Friday, 6 January 2017

Jesus Baptism, A Voice from the Heavens, & Silence

Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said.”

And a voice from heaven said?  I wonder if like me you have longed for, deeply desired, or craved tomight be saying something to you through the scriptures or through another person, but God’s very voice.  The words of Matthew’s gospel are tantalising, they taunt us in the silence of our own lives.  A voice from heaven. 
hear a voice from heaven in your own life.  An audible word from God to you, not just a sense that God

As if to further tempt and tantalise us the two readings from the Old Testament tell of God’s speaking. It is in the reading from Isaiah who conveys what the voice of the Lord had told him.  And, it is in the Psalm, no less than seven times, “The voice of the Lord…” is over the waters, is powerful, is full of majesty, breaks the cedars, flashes forth, causes oaks to whirl and strips forests bare.  The voice of the Lord, a voice from heaven.  God’s powerful imposing voice is set before us, yet for many of us, I suspect most of us, the reality is that our experience of God is not the resounding voice but silence.

I am left wondering am I deaf?  Why cannot I hear this powerful and resounding voice?

In the last week a re-read Shusaku Endo’s brilliant novel “Silence”.  Written in 1966 Endo’s novel explores the silence of God in the face of the immeasurable suffering and persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th Century.  The key character, a Spanish Jesuit priest, cannot fathom God’s silence as he constantly prayers in the face of the brutal persecution and coercion by the Warlord on him to denounce Christ.

What do we do we God’s silence?

Today I deliberately gathered in the round surrounded by the prayers written on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that we have attached to the walls.  Expressions of our hope and faith in the face of problems that may, for many of us, seem insurmountable.  Will God be silent?  What answers will come?  Will God speak to us and answer these our prayers?

No doubt each of you has experienced God’s apparent silence in your life.  No doubt you to have felt the heart breaking reality of moments of feeling Godforsaken.  Where is the voice we long for? 

Returning to the scriptures and understanding why they were written can help us with this conundrum.  As always, I would note that when we pull a snippet of scripture from the Bible we don’t get a sense of the ebb and flow of the story that the author of a particular book is building.

Matthew opens his gospel by recounting the genealogy of Jesus back through David all the way to Abraham.  This is one of the reasons Matthew is the first of the gospels, despite not being written first.  Through his genealogy Matthew creates the bridge between the Old Testament and Jesus identity.  This was very important for Matthew’s first audience who were predominantly Jewish.  Jesus’ life is traced back through the Davidic line.

Following on from the genealogy Matthew tells us of the appearance of an angel to Joseph. The quotation of the words of the prophet and the birth of Jesus provide a further affirmation of Jesus importance.  There is the genetic connection and there is the prophetic connection.

The next story Matthew tells is somewhat unusual.  It is the story of the wise men from the East and Herod appears to give an importance to Jesus’ identity that breaks the barriers of the Israelite nation and implies Jesus’ coming is relevant to the whole world.

And, then, we come to the baptism of Jesus by John.  This is introduced with an explanation of John’s importance as the forerunner of Jesus and prophecies about their relationship.

Then in the baptism Matthew’s words witness to something that was beyond the common experience.  “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” In traditional jargon we might call this a theophany – an appearance of God – and this theophany sits alongside a series of assertions concerning Jesus identity.

So why does Matthew need to build this story about Jesus identity?  What does he retell the story in the way he does? Why does he write it down? What was he hoping to achieve?

I think Matthew is building this argument for his audience about Jesus’ identity because they too have neither seen nor heard Jesus or God’s voice.  Not everyone gets to hear God’s voice.  You and I do not necessarily hear that audible voice of God in our lifetime.  Though we might desire it, seek it, and crave it.  Though we might discipline ourselves to reading the scripture and being in worship and prayer and contemplation.  So often what we experience is silence.

It is helpful to be reminded that the scriptures only ever report a very small number of people that hear God’s voice or have a theophany.  The people of Matthew’s community, so long ago, were relying on his witness to them in the absence of their own opportunity to hear God’s voice.

The same is true for us we rely on the witness of others to sustain us in our faith.

