Friday, 28 February 2014

Transfiguration: Baby eats a book!

“This is my Son, the Beloved! With him I am well pleased, listen to him!”

These words of affirmation of Jesus’ identity are at the heart of Matthew’s gospel, a claim concern the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God.  It is from this central truth that the gospel radiates out.

Yet as human beings when we encounter this message there is a sense of bafflement and confusion, and incomprehension to this other worldly claim of who Jesus is.  It is as if we are like infants given a book for the first time.  Not knowing what we should do with it and not comprehending its purpose we assume quite wrongly that it goes in our mouth.  Like the infant with its first book we need help to understand the content and purpose of the gospel message

Today is the day we remember the transfiguration of Jesus as we come to the end of epiphany.  Looking behind this jargon we find that today and these past few Sundays have been focussed on how God reveals the truth of who we are and who we are in relationship with God.  It is as if a light has been turned on in the darkened room of our world view.

This morning as we listen again and reflect on the story of the transfiguration I want to encourage you to listen with fresh ears and open hearts to the good news of Jesus Christ.

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is clearly related to the story of Moses ascending the mountain.  The Old Testament reading from Exodus that we heard today gave us a snippet of the encounter between God and Moses on the mountaintop.

To help us understand the claims concerning Jesus identity and what God is up to I want to take a moment just to fill out a few details of the story.

Obviously there are parallels in the two stories.  Moses and Jesus both encounter God’s presence on a mountain top, in the high places.  God’s presence is both hidden and revealed within a surrounding cloud.  And standing in the presence of God brings about change.  Both Moses and Jesus glow reflecting God’s glory.

But the Moses story also provides the backdrop to the transfiguration of Jesus because in the encounter between Moses and God God’s relationship with humanity and in particular the Israelites is shaped.  God promises to the people of Israel “I shall be your God” and gives Moses the commandments. 

But while Moses is on the mountain the chosen people of God are basically running riot.  With Moses preoccupied in the company of God on the mountaintop the people bring their gold to Aaron who shapes a God for them cast in the image of a calf and they begin to worship and to revel.   

God seeing the behaviour of the Israelites names them a stiff necked people and sends Moses down the mountain.  The relationship hangs on a precipice but in conversation with Moses God chooses to remain faithful to this wayward people.

Moses plea for the people is that God would forgive their wrongdoing and to remain open in the relationship.

God’s ultimate response to Moses plea is the sending of Jesus, his only son, to live and walk among us.  Jesus who is fully God identifies totally with the brokenness of our human predicament sharing our flesh and becoming for us the essence of true humanity which he share with us not for his own benefit but for our sake.  He is the representative human being.

This is why 6 days prior Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah is now reiterated by God’s decree from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved!”  Jesus identity as God’s Son is the outworking of God’s faithfulness to humanity and to the whole creation.  In Jesus, God himself, fulfils the human side of covenant and so the requirements of human and divine faithfulness coalesce and coincide.

This is God’s choice and more than that it is God’s choice to involve these stiff necked and fallible human beings; that is to say Peter, James and John in the revelation of this truth. By so doing God invites us all to participate in the experience and sharing of God’s glory.

At the beginning of the reading we are told that Jesus took with him Peter, James and John up the mountain.  Just as last week we hear about Jesus choosing of these disciples so now we hear we hear a reiteration of Jesus, and God’s commitment, to involve people in his ministry and mission.  The disciples become witnesses to the work of God in Jesus Christ.

Are these three men better than those stiff necked people who made their own God’s and revelled whilst Moses spoke to God?  The simple answer is no.  6 days earlier Jesus had called Peter Satan.  On the mountaintop their incomprehension of the event is emphasised when Jesus tells them that they are not to share what they have seen until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.

In fact it is a story that we can only really guess at the historical truth of because the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke differ significantly.  This may be another reflection perhaps of their incomprehension of the moment.  Whilst the Scriptures do reveal God’s truth to us we need to be honest in our appraisal of the different versions of stories such as this which have significant discrepancies: if anything, Matthew lets Peter and James and John off more lightly than the other gospel writers.

