Friday, 26 April 2013

The Glory of God

Peter Lockhart Easter 5

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

These words of Jesus to the disciples are among the best known from all of the scriptures. Even many outside the church know that Jesus calls people to love one another.

Ironically, even sadly, despite how well these words are known, and how easily we might think we understand them, when we consider our own lives and the history of the church and the world around us we know that we fail miserably.

Loving those closest to us can be difficult – parents, husbands, wives, children, close friends – all of these relationships can cause us heartache and confront us with the difficulty we have in our capacity to love. This is before we even begin to think about loving other people in the church, and beyond, even our enemies!

Yesterday was ANZAC day. It is a day we commemorate those who have fought and died in wars, those who have lost loved ones and those who still serve. The need for ANZAC Day is an indictment on humanity in respect to the call to love one another.

Jesus love for his disciples was profound and challenging and we who follow Jesus as his disciples know this so well.

To understand the difficulty of love I want to explore a different but not unrelated theme from our 4 readings this morning – the theme of glory. It is theme which is quite pronounced in the gospel reading but rather than begin with Jesus being glorified I want to begin with the Psalm; then move to Peter’s address in Jerusalem recorded in Acts; after which, I will comment about Jesus glory; and, finally, we will hear about the promised future.

Turning then to Psalm 148 I want to begin with making a brief comment about the meaning of the word glory in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament we are taught that God in Godself could not be seen – to look upon the face of God would be death to mortal humans. Yet God’s presence could be apprehended, his radiance known, and this was God’s glory, radiating from God’s own being.

To glorify God, to praise God was to reflect that glory back and this is what we hear that the very creation is doing in Psalm 148:
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for he commanded and they were created.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

The relationship between God and what God has made in the creation is made manifest in the idea that creation itself sings out praising God. I would go as far as to say that not only is God’s glory being sung by the creation but that creation is reflecting that Glory and God’s presence to the world.

How many of you have found yourself staring into the starlight sky, or watching the roiling ocean, or wandering through the bushland or mountains and had a sense of God’s glory being reflected in what you are seeing and feeling.

Yet as the great reformation scholar John Calvin points out despite the fact that God’s glory is so manifest in the creation which surrounds us this knowledge flows away from us without it profiting us.

Yes we know God but then we fail to be transformed into loving God and God’s creation and people as we ought. For me the importance of Psalm 148 in reminding us of the goodness of the creation is so poignant in our modern era where we have so deeply exploited the world that the scars it now bears threaten our very life and security through the processes leading to pollution and climate change and desalination and deforestation and the destruction of the oceans and the list goes on.

How have we humans sought to mute the praise of the creation found in Psalm 148? Yet God still loves us and all that God has made.

This brings me to the second reading from the book of Acts where Peter is before the Jewish Christian in Jerusalem. He is being criticised for visiting gentile Christians.

In response Peter relays a vision which he has had in which God affirms the breaking down of barriers between Jew and gentile and challenges Peter to understand that God’s mercy and grace are available to all peoples who live on the earth.

It is only after hearing this challenge that we see that Jewish Christians are silenced from there divisive ways and praise God. God’s glory and God’s love are not restricted to those whom we may think belong. Or to look at it from the other angle God’s glory and love is not held back from those whom we may think are outsiders.

As human beings we have a tendency to exclude others.  This is challenged by God and this breaking down of barriers should not be a cause of fear or consternation but an invitation to glorify the God who shares his glory with all peoples.

So God’s glory is reflected in the creation and in all peoples but the reality is that we find these messages of good news hard to accept and understand fully. Perhaps this is because it is easier to feel as if we are somehow more special or different from others, which brings me to make a comment on the nature of God’s glory found in John’s gospel.

The passage from which we read is a part of the story of the last supper. The segment we read begins with the words, ‘When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”’

This passage takes us back to that pre-Easter setting and it is important to reminded of who it is that had just gone out – Judas. It is after Judas leaves to betray Jesus; after Jesus has washed their feet; and after Peter had contradicted Jesus that Jesus says ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified!’