Of course, part of our Christian understanding is that God is present with us and that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, as well as the out pouring of the Holy Spirit, the opportunity for relationship with God is opened out in a new way.  This may be true but it does not necessarily equate to everybody being doled out a special spiritual experience all of their own. 

Matthew knew this and was encouraging people and nurturing people to hold on to their faith that Jesus was indeed who Matthew claimed he was: “the Messiah, the son of David, the Son of Abraham”, “God is with us” “the Nazorean”, “the Beloved, Son of God”. 

In his witness to Jesus’ identity Matthew is nurturing and encouraging people of faith to follow the teachings and way of Jesus, even if they do not experience or encounter a direct divine revelation all of their own.

This is important for us to reflect deeply on in 2017.  To believe in Jesus. To believe in God.  What a strange and difficult thing to do this is becoming!  The silence of God is palpable and people are responding and turning away from faith.  This week I read statistics that indicate in Australia over the last 20 years belief in God has dropped by just over 20%, down to 55%.  Only 1 in 2 people you meet on the street believe that there is a God.  And among younger people the results show around a third believe in God.

There are significant questions raised for me as we reflect on the readings that speak so strongly about God’s voice when we struggle to hear it for ourselves. What will help us hold on?

In a culture filled with the noise of so many voices: the advertisers enticing us to buy and consume; politicians encouraging us to vote; sceptics challenging our belief; scientists warning us of disasters.  Can we hear God’s voice above this clamour?

It makes me think of Elijah on the mountain top waiting for God to pass as he sat in the cave.  Was God in the fire, or wind, or thunder no God was in the sheer silence!

I think we need to be honest in our faith about the challenge of the silence and how we rely on the witness of others but also to remember that silence may not mean absence, indeed it does not!   Our faith is built on the witness of others.  On the witness of Matthew:

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus is worth listening to, he is worth following, he is God’s beloved. 

We may find that we do not have the miraculous encounters.  We might find that much of our faith is built on what others have taught us.  The silence of God or the lack of a miracle in my own life does not mean that God is any less real or any less present.  Living the faith involves patience and commitment and perseverance.  We wait in the cave alongside Elijah anticipating that God will pass.  And yes, we may be blessed enough to have a transformative encounter with God, but if we are not we can stay the course and hold our faith as we trust the message that has been handed down to us.

This kind of perseverance and patience is increasingly difficult in a world where everything is instantaneous.  We can have what we want tithe the click of a few buttons.  To be people of faith involves learning to be patient and to live differently in the world.

What do we do as we stand at the beginning of this New Year?  How do we be a community of faith? What is God asking of this little congregation?

At the beginning of the service I suggested that today we reflect on our own baptism and in the baptism service the congregation is invited to say these words:

With God’s help, 
we will live out our baptism
as a loving community in Christ:
nurturing one another in faith,
upholding one another in prayer,
and encouraging one another in service, 
until Christ comes.

Essentially for instructions to help us follow Jesus in our lives and live out our own baptism.

Live as a loving community in Christ – that means caring for each other, and the community we are part of.
Nurture one another in faith – that means being prepared to talk openly about our faith and to commit ourselves to learn more.
Upholding one another in prayer is self-explanatory.
Encourage one another in service means to become each other’s supporters.

As I was preparing for today I read an ancient writing of the church.  Written by Gregory of Nyssa’s around 16000 years ago his “Life of Moses” begins with a description of himself as being like a supporter at a chariot race he calls out in encouragement.

I know some of us here struggle to engage deeply in the mission and ministry of the church.  We are tired, some of us are unwell, and some of us are aging.  But we can support one another and we can sheer on and encourage those who do the work.

In doing these simple things we sustain one another in the silence and presence of God and it would be my prayer that we can learn again to share our faith with people who have fallen away from believing in God at all.

Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said.”

A voice from heaven.  Do we hear it?  Does it matter?  We have heard the witness and we have believed and we are blessed.

It makes me think of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ when Jesus says to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  “Blessed are those who have not heard the voice of God and yet have come to believe.”

“Blessed are you who have not heard the voice of God and yet have come to believe.”

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Paul's first words to Rome

If you can drag yourself back 2000 years and imagine that you are in Rome listening, for the very first time, to Paul’s letter to the community there, I imagine you might have wondered something along the lines, “Who the heck does this guy think he is?”

