For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
This follows probably the most well-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, where Jesus says,
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.
In both passages, there is a pattern of speaking from Jesus: not this, but this:
Not to condemn, but to save
Not perish, but eternal life
This ‘not-but’ pattern helps to make Jesus’ mission in the world – or rather, God’s mission for Jesus in the world – clear. Jesus’ mission is NOT about condemnation, judgement and death, BUT rather about salvation, health (in the Greek, the word for ‘save’ also means ‘heal’) and life (eternal and abundant).
A first implication of this is about our own thinking. Often we get caught up in spirals of negative thinking, where we focus excessively on the negative things about this world. While there are, of course, many negative things around us, dwelling or ruminating on these does not lead us towards salvation, health and life, but rather towards condemnation and death. In our obsession with negativity, we overlook or miss the many good things that there are in this world, the many gifts and blessings from God.
In the same way that Jesus’ mission is oriented towards salvation, health and eternal life – in a world that is full of darkness, corruption and despair – so should our thinking about the world be oriented towards salvation, health and eternal life.
A second implication of this ‘not-but’ pattern concerns what we stand for as Christians in this modern secular world. Too often, when Christians decide to stand up for something in our faith and to speak into the world, we stand up to condemn something – gays, trans, premarital sex, abortion, and so on. And our standing up for the things of God is often expressed in angry, judgemental, condemnatory and even hateful ways. All the things that Jesus says he did NOT come for.
Instead, let us stand for salvation, for health and for life abundant. For example, let us stand for access to health care, for quality and free education, for decent housing, for a higher minimum wage, for expanded social services. Let us stand for the sustainability of our planet, for building human fellowship and compassion, let us stand for the poor, let us stand for life. These are the things Jesus stood for. As Christians we should be standing for the same things.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
1 John 1:1 – 2:2 provides a remarkable account of sin in the life of the Christian. John’s point of departure is that God is light, which comes up also in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel. In 1 John 1:5, John affirms that because God is light, no darkness can exist in or around him at all. The consequence of this is that if we are walking a path of darkness – in other words, a path of sin – then we cannot be in God’s light, because darkness cannot exist in the light. (In the message I provide an explanation of how darkness disappears in light, and apply this to John’s account in 1:6.
However, the reality for Christians is that we do sin, as John says in v 8 (If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves) and v 10 (If we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar). Clearly, in John’s mind and experience, sin is inevitably part of the life of the Christian. And merely claiming that we are without sin is to sin! We deceive not only ourselves, but also God. So the question is not whether you or I sin, but rather what sin(s) we are committing. What is important is to at least acknowledge that we sin, to own it, to be honest about it.
But even though John sees sin as inevitable for Christians, he does also say that we should not sin: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin” (2:1). There is an expectation that we ought to be sinning, since (as we saw before) sin cannot exist within God’s light. How then to we resolve this conundrum?
Jesus Christ is solution to this challenge. His incarnation, life, ministry, teaching, death, resurrection and ascension together create a solution for our inevitable sin. His blood purifies us from sin (1:7). If we confess our sin, God will (because God is faithful and justice) forgive us and purify us (1:9). And Jesus will serve as our advocate, speaking on our behalf with God the Father, atoning for our sins, and indeed the sin of all humanity (2:1-2). Everything we have focused on over the past weeks, since Ash Wednesday, has been laying the foundation for this understanding: the great salvation work of Christ on behalf of all of humankind.
In summary, John gives three steps for a Christian response to sin:
Try hard not to sin! Avoid stepping out of the light into the darkness.
When to you do (inevitably) sin, be honest about it. Don’t pretend like you’re not sinning. But also don’t beat yourself up about it. We are all sinners!
When you sin, stepping into the shadow and the path of darkness, turn as quickly as you can back towards Christ, the Light and Life of the world. Say you’re sorry. Ask for his forgiveness and accept it. Go back to step 1 and repeat (many times).
Today we celebrate Easter Sunday – the culmination of weeks of Lenten fasting and penitence, and a week of daily soul-searching services. On Good Friday, we watched our Lord’s life slip away on the cross and experienced darkness fall over the earth as the Light and Life of God was snuffed out. And then we waited, through Friday and Saturday – wondering, what might happen, how might this all turn out.
