Acts of love

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Our readings for today speak about the balance between knowledge and action – between what we know in our heads and what we do with our bodies. What we’ll see is that in the Gospels, Psalms and Paul’s letters, actions are more important than knowledge. It is not the knowledge is unimportant – no! Knowledge is important. But acts of love are even more important. The hallmark of a Christian is not so much what they know as what they do.

In our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:21-28) we read about Jesus first ministry. We read that Jesus went into the temple and was teaching. And people were amazed at the authority of his teaching. The people later conclude, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!” Clearly, Jesus’ teaching, based on his knowledge, is important.

However, only 1 verse describes him teaching, and we don’t know what he actually taught. But there are 4 verses describing is actions. While he was teaching a demon possessed man came and challenged Jesus. Jesus cases out the evil spirit and the man is made well. This act of love, this work of love, gathers more attention than his teaching. And the people conclude, “He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”

While both knowledge and actions are present in this Gospel passage, actions are far more detailed and compelling.

If we then turn to Psalm 111, we find a similar pattern. Verses 7 and 10 speak about God’s precepts. A precept is a general guideline or principle; not a ‘law’, which is far more specific and prescriptive. v7 says that God’s precepts are trustworthy and v10 that all who follow the Lord’s precepts have good understanding; it is the beginning of wisdom. Clearly, knowledge of God’s precepts is important.

However, 7 of the 10 verses speak about God’s works: the words of the Lord (v1), his deeds (v3), his wonders (v4), he provides food (v5), she showed his works (v6), the words of his hands (v7) and he provided redemption for his people (v9). Wow! So much attention is given to the actions of God. And these actions are described as being great, delightful, glorious, majestic, righteous, gracious, compassionate, powerful, faithful, just, holy and awesome! These are acts of love, and Psalm 111 is drenched in them.

While both knowledge and action are present in this Psalm, actions are far more prolific and compelling.

And finally, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul provides some rather complex teaching about eating food offered to idols. I do not want us to get too bogged down in the specifics of the teaching, but rather to focus on what Paul says here about knowledge and action. In the opening verses, Paul says, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” This sentence is so direct and clear – knowledge makes us feel bigger and more important, while actions of love build up the community. And then he continues, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” He cautions against over confidence in knowledge – that we may think we know a lot, but we may actually be wrong. And he continues again, “But whoever loves God is known by God”, though there is an alternate reading (in the footnote of the NIV), “But whoever loves truly knows.” Paul’s warning about knowledge is balanced with an emphasis on love. Acts of love are what are most important, says Paul.

In the rest of this passage Paul explains about eating food sacrificed to idols, and the crux of his argument is that acting on the basis of right knowledge rather than on loving consideration of the needs of others harms these other people. Indeed, Paul says that they are “destroyed by your knowledge” and that this is to “sin against them” and indeed to “sing against Christ” (vv11-12). And he concludes this passage saying that he would rather act against his own knowledge, to protect others from falling (v13).

In other words, what is most important is not for us to act on what we believe to be right, or even on what is actually right, but to act out of love for others, so as not to harm others. In summary, it is better to be kind than to be right.

All three passages today give us the same clear, strong and compelling message: Knowledge, while important, is not what is most important to God. What is most important to God, is that we act in love towards others.

What, then, will you do with this knowledge? How can you put into practice this precept, that loving actions towards others are more important than all the knowledge in the world?

Let me make one practical suggestion. Or rather, let me present this to you as a challenge and urge you to make a decision now to act on this. With the lockdown, churches have had to close their doors and we no longer see our sisters and brothers like we used to. This results in a fragmentation of the church community, and as a result, people may feel disconnected and alone, and their faith may wane.

I challenge you to identify two or three people who would normally have spoken to at church, but because you’ve not seen them for a while, you’ve not spoken with them. Give them a call or drop them a note. Reach out to them. Ask how they are doing. Ask if they need anything. Ask what you can do to support them. Show them the love of God. In so doing, we will work to build up our church community, the body of Christ.

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A life of love

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Today is surely a watershed moment for the world: 20 January 2021, the end of Donald Trump’s administration. Whether or not one is an American, this change of administration will surely impact the world in one way or another.

