Seeing from the Cross

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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.

When the World goes Mad

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Sometimes, the world seems to be going mad. On the morning of the day I preached this sermon, two terrorist attacks in Brussels left 31 or so people dead. IS claimed responsibility. Attacks like these, like the multiple attacks in Paris in 2015, make us afraid and want to withdraw from the world. Fear sets in. Muslims and Arabs seem dangerous. The world seems a threatening place.

In South Africa, we face increasingly racialised discourse, from all sides of the political and racial spectrum. Some people are calling for doing away with reconciliation and an increasing emphasis on racial identity and distinctiveness. These conversations elicit fear and uncertainty, prompting us to withdraw from each other into our safe comfort zones.

Jesus also experienced a world going mad. As religious leaders becoming increasingly threatened by him, his actions and his popularity, they set up traps to discredit and marginalise him. They plot to kill him. Indeed, they succeed in murdering him.

But through all this madness, Jesus does not withdraw, he is not cowed by fear, he does not avoid. Instead, Jesus continues to engage, to move towards, to step across boundaries. From where does he get this confidence in the face of considerable odds? He gets it from a confidence that his authority comes from heaven, from God. He knows that he is living out God’s will for him – to reconcile all things together within God’s family.

And so he remains steadfast. As we also need to remain steadfast. To not be cowed or afraid or marginalised. But to continue to live out the faith that we have inherited. A faith that hopes and trusts in a powerful God. A faith that engages and connects. A faith that steps across boundaries and embraces. A faith that loves.

Mark 11:27-33

Being God’s Beloved: Day 38: The Spirit of Persistence

If you are a Christian, Holy Spirit dwells in your heart.

Some Christians question and doubt this. But you need have no doubt about the persistence of Spirit in your life.

Jesus says to the disciples, before Pentecost, “You know him [Spirit], for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17). The first part of this sentence is written in the present tense (you currently know him because he currently lives in you) to emphasise that Spirit is already dwelling in them. And the second part of the sentence is written in the future tense (he will be in you in the future) to emphasise that Spirit will persist in them – he will not leave. The same is true of all children of God today – if you are a Child of God, Spirit has already taken up residence in your heart, and will remain there forever.

As we journey through life, however, we may have fresh and new experiences of Holy Spirit – new outpourings of Spirit into our hearts. The disciples experienced this from Jesus after the resurrection. In John 20, Jesus appears first to Mary and then to the disciples. He greets them, “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:21-22). Just a few days earlier, Jesus had affirmed that Spirit was already living with them. So they are not now receiving Spirit for the first time. Rather, this is a new outpouring of Spirit into them.

And some weeks later, at Pentecost, they receive another outpouring of Spirit – this time with “a violent wind from heaven” and “what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them” and with the ability to speak in different languages (Acts 2:2-4). Again, this is a new experience of Spirit, but that does not mean they did not previously have Spirit in them. This time, however, we see radical transformation in their faith and witness, and an explosive growth of the church. Clearly, the outpouring of Spirit is a vital part of our spiritual growth. We should eagerly desire to know Spirit like this!

‘Baptism in the Spirit’ or being ‘filled with the Spirit’, which are sometimes accompanied by supernatural gifts such as tongues, does not mean receiving Holy Spirit for the first time. Spirit is intimately involved in our salvation, so if you are saved then Spirit is with you. We cannot be saved without Spirit’s participation. But, baptism and filling will provide you with ‘more’of Spirit, though I don’t like how ‘more’ suggests that Spirit is something that can be quantified and dispensed, like water or power. Remember that Spirit is a person. It is more helpful to think of baptism and filling as the removal of chains that constrain Spirit within you, so that you give Spirit space to work within you. Baptism and filling free Spirit up to do what he does best – to work in and through us for the glory of God. And this is something we should all pray for.

Yesterday we reflected that when Spirit saves us and dwells in us, we become children of God (Romans 8:15-17). This too sounds wonderful, does it not? Not only can we be filled with Spirit, but we can also become children of God and coheirs with Christ! This would suggest that once we are saved, we can expect to live the good life!