The opening line of his letter betrays an audacity that we can easily miss:

“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”

These words are no simple salutation; no common greeting.  Paul’s claim to be a slave to Christ Jesus and called to be an apostle contain echoes of the claims of the Old Testament prophets and their call to be God’s servants and slaves.  Paul is claiming a heritage and authority that reflects these ancient claims and may very well have astounded his first audience in Rome.

Yet, if those early Christians found Paul’s words surprising, it may have been just as surprising to Paul that nearly 400 years later one of the greatest preachers of the early church John Chrysostom, also known as golden mouth, said of this very letter that he read it twice a week, and sometimes even 3 or 4 times a week.

Further, it may have surprised Paul to know that in the early 1500's Martin Luther would be dwelling on Paul’s letter to the Romans so deeply, as he struggled with his faith and discovered in Paul’s words God’s grace.

And, again, at the beginning of the 20th century, Paul might have been amazed as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth launched his stellar career with his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
Even beyond the walls of the Church Paul’s impact is recognized.  The historian Larry Siedentop argues that the origins of Western liberalism lie in Paul’s concept of the individual. 

And, here now in this small gathering of God’s people at St Lucia we are still reading and contemplating Paul’s words. 

Why?  Well maybe it is as Barth says, at the beginning of his commentary, that “he veritably speaks to all men [and women] of every age”. 

Paul may have never foreseen the impact of his letter to the Christians in Rome and how the influence of his words would spill over into 2000 years of history but maybe it is precisely because he is as he claims, a slave of Christ Jesus, that his words do this.  He recognizes something fundamental about his existence – it is not his own.

The revelation of Christ to Paul on the Damascus road led him to the deep discovery that life was less about who he was as it was about whose he was.  He was God’s and he was God’s in a special way: called to be an apostle.

Now it is my conviction that each one of you is called into a relationship of service with God. In fact I have a sense that all people are called into such a relationship.  Yet, for each one of us the calling to follow and serve Jesus is particular and specific. We are not all meant to be the apostle Paul.  He has a special role at a particular time in history. Paul’s words transcend his time and place in history because they carry an authority that invite us to reflect not about Paul but about the one in whom Paul has grounded his life: Christ Jesus.

It Christ Jesus who is ground zero for the Christian faith because as Barth says in his commentary on Romans:

Jesus Christ our Lord.  This is the Gospel and the meaning of history.  In this name two worlds meet and go apart, two planes intersect, the one known and the other unknown.

In Christ Jesus there is a convergence between our known finite earthly existence and the mystery of God’s eternal existence.  Our earthly existence in all its ambiguity and messiness: life and death; joy and sorrow; good and evil; pleasure and pain; beauty and horror intersects with God’s existence: source of life, origin of being, eternal mystery, love, grace, hope, transcendence and immanence.

Christ Jesus enters history and the life of the world intersects with the life of God in his very person.  This is whom Paul speaks of and like a stone thrown into a pond the ripples of Jesus existence extend out through space and time to touch of all of the creation for all of time, including your life and mine.  And in this God says to us your lives are relevant to me; you are not alone; you are loved.

We heard this amazing good news in the reading from Matthew this morning as Jesus’ birth was described by the gospel writer. 
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’

God is with us, present with us in history, in the flesh, in Christ Jesus, but more than that through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is eternally present.  God is with us and so we can say that we are not without God.

This is the good news as we wrestle with conundrums of our lives.  As we confront loneliness and loss, evil and ego, temptation and terror, pain and poverty, suffering and sorrow God is with us, God walks beside in Jesus and has shared the fullness of our human experience.  God is with us and even when we might count ourselves forsaken by God we are not without God.  The intersection of created history with God’s life in Jesus is our source of hope.  

In this discovery of God’s love for us Paul knew whose he was and we can come to know whose we are as well.  Servants of Christ Jesus called into life and called into the love and life of God.

As Paul penned his letter to the Christians in Rome the words of admonishment, of hope, of faith and of grace flowed out into history to teach us about Jesus and who we are as God’s people.  He writes:

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Paul names the people as God’s beloved, beloved just as Jesus himself was beloved.  Not alone or bereft but accompanied through life by God in Christ Jesus and in this made saints, holy people, not by our own action but by God’s presence with us.  We are drawn beyond the division between the created and Creator into the unity of life with God – all of the prior boundaries are being obliterated.

