Who am I?

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

Today we ask the question, Who am I? Or more specifically, What is my identity as a Christian? This is the first of five themes in a series on stewardship, where we reflect on our role in taking care of God’s business in the world.

In this audio message, I make the following points:

  1. In John 15:1-10, the passage where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches, 11 times Jesus uses the term ‘remain’ (or ‘abide’ in the old Authorised Version): “Remain in me … and you will bear much fruit“. Here Jesus calls us to be rooted into him, to remain grafted into him. We recognise that without him, we can do nothing. So we depend on him.
  2. In the same passage, Jesus also speaks of remaining in us: “Remain in me as I remain in you“. This suggests an interdependence between God and us, in which God binds himself to humanity. We this most strongly evident in four moments in cosmic history: creation, covenant, incarnation and Pentecost. In each of these, God in some way limits himself or enters into agreement with humanity, binding himself and his work to us.
  3. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is both the source of our life (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”) and its destination (“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). In John 14:6, Jesus similarly emphasises that he is the way and the truth and the life. In other words, he is everything – there is nothing in our lives that falls outside of our connection to Christ.
  4. Our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God. Sometimes the church gives us rules or procedures or recipes we’re supposed to follow in our relationship with God. But this relationship is like any other relationship in our life. It is unique, personal and authentic. It is different for each of us, because, though God is the same person, each of us different, so his relationship to each of us different. God meets us right where we are. Whatever you find works for you in your relationship with God, do more of that.
  5. As much as our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God, it is also rooted in our relationships with each other. God did not create a single person (Adam or Eve); God created a couple (two people in loving relationship with each other), and immediately mandated them to procreate and become a family. 1 Peter 2:9-10 similarly emphasises that we are a community of people in relationship with other people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession … the people of God”. So, we have to invest not only in ourselves and our relationship with God, but also in our relationships in the church (however you want to define that) and the work of the church.
  6. Finally, our readings today call for decisiveness. Moses, speaking just before the nation of Israel crosses into the promised land, calls them to a decision (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “This day I … set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose! Choose life! … For the Lord is your life”.

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This banner, hanging at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Lyttleton, created by Eleanor Jappie.

Featured image from here.

On death

Click here to listen to this 17-minute message.

(This sermon was preached on 25 August. I was away at the time, so unable to load it until now.)

The week leading up to this sermon was quite a challenge. A dear colleague of ours, Prof Tessa Hochfeld, was killed in a freak biking accident the previous weekend. During the week leading up to this sermon, I attended her funeral and lead a memorial service for her at our university. Tessa was one of those rare human beings – brilliant, compassionate, humble and rooted in social justice. Her death shook us all and was uppermost in mind during the week. So, it was inevitable that the question of death should become the topic of this sermon.

As it turned out, in the week after the sermon, another colleague of ours, Dr Memory Mathe, was brutally murdered, along with her domestic helper, Ms Pretty Moyo, by men who wanted her car. We buried Memory yesterday.

In addition, a spate of femicides in South Africa have led to a rising tide of anger, particularly among women, leading to demonstrations around the country. Uyinene Mrwetyana, a university student, was lured into a post office where she was raped and murdered. She also was buried yesterday. Death in all its forms has been prominent in our thoughts.

Death is not a comfortable topic for most people. We tend to shy away from it. We regard talking or thinking about death as morbid. We often shield children entirely from death. When an older person talks about dying, we often tell them to ‘buck up’. And when they are on their deathbed, we sometimes do more than we should to prolong their life, no matter how poor its quality, no matter their own wishes. Most of us appear to suffer from thanatophobia – the fear of death.

Christians are by no means exempted from this fear!

I have long thought that if Christians cannot talk openly about death, who can? We, of all people, should be able to look death in the eye and, while not welcoming it, not be afraid it.

In this message, I grapple with Biblical views on death. In simplistic terms, the scriptures present two views of death: death as bad and death as good. I walk us through these views and suggest a way forward for us as Christians to engage with death holistically.

I dedicate the message to Tessa Hochfeld and to Memory Mathe, Pretty Moyo, Uyinene Mrwetyana and other women who have died at the hands of men.

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Feature image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_in_Clouds_by_Sunset_2.jpg

Not peace, but division

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Jesus says, in Luke 12:49-53:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

This is a challenging passage because it seems so contrary to what Jesus appears to stand for: love, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness. How do we make sense of this?

