Thursday, 28 July 2011

Giving it all away.

How completely and utterly must Paul have loved his kindred?

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.

Paul’s people were the Israelites and in these words we hear his heart felt cry that they too would know Jesus Christ as he does.

I want this morning to explore with you the depth of faith from which this cry is uttered and to do so I will begin by describing a little bit about Paul and his faith as well as when the letter was written and to whom he was writing.

Having gained a bit of an understanding of the context of the letter I want to dig deeper into the expression and witness of Paul’s understanding of faith in these words.

And lastly, to seek to listen for what God might be saying to us today in our hearing of this story.

So, first to a little bit of history!

Paul was originally known as Saul, a Jewish scholar and scribe by background. Prior to his conversion he had been involved with the persecution of the first disciples of Jesus within the Jewish community.

In the books of Acts he is implicated in the stoning of Stephen and we are told that from that point on, Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.

Saul’s conversion, including his name change to Paul, occurs when the risen Jesus miraculously appeared before him on his journey to Damascus.

After his conversion Paul embarked on numerous missionary journeys through the Roman Empire. The majority of the letters of the New Testament are attribute to him as communiqués sent to those communities of believers that he had established.

Paul clearly understood himself as a missionary, to bring the good of news to those outside the Jewish community as well as those within.

There had been an issue in the early years after Jesus death as to which Jesus message was for: was it simply the Jewish people or the gentiles as well.

The answer that came through was the Jesus message was to be shared with all peoples. It is clear in the book of Acts and within Paul’s letters themselves that whilst some of the Jews converted and the Jewish communities were often the starting point for sharing the message many gentiles joined the faith.

This was no less the case in Rome and there had been some tension within the Jewish community over the issue. Remember Paul’s own background persecuting the first followers of Jesus.

It is commonly accepted that the account of the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in the year 49 by the Emperor Claudius, by the Roman historian Suetonius, is an indicator of this tension.

It is argued that the Jews were expelled because of the emerging Christian movement causing friction within the Jewish community.

The letter that Paul wrote to the Romans is normally dated around 6-8 years after these events and it appears that whilst there were clearly Jews within the community the community also had a large number of gentiles.

This little peek into the history of the situation should help you to understand the position that Paul found himself in. He was a Jewish Christian spreading the good news of Jesus among gentiles and seeing his own people not responding to the proclamation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

This leads into my second point: to pick up on Paul’s words and what they say about his faith.

Paul’s faith was rooted in a specific and personal revelation of Jesus Christ that changed his heart from being prepared to hold the coats whilst Stephen was stoned into sharing that very same message which Stephen held on to.

It is difficult for us to understand the shift in Paul’s life in this matter: suffice it to say that it was huge.

It was a complete turn around in his life, his view of God, his behaviour.

The message of Jesus and his understanding of God’s love for him were all consuming. Simply reading his letter to the Romans to this point should open our eyes to this.

Paul understood himself as specially chosen and sent messenger of God’s grace – he was an ambassador for Jesus Christ.

Jesus, whom Paul understood, to have given himself, for the sake of the world to make the world righteous in God’s eyes.

There can be little doubt that Paul had personal sense of his salvation in Christ yet such was his faith that he was prepared to give his own relationship with God in Christ away so that others might believe.

For me this is an expression of what is at the heart of the Christian faith, a willingness to give everything for the sake of the other.

Paul so longed that his Jewish kindred would come to understand and know Christ as he did that he was willing to give up all that had gained in Christ for this to occur.

To jump to another of Paul’s letters for a moment this example of faith in Paul’s letter reflects the very action of God sending Jesus into the world.

In Philippians we read:

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Just as God gave Christ into the world so too Paul was prepared to give himself and his new life in Christ for the sake of the Jewish people to know Christ.

To me this is the ultimate expression and understanding of the Christian faith it is not about what I get out of it for myself but what is done that others might enter into the peace of God established in Christ.

This brings me to invite you to reflect on your own faith in Jesus Christ. We tend to be self-centred consumers in all of thinking, including in our thinking about faith. The primary question is what is in it for me?

But is that what being a Christian is all about?

Is being a Christian about getting to go to heaven or getting to avoid hell? Which are two different things, one motivated by reward the other by fear.

Is being a Christian about getting blessings from God day by day?

Paul’s example seems to suggest otherwise. Following Jesus means being willing to give up everything for the sake of others so that they too may know the immensity of God’s love and grace. Even to the point of giving up that very relationship so that others might believe.