This is why Paul then goes on to say:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Once again we drag ourselves back through history to understand the importance of Paul’s greeting.  “Grace”, charis, was a common greeting among the Greek speaking world, whilst “Peace”, shalom, was and remains a common greeting among the Jewish people.  Grace and peace represent once again the intersection of different worlds and of different communities. 

Just as in Christ Jesus God overcomes the division between the divine and the created, so to in Christ Jesus God is calling us into our common humanity: transcending cultural and ethnic and socio-economic disparities God calls us into community with one another. 

One of the key reasons for Paul’s letter to the Romans was to deal with the tension that had emerged between followers of Christ with different background.  Through history, we as Christians, and we as humanity, have continued to struggle to find our common identity.  We have not understood the greeting of Paul ‘grace and peace’ is meant to draw us beyond the safe boundaries of our communities into loving one another just as we have been loved.

This is no less a challenge for us as God’s beloved in our time, to recognize whose we are together, and to know that we are companions with all other people through this life.

This is why today, at the table of grace, we are called to remember that God in Christ is our companion on the journey of life.  Companion from its origins literally means ‘with bread’ and reminds us that in the breaking of the bread together with Christ as our host we are indeed God’s companions, God is with us, we are loved, and we are not alone.  The loving companion that we meet here binds us all together as God’s creatures as God overcomes our divisions: grace and peace.

When Paul wrote that letter to that first group of Christians in Rome, he made the claim that his importance was secondary to one to whom he witness:

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.

Paul’s letter endures for us as a witness to God’s love for and reminds us that though we may not be an apostle like Paul, or a saint like Francis, or a teacher like Martin Luther, or a healer like Mother Theresa, we, each one of you, is beloved and is called into the service of the God who is with you and within you.  God is with us.  God is with you.  Christ Jesus: this is whose we are and defines who we are and this is indeed the good news.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Wake up!

A Sermon on Romans 13:11-14

Wake up.
Wake up from your slumber.

Wake up from your dreaming.
Wake up to yourself.
Wake up to reality.
Just, wake up.

Paul’s injunction to the Christians in Rome is grounded in the notion of a disconnection between their experience of existence and the reality of God’s love for them and life for them.  He tells them that they are asleep.

Wake up.

The notion that somehow people are asleep or disconnected from reality is a constant theme for novelists and film makers.

As a teenager one of my favourite series of books was by the author Stephen Donaldson and was called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

The main character in these books very name and title indicate a contradiction Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.  In him covenant, promise and faith, are contrasted with unbelief and doubt.  The character is transported to another world, a fantastical place, which he assumes is a dream.  Being a dream his behaviour involves a libertine disregard for the world in which he finds himself and its people.  Everything is there for his benefit – but it is not reality, it is a dream.

Wake up.

Is this us too? Living as though we are in a dream, in an altered reality.  Taking advantage of each other and the creation as we seek to gratify our desires?

Wake up, cries Paul. You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep

Do we understand the reality of this world?  Do we understand our relationship with God in Christ? Do we understand our responsibility to each other and to God’s creation?

The selfishness of the character Thomas Covenant in the novels, the desire for self-gratification, may very well be a reflection of our hedonistic culture in which the most important question we seem to ask one another is, “Are you happy?”

Wake up, cries Paul.

Put on Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

It’s not just about you.  Life doesn’t revolves just around you and what you want.

As we begin our journey through Advent, our preparation for the return of Christ our King, the challenge for us is to enter more deeply into our faith.  To wake up and put on Christ.

Yet how difficult is this?  Most of us have come to see that Advent is about preparing ourselves for the Christmas onslaught: gift buying, menu making, event attending, and list achieving preparation.

This week on the morning ABC radio program a reporter was asking people whether they were ready for Christmas.  But his question was driven by one motive: “have you saved money for Christmas?”.  Are you ready to go on the spending binge?

This week I have been reading a book about the Anthropocene, the new definition of the geological era in which we live.  We are living in a time that humans are so impacting the shape of life on the planet that scientists have named this geological era in which we live the Anthropocene.