We start by testing out whether Jesus really did not come to bring peace on earth. We locate this specific passage within the broader narrative of his life and ministry. When we do that, we find that Jesus definitely did come to bring peace on earth. Here it is from Luke’s version of the Gospel:

Prophesies about his ministry

End of Song of Zechariah:  “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Lk 1:79)

Angels proclaiming the birth of Christ:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth  peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Lk 2:14)

Jesus’ actual ministry

To the sinful woman who anointed his feet:  ‘Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”.’ (Lk 7:50)

To the bleeding woman:  ‘Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace”.’ (Lk 8:48)

To the disciples after his resurrection:  ‘While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (Lk 24:36)

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples

To the 72 followers:  “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you.” (Lk 10:5-6)

It is hard to read all of this from Luke’s Gospel and conclude that Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth. Then what does he mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

I suggest that Luke 12:49-50 informs us that to accomplish his mission (to bring peace on earth), Jesus must first go through a great confrontation and that this informs us that peace-building brings him into conflict with the forces of darkness, with Satan and his minions. And the Luke 12:51-53 informs us that peace-building can bring conflict even within the family home; and thus also in churches, communities, workplaces and nations.

I provide three examples of this, from my experiences in church, the ‘secular’ workplace and the nation. In each case, standing up for the values of Christ’s kingdom values – love, dignity, respect, compassion, human development, social justice, peace, etc. – has the potential to bring about conflict and division. The values of the Kingdom of God are contrary to all the values of the kingdom of darkness and to the path of sin. Small wonder, then, that championing these values brings about conflict and division. 

What I take from this passage is that there is need for us to stand up for Kingdom values. This is part of peacebuilding. But standing up for peace may well lead us towards conflict and division. Let us not be too scared by this.

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Featured image from https://images.app.goo.gl/WcNWwMLn4eci585V7

Poverty

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Poverty is one of the great challenges facing South Africa today, with unemployment rates above 25% for the population as a whole and around 55% for young adults, and with poverty still running along racial and gender lines (StatsSA). It is a challenge for the country and for the church. It is a challenge we try to deal with in our mission to the world, and it is a challenge we try to deal with among ourselves. Many of us are ourselves struggling with poverty.

What is it that God expects of us regarding poverty?
And how do we do something about poverty, when we ourselves are poor? 

Luke 12 presents to us Jesus’ perspective on poverty, which is essentially that we should not worry. “Don’t be afraid, little flock”, he says. “Do not worry”. “Do not be afraid”. He regales us with analogies of ravens, sparrows, flowers and hairs on our head. Analogies that speak of God’s provision, God’s providence, God’s care. “You are worth far more than many sparrows”.

How does Jesus expect us to ‘not worry’ about things that are so worrisome? Are we simply to sing the “Don’t worry, be happy” song? or Hakuna Matata?

Jesus reveals in Luke 12 that not worrying about poverty (or any other life challenge) is not about switching off to poverty or denying reality. Rather, it about seeing a more powerful reality that lies beyond the present; a world that lies beyond this present world. He invites us to recognise that there is a world to come that is more important than this one and more enduring. It is not that this world, this life, is unimportant! Clearly, from Jesus’ behaviour and teaching, we know that this life and its challenges are important. But there is an even more important world to come. And it our investment into that world that really matters, that counts in the short and long run.

Our capacity see that world rests in faith. It is “by faith” that we see that world. Faith is the central topic of Hebrews 11. The writer reminds us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Paul similarly writes, “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). In this chapter from Hebrews, the writer uses the phrase “by faith” 21 times to emphasise that the legacy we inherit from our biblical ancestors is one of faith. While we typically want an instant return on our faith investment, our ancestors were willing to wait generations for the return:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth (Heb 11:13).

Abraham was able to see the future through God’s eyes. He heard and believed God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations (Genesis 12:2, 15:5 and 22:17), even though he did not see this for himself in his lifetime. He could see it because he could see through God’s eyes. Through the eyes of faith. It is these eyes that we need to be able to see the world beyond this one, to see God’s provision in the midst of hardship, to see God’s promises fulfilled even if not yet. These are the eyes of faith. These are the eyes of God.

And so Jesus says,

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:33-34).

This is a message not just for those with money (though we, especially, should heed it), but also for those without (think of the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4). This what God calls his people to:

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

It starts at home, within the church community:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. …And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Featured image from: https://images.app.goo.gl/iy3XkCppMMj5g2QG9

Doing mission

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Our Gospel reading for today is Luke 10:1-11, 16-20. It is the story of Jesus sending out 72 of his followers (having previously sent out the 12 disciples at the start of Luke 9) to do missionary work. It’s an important narrative, because it provides insight into Jesus’ teaching and training of his followers in missionary work. In this recording, I do an almost verse-by-verse Bible study of the passage, to tease out what happens, what Jesus says and how Luke conveys Jesus’ teachings to us.

I start by disclosing that I am a useless evangelist. I was trained in and did cold-calling as a university student, while a member of Campus Crusade for Christ. But, being a naturally shy and introverted person, walking up to strangers to share the Gospel with them was the hardest thing in the world for me.