Jesus glory is revealed in the moments of betrayal that lead to the cross. God’s presence is seen here, glimpsed, in a way which simply does not fit with the way we think as human beings.

Instead of retaliation for the betrayal, for the doubt and even for the violence to be committed against Jesus, and so also God Jesus accepts with humility this rejection. In these moments Jesus shows that God’s love does not respond to such ignominious acts with anything but grace and mercy.

This is what God’s love is like, this is the love that Jesus invites his disciples to share in and this is God’s glory. As Christians who experience this amazing grace, this love divine, we who become Jesus disciples are taught that tolerance is not enough, that retribution has no place, and that loving one another sometimes involves sacrifice beyond our abilities.

It is through Jesus glorification that you and I are drawn into God’s glory as he carries all humanity into the space of the cross and resurrection and so reveals the promise of a new future.

This brings me to make a brief comment on the vision of Revelation 21. The overarching theme of the vision is a world at peace with God and each other living in the glorious presence of God – responding to that glory appropriately and celebrating it.

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Despite our constant incomprehension and incompetence in responding to God’s glory revealed and sung by the creation, God’s promise is or a future when will live with one another in that glory. This is God’s love revealed in Jesus, the love which we have been given to share in as good news. Possibly this is the most difficult thing to do – to love as Jesus loved.

But the glory of God draws us in and homewards to participate in God’s glory and God’s life alongside the whole creation. So let us be silent and glorify the one who shares his glory with us and let us carry the good news of grace as the heart stone of our lives: God is love. Amen.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Expanding the horizons of community.

“My sheep hear my voice

I know them and they follow me”

It could be easy to read these words of Jesus to the Jews in the Portico of Solomon in the Temple and read into them exclusion and separation. It would be easy to read these words with a sense of smug self-satisfaction that we have heard the Shepherds voice. It would be easy to read these words as a justification for treating others poorly. It would be easy to read these words as an affirmation of our goodness and to think of others as bad.

Yet as tempting as such readings might be I do not believe they would be either faithful to the context in which Jesus spoke the words or helpful to our own.

Jesus’ life is about breaking down barriers and expanding the parameters of the unity that he shares with the Father and, might I say, the Holy Spirit to include others.

To help gain an understanding I want to reflect on a glimpse from three Biblical texts we have heard this morning. First, the context of the question that the Jews ask, “Are you the Messiah?” Second is to consider the claim of Jesus to be the Good Shepherd and the connection that this has to the 23rd Psalm. And thirdly, to examine the trajectory that Jesus is heading towards revealed in the words of vision found in the book of Revelation.

So to the first issue! When the Jews come asking Jesus “are you the Messiah?” we should understand this is as much a political question as it is a spiritual one. The Jewish people were under foreign rule; their King Herod was merely a puppet of the Imperial might of the Roman Empire.

The prophecies surrounding the coming of the Messiah and certainly the expectations that sat alongside these prophecies were tied to the overthrow of foreign rule and re-establishment of the independence of Israel as a Kingdom.

The questioners may have seen Jesus miracles; they might have been challenged by his teaching; but, to actually throw themselves into a relationship of conflict with the might of Rome, that was a completely different matter. Was Jesus the Messiah? Would he restore Israel? Was God’s grace and faithfulness to the covenant about to be manifest in their time?

The Jewish people had a pretty clear idea that they were God’s chosen ones and this was expressed in the holiness codes and exclusion of various outcastes and gentiles from the community. It was all about insiders and outsiders.

The beginning of John’s gospel tells us that Jesus came to what his own and his own people did not accept him. This is being played in this interaction – the drawing of lines: ‘who is in?’ ‘who is out?’ For the Jews this was about ethnic identity which was tied to their religious conviction but Jesus challenges this suggesting it is not so much about identity or holiness but relationship: the ones who respond to his voice. The boundary between insiders and outsiders was being challenged.