In one of the essays Michael Northcott says, “In the post-Christian culture of capitalist consumerism Christmas has morphed from the festival of the Incarnation of light in cosmic darkness into a fossil-fuelled festival of consumption where neon lights and LCD screens displace candles and incense.”

No longer does our culture celebrate the Incarnation of the light we worship at the altar of mammon – money, growth, progress, consumption and wealth. 

To return to Paul’s letter to the Romans the question might very well be asked of us, “Have we as modern Christians turned Christmas into a time when we satisfy the desires of the flesh, as opposed to celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world?”

What are we preparing for?  What must we wake up from?

Advent is about preparing for Christ’s coming again. Christ’s return not simply the birth of Jesus.  The birth of Jesus that we celebrate is on the Roman holiday of Sol Invictus, the sun god.  The date was chosen by the Romans to preserve their ancient festival of the turning of the season. Even the date of our celebration of Jesus’ birth is an act of syncretism.  Encultured into Roman festivals, encultured into Christendom, enculturated into consumerism Christmas struggles to have meaning in terms of God’s love made flesh in Christ Jesus.

For every year I have been involved in preaching I have found this period of the year a deeply challenging time.  My very first Christmas sermon began with the words ‘bah humbug’, although I may just as well have used Pauls’ words, “wake up”.

What might we do to shake ourselves from this slumber?  What might we do to turn again to God as we prepare for the coming of Christ?

Let me suggest four things that come to us from today’s readings.

Firstly, worship God!  In Psalm 122 the Psalmist says “I was glad when the said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”  I was glad to go to worship.  Here there is an attitude of heart to bring to God in our worship.

In a conversation last week a friend who rarely attends church anymore spoke of how boring church can be.  And, I must admit I agreed.

As a Christian I have worshipped in traditional, contemporary, evangelical and Charismatic services.  I have worshipped in high liturgy and café church and contemplative and worship that felt like a rock concert.  In all of these settings I could find myself saying, as my friend said to me this week, it’s boring.

Even the liveliest of services can feel boring but the gladness of heart in the opportunity to worship God transcends the style of worship and our personal experience as we bring our hearts in gladness to God.

It is not about gratifying my particular preferences in worship style it is about engaging in the life of worship: be glad to gather with the community.  Recognise it for the privilege and opportunity it is to worship God.

Wake up and be glad!

Second, seek contentment and moderation in your lifestyle.  In an era of instant gratification when we can buy the next item at the press of button without even leaving our house we need to learn again to be patient, to train ourselves to the art of restraint.  Do not seek for more than you need.

Our whole culture is built on teaching you and training you and tempting you to covet.  We are sold the line that our consumption is good for the economy.

David Bentley Hart in his book titled God says, “Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify… Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice.” 

At Christmas time the gluttony of consumption of goods and foods is exposed.  How does this really prepare us for the coming of Jesus?

Wake up and exercise some restraint.

Third, be conscious of others, make your life about others.

In Psalm 122 the psalmist implores the listeners:

For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

Life is give an outward focus.  Rather than asking what is in it for me we are called to think about what it is we might be offering others.

This should not become another expression of simply gratifying of the flesh of our loved ones by giving them what they do not needs but a deeper reflection of the giving that seeks the good of God.

For the sake of your relatives and friends, for the house of the Lord, and for your neighbour who could be either friend or foe.

Wake up and think of others.

And fourthly, seek peace.

The Psalm declares, “Peace be within you.”  Whilst Isaiah would have us beat our swords into ploughshares – weapons of destruction into sustainers of life.

Peace is both the inner eternal peace with ourselves and God as well as peace between human beings as well, an absence of war.

The concept of shalom, peace, has deep layers of meaning one of which we celebrate when we share in communion: God’s forgiveness, God’s offering of forgiveness to us.  When we share the peace in our worship we are acknowledging to one another that we are all reconciled to God and to each other and that this peace that we are sharing is God’s desire for the whole world: the reconciliation of all things in Christ.

From the peace we encounter in our relationship with God should flow an outpouring of our peace with others in the world.

Wake up for blessed are the peacemakers.