In Luke’s telling of the account Peter’s comment about the making of the dwellings or tabernacles is reportedly said because “he did not know what to say”.  The idea of making dwellings for Moses, Elijah and Jesus indicates the human propensity to want to domestic encounters with God.  In thinking of making the dwellings is Peter not trying to seize control of the situation and contain the experience?

I suspect for Peter, James and John not unlike the infant with the new book they just did not know what to do.  But Jesus chose that they be there. Jesus invited them to be on the journey with him for it is exactly for men and women such as these that Jesus comes to bring the light of God’s forgiving and loving mercy to a misplaced and uncomprehending  humanity. 

Peter and James and John are truly our representatives on the mountaintop – they display the truth of our inability to wrap our heads around what is going on and when we have some great experience or some glimpse of God’s light our tendency to want to control that message, to package it as another product to by bought and sold, some programme for consumers in the market for spirituality.

Yet these approaches which seek to wrest the truth of divine revelation from God’s hand or to domestic them and house them in mundane pious religiosity miss the point. 

At the heart of the church is truth of the gospel message that Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son, comes to be for all humanity what we have failed to be and so help us to walk in newness of life with him.  This is indeed good news for us despite how difficult as it may be for us to consume in Christ we have a foretaste of the coming kingdom, here and now.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

God expects maturity not perfection!

Leviticus 19:1-18
Matthew 5:38-48
If I were to graph my relationship with God through my life I suspect it would look something like this (red line).  At the beginning as a newborn infant I do not believe it was perfect and I certainly do not see that it has been a steady climb of getting closer and closer to God through trying to follow Jesus.

In fact I have probably been pretty generous with how well I have gone since there have been times for me of deep doubt and even depression.

Given this is how I perceive my relationship with God is going, a series of peaks and troughs, it is difficult to read this section of Jesus sermon of the mount from Matthew which ends with the words:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I know I am not perfect, I have a sense I am far from perfect, even though I had a colleague once who used to call me Perfect Flaming Peter. If we put a line on my graph that demonstrates perfection we can see just how far I might be from perfection.

And if we consider the readings from both Leviticus and Matthew this morning there are enough personal faith challenges in the teachings here to occupy a life time. “Turn the other check”, “Walk the extra mile”, “Love your enemies”.  Really, I think I struggle to do any of these with any level of competency let alone all of them perfectly!

So the gap between me and “being perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect” seems insurmountable.  As a young adult I was acutely aware of this gap and wondered what it might mean that I could not follow Jesus and God the way this passage appears to be suggestion.  The guilt I felt was immense, even though I knew about forgiveness.  Was I a good Christian or not?  Was I going to go to hell for my failures?  Was I a poor witness and follower of Jesus?  There can be a great deal of pressure applied to people when we begin to think this way about our faith.

So how do we deal with this conundrum? How do we reconcile this gap between my life and perfection?

For me there are two things that help deal with this issue and for each I have a simply saying..

The first is: My life is hidden in Christ!

Whilst the second is: God expects maturity not perfection.  That is what I believe God expects from me personally as a Christian: maturity.

If we go back to my life graph the straight line running across the top at 100 per cent is Christ’s life, and therefore my life hidden in Christ.

What is impossible for me has been made possible by God in Christ.   When God looks at me and you God sees us through the lens of the perfection of Christ’s life.  We do not have to be perfect because in Jesus incarnation, his life, his death, and his resurrection as well as in his ascended ministry Jesus has made us right with God.

As an aside when we share the peace in church this is part of what we are recognising, we have peace with God and other because God has made our relationships perfect in Christ.

If we look to Jesus life we do see Jesus turn the other check and go the extra mile and so on.

This gift of perfection though comes with an invitation to respond.  From right back to the beginning of the church the question has been asked, “If I have been made right with God then does it matter what I do?”

