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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Resurrection Church

Click her to listen to this 25-minute message.

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’.

Seeing from the Cross

Click here to listen to this 18-minute message.

Today is Good Friday – a poorly named day in my view. It should be Dark Friday. The Passion Week is transformed to good on Easter Sunday, but not before. There is nothing good about Friday. But my opinion is unlikely to change centuries of tradition!

Today, at my Anglican community church in Irene, South Africa, we participate in a three-hour service, from 12pm to 3pm – the hours that Jesus hung on the cross. It is a kind of vigil, like the women who kept watch as Jesus hung there. It is one of the best attended services at our church, and most people stay the full time. Today, we used the Seven Last Words of Christ to structure our service. The priest, deacon and lay ministers shared the preaching. I preached on the passage from John 19:25-27, where Jesus says “Woman, behold! Your son. … Behold! Your mother.” (my translation).

The central thing that stands out for me is that Jesus SEES his mother and his friend (thought to be John, the disciple). And seeing them and their need, he invites them to SEE each other (the Greek for ‘behold’, or ‘here’ in other translations, means ‘Look!’ or ‘See!’). So, in this sermon I suggest four layers of meaning:

  1. The passage foregrounds the humanity, dignity and worth of women, as central to the story. We need to stand against patriarchy, violence against women, the silencing and marginalisation of women, the exploitation of girl children.
  2. The passage speaks about Jesus’ commitment to family and to intimate relationships. We need to invest in these relationships, in the domestic, because this is of interest to God.
  3. The passage suggests the great potential of the church to recreate the world. We should examine our own churches, asking if we are really doing what God wants us to, are we being who God wants us to be?
  4. The passage advances God’s concern and love for the whole of humanity. God sees us, knows us, recognises us, loves us, champions us, cries for us. And we should also.

Wishing you a blessed and joyful Easter 2016.
Adrian

P.S. I struggled to find a picture that depicts what Jesus would have seen from the cross. The arts are almost entirely focused on Jesus on the cross – rightly so. But I found this one by James Tissot, a French painter, painted in c. 1890. For those receiving this by email, you won’t see the featured image for each of my sermons. Follow the link to my blog to see them.

Reconciliation

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South Africa, at the moment, has become a pot reaching boiling point, as racial tensions and anger mount. For some, reconciliation has become a dirty word, and for others there is fear that the reconciliation that was built up in the last 90s is under serious threat. Globally, we see similar breakdowns in relationships and rolling often violent fracturing of relationships – among the states of the former USSR, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa. And at a domestic level, we all too often experience broken and pain-filled relationships in our communities, with our neighbours and friends, and even in our families. How is it that we humans are so good at breaking fellowship?

This 20 minute message tackles these difficult issues and questions. Starting at the beginning of Genesis, I trace this origins of broken relationships: between people, with God, with the world and with ourselves. We call this ‘sin’.

Working through the First Testament, I show the many ways in which God, who created relationships and is in the business of reconciliation, worked to restore these fractures, and to build harmony and wholeness in humanity.

And then I show how Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection are the pinnacle of God’s work to redeem us, to restore us, to reconcile us.

And finally, drawing on Paul’s teachings in 2 Corinthians 5, I show how we are called to be agents of reconciliation, to join with God in bringing about reconciliation. I suggest four main ways that we can and should do this: accepting God’s offer of reconciliation with us, praying for those who have fallen out of fellowship, transforming our hearts of racism and sexism (and all the other -isms), and taking a step towards an estranged loved-one. In so doing, we build the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Resurrection Life

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Click here to listen to the MP3 of this 18 minute sermon.

Today is the first Sunday after Easter and we centre our thoughts on the resurrection and what it means for us. In John’s Gospel, resurrection is virtually synonymous with Life, and so this sermon is about the Resurrection Life. Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life”. He also says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.

I am including the readings from John (New International Version) so that you have them readily at hand.

Love, peace and joy
Adrian

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Resurrection and Life are intimately tied together in Jesus

  • Jn 11:25 – Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;

Jesus repeatedly speaks as if he embodies Life itself

  • Jn 1:4 – In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
  • Jn 5:26 –  For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.
  • Jn 6:63 – The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.