Jesus’ claim at this point to be the Good Shepherd would have sounded blasphemous to those gathered. He was claiming to be God and he was claiming the role of the Shepherd found in Psalm 23. Jesus was not simply the Messiah, God’s chosen one he was far more than that.

David sang, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and now Jesus asserts he is that Shepherd. The Psalm was most likely written when David was at low ebb; it was a source of comfort in a time of distress. In the midst of persecution and challenges God accompanies people even setting them safely at meals where their perceived enemies sit.

In answer to the question that the Jews had asked, Jesus was expanding the horizon of his own identity for them. Jesus was not simply the Messiah, Jesus was the Good Shepherd. He was the Lord. He had authority and responsibilities further than they could perceive which lay even beyond the limits of life and death.

The expansion of the horizons for the Jews culminates in Jesus somewhat outlandish claim “I and the Father are one”.

This unity between Father and Son is further elucidated through John’s gospel but startlingly the relationship and unity that Jesus shares with God is to be opened out. There are ever expanding boundaries to the unity promised by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus prayer of John 17 prays that the disciples share, not only a similar bond of unity with one another, but are drawn into the very relationship of Father and Son.

The vision of unity is also extended in other ways to those who sit outside the exclusiveness of the Jewish insiders. Jesus extends words of grace to those who have been ostracised and to those who are not even Jewish. His claim that all people would be drawn into his death, when the some Greeks came seeking him, must have been bamboozling for the crowds.

Just as Jesus was expanding who he was for the Jews who came seeking a political leader so too he was expanding the vision of who could be drawn into the unity of the Father and of the Son.

Rather than establish any sense of exclusivity Jesus is driving home new possibilities of who might be accepted when he makes the claim, “My sheep hear my voice!” The distinction is no longer tied to religious or ethnic affiliation.

The expanded possibilities are realised in the words of the prophecy in the book of Revelation:

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

Gathered in the final visions of glory at the end of the New Testament the possibility and hope of salvation is for people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. God’s grace and God’s love is forever expanding; it is ever incorporating others into the bond of Father and of Son and of Spirit.

It is my sense that when the Jews asked the question they wanted to limit God’s grace, to restore their nation, to reassert the exclusivity of who they were as God’s people: to be top of the heap.

Whilst Jesus words may sound exclusive when read in the context of John’s gospel they are a challenge to
such exclusivity and remind us that the relationship of Jesus with others was about new possibilities and new hope for all peoples.

I believe this is a vital message for us to hear in a world in which we already find ourselves divided on so many levels: political, racial, economic, spiritual and social. And in a world which continually encourages us to build select communities.

We are fed hate and hurt as reflected in the violence of the past week – in Boston, in Afghanistan, In Iraq and in every corner of the world where barriers were erected about people excluded: in refugee camps and detention centres; in prisons; in broken relationships; in racial and ethnic and religious tension.

Jesus response challenges our human tendency toward exclusion and opens out the life of God, dwelling always as community, and invites us in. This is the good news not just for a select few but for all peoples and the whole creation as God’s love and life expands to encompass all.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The resurrection: life now!

“This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.”

When I was reading this passage It struck me as odd that John felt it necessary to say that Jesus appearance on the beach was the third time that Jesus had appeared since his resurrection.

If anyone was listening to the story or reading it, it is pretty clear that there are three appearances to the disciples recorded by John: once in the upper room without Thomas, once when Thomas was present and then this one on the beach.

It feels as if John is labouring his point – Jesus really rose from the dead. I am reminded of the saying “If I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times.”

More than sixty years on from the event of Jesus death, which is around 3 generations, when John was writing down his version of events, he clearly held on to a belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But more importantly that Jesus’ resurrection was a vital aspect of the good news.

One of the primary pieces of evidence that we can look to for confirmation of Jesus resurrection is the transformation of the disciples . We can see here in John and in each of the other gospel writers some evidence of this transformation in their retelling of Jesus resurrection appearances.