The advent of our God is nigh, Jesus is coming.  No one can know the time.  So we are called to prepare ourselves, to be ready, to be attentive.  Transformed by God’s unconditional love and forgiveness let us hear God’s word of hope to us in Christ and let us prepare through Advent:

For you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Wake up.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Christ the King: Too Political?!

I have been accused of being too political in my preaching at times and it has been said to me that preaching has no place engaging with politics.

Yet that accusation in itself is a political statement and on this day which is traditionally known as Christ the King our readings make it very clear that our faith has a political edge.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians Paul makes the grand claim that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of the cross.”

This claim of God over all things is one that is hard to wrap our heads around but I have little doubt for the ancient community who were under the rule of the Roman Empire they heard this statement as one of hope. 

The Emperor and his claims to divinity, and the power and might of his Empire, were trumped by the maker and sustainer of all things who walked among us in Jesus.  God was bigger than the ruling power of Rome.

In these words, which add a cosmic dimension to Jesus’ presence in the world, we hear a clear echo of John 1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in beginning with God, all things have come into being through him and without him not one thing has come into being.  What has come into being in him was light.  And that light was the light of the world.”

This cosmic claim concerning Jesus Christ had clear political implications.  The citizenship and the first loyalty of the early Christian community was determined by their baptism not by the Emperor.

Paul says to the Colossians that, God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” 

To be transferred into another kingdom, a coming kingdom, a rule and reign of God, not determined by place and time but by allegiance to God set the early Christian community over against the Roman Empire.

God is the God of all things and in Christ God was reconciling all things to himself.  There is no place in this universe, there is no time in history, there is no political system that does not sit under Christ’s reign.  This is clearly a political claim as much as it is a claim over our human existence.

Just as this set early Christians up to be in conflict with the Empire, and subsequently led to the persecution of Christians because they would not acknowledge the Emperor as a God, so too it sets up a conflict for each one of us with the society in which we live.

Where does our citizenship lie?  This is a politically charged question and to say otherwise is naïve and more than that it is to deny the sovereign rule of God over our lives. God has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.

I have spoken before to you of my personal sense of homelessness as an Australian.  Through my study of history and the transient nature of my upbringing I came to have a deep sense of unease.  This unease was grounded in the reality that as an Anglo-Australian I belonged to a history of a people who had disregard for the sovereignty of the first peoples of this land, and mind you of many other lands as well.

Yet this homelessness was not restricted to my Australian heritage but to that Anglo heritage that stretches back through the centuries of conflict between the Scots and the English, and between the Saxons and the Normans, and between the Normans and Celts, and so on and so forth.  With so much talk of nationalism in recent years and what it means to be Australian I am continually driven to find my identity, and my political identity in Christ.

Being Australian is a mixed blessing – we live in one of the best places and times amongst some of the most prosperous people ever, but we should never ignore that others have paid a deep and terrible price for our prosperity even if we are not personally aware of this.

Being transferred by baptism into the kingdom of the beloved Son sets a new political context for my life which must and can only transcend the relatively recent historical concept of the nation state.  It must and can only transcend our party political system – beyond Labor or Liberal or Green or Family First or One Nation.  None of these is truly reflective of the kingdom of the beloved Son.  Despite the fact we may wish it were so and that we might even identify glimpses of that kingdom in some of their policies.  The reality is that all governments fall short and we are citizens, as Jesus says, of a kingdom that is not of this world.

Our citizenship in this kingdom is shaped by the life of Christ and the Spirit of God at work within us.

It is a citizenship that connects us to the work of God in Christ which is to reconcile all things to himself.  All things on heaven and on earth.

The values of this kingdom are exemplified first and foremost in Jesus’ words from the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Forgiveness and mercy and love and grace.  The preacher and scholar Scott Hoezee says of this kingdom, “forgiveness is the coin of this realm.”

To be a citizen of the kingdom of the beloved Son is to know that God forgives, that you are forgiven, and that I am forgiven, and that God’s deepest desire is to share this forgiveness in order that all things might be reconciled to God in Christ.

This is a hard teaching to accept and it is even harder to live.  When we see those gathered around the cross the executioners, the onlookers, the dicers, the scoffers, the mourners, the thief who scoffed and the thief who appealed for mercy, and the Centurion who declared Jesus’ divinity we are left wondering what does Jesus prayer mean.  Who does not know what they are doing? Who is forgiven?

