Monday, 30 March 2015

Good Friday: We look up at the cross. What do we see?

The scene played out at the cross is a scene which, despite its foreignness to us here at St Lucia, had been played out thousands of times before Jesus ever got there.

Friends and family watching on as a loved one is executed by a foreign power.

It was the way of an occupying force asserting its authority.  For the Roman Empire such a death as Jesus ' death was more common than we modern Christians would like to admit. We are so used to contemplating Jesus death as unique and special.

Under the cross we find the menagerie of humanity: the executioner, the guards and the gamblers; the mourners, the friends, the disciples and the mother; the passerby and the innocent bystander, for the crosses of Rome were always in public places. Crucifixion was a humiliation and a warning to others.

Yet as much as this scene had been played out a thousand times before, and in different ways a thousand times a million times since, on this day we are drawn to remember this particular death, of this particular man.

We come to stand under his cross and in so doing to seek to understand: to understand the meaning of our lives, to understand the meaning of death, to understand the meaning of God.

We Christians have spent 2000 years theologising this moment, puzzling over the concepts of suffering and atonement, of grace and of love.  This is not surprising given the way the gospel writers, like John, retell the story, filling it with imagery and mystery.

Yet, on that day standing under the cross, I do not think Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene, nor Jesus own mother and the beloved disciple, were worrying about the theological implications of the event.

Here in this moment they beheld: the pain and suffering of someone they loved; they mourned for him; they sought to comfort him with their presence; they may have wondered at the sheer brutality of the event and the callous behaviour of the soldiers; they could also have wondered about their own mortality and even feared for their own lives by simply being there.

Standing alongside these women and men, with hearts breaking at the suffering, we too stand with those gathered around the world looking up at the cross wondering where is God in the midst of these terrible things.  Where is God in the midst of suffering? Where is God in the moment of death?

This scene of suffering and death is not foreign to most of us.  We have seen the atrocities of our oh-so-wise humanity, we have seen the concentration camps, the killing fields, the massacres and the barbarity.  We have seen the spectre of death as our own loved ones have died, as Dylan Thomas wrote, raging against the dying of the light.

It is because of the utter humanity of the event, of both the barbarity of human behaviour alongside the depth of suffering it causes, that the gospel writers so deeply reflected on this moment and filled it with symbolism as they too wondered where God was in this event.

So, as we stand under the cross on this day we hear and reflect on the seven sayings of Jesus which come to us, revealing God's loving presence in this moment of confusion.

Looking up, from under the cross, it is difficult to fathom the suffering of Jesus and his words ‘I thirst’ remind us that here hangs a man, a man deeply deprived and wounded.  It is easy to ask the question, where is God in all of this?

This questioning is reflected in possibly both the most ambiguous and difficult words Jesus utters in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels.  They tell us Jesus quoted Psalm 22, 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?'

Listening to these words it could be easy to assume that God has left the scene; that God is not there!  But we need to listen to the whole Psalm, coming to its words of hope not abandonment:

For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

Under the cross, Matthew and Mark reassure us in Jesus own words, as much as it might feel like it, God does not leave his Son, God does not forsake us in death, and so the hope filled refrain at the end of the Psalm makes sense:

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.
 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord, 
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

God is with us! God does not forsake or abandon us in, neither in life nor in death!

This tone of hopefulness in the face of death is conveyed by Luke to the criminal crucified alongside Jesus, as Jesus reassures him, 'Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.'

Death is not the last word.  There is more to come.  There is yet mystery in these words for we who live on this side of death, but they reiterate the hope declared in Psalm 139, “If I make my bed in Sheol you are there.”

Just as the gospel writers show to us God present in the moments of suffering and even beyond death, they also reveal in Jesus words his concern for the life of those who go on.

In the scene in John’s gospel Jesus is renewing community, even from the cross Jesus is reconciling and making new.  To his mother and his beloved disciples he says,” Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.”  God is with us as new communities of life and hope are built.

It is a hope which the gospel writers believed transcended that moment.  A hope grounded in reconciliation with God.  Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.’

God is reaching out in grace towards humanity and Jesus is God’s love enfleshed.  Here is the culmination of God’s story we find in the scriptures.  A story of a God who pursues humanity in love to the very end and commits not to leaving Jesus in his suffering: nor might I say you and I. 

Here is a God that does not act in retribution and wrath but in compassion and mercy, and in love and grace, as Jesus suffers the consequences of human decisions when we are faced with the unknown and when we are caused to become fearful.