It is relatively easy for us, because we are so familiar with the outcome of the story. But for those first believers – such as Mary and the other women in Mark 16:1-8 – it must have been surreal and terrifying. The unthinkable had happened. No wonder Mark relates the confusion of the first women to arrive at Jesus’ grave, and their fear and silence after encountering what they thought was a young man (but probably an angel).
For us, though, we now understand and appreciate the resurrection of Christ as the fruit of Christ’s triumph over death, of God’s generous and complete forgiveness of sins of all humanity, of a profound and utter reconciliation with God, and the restoration of Christ as the light of the world. God gifts back to humanity the very one that humanity sought to extinguish, as a sign of their joint unconditional and extravagant love for humankind, and indeed the whole cosmos.
Alleluia! Christ is risen indeed!!
In Romans 6:3-11 we gain further insights from Paul into the ways in which our salvation follows the same path as Christ’s death and resurrection. In our baptism, we die to self in a watery grave; only to be raised again to new life in Christ, a life filled with Holy Spirit. In our service today we baptise little Onyedikachuckwu Christian Okafor – a visible sign of God’s salvation – and renew our own baptismal vows, said originally on our behalf as infants, and today renewed freely by ourselves.
Lord, you have nourished us with your Easter sacrament. Fill us with your Spirit and make us one in peace and love. We ask this through Jesus Chris our Lord. Amen.
Today (25 March) we celebrate the Festival of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas Day, and on this day we celebrate the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. As it is written in Luke 1:30-33:
“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
While the Western (Catholic and Protestant) churches celebrate Christmas as the high point of the church calendar, the real miracle of Christmas takes place at the conception, nine months before. It is at this moment that God incarnates into human form. Mary is thus referred to as the ‘Mother of God’ or the Theotokos (or God bearer) because she carries and gives birth to God. It is not that she creates God! But rather that she bears God in her womb.
What is conceived in Mary is, from conception, a hybrid of human and divine natures in the one person of Jesus. This is a mystery, hard to fathom – the nature of Jesus Christ. But whatever it is, and however we understand Christ’s divine and human natures, it starts at his conception, not at his birth.
Let me suggest three reasons why this rather mysterious and mystical notion is important:
The conception demonstrates the enormity of God’s emptying out of God’s self on behalf of humankind (which we read about in Philippians 2) – we refer to this emptying out as ‘kenosis’. Typically, we think of God’s kenosis in the birth of Christ, but really it is in his conception. God – the omnipotent, eternal, omnipresent and all powerful God – folds down into a single human cell, then an embryo and then a foetus. The willingness of God to become so small is quite overwhelming – God pouring out God’s self for humanity.
The conception is a profound example of God’s choice to work in partnership with humans. We see this choice from the beginning of creation, when God entrusts creation to Adam and Eve. But here it is particularly profound. While others could assist in taking care of a newborn, only the mother can take care of an unborn. God the son was, during gestation, utterly and solely dependent on the young woman Mary. God was truly at the hands of this one person. God trusted her and entrusted God’s self to her.
And, drawing on Eastern Orthodox theology, in the conception, God inserts God’s DNA (so to speak, metaphorically) into human DNA. In so doing, God begins to change and save human nature itself. For Orthodox Christians, the conception is the foundation of salvation, because the very fabric of human nature is infused with the presence of the divine, and God begins (or continues and deepens) the work saving not just individual humans, but the nature of humanity.
Let us not let this momentous day slip by unnoticed. Let us give thanks to God for his incarnation at the moment of conception. And let us give thanks to Mary for being willing to bear God in her womb.
God has always been working for our salvation and continues to do so today. This work culminates the life, death and resurrection of Christ, hence Jesus says we need to be born again. This salvation work is motivated by God’s great love, kindness, mercy and grace towards us (Ephesians 2: 1-10). Even though we were dead in our transgressions and sins – deserving of God’s wrath – God does everything to save us. Jesus himself says, “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-21).
God’s stance towards you is always open armed – always.
God is always open towards you even if you don’t believe in him – always.
God is always moving towards you – always.
God is always turned towards you, even when you turn away from him – always.
God is always turned towards you, even when you sin – always.
God always reorientates himself towards you as you move through life – always.