Of course, we all know that this is not true. Being a Christian does not secure the good life. Sometimes, being a Christian actually seems to work against us – we choose to give up activities or friends we enjoyed before, we feel obliged to be honest in our work and our tax returns, we feel persuaded to forgive someone who has harmed us, we grapple with guilt because we repeatedly fail to live up to God’s standards. This does not feel like the good life.

Paul recognises this, and so in Romans, immediately after several verses about how wonderful it is to live in step with Spirit, he begins to write about suffering and about the hope for a future glory – the good life that we will experience sometime in the future, if not now. He uses words like (Romans 8:18-27): sufferings, eager expectation, frustration, subjected, liberated, bondage, decay, groaning, the pains of childbirth, groan, eagerly wait, hope, patiently, weakness, groans.

Why does Paul write like this?

It is because the Christian path is not an easy one. It is because there are many times that we will feel like giving up, we may question if all this is worth it. It is because there are times when we will feel that God has abandoned us.

It is significant that Paul uses ‘groans’ three times and ‘hope’ five times in these 10 verses. This combination of groaning and hoping is often the experience of being a child of God. We groan because things are not how we want them to be. And we hope because we look forward to a better time. Hope helps us tolerate groaning. Hope helps us to persist through the groans.

And then Paul offers us two promises – promises that serve to give us courage and hope in the face of adversity, promises that remind us that the heart of God is filled with love towards us, promises that assure us that Spirit persists with us.

The first promise is this: that God is always working to transform bad experiences into good opportunities for us. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Bad things do happen. They happen to us. They happen to the people we love. And they happen to people throughout the world. Bad things do happen. We can write many books to explain suffering. But the bottom line is that we do suffer. It is a fact of living in a fallen world. God does not protect us from suffering.

But what we can trust God for, is that God will work with us, in all things, to transform bad into good. The thing that happened remains a bad thing. But God works to change the effects of that bad thing into something good. This is something God does in partnership with us – God partners with us to transform bad into good. God did this with the Cross: the Cross is a bad thing; but God transformed the effects of the Cross into something good for us.

For example, someone may experience a violent crime – that is a bad thing. God will work to transform that bad experience into something valuable – for example, the person may discover a fire in their belly to start a programme for people who commit violent crimes. The violent crime has not become good, just because it lead to something good. The crime itself is still a bad thing. But God has “worked together with those who love him to bring about what is good” (an alternative translation of Romans 8:28).

We can always trust God to help us transform bad things into good results.

And the second promise is this: that we will never be separated from God’s love. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Whenever I read this passage out loud, I find myself emphasising that “No!” in verse 37. It is one of Paul’s emphatic No’s, as if he had been sitting down and now stands up to emphasise this word. And then I find that I get louder and slower and more emphatic as I move through the last two verses, “For I am convinced…”

Nothing, absolutely nothing, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! Nothing!!

God’s love does not give up on us. God’s love is not thwarted. God’s love is not contingent on whether we feel God’s love. God’s love does not get turned away by things that happen to us. God’s love is not doused by our own faithlessness. There is nothing in the universe that can separate us from God’s love.

Yesterday we reflected on the idea that Spirit is the love of God. Paul in Romans 8 has been writing extensively about Spirit in the lead up to these verses. So it is not too great a stretch to conclude that we can never be separated from God’s love because we can never be separated from Spirit. Spirit, who is the love of God, dwells in us – we are Holy Spirit’s temple (1 Corinthians 6:19) – and so God’s love dwells in us.

No matter what happens, no matter what we go through, Spirit remains with us, God’s love remains with us. Spirit will never leave us nor forsake us, so we need never fear nor be discouraged (Deuteronomy 31:6-8). We can have confidence that “if God is for us, who can be against us. He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32).

And no matter what we ourselves do, no matter what we say, Spirit remains with us, God’s love remains with us. We are incapable of escaping Spirit, as the psalmist has written, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 137:7-10). God remains with us, because God knit us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 137:13). God knows everything there is to know about us – all the wonderful and all the terrible things about us – and still loves us, is not ashamed of or repulsed by us.

