Christianity made simple

Click here to listen to this 22-minute message.

The theme I was allocated for today’s sermon was ‘Make it simple’. Make it simple! What a theme!! I’m good at making things complex, nuanced and sophisticated; not at making the complex and (ultimately) unknowable simple.

So I start this message by sharing my testimony of how I became a Christian on 21 October 1984.

I then use the four readings allocated for today to pull out two main themes:

  1. Psalm 116 uses the phrase “I call on the name of the Lord” four times, emphasising that in response to both the highs and lows of life, we are to choose to call on God’s name.
  2. Joshua, in Joshua 24:14-18, calls people to choose this day who they will follow: God or not God.
  3. In Ephesians 4:25-5:1, Paul exhorts Christians to “be kind and compassionate” to other people and to “walk in the way of love”.
  4. And in Luke 6:27-36, Jesus says, “to you who are listening I say: Love”. This is always his command and call, the most basic command that he gives and the one that he gives most frequently. This time, he ups the ante by calling us to ‘love our enemies’, because loving those who love us is something everyone does. We who follow Christ, however, are called to more than that.

Together, these readings present to us a very simple (albeit not easy) approach to Christianity:

Choose God

Choose love

It is really as simple as that. And while these sound like two things, they are in fact one, because God is love (1 John 4:8). So, in truth, at its simplest level, being a Christian means:

Choose the God of love

Let it be so.

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Trinitarian relationship

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The concept and doctrine of the Trinity is enough to give anyone a headache. And the various metaphors people use to make it easier to grasp all fall short of adequately capturing this doctrine. But in this message I suggest that the evidence for a triune (three-in-one) God provided in the scriptures lead us to a fairly simple but important conceptualisation of the Trinity, viz. God is about relationship.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit have co-existed from before the creation of time and space. They have been in eternal relationship with one another from before the beginning. This relationship between the three is so intense, so powerful, so intimate, so harmonious, that they are in fact one being, one God. This relationship is one of perfect love. Only love can weld three persons together into one being.

If relationship is so central to the being of God, then relationship should be central to us also. We are created in God’s image, and that image is relationship. So, our relationships should be important to us, vitally important to us. We are most like God when we are in relationships that reflect the love we find between Father, Son and Spirit.

This plays out at the macro level, in relations between people of a different race, ethnic group, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religion, denomination, and so on. In South Africa, we have been well-schooled in othering and diminishing those who are different from us. There is no place in God’s Kingdom for such othering.

This plays out also at the micro level, in our relationships with our parents, siblings, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, neighbours and fellow Christians. How are we doing with these?

Today – Trinity Sunday – we need to reflect critically on our relationships with others and repent from the ways in which our relationships are broken. We need to hold before us the model of the triune God and strive to become related to others like Father, Son and Spirit are related to each other.

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Love one another

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I have been redeployed from the church I’ve attended for over 20 years (St Martin-in-the-Fields) to a new church, not too far away (St Stephens, Lyttelton) as part of my curacy. Today was the first time I have preached to this new parish, so it was a good opportunity to lay down what is most important to my faith and that what is most prominent in my preaching. And it is this:

God is most essentially and completely LOVE. The three persons of the Godhead (Father, Son and Spirit) have been in eternal relationship with one another since before the creation of time and space. It is the profound love between these three persons that makes the one being. God created time and space out of a fullness of love. God created humanity out of a generosity of love, to be shared. And God’s actions throughout human history embody and describe love. Love that is fierce, generous, extravagant, radically inclusive, steadfast and unshakable.

Today’s reading from John 13:34-35 sets out Jesus’ command to us:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

In this message, I provide the context in which Jesus delivered this message – a context that represents on the crisis points in his ministry, characterised by betrayal, denial and isolation.

And I set out what is ‘new’ about old command to love, viz. the source of our capacity to love and the missional impact of our love for one another.

Let the love of God be the centre of your life.

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Courage!

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There are times in life where we are called upon to stand up for truth or justice, or simply to challenge someone in our family or workplace. Sometimes, we back off from these situations because it seems too intimidating. It is at times like this that we need courage – courage that comes from God.

Jeremiah 1:4-10 tells the story of such a time:

  1. God commissions Jeremiah, with an amazing promise: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew [or chose] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
  2. Jeremiah responds with consternation (fear, anxiety, trepidation): “Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”
  3. God responds with words of encouragement, to give Jeremiah courage: “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ … Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you. I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

This three-fold pattern – commission, consternation, courage – is often true in our lives.

We see it also in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 3:21-22, Jesus is commissioned at his baptism, when God the Holy Spirit fills him and God the Father speaks words of affirmation. In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus experiences (arguably) consternation, when he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. And in Luke 4:17-27, Jesus displays courage by proclaiming his ministry manifesto and speaking truth to the people in the synagogue. Specifically, Jesus challenges their assumption that Jesus had come just for them, and argues that God had come for the whole world.