Apart from the one thief no future of reconciliation is made known – but for that one we know and share his hope: “today you will be with me in paradise.”

The judgement of this world and the political power that takes away life, cannot triumph in Jesus’ kingdom for he is Lord of both the living and the dead.

It is this hope that fills us baptised people, as people transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son and causes us to rethink how we live and to whom our loyalties lie.

God has made a sovereign claim over our lives and because of this all of the segregation and separation of nation from nation, tribe from tribe, language from language are dissipated as on the day of Pentecost.  This is the politics of God and we are called to be citizens first and foremost of that coming kingdom which is shaped by Jesus Christ, who is our Saviour, our Lord and our King!

15He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
16for in him all things in heaven
and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
17He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
18He is the head of the body, the church;
 he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,

by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Drinking with joy from the wells of salvation

In the past I might have suggested that the disciples looked upon the stones of the temple like a bunch of wide eyed country bumpkins.  I might have pointed out their naivety and incredulity but if I had done this it would have been inaccurate.

As first century Jews I have little doubt that the disciples would have travelled to Jerusalem and the temple on a regular basis to celebrate the great festivals of their faith: the Passover; Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement; maybe the festival of Weeks or First Fruits.  The temple was physically and symbolically the centre piece of their faith.  God dwelt in the Temple, behind a great curtain, in a place known as the Holy of Holies.

Whether this particular scene ever actually occurred has been questioned.  Most scholars suggest that Luke wrote his gospel somewhere between the years 75 and 85.  We know that the Emperor Nero despatched his General Vespian to Jerusalem in the year 70 and Vespian destroyed the Temple.

It could be that the disciple’s wide-eyed wonder is a reminder for Luke’s audience of the splendour of the Temple and that Jesus’ prophetic words are included as a further affirmation of his identity as the Messiah.  In much ancient writing whether something actually happened or not is secondary to the core message that the writer is trying to convey.

Regardless of what we can and cannot prove about the event, and how accurately it portrays an interaction Jesus may have had with his disciples, there is a message of hope in the face of adversity for early Christians. A message of hope that we can hear as pertinent to us as well.  Faith in God transcends, and possibly even supersedes, the physicality of the beautiful stones of the Temple and endurance in the face of suffering leads to life.

Whilst the Temple stood at heart of the Jewish religion, by the time Jesus and his disciples were wandering the dusty streets of Jerusalem there was that great and foreboding occupying power: the Roman Empire and its Emperors who styled themselves as gods.

Surrounding the walls of the Temple the might of Rome crowded in and as the story goes eventual crashed down on the Jewish people and their Temple in the year 70.

Jesus’ words gave his disciples and no doubt the members of Luke’s community some comfort in the fact that God and God’s concern for them was not in any way limited to the physical presence of the Temple.  Destroying the central symbol of their faith did not and could to destroy God.  More than that, even though suffering might come and was part of their experience, Jesus promise was that on the other side of that suffering Jesus’ followers would find life!  Neither the culture that intruded on their Holy Space nor the destruction of the Temple, as heartbreaking as these things may have been, were of ultimate importance.

Just as this story gave hope to the early community of Christians that Luke write it for so too it is a story that has given the church hope and can continue to give us hope now.   The church exists, in a multitude of locations across the globe surrounded by and embedded within cultures that are often antagonistic towards it.

Sometimes those cultures are intruding in upon us and shaping our life as followers of Jesus more than any of us would like to admit.  Just as the Roman Empire loomed large around the Temple. Cultures through history and across the world loom large around us.

Almost 17 centuries ago when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian, rather than simply looming large around the Temple the Empire walked in the door of the church, and the relationship between the Church and the prevailing political culture changed significantly.  Only in recent decades has the Church, begun to really disentangle itself, ourselves, from the political systems and regimes of the European era of Christendom.

In some ways some of the beautiful stones of our faith are being knocked down as we rediscover what it means to follow Jesus through a time of great tumult and change.