God is always positively disposed towards you – always.
God always loves you – always.
God is always kind towards you – always.
God is always full of grace and mercy towards you – always.
God is always hoping you will respond to him – always.
Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.
I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:
God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
However, now the covenant has conditions:
Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
Males must be circumcised.
Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
God’s external law, which humanity must obey
Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
God now sets external laws by which we must abide
Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
The solution of the Law alienates us from God
Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it
There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:
God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
I am taking a funeral later today for a parishioner who died of Covid. I asked his wife if she would like to pick a Scripture reading that she or her husband liked, and she selected Acts 24:15. I was quite surprised! I’ve participated in many funerals over the years and can never recall this verse being used. But it is a very apt passage, as I hope you will see.
I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:14-16)
Paul was currently under house arrest due to charges laid against him by the Jewish leaders. This continues for a number of years under various Roman rulers, and eventually he is transferred to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life. So, in today’s passage, Paul is both defending himself and declaring his faith. He is giving a testimony of what he believes. And this has four elements:
He is a follower of the Way, which is how people referred in those days to Christians. Christianity was known as ‘the Way’ and Christians as followers (of the Way).
He believes in the First Testament scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). In this way, he regards the First Testament as part of a Christian bible.
He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
He strives to keep a clear conscience with God and people, that is, to be on good terms with everyone.
The centre of the passage, however, is the third point about the resurrection.
First, he says that he has hope there will be a resurrection. This hope implies that there is more to life than just this life. Some people then and today believe that this life is all there is, and when we die, that’s the end. Paul says instead that there is a life after this life, the resurrection life. And so, while this life will end, there will be continuation of life in the resurrection life. And this implies that what we do in this life has implications for the next life. Our pattern of living is shaped not only by a present morality, but also by a recognition that how we live now will shape how we live the next life.
Second, Paul says something unique here – that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised. This means we are raised for judgement. As Jesus says, to separate the sheep from the goats. And judgement determines our eternal future.
Therefore, Paul says, he strives always to keep a clear conscience before God and humanity. Because this life impacts the next life, what we do now impacts our life then, and therefore it is important that we maintain good relations with God and humanity.
How do we do that? Paul says two things. First, we are urged to follow the Way of Christ. To model ourselves on him, to learn from him, to shape our behaviour on him, to assimilate his values. Second, we are urged to believe the Scriptures. We may not always understand them, we may prefer some passages over others; but we do have to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with the Scriptures. It is all Spirit-breathed and useful for living out our faith. So, Paul emphasizes that both our beliefs and our behaviour are important for Christian living.
The Covid pandemic is confronting us with the fragility of life – how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how easily we can lose life, even if we are young. It reminds us how precious this present life is and how we need to use it fully to develop and live out our faith. Acts 24:14-16 encapsulates the heart of Paul’s faith. Let us listen to Paul and follow Christ’s Way.
Today we read about Jesus’ bris or circumcision, eight days after he was born, in Luke 2:21-40. We meet two incredible people of great faith in the temple: Simeon and Anna. Both immediately recognise Jesus (remember he’s just eight days old) as the Messiah, the long-awaited one.
Given that New Year is almost upon us, I thought it might be useful to see what we can take from this passage to inform our New Year’s resolutions for 2021. Or rather, to inform our resolve for 2021. (‘Resolve’ has far greater strength of determination and commitment that a mere ‘New Year’s resolution’, which most of us probably break on 2 January!)
Let us be resolute in our to devotion to Christ. Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man, filled with the Spirit of God, while Anna is described as an 84-year-old prophet, who virtually lived in the temple, worshipping, praying and fasting. Both of them embody a deep commitment to devotion to God. We can be determined to walk in their footsteps, through our devotion to Christ.
Let us resolve to live out salvation for all of humankind. Simeon says, in vv 30-32, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Initially, the salvation that would come through Jesus was thought of as being only or primarily for the Jewish people – indeed Jesus’ ministry was mostly to Jews. But there is a growing awareness (with deep roots in the First Testament) that the salvation that comes through Christ is for the whole world. We can live this out in the way we live, work and speak. And at this time, in how we handle the challenges of Covid.