Put simply the answer is yes.  Unconditional grace is what it is unconditional, but the invitation of Jesus is to life life in its fullest by responding maturely to this gift.

Which brings me to the statement: God expects maturity not perfection!

When we trace this passage from Matthew to its original language the word which we translate as perfection could also mean something like “purpose” or “maturity”.

So whilst there is an expectation of perfection which is met in Jesus, Jesus challenges his followers to live maturely and to see God’s life as an example.  Of course, the life of God we interpret here is Jesus own life.

Looking back to the graph, despite all the troughs and peaks, there is a growth in the maturity of the relationship which I believe is occurring.  And this is pragmatically important for us in our life as Christians in the world and our participation in Christ’s mission.

You see in general when people judge God they generally do so through looking at the imperfect line of my life in relationship with God, or our life, or even our corporate life as the church.

Let me share some examples of how this works from the week that was.

This week I heard on the radio the unfolding drama of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse and the interview of a Principal from a Catholic school in which abuse occurred less than a decade ago.  If we consider the injunction to love the neighbour and care for children it is clear this is one of the troughs in the life of the church.

We might try to shrug it off and say that was the Catholics not us but such a response is naive on two levels.  Firstly, because for many who are not Christian we are one group so the brand name is irrelevant.  Secondly, because as I Uniting church minister I am aware we too will be going before the Royal Commission for things which occurred whilst children were in our care.

On my graph this is certainly a trough in our relationship with God and begs us ask the question what is a mature response of faith? Possibly confession and lament? Changing our own practices to protect children better?

If we look at other significant events unfolding in the Central Republic of Africa there has been a shift in power and the now ascendant Christians, linked tribally, are committing atrocities against Muslims in the country.  And I read in the gospel “love your enemies”. 

What is a mature Christian response to these events?  In neighbouring countries maybe we can pray it will be Christians who reach out to offer shelter to those Muslims fleeing for their lives.

Once again closer to home I found myself lamenting for the life of Reza Barati the Iranian Asylum seeker killed at the Manus Island detention centre.  Reza was in the care of our country, as were all those others who were injured.

The issue of asylum seeks impacts Indonesia just as much as it impacts Australia but what is a mature Christian response, how do we love our neighbour and our enemy in this situation? 

These issues may seem distant and far away but in the life of we who follow Jesus issues of justice and love are always before us.

No doubt if we look into our own lives and relationships we might be able to ask many questions of our own maturity in our relationship with our family, our friends, our colleagues and our community.

We will not be perfect in these things but I do believe as we follow Jesus God expects maturity not perfection!

This maturity involves honesty and seeing how Jesus loved.

Maturity is enough of a challenge in our imperfect spiritual journey and when confronted by our inadequacies we should not judge ourselves or others too harshly.

Consider for a moment a well worn saying “Love the sinner and hate the sin”.  This saying traces its roots back to St Augustine and is found in Ghandi’s autobiography.

The big problem I have this is which sins we like to name as hating whilst leaving others alone.  Moreover, it can seem we are implying that somehow our imperfect journey is less tainted than another person’s.  I recently heard an interview in which the American evangelical Tony Campolo suggested that at best we could infer from Jesus teaching “Love the sinner and hate your own sin.”

This is not an invitation to amorality but just a sober reminder that as Paul wrote all have fallen short of the glory of God, which, in my mind, is exactly where I started this sermon with the graph.

The idea of perfectionism within our spiritual journey can lead to guilt and depression internally and sometimes judgmentalism and exclusion externally.  In hearing Jesus words about perfection we should always remember My life is hidden in Christ!

But in receiving this gift of perfection we should also remember that as we respond and follow Jesus God expects maturity not perfection!

Take a moment of silence read again the passages from Leviticus and Matthew. Receive the gift of perfection and contemplate where are you being challenged for greater maturity.

Friday, 14 February 2014

1 Corinthians 3 A healthy diet

Phase 1: The core ingredient!

For those of you who have had children or any of you who are aware of the early stages of childhood you will relate well to Paul’s metaphor.