I wrap up with three main points (RAP):

  1. Our Responsibility. We are responsible to be faithful to God, to make God known in the world. But we are not responsible for how people respond to us. Our responsibility is to lay a foundation and prepare the way for Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s work in the life of other people.
  2. Our Attitude. We are invited to enter the lives of others with an attitude of peace – to be calm, quiet, respectful and deferential. And we are invited to accommodate them and their ways, not to impose ourselves on them. Paul writes at length about this in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
  3. Our Presence. We are assured (and reassured) that since Christ dwells in us – has taken up residence in us – wherever we are, Christ is. And wherever Christ is, the Kingdom of God is (since Christ is King of the Kingdom of God). Thus, merely being among people who do not know God brings the Kingdom of God near to them. This, ultimately, is what Jesus emphasises to his followers (Luke 10:8-11):

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, … tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you. But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say … be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.”

Whether we realise or intend it or not, the truth is that we are always Christ’s ambassadors. We are always revealing Christ to the world. We are always preparing the way for Christ’s coming. We are always doing mission. But we could be doing mission in a way that better aligns with Jesus’ teaching on mission and that does indeed prepare the way for him.

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Featured image is a 13th century mosaic of Jesus Christ from the ceiling of the Baptistry across from the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) in Florence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bbmaui/719415433/

Faith journey

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How is your faith life? How are you doing in your relationship with God?

We are all on a journey of faith. Luke presents it to us like this in Luke 9:51-62 and Paul does so in Galatians 5:13-25. Journeys are typically not straight forward lines. They go up and down and round about. Journeys are messy. And our journey of faith is no different. My own journey looks more like a bowl of spaghetti than a box of spaghetti!

In this message, I unpack three facets of this journey from our two readings for today:

  1. Jesus is quite chilled about our journey. He adopts a ‘take it or leave it’ stance. He desires us to journey with him, but he will not force or coerce us.
  2. Jesus is quite demanding about our journey. He wants a total commitment from us. He has high expectations of us.
  3. Holy Spirit journeys with us, enabling us, strengthening and filling us. We are not on this journey alone. We live with, are led by and keep in step with the Spirit.

On this day, and during this coming week, I’d love you to reflect more deeply and deliberately on our faith journey with God.

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Featured image from here.

Discomfort zone

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Most of us like to remain within our comfort zones. They are, by definition, comfortable. So, we tend to stay within our comfort zone.

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul explains that while we were formerly imprisoned by Law, we are now set free from such bondage. We’re set free by Christ, who brought a new kind of faith. We are now clothed with Christ. The result of this, is the breakdown of divisions among us: race (Jew and Gentile), class (slave and free) and gender (male and female). Elsewhere, Paul describes this as the destruction of a barrier, a “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16). We are made into one people. A diverse people.

As Christians, we are thus freed up to cross the boundaries that divide us. Choosing to cross boundaries is not easy for most of us. We tend to stay without our comfort zone. And that zone is typically populated by people who are similar to us. Engaging authentically with people who are of a different race, class or gender pushes us into a discomfort zone. Christ has freed us to step into these discomfort zones.

Indeed, we are mandated to step into our discomfort zones, because this is exactly what Jesus did. Again and again! Luke’s Gospel is particularly attentive to the ways Jesus deliberately and consciously – sometimes even flagrantly! – stepped over the boundaries that divide, placing himself and others in their discomfort zones.

A great example of this is Luke 8:26-39. Here Jesus crosses into gentile territory and engages a profoundly demon-possessed man, who is naked, uncontrollable and living wild among the tombs. In numerous ways, this man takes Jesus into his discomfort zone; Jesus breaks several Jewish taboos to be with this man. It is in this this context of discomfort that Jesus heals him, saves him, transforms him. When the community sees the man again, he is clothed, sitting at Jesus’ feet and in his right mind. Jesus does this reconciling work in his discomfort zone.

And this pushes the people of that region into their discomfort zone. They are afraid; overcome with fear. They beg Jesus to leave. They want their discomfort removed, and that means getting rid of Jesus. So Jesus leaves. He leaves them in their comfort zone. Separated from the loving presence of Christ.

But the man himself begs to follow Jesus. However, Jesus sends him back into his discomfort zone, back into the community from which he has long been feared and excluded. Jesus commissions him to be a missionary – perhaps the first gentile missionary to the gentiles! And it is into this zone of discomfort that the man goes, telling everyone what Jesus had done for him.

God wants us to step out of our comfort zones and into discomfort zones. God knows this is not easy. But God also knows that it is in these places that healing, transformation and reconciliation take place. So, what are your discomfort zones? And what can you do to cross into them deliberately?

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Featured image called “Hands Across the Divide” in Derry, Northern Ireland. From http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/11/snapshot-18-photos-of-u-k-statues