Today we give thanks for Holy Spirit, for the Love of God, who dwells in us, in the innermost place in our hearts, who works continuously for our good, who is present with us in suffering and hardship, and who loves us to the ends of time.

Meditation for the Day

Consider the presence of God’s Spirit in your heart right now. Even if you do not sense his presence, affirm and meditate on the truth that he is there and that he will persist in you.

Prayer for the Day

Spirit of Christ, Spirit of Love. Thank you that you reside in me and that you have promised to never leave nor forsake me. Open my heart to your presence and stir up in me faith and hope. Give me courage and ability to do your work in the world.

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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 31: The Cup of Suffering

Today we start a week of reflection on the cross. The cross is, for most Christians, the centre of their faith – the key representation and demonstration of God’s love. If we want to know what God’s love looks like, they say, look at the cross, for it is here that we see the extent to which God is willing to sacrifice on our behalf. However, the cross is also a picture of pain and suffering. It raises profound and difficult questions for all of us as to why it was necessary for Jesus to endure such agony on our behalf. Why does the Father allow the Son to suffer so? These questions are particularly poignant for those who have suffered in abusive relationships.

And so, as we start this week’s journey, I invite you to be sensitive and generous towards the range of views that there are on the meaning of the cross and the different spiritual responses that it evokes in people of genuine faith. You may not agree with everything you read this week – that’s okay. Just consider what you read, mull it over, and use it to strengthen your own understanding.

After the Last Supper, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane to pray. Matthew 26:36-46 narrates this event in great detail and with much pathos. He uses a great deal of emotive language to describe Jesus’ experience, more than any other section of the Gospels: Jesus was sorrowful and troubled, overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.

Matthew does this to highlight for us as readers that this experience was among the most challenging for Jesus. It serves to guide us into a deep appreciation for the tremendous psychological and spiritual conflict that the cross evoked in Jesus. This was no walk in the park! We should think about Gethsemane as the central crisis in Jesus’ ministry. Although the cross itself was profoundly traumatic, it is in Gethsemane that Jesus must confront the horror that lies before him and choose whether or not to follow that path. Choice is often the hardest part of a difficult course – once chosen, the taking of the course is acceptable.

Sometimes when we think about the cross, we split the human and divine natures that coexist in the person of Jesus Christ. We may say, for example, that it was Jesus’ human nature that suffered or doubted, while his divine nature was protected from suffering and not vulnerable to doubt. But this creates an artificial split in the whole person of Jesus Christ that is at odds with our belief that the two natures are fully present and indivisibly connected in the one person. Think of the crisis as involving Jesus’ whole person and then one gets some sense of the awful bridge that he faced and had to cross.

In this passage, Jesus speaks about a “cup”, which we should understand as a metaphor for the suffering that he must endure. It is the Cup of Suffering. Three times he prays about it. First, in verse 39, he asks God to take it away from him. The second time, in verse 42, he asks that if it is not possible for it to be taken away, that God’s will might be done through it. What we are seeing in these two brief verses is a summary of an extended and heart-wrenching grappling with God. Jesus here is fighting with God much like Jacob did with the angel at  Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32). Initially Jesus wants to be utterly rid of the cup. Yet he recognizes that God’s will for the redemption of humanity is somehow tied up in the dreadful cup. And so he continues to grapple. Later, he reaches a point of recognizing that the cup is inevitable and necessary and prays that his drinking of it will be worthwhile and effective. Yet, still he prays the same thing for a third time. This is no easy prayer, and acceptance of the path of suffering is hard in coming.

What does Jesus see as he looks into the cup?

He sees the dregs of humanity. Everything about us that is wrong is in that cup – the cup of suffering. It is full of our hatred, our unbelief, our selfishness, our pride, our arrogance, our apathy, our anger, our petty mindedness, our stigma of and discrimination against those who are different from us, our quickness to judge and belittle, our fear, our lust and greed, our tendency to turn away from God rather than towards God. The Cup of Suffering is a Cup of Sin.

Jesus looks into this Cup of Suffering. He does not want to drink it. It fills him with horror! It fills him with terror, shock, despair. This Cup of Suffering is the most awful thing he has ever encountered. He wants to get as far from this Cup as he possibly can.