In general we know that an infant relies on its mother’s milk alone.  Its body simply cannot cope with solids; there are no teeth to chew to start with.

Yet as the child grows opportunities arise and the situation changes.  Water and other liquids are added to the diet, mushy foods and other soft foods and then gradually solids.  It can take quite a few years until a child can engage in the full array of foods on offer.

This is a natural process and as well as taking time it can be a little frustrating and more than a little messy as the mashed sweet potato is tossed hither and yon. 

It is a good analogy that Paul uses for the growth of the spiritual life and it is quite a deliberate one.

Paul is entering into a conversation about where knowledge and knowing come from.

In Paul’s time the place of great teachers and philosophers was highly significant.  They were a source of knowledge.  So it was that certain members of that early Corinthian community had allied themselves with particular teachers: “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos,”

But Paul challenges this behaviour as divisive and destructive of the community and he appeals to a different understanding of where spiritual knowledge and growth come from.

He says, they come to us from God.  God works within us to nurture our spiritual lives.  The teachers are simply conduits through which God acts.

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

Paul was trying to encourage a hunger and thirst for spiritual growth whilst at the same time indicating that this growth came from God and that the so–called meal or teaching provided by those who were called to teach needed to correspond to the stage of spiritual development of a particular people.

The teaching took place in the context of a community as people who shared in their connectedness to Jesus Christ and the call he had placed upon their lives.

As people of faith who have heard the good news of Jesus I have little doubt that each of us has some self understanding of how mature we are in the faith.

Yet tonight I want to remind you that the process of maturing in the faith can be a messy business just as the process of introducing solids to an infant’s life can be fraught with problems.

Just as child can mistake pureed vegetables for paint or can misunderstand that nostrils are not the appropriate orifice through which to ingest food our explorations of God’s love and message expressed to us in Jesus can create similar chaos.

This may seem to be an unhelpful thing but the reality of growth is that it involves inquisitive behaviour and risk taking and community.

The one thing which Paul continually emphasises in this journey of growth and discovery for the Corinthian community is that at the heart of our faith the diet which we are given is grounded in God’s message of Jesus Christ.  He is the core ingredient!

In 1 Corinthians 3, he goes on to say, “No one can lay any other foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”

Maybe it is that we share a taste of the centre of our faith each week in the bread and the wine, signs of Jesus presence in us and with us.  As we chew the bread and swallow the wine we are drawn to remember Jesus and to be changed by him who is the staple of our diet and source of our growth.

Phase 2: Unhealthy Habits

In the first part of the sermon I have suggested some things to you about what Paul was trying to get across to the Corinthian community: people and communities can be at different stages in their spiritual development.  The stage that they are at relates to what they have received from God who is the one who brings growth.  Yet whatever the stage of our development the core ingredient within the menu is Jesus Christ.

I want to push Paul’s analogy about food and spiritual growth in a slightly different direction now and talk about unhealthy eating habits.

The first is to caution us about remaining childish in our palates. 

Often little children will express their distaste over particular foods.  I remember a personal dislike for brussel sprouts.  Yet we know that over the years our taste buds mature as we get exposed to different flavours.

The concern that I have to allow people to stay eating the same spiritual food without trying new things and maturing as God brings growth within them.

There are many Christians in our congregations who have been in the church all their lives but apart from a Sunday sermon they have not exercised their spiritual appetite since Sunday school.

As I suggested before transitioning a child to eat solids takes time, patience and a little mess but as the child grows opportunities for trying new things emerge.

Yes to be engaged in growth as Christians means coming to the weekly feast but it also means constantly consuming our daily bread.  Some among you have subscribed to the devotional that goes by the same name “Daily Bread” but I would challenge you all to reflect on how else you might try new flavours and expand opportunities for your spiritual growth.

The second is to caution you about the additives in food.  As modern people we know a lot about diet and healthy eating, although there is debate around what a healthy diet is we do know that some foods are simply not good for us.

