgement? Are we really all called to love one another to such an extent that we allow wrongdoers to get away with murder? Does forgiveness mean no-one is held accountable for their crimes?

These are complex questions, to which there are no easy answers. When we place God’s love in the centre of life, things get harder not easier. When holiness or righteousness are central, it is much easier – God loves you but expects you to do right, and if you do wrong there are consequences, so you better watch out! The eye-for-an-eye philosophy of justice is very workable. But then Jesus comes and says, “Turn the other cheek” and “forgive 70 times 70 times” and that is very hard to understand, let alone live out.

So, let us step back a bit and define these key words: love and justice. This in itself is a huge challenge as there are so many understandings of both. But let me suggest some definitions for us to chew over.

God’s love for us, and our replicated love for others, is intended to be unconditional – it emanates from the goodness of God and God’s superabundance of love. God has so much love that God is able to love even if we don’t love God back, even if we don’t believe in God, even if we hate God. In this way, God’s love is dependent entirely on God, and not at all on us. We sometimes call this agape love – self-less, self-giving love that seeks nothing in return.

But this is not the whole of God’s love. While God’s love is indeed unconditional, it also greatly desires relationship with us.[1] God’s love is not conditional on the relationship, unlike chesed, which is contingent on the covenant relationship. However, God’s love yearns for covenant relationship, seeks mutual and reciprocal exchange of love. We see this in God’s behaviour. Rather than sitting in heaven and loving us unconditionally from afar, God decided, because of extravagant love, to extend God’s self into the world by sending the Son to us to work for reconciliation between us and God (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11). Divine love, then, while unconditional, seeks relationship and reciprocity.

Christian love – that is, our love for others – is modelled on God’s love. Linda Woodhead has defined it as “an active desire for the well-being of the neighbour, and for communion with him or her, based on a recognition of the neighbour’s unique worth”.[2] Her definition is helpful, if challenging. Christian love is initiated by ourselves, and in this way unconditional – we choose to love because we choose to love, not because the person is love-worthy. We love because of the inherent worth of the other as one of God’s creatures, but we do not whitewash all people with the same inherent worth – a bland, faceless love for everyone. Rather, Christian love emphasises recognition of unique worth; that is, I extend myself to seek out particular aspects of that individual that are loveable and even likable. And it is two-way, seeking not only to express love at arm’s length, but also to establish relationship, communion, fellowship. And all of this is just the way God loves me and you and the other person.

And justice? Justice can be thought of as God’s desire for right relationships between people and others (God and other people).[3] ‘Right relationships’ includes freedom, human rights, access to resources, dignity, opportunity to get ahead, the absence of exploitation or oppression, having a voice, having power, acceptance, respect. So, where there are wrong relationships, there is no justice, and God’s vision and desire for humanity is violated. When we think of God working for justice or righteousness, then, we are thinking of God working to establish right relationships between people. In other words, God’s commitment to justice is a commitment to liberation.

God’s motive for justice is love. And the result of justice, as defined above, is love. So justice and love are not incompatible – they are very closely related. Love requires justice, because love cannot stand idly by and watch God’s beloved being harmed. But justice requires love, because justice can easily degenerate into a dictatorship. Fortunately for us, in God love and justice are in perfect balance, with God’s love for all of creation in the centre.

Let us accept God’s love for every individual, both good people and bad people, both believers and unbelievers. God does not merely love abstractly – God loves relationally, personally, by name. Thus God is constantly at work to establish fellowship with each of these individuals. In so doing, God seeks to establish a right relationship between God and each individual. Various life events, then, including both happy and unhappy life experiences, may be agents of God’s efforts to establish such relationships, thereby working for justice in the divine-human relationship.

But what does God do when one person (or group of people) harms another person? The first person is not exercising love and is behaving in an unjust way. How does God balance love and justice in such a situation? If God merely forgives that person, where is justice?

The problem with these questions is that they stem from an inadequate grasp of love and justice. And of course, from the pain of being harmed, and particularly so when it is someone we love, such as a spouse or child, who has been harmed.

God’s love, as we’ve defined it above, is for the well-being of the individual and for communion with her or him. So, when God loves that person, God desires their well-being. And our well-being is tied up in our being in right relationships with those around us and with God. So love cannot condone or accommodate harming others – this is antithetical to love. God’s love desires wholeness in that person, and wholeness involves right relationships, and thus God’s love does not overlook the wrong doing, but works towards repentance and reconciliation.

In this way, there is no conflict between love and justice. Justice demands right relationships, and right relationships are vital to well-being and communion. Thus, God’s justice requires repentance by the one who has harmed another. Repentance, contrition, penitence are essential elements of justice and necessary for reconciliation.

But notice that this kind of justice is not about throwing perpetrators into jail (or hell) and throwing away the key. It is not an eye for an eye. It is not just about punishment or retribution. Rather, divine justice, Christian justice, is ultimately about setting things right – relationships, values, respect, wholeness, wellbeing. When all is right, all is just.

We ourselves have experienced this with God, even if we don’t feel like we were a very bad person. Our sin left us in a wrong relationship with God and other people and, indeed, ourselves. According to justice defined as retribution, we deserved to be punished, cast out, thrown down. But God’s love for us desired justice defined as right relationship. And so God sought out what is loveable in us, called us to change, established a clear relationship with us, and prompted us to clean up our act and to engage in wholesome relationships with those around us. Even so, none of us does all of these things very well. Yet God still loves us, and works for our righteousness.

We have been justified with God. And “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand… God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:1-2, 5-8).

Meditation for the Day

Think about your own salvation, how God expressed divine love in reaching out to you, in spite of all your sin, and has been working ever since for you to be in right relationship. Think about someone who has harmed you. How do you transfer what God has done for you to what you do for that person? This is not easy.

Prayer for the Day

Oh God of justice and love, please work in me your great work of love to transform me into your likeness and to establish righteousness and justice in my relationships with the world around me.


[1] Marshall, C. D. (2001). Beyond retribution: A New Testament vision for justice, crime, and punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, p. 27.

[2] Woodhead, L. (1992). Love and justice. Studies in Christian Ethics, 1(5), 44-63, p. 56.

[3] Marshall, p. 28.