Jesus repeatedly says that he IS Life

  • Jn 14:6 – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
  • Jn 6:48 – I am the bread of life.
  • Jn 8:12 – When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus repeatedly says that we obtain Life through him

  • Jn 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
  • Jn 4:14 – but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
  • Jn 6:27 – Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
  • Jn 6:35 – Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.
  • Jn 6:51 – I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
  • Jn 6:54 – Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

Jesus repeatedly says that we must believe in him to gain eternal life

  • Jn 3:16 – “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.
  • Jn 17:3 – Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
  • Jn 5:24 – “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
  • Jn 6:40 – For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Being God’s Beloved: Talk 5: God’s Love Revealed Through The Cross

This is the fifth and final talk in the series on “Being God’s Beloved”, presented at St Martin’s Anglican Church, Irene, South Africa, on 9 April 2014. We conclude the talks by focusing on the Cross and Resurrection, and the way in which the sequence of events over the Easter weekend reveals God’s love to us.

Click here to open the video from YouTube

Being God’s Beloved: Day 33: The Cross and Redemption

Yesterday we reflected on how Jesus, hanging dying on the cross, looks down and sees, really sees, his mother and his best friend John, and how he extends himself for their benefit, establishing a new community, a new family. In so doing, he begins to undo the effects of sin – those effects that fragment and rupture relationships, which we have repeatedly seen are central to God’s experience of being God.

Luke 23 relates another encounter of Jesus with the people around him. This version does not explicitly say that Jesus saw or looked at them, but given the depth of his responses, it seems fair to accept that Jesus did see them.

Jesus is crucified with two criminals. The one “hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us’” (Luke 23:39). The English “hurled insults” is, in the Greek, eblasphemei, from which, of course, we get our English word, ‘blaspheme’. It is amazing, but sadly true, to what extent arrogance and hostility towards God can continue even in the midst of judgement and suffering. This man, on the brink of death, continues to express bitterness and rage against the best that the world has to offer.

The other criminal, however, recognises that Jesus has no reason for being there – he is innocent and undeserving of death: “But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:40-41).

What is most striking about this man is this combination of taking ownership of his own wrongdoing and resultant punishment, and recognising Jesus’ innocence and thus unjust punishment. And then, to cap it all, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Not only does he recognise Jesus’ innocence, but he also recognises Jesus as Lord and King. He takes a remarkable leap of faith.

Perhaps Jesus ignored the taunts of the first man. But the second man catches his attention. Jesus responds, as he always has, to expressions of faith, no matter how profound (here we think of Peter’s “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” in Mathew 16:16, or Thomas’ “My Lord and my God” in John 20:28) or how tentative (perhaps the woman who was bleeding in Mark 5:28).

Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

This is redemption. Today, this very day, you will be with me, in paradise with me. Truly, I tell you. Amen!

Jesus Christ redeems this man on the cross. Here, as we saw yesterday, Jesus extends himself, beyond himself, to care for another human being. It is instinctive for him to do so. It was so throughout his ministry. It was so as he hung dying on the cross. And it remains so today. Christ Jesus extends himself for those who turn towards him.

One of the amazing things that we can take out of this narrative is the fact that this criminal could do nothing to win his salvation. He was nailed to a cross. He could not get baptised or confirmed. He could not sign a membership form at the local church. He could not take Holy Communion. He could not serve in God’s mission. He could not make amends to the people he had harmed while doing crime. He could do nothing to earn his salvation. He could not even work out his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). All he could was to turn to Christ in faith and receive the salvation offered to him.

This is a profound example of salvation by grace through faith. Paul says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

  • Salvation by grace means that salvation is something that God gifts to us – it is not earned or deserved. Indeed, this criminal deserved to be punished (perhaps not on a cross, but in some way he had earned punishment). Salvation was not something he deserved. And yet God extends salvation to him anyway.
  • Salvation through faith means that once salvation is gifted to us, we receive it on faith, by just accepting it, empty-handed, open-hearted – we just accept it. The criminal shows us salvation through faith because his hands are nailed to a cross – he can do nothing but receive what Jesus offers him.