Let us resolve work always for peace. In vv 34-35, Simeon recognises that Jesus’ life and ministry will not result only in peace and joy; there will be those who oppose him, there will be conflict, and eventually there will be death. But Jesus’ ministry is one of peace-building, love, forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us live out such a deep commitment in our daily lives. And let us also resolve to pray for the world, which is marred by so much discord, conflict and violence.
May 2021, which will continue to have its major Covid-related and other challenges, be a year in which we are more intentional in our resolve to be devoted to God, to live out his inclusive salvation and to work for peace.
During Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas) we have been preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ into this world – God in human form – Emmanuel – God with us. Today, that advent – ‘the arrival of a notable person or thing’ – has come to fruition. We are not waiting for God to come to us; God is here with us. Christ is born!
I’m sharing two messages today – one that I preached last night, based on John 1, and one that I preached this morning, based on Luke 2. Both are about the coming of God into the world, but from different perspectives:
John presents to us the grand narrative about the coming of Christ into this world:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made … In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us … We have seen his glory!” (John 1:1-14)
Here we meet ‘The Word’ – the very Word of God, the thoughts of God, the knowledge of God, the power of God – who is the second person of the Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit). This Word is the foundation of the cosmos. He was there from before the beginning of time and space, working in partnership with Father and Spirit in the creation of everything that is. He is the very source of the fundamental elements of our existence: life and light – making all things possible.
And then, at a point in time and space, this Word transitioned from eternity, from infinity, from perfection, into this human world – the Word became flesh and “moved into our neighbourhood” (the Message). God became one of us, bringing life and light into our immediate vicinity. We could see him, touch him, speak with him.
God continues to live among us, in our neighbourhood. The Word made flesh. He makes his dwelling among us in this world.
And he makes his dwelling in you, in me, in every person who will allow him. Perhaps he has already set up his dwelling place – pitched his tent – in every person, and is just waiting for an invitation to move in. His space is there, ready and waiting, but just needing us to answer the knock on the door, the subtle invitation, the quiet whisper.
Luke presents to us a more domestic narrative about the coming of Christ into the world:
“Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlem to register with Mary who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (Luke 2:1-20)
Luke presents the coming of Christ as a family story, set against the political landscape. Rome – a colonial oppressor in Israel – required everyone to travel to their home town for a census. Mary – a teenager – pregnant and as-yet unwed – travels with Joseph. But they are unable to find a place to stay, and settle into what may have been a barn or cave or a corner of a house, with the animals. And there she gave birth to her son, Jesus. Such a simple way to tell us that God the Son had just entered this world – ‘and she gave birth to her firstborn’. No fanfare, no witnesses, no family support, not even a decent place to stay. In that place, God came into this world.
And then it is to the shepherds that God reveals this good news. They’re out looking after their sheep and the sky fills with angels who sing out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests”. It is these shepherds to go to visit Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. (The Maji appear in Matthew’s version and Mark and John don’t describe Jesus’ birth at all.)
We learn something of the humility of God from Luke’s narrative. It is mostly so underplayed. Only the shepherds see the angels, no-one else. In the first Testament, God is typically portrayed as great, awesome, powerful, the Creator of all. John’s narrative similarly presents us with ‘the Word’ – the cosmic Christ. But here we see God presented to us as a newborn – the most vulnerable and helpless of all humans, utterly dependent on his caregivers for his survival.
And we learn something of God’s willingness to work through the ordinary, and particularly through ‘the poor’ – those who are displaced, marginalised, labourers, homeless, hungry. We will see this again and again in Luke’s gospel particularly, but indeed in all the narratives about Jesus’ life and ministry. God leans towards those on the edges.
And so God is waiting to work in you and in me, to be born in us today. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, how educated or illiterate you are, how gifted or ordinary you are, how powerful or weak you are, how well-adjusted or dysfunctional you are, how rich or poor you are. God wants to be born in you and to grow up in you.
And so, if you have been skirting the edges of a commitment to Jesus or if you have made a commitment to him but are iffy in how you live that out day-by-day, perhaps this Christmas is the time when you want to say YES to the Son of God, and to allow the Word to move into that tent that he has already pitched in your heart. Perhaps this Christmas is the moment when you say YES to the birth of Jesus in your heart, and when you say YES to nurturing him as he grows in you in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and people. Perhaps now is the time to say YES to God.