Jesus resurrection is an important part of the puzzle of the Christian faith and this morning I want to consider what it might mean through the context of John’s story.

Firstly, by considering the place the appearance of Jesus occurs and secondly by considering the activity of the disciples and the actions of Jesus as signifying something about the resurrection and its hope.

The appearance of Jesus on the beach I believe has significance purely attached to the location of the meeting.

The beach for most Aussies is somewhere we go for a holiday. It is a place of rest and relaxation. But in many other cultures the beach has a different significance.

I recall a Tongan colleague once sharing with me the importance of the beach in their culture – it is the point of meeting between the two sources of life the land and the sea.

In the story of the resurrection the bread and fish may be taken to represent this kind of reality which was quite possibly present for the disciples in their era as well, especially as fishermen by trade.

Jesus appears on the beach: the place where the two sources for the sustenance of life come together. For me this is a sign that Jesus resurrection is about life and the sustaining of life in this world. After in all in John 10:10 he had already taught the disciples that he had come to give them life and life in all its fullness.

The resurrection is not only about a hope beyond the experience of death, which remains a mystery; it is as much an affirmation of life lived in the creation.

So this is the first of the three points that we might draw from the context of Jesus’ third resurrection appearance. Life in this world is important even after the resurrection.

The two other aspects of the context are associated with firstly, the disciples activity, and secondly, the activity of Jesus himself.

It has often puzzled me as to why Peter decided to go fishing. Jesus has already appeared to the disciples twice and Peter’s decision to go fishing has a sense that Peter was returning to his old life, to what he knew. Fishing was, after all, his job.

Nonetheless, whatever his reasons, we find Peter and 6 of the other disciples at work on the fishing boat when Jesus appears.

There is a clear echo of Simon Peter’s very first encounter with Jesus mending his nets and this one. Just as 3 years earlier Jesus had come to Peter so now Jesus comes to him again at his place of work.

Just as Jesus appearance on the beach affirms life itself so too by appearing at Peter’s place of work Jesus affirms the labour through which life is sustained.

By Jesus involvement in the miraculous catch we might further extrapolate that Jesus is concerned for the success of the labour of men on the boat.

Resurrection is about life now, it is about life being lived in the midst of work and thirdly it is about the bond of community.

Jesus action in the story is to cook breakfast for his disciples: bread and fish, the fruit of the land and the sea.

Meal sharing is a sign of life and Jesus concern, even beyond the resurrection, is for the physical sustenance required for living, but more than that it is for the nurturing of community.

The power of meal sharing in Jesus culture should not be underestimated. Here hospitality builds and nurtures companionship. The overtones of this meal with Jesus miraculous feeding of the 5000 and the intimate sharing of Jesus with the disciples in the upper room all point to the significant place meal sharing takes.

Jesus resurrection in this moment points to the continued building of relationships in this life with God and with each other – sharing bread and fish.

As Australians I do not believe we have the same depth of hospitality and sense community which is present in this scene, something maybe we can learn again from other cultures.

By sharing the meal Jesus re-affirmed human community and God’s place and participation within it.

I believe john was at pains to make sure people understood that Jesus did rise from among the dead and yes there is no doubt in my mind that there are implications for us in his resurrection in regard to our own deaths. But Jesus resurrection appearance on the beach takes place in the context of life, living and working, sustaining and sharing.

In Jesus we see God at work in the world after the resurrection affirming life, affirming the creation, affirming community. This is as much good news as is the promise of what might lie beyond death. God cares for our earthly, created existence, just as it was important to Jesus in the weeks after his resurrection, so I believe remains important to God now.

This means that the resurrection of Jesus is not an either/or but a both/and of the good news – Jesus resurrection is about good news for life now and good news in the life to come. This is why I think that we hear Jesus echo his call to Peter as John closes his story. The “follow me” at the beginning of Peter’s journey with Jesus is reaffirmed in the new context post-resurrection. The risen Jesus is as much to be followed as he was in his life before – there was work to be done in the world and God, in Jesus, gives people a part to play. “Follow me”!

