Light in the centre

Today is the Monday of Holy Week. We read the story (John 12:1-11) of a dinner party hosted by Lazarus (whom Jesus had raised from the dead) and his sisters, Mary and Martha. During the dinner, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with extremely expensive perfume and is reprimanded by Judas, who wants the money for himself. Meanwhile, crowds gather around the house, not only to see Jesus, but also to see Lazarus – the man back from the dead. And the chief priests plot to kill Lazarus, because his resurrection was adding to Jesus’ popularity.

In the midst of all this turmoil, Jesus is a quiet, strong, protective, light-filled centre. It is towards and into this centre that we should move when life’s challenges build up around us.

I invite you to watch the reading of the Gospel from John 12:1-11, which starts at about 14 minutes into the service. And the sermon starts at about 22 minutes and runs for about 23 minutes. This is a visual sermon, mapped out on a flipchart, so you really do need to watch it and not just listen to it. May you place yourself in the centre of Christ, in his light and peace – the best place to be!

Watch the video by clicking here: https://fb.watch/4xReFll03A/

Journey of faith

Click here to listen to the audio of this 20-minute message (this has the lowest data usage and the best sound quality). Or watch the service on Facebook (the sermon starts at about 30 minutes – unfortunately the sound quality is very poor today). Or read the text summary after that.

The journey of faith is seldom easy or straight-forward, even when people present it in this way. And holding onto faith when we are in the midst of the storm or facing a rolling crisis like COVID19 is not always easy. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:18), Paul writes, “Give thanks in all situations for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul makes it sound simple – just accept that your challenging situation is God’s will for you in Christ – give thanks for it. Of course, it is not simple!

We have a great master class in how to journey in faith in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Mary, who we revere because she is the Christ-bearer (the Christotokos, or even more remarkable, the God-bearer or Theotokos), shows us that faith is not simple or straight-forward. She shows her own journey of faith. This journey is not a template or recipe for us – it is simply one example of someone making this journey But it may help the rest of us – particularly those of us who struggle with faith – to make peace with our journey of faith.

The well-known story is told in Luke 1:26-38.

Mary, an engaged but not yet married teenager from a small village called Nazareth, encounters an angel. He greets her warmly and kindly, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

But Mary’s first response is to be “greatly troubled at his words” and wonder “what king of greeting this might be” and to be “afraid“. The response of fear when encountering an angel seems to be almost universal in the Bible – most people who encounter an angel respond first with fear: Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:12-13 and the shepherds in Luke 2:9-10, for example. But, let us recognise that Mary does not immediately respond with faith or joy when the angel appears to her – her response is one of fear, trepidation, uncertainty, anxiety.

The angel – much as angels do in other passages – reassures her (“Do not be afraid”) and says that she has found favour with God. He explains that she will conceive a child and call him Jesus and that he will become a great king forever.

In Mary’s second response, we see that she is no longer afraid. She is now thinking, critically, about what the angel has said: “How will this be? Since I am a virgin?” Mary does not immediately accept the angel’s message. She asks what is surely an obvious question – how can I be pregnant if I’ve not had sex? Mary is realistic, pragmatic, critical. She does not just accept what the angel is saying to her. Let us imagine also (though this is not explicit in the passage) that she realises that a pregnancy at her age and without a husband will be scandalous and difficult. Let us imagine that she has some intuition about the implications of being the mother of the “Son of the Most High”. And let us imagine that she even anticipates the tragic loss that she will suffer as her son is taken from her. (These imaginings are captured so well in the song, Mary did you know)

The angel accepts Mary’s questions. He does not reprimand or challenge her. Instead, he provides further explanation and clarifies also that even her aunt, Elizabeth (in her old age), has conceived a child – John.

And now – only now – Mary accepts the angel’s message, saying “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled“. She accepts God’s will for her life, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. But at this point, her acceptance is just that – an acceptance, even a blind faith. It does not seem to be based on a full understanding. She submits, relinquishes, surrenders to the will of God – do with me as you wish.

Mary then visits her aunt Elizabeth and they stay together for some time. Luke 1:39-45 gives a clear indication that they talked about their experiences of pregnancy and of their place in God’s plans. One can easily imagine that they spent a great deal of time talking, sharing, reflecting, praying, seeking understanding.

And out of this sharing, Mary achieves faith with understanding, which is expressed powerfully in the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. Mary understands, for example, that God is a God of love and mercy – “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” And she also understands that there will be a righting of wrongs (a reversal of fortunes) – “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” She understands that through the great things God has done for her, God will bring justice for all those who are marginalised and oppressed.