But let us not be obnoxious! Sometimes Christians can be self-righteous, harsh, uncaring and rude in the way we stand up for truth. Let us, rather, be the embodiment of love. 1 Corinthians 13 makes it perfectly clear that anything that we do that is not infused with love is worthless.

When the time comes for us to stand up to power, to challenge someone, to confront injustice in the world, let us remember that we (like Jeremiah) are commissioned to be Christ’s ambassadors and to work for the values of the Kingdom (e.g., love, justice, human dignity, compassion, community). And despite feeling consternated or fearful, let us take courage from knowing that God is with us and we are empowered by Holy Spirit, and let us speak up.

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Created in love to love

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It all starts with love. In the beginning… what? In the beginning… God. But not a solitary God. No! A plural God, a triune God, a God in relationship with Godself. The three-in-one God.

We know little of God-as-God, because most everything we know of God is God-in-relationship-to-creation. Theologians refer to this God as the ‘economic trinity‘ – the active God engaging with the world that God had created. Just as who we are inside (our identify, our sense of self) is not equivalent to the person people encounter us to be at work or church, God’s actual self (which theologians call the ‘immanent trinity‘) is not equivalent to God as humanity encounters God.

So, what do we know about God as God, the immanent trinity? Not much! All we really know is that God was always three. Yet also one. God the Spirit and God the Word were already present with God the Parent “in the beginning”.

And while we know there have always been three persons (perhaps there are more than three, but God has revealed to us, so far, just three), these three persons are one being, one essence. I argue that LOVE is the most fundamental essential to the being of God. Relationship between the Parent, Word and Spirit that is so powerful, so intimate, so in tune with each other, so embracing, that the three are in fact one (what theologians call ‘perichoresis’).

Love. Love is the heart of God.

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Those of you who are familiar with my work will hopefully recognise that this is the centre of my theology. It is, in theological terms, my ‘hermeneutic key’, that is, it is the key statement of faith by which I make meaning of everything else in my faith – my experience of God, of others and of myself, my reading of the Scriptures, my reflections on my thinking or reason, and my adoption (or rejection) of tradition. It is the cornerstone. Read chapter 3 of my book for a bit more on this, and if you’re inspired, read the whole book – Being God’s Beloved – online or buy the book.

Based on this, I suggest two small practical ways that we can give expression to this great example of love, ways that we can become the image of God by behaving like God:

  1. Being kind to those we meet in the course of our day, by smiling, greeting, showing interest to and asking after the strangers we pass during our daily lives. By seeing these people through the eyes of Christ – seeing them as Christ sees them.
  2. Loving the work that we do (whether that is paid employment, volunteer work or house work), by investing energy and effort in our work, treating this work as something that God has entrusted to us, as he entrusted the Garden of Eden to Adam, to tend and care for.

If love is the heart of the triune God, and if we are created in God’s image, then we are most like God when we express love in all that we do.

We are created in love, to love.

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Advent Mission

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‘Advent’ means ‘coming’ and is the time we remember God’s first coming into the world in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, as well as look forward to God’s second coming into the world when Christ returns to bring cosmic history to fulfillment (the second coming). Often, we think of Advent as a season in the Christian calendar – the four Sundays before Christmas. But let us rather think of it as a type of ministry or mission, which we see most fully expressed in the work of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).

This Advent Mission is particularly important in a world that seems to have gone made this year: in South Africa we experience profound loss of confidence in the integrity and ethics of our presidency; Trump was elected President of the USA, giving platform for racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and the exploitation of women; the Middle East continues to explode, with profound devastation in Aleppo, Syria; the president of the Philippines is promoting the unregulated execution of anyone involved in drugs; the president of South Korea has been impeached; the UK exited the EU; Europe is seeing a dramatic rise in right wing politics; HIV continues to threaten human development; and women continue to experience profound violence and degradation at the hands of patriarchal men. We live in an increasingly hate-filled world. More than ever, we are in need of Advent.

An Advent Mission means two main things:

  • First, we cultivate a vision for the cosmos that God envisaged at the time of creation and still envisages for one day in the future. This vision is expressed in wonderful poetry in Isaiah 35 and Psalm 146, and is shown in the life and ministry of Jesus in the Gospels. The Isaiah passage in particular contrasts the ecology of Israel (similar to the Karroo – beautiful but rather desolate) with that of Lebanon (similar to the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal coastlines – lush and verdant).
  • Second, we root ourselves in the present world, living out our faith in ways that contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God, while we wait for God’s return. James 5 points to three key things we should do while wait:
    • We should be patient and persevere, continuing to journey forward, living out our faith, being faithful, and putting one foot in front of the other as we journey through life with God.
    • We should not grumble against others. That is, we should be kind, considerate and caring, particularly towards those who are different from us, especially in a world characterised increasingly by hatred and intolerance for those who are ‘other’.
    • We should be hopeful, that God will do what God has said, that he will return, that he will restore, that he will reconcile the whole cosmos together in union under the headship of Christ.

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Resurrection Church

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On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.