Here is a commitment to follow Christ who gives up all for our sake that should cause us to take pause and contemplate. How deep is our faith? How well do we understand that grace given to us so freely? How much are we prepared to give so that others might know God’s love in Jesus Christ?

Paul’s message of grace is the message of the Jesus who looked upon the crowd and had compassion. It is the message of God’s abundant generosity that feeds the crowd and has left over’s. It is the message of God’s love drawing us back into the meaning and purpose of our existence.

So as we give thanks and break bread today let us be drenched in that hope and celebrate God’s generosity in the giving of ourselves for others.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Baptism with Integrity

How do we recover a sense of the central importance of baptism?

Some churches have sought to do so by rejecting infant baptism in favour of adult baptism, yet whilst those adult baptisms I have done have been particularly meaningful, there is something to be said about the wonder of grace expressed in baptising an infant.

The words of the baptismal prayer from the French Reformed Church capture this wonderfully "for you, little child, event though you do not know it."

However, again and again the significance of the event appears lost on people and whilst grace may be proclaimed in that moment the ongoing witness of a life lived in Christ appears so often either obscured from view or simply neglected.

In his book Atheist Delusions David Bentley Hart provides a snapshot of anancient liturgy and the commitment involved in entering the waters of baptism (p111-113).

He describes how, in the ancient world, baptism and the inculsion in the Christian community of faith invovled a clear turning away from other gods, from the realm of darkness and the devil.

It meant turning towards Christ and living following his way.

Whilst I was baptised as an infant, Hart's words nonetheless reminded me of my own conviction that my baptism, is core to my life. Living as a person baptised into Christ's body is the determinative marker of my life.

This means that I view baptism as one of the most, if not the single most, significant events of my life. Through baptism my life has been drawn into Chirst's and the Spirit shapes my life now as a witness to God's love and grace.

Baptism, which signifies for me my life live in Christ and as a disciple of Jesus, shapes me and informs me in my vocation, my marriage, my role as a father and as a friend. The list could go on.

My memory of the event has little importance to me but my living of it is central to who I am, for now I am not simply my own, set adrfit in a universe alone, but I am Christ's.

I find great empathy for Hart's reminder of the central importance of baptism and all that it meant so long ago.

Similarly, I find a great connection to Ben Myer's parable about baptism, and ask are we clergy too ready to give a wink and a nod to those who come askign to have their child christened?

How do we proclaim that uncondiotional grace which has a necessary response without turning grace and faith into judgement and works?

Maybe it is in witness? So I give thanks for parents and for a church who in faith and in trust gave to me this gift of baptism and to the God who has been faithful to me in nurturing and guiding me.

Peter Lockhart

Divine Catering for Hungry Hoards!

In the reading from the gospel of Matthew chapter 14 we hear about one of Jesus best known miracles – the feeding of the five thousand: an act of divine catering beyond compare.

Or is it?

When I was in grade 8 at school, our religious education teacher set an assignment for us which was to come up with logical explanations for some of the miracles of Jesus.

If there were only five loaves and two small fish where did the rest of the food come from?

The answer we came up with was that everyone else had brought a packed lunch, after all, who wanders off into a deserted place without some food. As soon as the disciples started sharing, people in the crowd started going, ‘oh no that’s fine I’ve got some’, and ‘hey here’s some extra just in case someone else forgot’.

Now as I have matured in my faith and thought a bit more about the Bible and what it means, I think more often than not we get caught up in asking the wrong questions.

We get caught up in asking whether it really happened or how it happened but there are more important questions that lie beyond whether it happened or not.

One of those questions is: “What is Matthew, and presumably God, trying to teach us in this story about Jesus feeding the crowd?”

Now personally I don’t have a problem with the idea that Jesus actually performed the miracle, but why did Matthew write it down, what is Matthew really trying to teach us?

First off he is trying to emphasize that Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is more than a magician who can do cool tricks with bread and fish; he is the messiah sent by God to save the world.

In the story we get an idea of this because Jesus has compassion for the crowd. Jesus had gone off to be alone because he had just heard that John the Baptist, who you might remember had baptised Jesus, had been killed.

Now I imagine Jesus may have been feeling like a bit of space, just to come to terms with John’s death. And, many of us when we feel down like a bit of peace and quiet as well.