Let us remember that Jesus was without sin. He had never sinned. Of course, he had lived his whole life in the midst of sin – his parents, his brothers and sisters, his friends, his disciples and those he ministered to were all sinful human beings, just like me and you. Jesus was not unaware of or protected from sin. But he had never experienced sin in his own body, in his self. Drinking this Cup of Suffering entailed a personal encounter with sin. For the first time he would know sin – really know sin. He would take that sin, our sins, into himself, onto himself, and experience it first hand. It terrifies and horrifies him.

“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. … My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

Eventually, Jesus, realising and sharing the Father’s will, looks into the Cup of Suffering. He stares into the depths of human depravity, brokenness and sin. It is ugly.

But as he gazes, he begins to recognise that the Cup of Suffering is not just a cup of sin in the abstract. Rather, it is a cup of the sins of people: people with lives, with histories, with relationships, with hopes and fears, with conflicting and contradictory feelings, thoughts and behaviors. People with names. People he loves. Jesus starts to recognize names: Adrian, Trina, Erin, Anne, Michael, Theo, Nancy, John, Marianne, Cathy, Keith… He recognizes me. He recognizes you!

This Cup of Suffering is not merely a cup of horror. It is also a cup of people! It is not just a cup of sin. It is also a cup of love! These are God’s beloved. These are Jesus’ beloved. These are the ones he came to earth for in the first place.

These are the beloved. That changes everything!

It does not make the cup any easier to drink. It does not take away the horror. But it provides meaning and purpose. And meaning and purpose provide motivation. And motivation generates resolve. “May your will be done.”

Jesus decides to drink the Cup of Suffering.

The cross is a drinking of the Cup of Suffering. On the cross, Christ drinks the dregs of humanity. He drinks the dregs of me. He drinks the dregs of you. He drinks because he loves. He loves me. He loves you. And so he drinks. Were there another way, he’d have seized it with both hands. This was a deep and bitter cup. But realizing there was no other way and embracing his love for you and me, he drinks, to the bottom.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

And then a remarkable thing happens! A miracle!

The Cup of Suffering is transformed into the Cup of Salvation.

It seems impossible, but it happens. By God’s grace and mercy, by the triune God’s extravagant and unmerited love, a love that is willing to risk everything, the Cup of Suffering becomes the Cup of Salvation.

This shocking event that we call ‘the cross’, which was intended to destroy – to annihilate – the Son of God, becomes the preeminent means of grace. The horror of the cross is transformed into the path of redemption. This place of hatred becomes, by God’s generosity, a place of supreme love.

It is the triune God who works this miracle for us. The cross itself is inherently an object of suffering and death. There is nothing glorious about it. It is not to be admired. It is a symbol of shame, of the worst that humanity can dish up. But God redeems this symbol, showing God’s capacity to redeem even the very worst of humanity, to transform what is most ugly into what is most beautiful. The Cup of Salvation!

The cross can and should evoke in us conflicted responses. On the one hand, we should shudder with disgust and shame, we should flinch away from the terrible thing that we did to God’s one and only, God’s delight, God’s Son. But on the other hand, we should be amazed at the profound expression of love, demonstrated by Jesus, in drinking the Cup of Suffering. And we should be in awe of God’s ability to transform evil into good, shame into glory, death into life.

This Gethsemane partnership between Jesus and his parent, God, establishes a model or a path that we experience as we journey in faith with God. God, our parent, takes everything that is broken about us, and transforms it into something beautiful and whole. Those many aspects of our own lives that are wrong, turned away from God, even evil, are able to be changed into something good, something that honours God, something divine. If God was able to transform the Cup of Suffering into a Cup of Salvation, surely God can transform one individual, transform you!

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on the Cup of Suffering that confronted Christ Jesus. What sins of yours were in that cup? Take ownership of your own contribution to Jesus’ ordeal. How could Jesus’ transformation of the cup be evidenced in His transformation of you?

Prayer for the Day

Precious Saviour, I am sorry for my sin that you chose to drink on the cross. Please forgive me. Thank you for your amazing demonstration of love in both drinking and transforming the Cup of Suffering. Please transform me.

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