John drives home his point: “This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples which gives to us hope both now and in the life to come!

Friday, 12 April 2013

2 Visions of Jesus

Honour be to the one seated on the throne

Glory be to the one seated on the throne
So say the fish of the sea and the birds of the air
Forever and ever may the lamb that was slain be praised
So say all of us, man and woman and child
Creatures of God one and all
Praise the risen and ascended Christ

The disciples went fishing and caught nothing
Meanwhile Jesus made a fire on a beach
He made bread and cooked fish
And then invited his friends to come
They were to share what they had caught too
A miraculous catch!
Jesus broke bread and had breakfast with his friends

And then he gave Peter and all of us responsibilities
Feed my lambs,
tend my sheep,
feed my sheep!

Which picture of Jesus do you connect to on this day!

Jesus in heaven worshipped by all living things?

Jesus amongst the disciples with charcoal and the smell of fish on his hands from the breakfast fire?

The risen Jesus Christ is no less than both of these

The heavenly being around which the creation ultimately will gather to give praise eternally

For we are made by the eternal Word of God who was with God in the beginning and who is God and will be God forever more

But the Word was made flesh and has dwelt among us;
He has made himself known to us in Jesus of Nazareth:
There is an earthiness
There is an ‘everydayness’
In our relationship with a God who walked the earth and even after dying and rising from among the dead can take the time to light a fire and cook some bread and fish for some mates on the beach.

This is a God who we know we can meet and follow in our daily lives:

Doing the washing
Cooking the meals
In shared friendships
Driving to work
Helping others
Taking care of our family

Yet, not only is this Jesus of Nazareth a fellow created citizen but he is also the one for whom ultimately the whole creation declares its praise and honour.

We long for the privilege of catching a glimpse, of our ascended and glorified Lord, and being swept up to join our voices in the unending praise.

Holy is the Lamb.
Praise be to the Son.
Glory and power and honour be to one seated on the throne.

For this otherness of the risen Christ and God’s future sets our hopes beyond the earthiness and everydayness that can appear to be all that there is.

The vision of the heavenly praise of Jesus suggests to us there will be a time when all things are made right and we as people are completely at peace and in harmony with the whole creation in our praise of God.

On that day after his resurrection when he appeared to the disciples on the beach the disciples knew him though none dared ask who he was

I wonder do you dare ask who the risen Christ is in our midst for Christ is present now!

In the person beside you, behind you and before you

We long for the privilege of being asked by our friend

Simon, son of John, “Do you love me?”

And so Jesus says to each of us at different points in our life:

X, “Do you love me?”

It is indeed a privilege to be asked this question.

For to be loved by Jesus and to love Jesus is truly a blessing as we walk through our lives.

The risen Jesus offers us gifts beyond compare
And invites us to share in caring for others just has he has done
‘feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my lambs’

Jesus who cared and showed compassion and shared meals and pointed to God’s promised future as he was raised from the dead and invites us to help others glimpse that future through our word and actions.

This is a God we can know and meet and follow in our daily lives but this God also gives us a glimpse that there is more yet to come.

We can see and experience and share such signposts of hope:

In the love shared between friends and family
In incredible acts of compassion and healing
In the wonder of worship where God comes to us
In the Holy places and Holy times of our lives
In the bread and in the wine

Jesus is here in the Word being proclaimed and in bread and in wine and in each other

This is a holy place and a holy time and here we long for that encounter with our living Lord, an encounter that can change our lives.

God’s generosity is witnessed to and experienced by the disciples in a miraculous catch.
God’s generosity is witnessed to and experienced by John in the gift of a heavenly vision.
God’s love and generosity are there for us as well to encounter, to embrace and to share.

Thanks be to God.