So Jesus hops in a boat and heads off to a deserted place but by the time he gets there the crowd has already arrived. It’s not just a couple of mates intruding on his solitude we are told it is 5000 men, plus women and children.

Now Jesus doesn’t go, “Oh no, I just wanted to be alone, what are they doing here!” No, Jesus looks upon the crowd and has compassion.

Here Jesus expresses the depth of God’s love for people as he sees the needs that the people have and he cares.

What are this love and care of God like?

I saw on a T-shirt once that expresses something of what God’s love is like. Now it sounds a bit horrible when you first read it but I think there is something in it for us. It said:

“It’s lucky that God loves you because nobody else does!”

Yes it does sound a bit nasty.

But when I was thinking about it most of us in our life really want to be loved.

We want our parents to love us, we want them to understand us. We want them to treat us right.

We want our children to love us and know that we have their best interests at heart.

We want other people to accept us as we are; we want our friends to really care about us.

It is a basic part of being human. And whilst most of us hopefully do feel loved there can be times that we think that no one understands us, or we think that nobody loves us.

Sometimes the people who are supposed to love us the most are the ones who cause us the greatest hurt, which leaves us asking whether or not they really do love us after all.

What the T-shirt reminds us, admittedly in a pretty negative way, is that even if we feel like nobody loves us, just as we are, God does. This is the positive message the T-shirt has - regardless of what other people think God loves us! God loves you!

Jesus looked on the crowd and has compassion.

God looks on the crowd and loves us.

God even loves the people that we find difficult to love.

Ultimately this love of God is made real through Jesus in that while we were still sinners Christ died so that we might be made right with God. So, first off the story reminds us that Jesus compassion is an extension of God’s love and care for people because.

This leads me onto the second thing that we learn about from the story which is to do with the disciples. In many ways the disciples are pretty typical guys, they are just like the rest of us.

Jesus is healing and teaching and the disciples realise it is time for a snack. The crowd may have been getting a bit stroppy.

The disciples notice the rumbling tummies and come up with a plan – let’s tell Jesus to send the mob away so that they can go and get some food. What the disciples come up with appears to be quite sensible.

Yet in this plan we see the disciples doing what we do so often. We see the need people have and say it’s not my problem let’s send them off somewhere else.

Going back to the idea of whether people feel loved and cared for I think this can be a fairly negative experience. The disciples put up the sign “sorry capacity to care overload.” It is something we all do. ‘Sorry I’ve already given today, you go talk to someone else.’

But when we look again at the story and in particular the disciples what they hadn’t thought of was asking what Jesus thought could be done, instead of consulting their teacher and leader, they devise a plan all by themselves.

I think this reflects how we behave most of the time too. Using our logic and all the gifts and ideas that we have we come up with plans as to how to achieve things with what we’ve got. Then we go to God or maybe Jesus and say “OK, I’ve worked out what needs to happen can you give me the seal of approval? Can you help me make it happen?”

But is this putting the cart before the horse?

Jesus response to the disciples changes the plan, Jesus has got a better idea – the divine catering company will provide. Which leads me into the third point that I want to make about the miracle: God provides abundantly.

Jesus asks the disciples. “What have we got?”

“Just a couple of fish and these five loaves, Jesus.”

Now at this point I can see the disciples thinking, maybe a little cynically, “what’s he going to do now?”

The results as we know are amazing. God provides, in fact God provides abundantly, so that we see the left overs gathered up, and we presume kept for later consumption.

The story reminds us that God provides abundantly for us, despite the plans we come up with based on our limitations, God provides - even through the meagre offerings we make and this I believe is an important thing to remember.

Jesus said to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” It’s not that Jesus zaps a pile of fish’n’chips in front of all the punters. Jesus involves the disciples and what they have got to offer, as little as it may seem to them, for God it is more than enough.

How often do we limit the plans that we have by saying we don’t have the resources - time, money, energy or whatever else? The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 challenges this attitude, God can and does provide abundantly with the meagre offerings we make.

As a bit of a footnote to the whole event it is also helpful to remember that this story connects with lots of other bits of the Bible.

As modern Christians reading the story we might be reminded that after his death Jesus shared a meal of bread and fish with his disciples on a beach.

We might remember that at the last supper Jesus took bread and broke it and said this is my body. We might remember that Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”

Did Jesus feed the 5000? I think so, but is the most important message in the story that Jesus can do divine magic tricks? I don’t think so.

At the heart of Matthew’s retelling of the event lie connections with the witness of the whole Bible.