There is a trend amongst food producers to load processed foods with sugar, salt and fat.  Things which add flavour and presumably make our food more palatable. Yet these are things which are not necessarily that good for us.

I am concerned at times that we have sugar coated Christ or spiced up our faith.  Rather than accept the taste of the message of Christ our explorations of the menu have lead us to overpower the flavour of our core ingredient.

So, for example, instead of speaking of the importance of Jesus to our daily lives we only want to talk about the church as a community and the friendships that we find there. 

Of course the church develops Christian community, but it does so because of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for us.  So if we speak only of the community that is being developed and not the one in whom the community is grounded then we lose the meaning and purpose of our identity as church and community – the flavour of Christ is overpowered.

In a similar way we can become overly attracted to particular expressions of worship or understandings of worship that supplant the central message that we are disciples called to follow Jesus and sent as apostles into world to share the good news.  In other words we only accept worship when it tastes of the flavours we like and when it is different we complain.

Lastly, in terms of unhealthy habits I want to talk about the problem of skipping meals.

One of my favourite stories about food and faith is about the minister who goes to visit a congregation member who has stopped going to church.  When asked why the man says he has stopped coming because he doesn’t think he gets anything from it and can’t remember the sermon after the service anyway.

In response the minister asked can you remember what you had for dinner last Sunday night to which the man replies no.  The minister then asked did the meal nourish and feed your body, did it help you to live even though you can’t remember it.

The point is subtle but worth remembering it.  The discipline of coming to worship and share at the table every week feeds us in ways that sometimes we are not aware of.  It is important to be here every Sunday, to not skip meals, to be nourished by God and share in each other’s fellowship and encourage others to join us for all are welcome in at this feast.

Phase 3: A mature palate

I want to conclude the sermon with this third phase and consider maturity in our spiritual diet.

As we grow and try new culinary delights we are also drawn into the celebration of community that sharing food is.

The word companion literal means ‘with’ ‘bread’ and infers that a companion is one with whom we break bread.

Eating moves from simple function to enjoyment, enjoyment shared communally.

Jesus breaks bread with us and invites us to break bread with one another as companions – sharing physical and spiritual food.

To hark back to a point I made before about being engaged in our spiritual growth beyond a Sunday sermon, our Uniting Church tradition has not been the best at developing the discipline of weekly bible studies or home groups or prayer groups.  This congregation fits into that category.  Yes we do our Lenten studies but not much else.

Like constant dinner parties we should be gathering with one another to plumb the depths of what it means to be followers of Jesus and to share where we have seen Christ active in our lives. I do not believe the value of weekly gatherings to nurture our faith, be it a prayer group; a Bible study, or home group can be overstated.

More than that, there are those among you who should take the opportunity to host the meal and prepare the food.  The tendency can be to rely overly too much on the one cook – the minister, but the experience of so many Christians around the world is that the process of preparing the meal is where real growth occurs.  The companionship of sharing the journey of faith together is a truly enriching thing – enjoying God and each other intentionally and deliberately.

As we consider what it means to be a community of faith in this 21st century, to follow Christ and to grow in his love, let us be adventurous in our palate and renewed in our committed to the menu as God feeds us and causes us to grow.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Light shiners & Glory givers!

A sermon on Matthew 5:16

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Just for a few moments I want you to think about everywhere you have been in the last seven days; in other words between worship last Sunday and now.  Where have you been?  Jot down as many places as you can remember.

How many places have we been collectively?

That is our first really important piece of information this morning so let’s just try to remember that.

Now just pause for a moment and think about what you are doing now and what I am doing now in this moment.  I have to say that each week I labour and pray over the words I will say on Sunday making a huge assumption – that it will make a difference in your lives.  That in the midst of the sermon God will speak and that as God speaks you and I might actually be transformed.

Or to put it another way as I preach I, and I suspect some of you too, are expecting that salt will be tasted and light will shine.  In the safety of these four walls with people whom we presume are somewhat like minded salt and light are shared.