Although we esteem Mary greatly, her journey of faith is not instant. She grapples and wrestles with what God wants from her, with the storm that she finds herself in. Her own journey is one of fear, questioning, acceptance and then understanding. Her faith journey is a process over time, not a turning point in time. Indeed, even in narratives where it appears that faith emerges at a point in time (such as Paul’s Damascus road experience in Acts 9), a closer read around the experience will show that there is a journey and that the turning point is a culmination of a longer process that came before and that works its way out after.

Mary’s faith experience is not a template for us. It an example of a journey of faith, of one whom we can revere as most highly favoured and blessed of all humans. If her faith journey is not not simple or straight-forward, why should yours be? If you are doubting your faith because it seems complicated, fragile, questioning, confused, and so on, be reassured that Mary’s faith was all these things also. And yet, she bore the Son of God. Faith is a journey. Just keep on with the journey and know that God is faithful.

 ‘The Annunciation’ (1437-46) by Fra Angelico from https://medium.com/thinksheet/symbols-in-art-the-annunciation-7347bddb89d

Radical inclusion

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Luke 1 presents a compelling narrative about two women and two unborn babies. It is a remarkable way to start a story. Four individuals who, in various ways, are at the margins of society – an old barren woman, a teenage girl barely out of childhood, a six-month old foetus and a newly-fertilised egg. This is hardly a group of individuals that one would think would change the course of global history!

Yet, it is this very group that God chooses to initiate God’s major intervention in human history. It points to a pattern that we see in much of God’s work among humans – radical inclusion. God seeks to draw unexpected people into the centre of God’s working, people who society might often think of as ‘less than’ or ‘other’. Often, it is not the powerful, influential, reputable, wealthy, intelligent or educated that God places in key roles. Rather, God often chooses the outcast, the downtrodden, the humble, those who recognise their limitations and those who feel they have little to offer.

In this sermon, I tease out some of the remarkable insights we gain into Elizabeth and Mary, and the unborn John and Jesus, that Luke presents to us in the opening chapter of his Gospel narrative. I show the many ways in which we see God’s grace working itself out in profound and striking ways among this unlikely group of individuals.

From this, we get the message that there is no-one with whom God does not want to work. Every person – every single individual – has a part to play in God’s great work to redeem the cosmos. There are no exceptions. No matter how insignificant or inadequate or unavailable you may perceive yourself to be, God has a place for you, a role for you. We have to trust that this is indeed true. We have to relinquish ourselves to participate. As Mary so gracefully says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Conversely, we have to accept that God chooses to work with people we may feel God should not be working with. We (humans) tend to be far less tolerant and gracious than God! It is important for us not to become an obstacle to others who seek to play their part in God’s work. Even when we feel they are not right for or up to the task. Who are we to interfere with God’s judgment on who is worthy of participating in God’s work?

God’s radical inclusion is presented to us in Luke’s gospel as a cornerstone of God’s means of working. Through Luke, we see marginalised people, particularly women, being brought into the centre of Jesus’ ministry and God’s mission. We as individual Christians, and as a collective Church, should be emulating this approach.

Feature image cropped from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photo-of-two-pregnant-women-1253592/

Being God’s Beloved: Day 32: The Cross and Community

Jesus is put through a trial and sentenced to death, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying his cross, battered and torn, mocked and ridiculed. He is nailed to a cross and left to die – a horrible, protracted and excruciating death. What an end to a man of peace, love and forgiveness. What an end to the Son of God, God incarnate. It is unthinkable, unimaginable, unspeakable.

Hanging there, Jesus looks at those who gathered to watch. He is not so wrapped up in his pain and anguish as to be disconnected from the world around him. John 19:25-27 tells us that Jesus looked down and saw his mother. And he saw the disciple whom he loved, John. We reflected on Day 28 on what it means when Jesus ‘sees’ people. When Jesus sees you, he really sees into you, he sees the authentic and whole you. On the cross, Jesus looks and he sees his mother and he sees John. Even at such an extreme point of his suffering and humiliation, Jesus continues to see people. He is persistently turned outwards, expressing love for those around him. Jesus transcends his own suffering and connects with the suffering of someone else.

And seeing into his mother, Mary, he sees her not just as his ‘Mum’, but as a human being, as a beloved person, as someone’s mother, as someone who will become for many the supreme example of motherhood. And so he calls her “woman”. This is not a cold or impersonal address. It is not like saying, “Hey, you”. It is Jesus speaking to the human being who is called Mary. He speaks not so much as her personal son, but as her personal Creator. And as Creator, he recognises her anguish as she witnesses the life drain out of her son. And it is to that grief that he responds with love.

It reminds me of Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5, where we learn that God knew us before we were born, before we were even conceived:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
(Psalm 139: 1, 13, 15-16)

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
(Jeremiah 1:5)

God has a picture of us in God’s heart, God’s mind; a picture of our authentic self, much loved. We are all individuals to God, occupying a unique and sacred space in God’s heart; each one beloved.