Jesus embodies God’s love and compassion for even the unlovable – God loves us even though we are sinners.

Moreover, God cares for us and God provides for us in the moments of our greatest need. And as disciples the gifts that we bring can be multiplied far beyond our expectations.

As we consume God’s word to us this day, the divine bread and fish so to speak, let us take heart that in God’s compassion Jesus can and is providing the nourishment that we most need.

by Peter Lockhart

Cartoon courtesy of Reverendfun (Copyright Gospel Communications International, Inc - Photo Creative Commons

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Parables: Facebook

The kingdom of heaven is like Facebook.

A guy wanting to network with his university friends created a community of friends and followers which grew to span the globe and invovle over 700 million people.

Do you understand?

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

We live in an era where the number of voices that want to claim authority of our lives is as staggering as the media through which they use to speak to us.

Voices heard and seen

Broadcasting on Radio & Television
Blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting
Paperbacks, hardbacks, newspapers, Magazines
eBooks, eZines, chat groups
and the list goes on

To locate and listen to Jesus voices in this cacophony can be a difficult task and one that takes commitment and discernment.

Whose voices shall we listen to as Christians? The vitriolic atheists, the passive progressive, the fervent fundamentalist, the mediating moderate, the sceptic, the scientist?

The diversity and complexity that surrounds us can be daunting and confusing and we can be left pining for a simple faith, a faith built on an encounter with God that we have had in our own lives.

Yet naivety in our approach to faith and reading of scriptures or listening to the voices around us can lead us on pathways away from the God that we have encountered in the coming of Jesus into our lives.

Yes experiences of faith are moments of revelation given to us by God and they are given that we might know and therefore seek the kingdom of heaven.

Now what this kingdom of heaven actually is may seem a little obscure as Jesus speaks in parables – mustard seeds, yeast, fields, pearls and nets.

Yet at the end of listening to Jesus telling these stories the disciples collectively respond to Jesus question “Have you understood all of this?” with a resounding “Yes”.

I have to say given the following stories of Jesus and the disciples and their behaviour in Matthew’s gospel I am not entirely convinced that the disciples “Yes” is as convincing as it sounds.

Jesus goes on from the disciples’ response to get them to consider their roles as scribes.

Now a scribe was a leader and teacher within the Jewish community. In the book of Sirach, which is one of the apocryphal writings, not found in the protestant Bible, a scribe is described in this way, “He memorizes the sayings of famous men and is a skilled interpreter of parables. He studies the hidden meaning of proverbs and is able to discuss the obscure points of parables.”

The memorizing and understanding of scribes involved an engagement with history, with what had gone before and how things had been explained.

Jesus as a teacher and in acting as a scribe himself points that a scribe of the kingdom of heaven “like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

So this takes me back to where I started about how we might discern amidst the complexity of voices around us whose voice to listen to.

Ultimately, I believe that the voice we are to listen to is Jesus voice, but which voice of Jesus and how do we listen to it and who is this Jesus anyway.

For me listening to Jesus voice involves a life or prayer and reading the scriptures but also a commitment to listening to those scholars who are able to clearly and rationally articulate what was new about Jesus and how it related to the old. It is also about listening to scholars new and old.

In the Uniting Church in Australia, The Basis of Union points us to scholarly interpreters in every age yet also grounds these scholars in a particular tradition. A tradition of understanding elucidated at the time of the reformation and preserved in the creeds of the ancient church.

What was new about Jesus is found in the tradition which has been handed on to us – the understanding that Jesus was unique in his relationship with God and was God. This unique revelation of God found in the person and work of Jesus, often referred to as the incarnation, is the point in history in and through which reconciles humanity and all things to himself.

The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia which describes the essence of the Christian faith captures these thoughts about Jesus when it quotes scripture and says, In Jesus Christ "God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19 RSV). In love for the world, God gave the Son to take away the world's sin.”

So the kingdom of heaven is fundamentally about the reconciling work of God that occurs in and through Jesus. He is the mustard seed from which the tree of our faith grows, he is yeast that makes the dough of our lives rise, he is treasure in the field and the pearl to be sought for when we encounter Jesus we encounter the kingdom of heaven.

One of the issues the church and each us face in this complex and diverse world in which we live is whether we believe this message of hope and good news and how we respond to it.

As I personally sift through the options that are being touted I continually return to those scholars of excellence who are able to read the tradition in which we stand, that is to say the old, taking into account contemporary scholarship, that is to say the new.