It was interesting this week to reflect on this as the US election unfolded and as Donald Trump was elected.  I read a range of quite disturbing articles about the possibilities of what kind of ideology this man will bring to one of the most powerful positions in the world and the potential for great harm. 

A colleague quoted from the Luke reading on Facebook suggesting the fertile ground for preaching to be made from connections between the mid-to-late 1st century and the early 21st century:

"There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven"

We must always be wary of reading ourselves too closely into prophetic words within the scriptures but there can be no doubt there is a sense of destabilisation in world politics at the moment.

With this in mind I responded to his words that I was being drawn to preaching on Isaiah 12 - "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

There are significant and warranted global concerns around the Trump victory so as we look into the well of salvation how do we do what Jesus says in Luke, “Endure so that we will gain our lives,” at the same time as hearing the hopeful words of Isaiah, "With joy drawing water from the wells of salvation."

This paradoxical tension has always been an aspect of our faith enduring in the face of difficult times, whilst also finding joy and hope in our faith.

So, as I looked to the future this week, I was struck by a new thing that I learnt from my friend Father Anastasios from the Greek Orthodox Church.  Father Anastasios is always wearing long black robes and this week I asked him what they symbolised.  He said that the black robes are a sign that he is one of the living dead, he has died to this world.

He told me that the balance to this symbol of death in, his black robes, are the ornate and beautiful robes that he wears when he leads worship.  These robes symbolise his new relationship with God in Christ: new life sharing in the coming kingdom.

Maybe we as Christians we need to recover something of the dying to this life a bit more seriously, wearing the black robes, as we seek to find the joy and draw from the wells of salvation.

The endurance that Jesus’ speaks of suggests a discipline is required if we are to live our risen life now.  And the hope, for me, is that as we pursue living the risen life more earnestly we will discover joy as we draw the water from the wells of salvation.

I suspect many people who voted, for either Trump or Clinton, thought that they were voting for their salvation, by which I mean that they were voting for a better life for themselves. 

We live in a society that has elevated individual rights and an assumption about personal entitlement to an unhealthy level.  We are consummate consumers – this is our culture looming large into our faith and life.

But the prophecy of Isaiah and I believe the coming of Jesus whilst having a personal element ultimately aims at a corporate salvation.  Isaiah declares that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth.  In his letter to the Colossians Paul says of Jesus that he is reconciling all things to himself.

So, here are a five thoughts for you to ponder as we hear the sounds of the crumbling stones of our Temple of faith, ways that we might both endure to gain our lives and draw from the wells of salvation.  These five points are based in four sentences from our readings today:

The first trust: to have faith in God’s grace no matter what is happening.  Isaiah declares, “I will trust, and will not be afraid.”  Deepen your relationship with God through prayer, spiritual reading and spiritual direction.

Second, hope: “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”  Participate in the life of the worshipping community.  Not simply by coming on a Sunday but by building relationships with the people here.  Care for one another, encourage one another, uphold one another in prayer.

Third, gratefulness: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name.”  Contemplate with gratitude what you do have and considering carefully how to live more simply in an age of consumption.  Say grace when you share a meal, give thanks for what you do have rather than lament for what you do not have.

Fourth, share the faith: Isaiah instructs that the people “make known God’s deeds.”  This is about a deep conviction that what we believe and experience in God’s love is for everyone.  Jesus sent the disciples to make disciples of all nations.  Share your faith

And finally, generosity and justice: “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” The scriptures are constantly expressing concern for the widow, and the orphan.  We might extrapolate and extend that to the disenfranchised, the refugee, the sick, the suffering, the poor, the persecuted, the mourning and the list could go on.  To do what is right is to see the problems of the world and of people’s lives and respond in love and generosity.

Drinking joyfully at the well of salvation gives us refreshment in our faith and as we enter into the spiritual disciples of prayer, worship, community, faith sharing and service we are prepared for our endurance and discover what it means to live, to really live.

At the centre of our faith is not a building, not an institution, but a person – the person of Jesus who is, as Paul says the pioneer and perfector of our faith.  We do not save ourselves but rather we drink at the wells of salvation.  In the challenging days of this age, as with every age that has gone before, whatever is happening, whatever we are encountering or experiencing trust in God and with joy and endurance follow Jesus who lead us into life.