One of the most challenging aspects of all of this is the notion that when the preaching occurs I am not going to be saying to you “hey everything things great just keep on doing what you are doing”.  I am not going to simply affirm hey we got it right you don’t have to concern yourself with personal spiritual growth and transformation.

That to me would be like answering the perennial question “Are we there yet?” with a yes.

The sermon assumes that as salt is tasted and light shines we will discover that there is a journey of spiritual growth and change that still lies ahead.

So this is our second piece of information that we want to remember – the sermon is about salt and light and therefore is also about change.

But, and this is a big but... when Jesus was talking about salt and light what exactly was he inferring and how does it still relate to who we are and what we are doing?

Jumping in my imaginary time machine if I hurtle back to Jesus time I would discover that salt was a pretty common item then as now.  It was used for preserving, purifying, fertilising and yes seasoning.  Was Jesus being particularly about one of these, maybe seasoning but on the other hand does it really matter which use Jesus was referring to?

What struck me was that salt then as now is any everyday item used by everyone.  It is uniquely salt but it is really common.

The same is true of light. There is always light, even in darkness there is light, it may be
dim light and yes the brighter the light the more we can see but light is always there, always shining.

So here’s our next thing to remember for today salt and light are really common, not just a little bit common but accessible to everyone and used by everyone. 

So when Jesus starts referring to people as salt and light and talks about light shining before others the question came to me is Jesus only talking about some people doing this?

You see part of the tension for Jesus and his predominantly Jewish audience, and more importantly for Matthew who decided that this bit was important to write down 60 years later, was that Jesus message was not about closing down community and making it exclusive, rather it was about opening our God’s love for everyone.

Remember the beginning of John’s gospel: 

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with god and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God and through him all things came into being.  What has come into being in him was light and the light was the life of all peoples.... And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

So here’s a wild thought, what if the light we are shining is not actually our own, but is the light which is the life of the world: the light of Christ.

OK so let’s get back to where I started with the quote from verse 16:

“Let you light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

There are a few things to take note of in this statement:

Firstly, the purpose of shining the light has nothing to do with yours or my personal salvation.  Being light shiners is about helping others glorify God.

Secondly, light shining is about what we do, our works!  Jesus comments which follow about the law and the prophets are there to remind people that what we do matters.

Now I want to temper Jesus words about our righteousness exceeding the scribes and Pharisees with two additional things said about the seeming impossibility of this injunction.

First in Matthew 19 Jesus says to the disciples about the rich young man who is completely righteous but won’t sell everything he has that “with God all things are possible.”

Secondly, Paul in Romans 7 reminds the community that the Law was given that sin might be revealed.

So with those bits of information on board to be “light shiners” might actually mean it is not us shining our light but the light of Christ shining through us and that the shining of the light is associated with what we do.

But wait there’s more!  What if there are no limits to through whom and where Christ’s light shines. 

Clearly in the scriptures God works in and through people who are no always recognisable as part of the exclusive community of faith.

So what if the task we have is not simply to be light shiners but glory givers.  Giving glory to God when we perceive the light shining through others be they a part of the community of faith or not.

This all brings me back to our little survey about where you have been this week, and causes me to ask another question, “How many people did you interact with in those different places?”

If you and I are to be light shiners and glory givers, helping others to identify Jesus the light of the world so that God might be glorified, remember this is not to do with our being saved, it is as Jesus says about God being glorified the question should then be asked: in all of those interactions how much light shining and glory giving were you engaged in.

You see it is one thing to expect me to be slat and light whilst I am preaching but at the end of the service when we head out into the world, each one of us is called to live out our discipleship to God’s glory.

Of course this ain’t easy, not for me or for you, but Jesus invitation to follow was not simply an invitation to follow me and don’t change but to be transformed by God’s love and to share that love and light with others.

To be light shiners and glory givers not for our own benefit but for God’s glory.

Take a moment to consider where you are going to be this week:  how will you be a light shiner and glory giver in those places?