For me these are the scribes of the kingdom of heaven of our day and whilst I believe none see entirely clearly they offer a witness to Jesus Christ as the one in and through whom we are reconciled with God.

The Basis of Union whilst a product of the mid to late 20th century I believe continues to express for us a way in which to understand and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ as the church.

This is what it says about who we are together as the church:

The Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit confesses Jesus as Lord over its own life; it also confesses that Jesus is Head over all things, the beginning of a new creation, of a new humanity. God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church's call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. The Church lives between the time of Christ's death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.

If you and I are seeking the kingdom of heaven and so seeking Jesus and are living as the church then the question for all of us is are we being a fellowship of reconciliation and are we using our gifts for the building up of the whole – is Christ bearing witness through us.

This is not just about what we do for ourselves as a community but how we too live as yeast and seed in the world around us because Christ is witnessing through us, through our very lives.

Jesus finished his parables by asking the disciples “Do you understand all this?” Maybe they did, maybe the problem was not their understanding but their commitment to what it meant for them in how they were to live.

Maybe this is an issue for us as well.

Yet maybe there is in the confusing generation in which we live an issue of understanding, an issue of accepting and following and believing.

Yet the good news is that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ and the kingdom of heaven like the mustard seed or yeast will grow and you and I who encounter it will seek it for in seeking it we will live as witnesses to kingdom of heaven which has come near.

Friday, 22 July 2011

I blog therefore I am!

What does it mean to have an online persona?

Is it simply a narcissistic groping for identity? Or is it a genuine avenue through which to build community and witness to the meaning in life found in and through following Jesus Christ?

I have just spent the last week in a Mission, Media and Ministry Course with John Harrison and had time to reflect on a year of blogging on behalf of my congregation.

Recently I have been posting sermons (e.g. here) and have had many hits on the site through links to the text this week. Whilst creating traffic it has raised questions:

"Is this the most effective way to blog on behalf of a congregation?" and

"At what point does my own persona take over to the extent I should just create my own blog?"

Next week I am going to raise the topic with the Kairos Church Council, but I have realised that it is time to rethink how I am doing what I am doing and to get others more involved? Finding answers to these questions is about discovering how to be faithful in the 21st century.

Any tips for this novice blogger as I approach the meeting?

Peter Lockhart

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

"One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish!"

The diversity of the fish in our oceans is as astounding as the diversity of humanity. It is truly wondrous to go to an aquarium and sit and watch the multitude of vibrant colours and shapes and sizes of the fish as the glide by the glass.

Of course what might not be immediately apparent to the undiscerning eye is that some of the fish are poisonous, even deadly for human beings.

Jesus once told a parable describing the kingdom of heaven as being like a fisherman who cast a net into the sea and pulled up a variety of fish. With his expert eye the fisherman was able to sort the good catch from the rubbish fish that had to be cast aside.

It is a parable of a promised future in which only the good things of this creation will find a future, those things and people whom God chooses.

Could it be that Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven like this because as the catch it is beyond us to satisfactorily work out who is in the basket and who, if any, are left to rot?

If this is the case then maybe we, who will be God’s catch, rather than worry about including or excluding others, should simply swim the oceans of life midst the colourful diversity of humanity.

And as we do so, to do so thankful for the life that we have and grateful that we do not have to be the ones to makes such momentous decisions as who is on and who is out.

(Photo from Creative Commons)

Casting off the smelly fish

Is there any good news in the idea that God is going to get rid of the bad fish?

Christians are often judged for being judgmental.

Is there any wonder that this is the case given passages like the Parable of the Net (Matt 13:47-51) which appears to indicate an end time when God will cast off those smelly fish that really only deserve dumping.

I suspect that Christian or not most people do recognize that there is a problem of evil in the world. This evil can be found within the whole spectrum of people: those of great faith right through to those of none.

For this reason the idea that the evil in this world might be cast aside at some point by God should carry some weight for most.

I suspect the problem for Christianity is when some Christians begin to take the place of the one who casts the net in the story. That is to say, they see themselves in the place of God and so assume the ability to work out which of the fish we are sharing the sea with the fisherman is going to discard.

Is it possible that when Jesus told this parable not only was he putting a hope before us, a time when the evil will be dealt with, but also reminding us that it is not our business to make decisions of how that catch should be sorted?

Peter Lockhart

Friday, 15 July 2011

Living with hope.