Sometimes we tie ourselves up in knots over redemption. We know that we are saved by grace through faith, but we still feel that we have to do something to earn it. We must pray so much per day or read so much per day or attend church so many times or tithe so much or serve so much or feel remorseful so often or perform so many rituals. Any or all of these things may help us to work out our salvation – to enrich and express our salvation as we journey through life – but they add absolutely nothing to our being saved.

This is redemption. We are saved only by the mercy of God – by grace through faith – who loves us so much and so unconditionally that we are offered this gift as a gift; no strings attached, no small print, no terms or conditions.

But imagine, if you will, that there is a small family gathered near the cross. They are there to watch the execution of the criminal. He did something terrible to this family. Perhaps he raped their daughter or murdered their father. They have come to see him die, to satisfy their rage and grief. And they hear Jesus offer these words of reassurance to this criminal – the promise of salvation and life in paradise. How hard that must have been for them! He in paradise, while their loved one lies maimed or dead.

God’s capacity to forgive is far greater than ours. And as much as we want God to save us, we may want God to not save certain other people. That is human. But God is not human. God loves you. God loves all of us – even criminals, even monsters, even the most evil person you can imagine. It is terribly hard for us to get our hearts around this, and sometimes we cannot accept it; sometimes we deeply desire to reject this. But God still loves them and desires their salvation and works to reconcile them to God.

This is the great and challenging message of Christ regarding forgiveness and salvation – it is open to everyone, even those we deeply desire to not have it. All we can do is trust that God’s love is all embracing. All we can do is believe that God knows people’s hearts – ours and theirs. All we can do is pray to have God’s heart and God’s eyes.

This is redemption. Other people are saved only by the mercy of God – by grace through faith – who loves them so much and so unconditionally that they are offered this gift as a gift; no strings attached, no small print, no terms or conditions.

Just before this narrative about the criminals, Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is the theme of this passage of Luke. Redemption or salvation is about forgiveness – undeserved, unmerited. God forgives out of the generosity of God’s love, out of God’s persistent desire to reconcile with us, to be in relationship with us. For us, forgiveness is a hard thing to do. But for God, forgiveness is an inevitable expression of persistent love.

Here, Jesus, having just been hung up to die, prays that God will forgive those who crucified him. He sets an example that very few of us can emulate. For me, forgiveness is something that I journey towards over time. It is not an on-off switch. It is a repetitive, spiral process of increasingly letting go of anger and of my sense of being entitled to retribution or compensation. And psychologically, I think that is right for us as frail human beings. But Jesus sincerely forgives in that moment and opens his heart to those who have harmed him, those who have taken his life.

This is redemption. God chooses to let go of anger and of the fully justified right to exact punishment or retribution. Divine forgiveness is God choosing to set us free of the debt that we owe for our sin, with the hope that we will reconcile with God. And that freedom is salvation.

Jesus promises the second criminal that they will be together in “paradise”. The Greek word here comes from a Persian word meaning garden. Many of us think of paradise as puffy clouds and white robes and harps – all rather ethereal and disembodied. But Jesus was thinking of something quite tangible and earthy – a garden! With trees, and shrubs, and grasses, and flowers, and soil, and birds, and insects, and lizards, and a stream running through it.

This is redemption. For Jesus, paradise is a return to the Garden of Eden. This is a turning back of world history, a turning back of the consequences of sin, a turning back of evil and judgement. To be saved is to return to Eden – to that garden in which our ancestral mother and father dwelled in harmony with God, with each other, with the world and with themselves – humanity prior to the Fall. Paradise is that place where everything that went wrong with us has been made right again.

Paradise is the place where we fully love and are fully loved by God. This is redemption.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on the meaning of redemption. And on divine forgiveness. What does it mean to you that God has redeemed, saved and forgiven you? What does this say about your being God’s beloved?

Prayer for the Day

Oh Lord, my redeemer, my saviour, I thank you for your freely-given gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. How amazing is your love! Help me to take hold of this salvation, to fully accept it, to immerse myself in it, so that I may be transformed by your love into the image of your beloved Son.

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