This is not a sermon about America or American politics, however. Rather it is a sermon about what defines a Christian. When we look at the American right and left, who are so profoundly divided at this time, and yet who both comprise large numbers of Christians who believe that their politics is aligned with their Christian faith, we must ask, What does it mean to be a Christian? How can Christians, who follow the same book of teachings, be so polarised when it comes to their beliefs, practices and policies?

Perhaps one of the reasons is the weight that different groups of Christians give to different parts of the Bible. While we (are exhorted to) believe that “all Scripture [that is, the whole of the Bible] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), if we base our Christian beliefs, practices and policies on the first Testament (the Old Testament) more than on the Gospels, or even on the rest of the second Testament more than on the Gospels, then something is wrong.

The Gospels present to us the very life, ministry and teaching of God the Son. These are not subsequent interpretations of Christ’s ministry, but Christ’s ministry itself. If we want to see God, we must look at his Son; and we get his Son in the Gospels. Jesus Christ’s life, as recorded in the Gospels, must be the template for Christian belief, practice and policy. And all the rest of the Bible must be interpreted through the Gospels.

Ironically, our reading today is not from the Gospels, but from Paul’s letter, where he writes about the central message we get from the Gospels: live a life of love.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)

The life of a Christian must be rooted in love. This passage is not about love for other Christians, but love for all humanity. Paul emphasises the love that God had for us before we were saved – the love that led to God’s forgiveness of us and of Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice to God – these are about God’s love for us before we were saved, and thus the example is for how we love the whole world.

Love is the foundation of Christian life. Indeed, these verses are part of a larger passage which opens as follows:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. (Ephesians 4:17-18)

In other words, Paul sees this ‘life of love’ as constituting a fundamental difference between Christian life and non-Christian life. Our love for others is what is supposed to define us as Christians and differentiate us from everyone else. Indeed, Christ himself gives us this great command:

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. (John 13:34-35)

This love for other people (and indeed for the whole of creation) is fundamental to what it means to be Christian. It is only after all this, that Paul then says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3) and then goes on to talk about morality. Morality is important, but the life of love is even more important. When we place morality above love, we are out of step with Christ, who consistently placed love above everything else. If you are placing morality above love, you must go back to the Gospels and see how Jesus lived, what he said and how he related to people.

What is most important and definitive in the life of Christ is the life of love, which is a love that is radical and inclusive. It is this kind of love that is supposed to inform our beliefs (how we understand God, ourselves and the world), our practices (how we life our life moment by moment) and our policies (or politics).

We pray for the people of America and their new president. We pray for a drawing closer together of the American people, a reduction in polarisation and anger, and a greater rooting of life in the Gospel message of love for one another. And we pray also for ourselves and our nation, which has its own challenges.

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Being Church – Being Loved

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In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20, we read about Paul’s deep love for the church at Thessalonica, which he had planted, but which he was unable to visit. Much as we are as a result of COVID, Paul was physically separated from his church, and he was really missing them. Paul expresses intense emotions about his parish – he felt ‘orphaned’, he felt ‘separated’, he felt ‘intense longing’ to see them and he ‘made every effort’ to visit.

Paul says that Satan was blocking his way from visiting. Today we should consider that Satan is blocking our ability to meet together, through the agency of the Coronavirus. This virus – a tiny thing – is blocking our ability to meet together.

But, says, Paul, he is separated ‘in person, not in thought’, that is, physically, but not psychologically, socially, emotionally or spiritually. We can and do remain connected to each other, through our relational bonds and through our common fellowship with Christ.

Throughout this passage, Paul shows the heart of a pastor, who loves his parish and longs to be present with them. And so, while we are physically separated from each other, let us remember that we have a pastor called Jesus Christ, who loves us and is in fact present among us through Holy Spirit, and that we are in fact connected with each other through the love of God.

Featured photo from St Stephens Anglican Church, Lyttleton, South Africa

For God so loved

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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

The Great Love of Jesus

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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/

Christianity made simple

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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.

Feature image from: https://www.christianity.com/god/trinity/god-in-three-persons-a-doctrine-we-barely-understand-11634405.html