Now hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience.

This week in Melbourne there was a gathering of scientists at a conference with the ominous title “Four degrees of more”. Why ominous? Because despite the agreement made at Copenhagen and reaffirmed in Cancun by world leaders, to seek to limit the rise in the average global temperature by less than 2 degrees Celsius, based on current inaction and trends it is more than likely that by the end of this century the rise will have been 4 degrees or more.

Even at a rise of 2 degrees Celsius there are significant global impacts but a sobering thought coming out of the conference “suggested that Australia, the world's sixth largest food exporter, may no longer be able to feed itself.” (

In March of 2009 Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Chair of the German Scientific Advisory Council, advisor to the German Chancellor and Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said that on a four degree world the planet’s “carrying capacity estimates [are] below one billion people.” ( That is to say that if the temperature raises by 4 degrees the world may only be able to sustain the life of one billion people as opposed to the current nearly 7 billion people now living.

These kinds of ominous warnings and statements combined with other pressing concerns like overpopulation, peak oil, pollution, the destruction of the oceans, poverty, economic crises and, wars and unrest can seem overwhelming.

Growing up in the 1970s and the early 1980s with the spectre of the Cold War looming large in my thinking I can remember having a sense of impending doom in which I believed I would not live to see my 18th birthday let alone to until the ripe old age of 42 which I am today.

The reality is that we are facing difficult times as human beings yet in each new age we face a variety of challenges. Whilst here in Australia we may not be feeling the impacts of the dire warnings about the effects of climate change or any of these other issues yet that does not mean we will remain immune.

This brings me back to a question raised when reading Paul’s letter to the Romans about hope. How do we as Christian people live with hope in this context?

The Nicene Creed helps to paint a picture of hope for us. “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

The promise of God in Jesus, according to Paul, is that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through who we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” This peace that we have been given has been given through Jesus’ own life, death and resurrection and gives to each one of us the promise of our personal resurrection which shapes our life as Christians. Yet it is not simply our own resurrection that we hope for but the renewal of all things, that is to say, “the life of the world to come.” Salvation is both very personal as well as entirely universal, for the creation which groans in longing.

The personal side of our relationship with God, its intimacy and its closeness, is expressed beautifully in the words of Psalm 139 which we heard today and which bear repeating:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

In the context of all that occurs within our lives and the world around us God knows us: personally, intimately, and completely, and God cares for us, even despite our opposition and rejection of God and God’s love. God hems us in not to trap us but to enfold us in his loving embrace. This is good news that we can hold on to even when we face the cold unknown journey of death.

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

There is no where that we go that God is not with us and our hope is in Jesus who has traversed the very pathway into death and come through to the other side. This is a hope we cannot see nor I suspect fully grasp the significance of, but it is our hope.

Yet this personal gift of grace, the intimate knowledge that God carries of us and God’s will to redeem us also takes place in the broader context of God’s will for all things.

Paul’s letter to the Romans draws us into a deeper reflection on our place in the world.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

When Paul expressed the notion of the groaning of the creation there can be no doubt that he could not foresee how important these words would be in the 21st century.

The creation is groaning but from Paul’s perspective the groans are labour pains and point to a future renewal of all that God has made.

The correlation between our personal struggles in life, our health issues, our moral decisions, our spiritual aridity and the groaning of the world are clearly linked in Pauls’ mind. We hope for what we do not see – a resurrected life in a perfected world.

This, however, does not mean that we live with disregard to our present existence and the creation which God made and declared as good. Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that they owe God to live by the Spirit of God which has set them free.

We have a purpose and meaning in life which points to a future yet to come but we live now, faithfully present in the world, witnessing to that future which we are promised by living as we are enabled and empowered to by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We live as people of hope liberated from fear of being unknown and set free from the bonds of our consumerist culture which seeks to exploit the very last drop of every resource of the creation for the benefit of the privileged few, among which we in the West must admit we are numbered.

As we face this present age I believe our challenge is recover our hope, our hope that God does know us and care for us, our hope that God has redeemed us and has a future in store for the whole the creation, our hope in things that we do not see but can embraced as forming our way of living.

On this day may you find hope in the good news that you are not anonymous but our known intimately by God and may you share this gift of intimate knowing by loving others so they too understand that they are known. May also you find a sense of God’s concern for the future of all things and live in the groaning creation with respect and concern for all that God has made. And may God bless you this day and evermore.