As Jesus hangs dying on the cross, he sees this woman, who is his mother, and his heart is moved with compassion. He was there when she was knit together in her mother’s womb, preparing her for the great task of bearing the Christ in her own womb. He knew her intimately and fully as a child of God, and he loved her.

God is always present to bind up the broken hearted and to carry those who are weak. The events of Good Friday through Easter Sunday are the darkest and most horrific experiences in the life of the triune God. And yet even here, God the Son, operating in harmony with God the Father and God the Spirit, invests in the expression of love. This is because love is at the heart of God. The very fabric of God’s being is comprised of love. God can do nothing but love – love is an expression of being of God.

Let us be in no doubt that God looks at us. And when God looks at us, God sees us. And when God sees us, God still loves us. If this is true at Jesus’ lowest point, at the bottom of the kenotic U that we looked at on Day 20, how much more is it today, when Jesus is dwelling in perfection within the bosom of the Godhead? God looks, sees and loves. God cherishes and celebrates the individual that you are, a unique and beloved creature, a blessed creation emanating from the hand of God. God sees you and God loves you.

But there is more.

As Jesus looks down from the cross, as his life ebbs away, he sees also a broken community.[1] His disciples have scattered. Judas has betrayed him for a handful of coins. Peter has denied him. His movement for peace and love, for spiritual regeneration, has been shattered. His community is a fallen community. Sin, once again, impedes God’s wonderful vision for a flourishing human community.

We saw on Day 4 of our reflections that God created a community of people, people-in-relationship, rather than merely two individuals. God was interested in community, because God is a community: three-in-one. God did not wish to create merely individual persons. God’s desire was to create people in relationship with one another, with creation and with God, so that we could experience the same joy of fellowship that God had enjoyed for eternity.

On that Friday, community was once again fractured.

Community was first shattered in the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Both Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden – a shattering of fellowship with God. The relationship between Adam and Eve became one of dominance and subordination – a shattering of fellowship with each other. Eve suffered in childbirth – a shattering of fellowship with one’s body. Adam had to toil to produce fruit from the ground – a shattering of fellowship with nature. The result of the Fall is, primarily, a shattering of community.

We see these results to this day in the spiritual apathy of much of the world, showing so little interest in God; in domestic violence, rape and child abuse; in psychological problems like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia; in illnesses like cancer, tuberculosis and HIV; in the prolonged wars in Africa, the Middle East and Ireland; and in the negative impact of human civilisation on climate. Sin manifests in broken community.

But Jesus, in his dying moments, works to re-create community, to turn back the effects of sin, to undo evil and death. He creates a new family.

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

John is Jesus’ best friend. Mary is Jesus’ mother. These are the building blocks of community – friendship and family, kith and kin. And Jesus unites these two by giving his mother another son and by giving his friend a new mother. He could just as well have said, “Dear woman, dear man, you are family.”

“At the darkest moment, we see this community coming into being at the foot of the cross.”[2]

Can we think of this as part of the Great Commission? Can we consider this to be part of Jesus’ last will and testament? To re-establish communities. Can we, in our neighbourhoods and our churches and our workplaces, participate with Christ in crossing the social barriers that divide? Can Christians reach out to Muslims? Can straight Christians reach out to gay people? Can male Christians reach out to women? Can wealthy Christians reach out to those who are poor? Can white Christians reach out to black Christians and vice versa? Can Christians step across the boundaries to encounter those who are different from ourselves?

Imagine if Jesus came in the flesh to your community, and saw you and someone who is unlike you, someone you’d rather have little to do with, and said to you both, “Here is your mother. Here is your son.” Surely, if Jesus said that to you, you would, like John, take that person into your home. You would take them in as family. You would form a family. You would discover in your heart the capacity for boundary-crossing love, for free and generous love. If Jesus came in the flesh and said this, you would do it, wouldn’t you? How could you do anything else?

The truth is, Jesus has come in the flesh, and he has actually said this. He has called us to cross boundaries and to establish Christian families, where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This is a community that mirrors the community we see in the triune God, a community of love.

Meditation for the Day

Consider the extent of God’s love for you, even in his darkest hour. Consider that he has the same love for those whom you find unlovely. What does it mean for you that Jesus worked on the cross to re-establish community?

Prayer for the Day

My God, the reconciler, fill me today with such an excess of your love, that I cannot but love those around me. Give me courage to step across boundaries.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3

[1] Radcliffe, T. (2004). Seven last words. London: Burns & Oates, pp. 33-36.

[2] Radcliffe, p. 33.