As if to remind us of the symbolic and liturgical nature of the story of Jesus death John and Luke end Jesus life with a refrain.  In John, ‘It is finished’, in Luke, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’

Did Jesus actually say any of these things?  It is beyond our proving.  

Do these words help understand this moment?  Maybe, but only inasmuch as we understand anything about the mystery of Jesus’ life and death!

This morning we stand under the cross.  We look up.  What do we see?  What do you see?

As much confusion as there may be about what Jesus death means and what is occurring one thing I hold on to is that the gospel writers were at pains to let us know God and God’s love were palpably present.  God’s love for Jesus, God’s love the creation and God’s love for each one of us who is made to live in community with God and one another.

We stand under the cross.  We look up.  What do we see?  What do you see?

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Jesus rode into Jerusalem for you!

This week I was struck by a deeply troubling and challenging question as I contemplated Jesus entry into Jerusalem. “Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem for the sake of Caiaphas and for Pilate as well?

This question is an important question, a really vital question, because when I consider my place of position, power and prosperity as an Australian and then try to cast myself back into that moment in history I do not naturally find myself standing by the roadside.

On a global scale I would think that I remain among the more privileged people on this planet. So, in Jesus time, on that fateful day, it is more likely I would have found myself among the temple authorities or maybe part of the Roman court officials in Jerusalem.

Growing up as Christians we have been taught to imagine ourselves standing by that roadside as Jesus entered Jerusalem. As children we may have waved our branches and as adults we may have contemplated ourselves as part of the scene.  Yet, what if we were not there, what if we as the prosperous and privileged, as we are now in Australia, did not find ourselves by the roadside.

Does Jesus come for us as well? Did Jesus enter Jerusalem for Caiaphas and Pilate?

When we stop and consider Jesus words to the Greeks who came seeking him, words which we read in church last week that “all people will be drawn into my death”, the answer is ‘yes’!

I have this conviction that it does not matter where you were standing on that day Jesus entry into Jerusalem was for you.

I have this conviction that it does not matter where you are standing on this day that Jesus entry into Jerusalem is for you.

When we stop and consider Paul’s words to the Philippians that there will come a time when “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.” Jesus entry into Jerusalem and into Holy Week is for everyone, from every time, and from every place.

Yet, we have been trained and indoctrinated to think differently about the events of that day so long ago.  Our vision is partly distorted by the reformation and the enlightenment and how that has changed our view of ourselves and of the place of faith.

At the time of the Reformation, 500 years ago, Martin Luther is often cited for encouraging us to separate religion and politics.  It is an interpretation of his teaching and his life which I would seriously question.  But there can be no doubt that many of us in this contemporary world think that religion and politics don’t mix.

In addition, the enlightenment has taught us the concept of liberal democracy and the rights of the individual – the rights summed up in the American Constitution of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The pinnacle of our culture is our individual right to believe and think and achieve for ourselves and we have made this a critical part of our faith.  For many of us faith is about God, Jesus and me.

Both of these ideas distort our understanding of Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

You see, I have this conviction that it does not matter where you were standing on that day Jesus entry into Jerusalem was for you.

I have this conviction that it does not matter where you are standing on this day that Jesus entry into Jerusalem is for you.

Again and again I read commentaries on this story which remind me that what Jesus was doing in this prophetic action was politically subversive – Jesus was leading a protest.  His actions were deliberate and planned as he enacted the prophecy of Zachariah. 

One of the ways we might understand this is through the understanding that Jesus procession was not the only procession that entered Jerusalem just before the Passover.  The scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg remind us that the Roman prefect Pilate probably entered Jerusalem around the same time – maybe not the exact same day but very close to the same day.

Pilate did not live in Jerusalem but came to the city for the Passover bringing extra troops as the city swelled with pilgrims coming from all over the region.  As Pilate entered the city he was reasserting the Roman dominion over the Israelites.  It was a show of Roman authority and power in this occupied territory.  He was reminding them that Emperor Tiberius was the son of god; he was reminding them they were a conquered people.

Jesus entry into Jerusalem, most likely from the opposite side of the city, was a parody of the Roman parade.  He was making a clear and obvious statement and stance against Rome and its theology, and also against those among the Jewish authorities who had colluded with the Romans. 

Jesus is standing against the systems of division, of oppression, of violence, of manipulation, of dehumanising, of corruption, of idolatry.  He is making a mockery of what we think it means to exercise dominion within the creation and over one another.  Many of these ideas of power, privilege and authority have been handed to us today and are present in politics, religion and business!

The parody that is Jesus entry into Jerusalem is paradoxical. The crowd that surround him later desert and even betray him. They miss the joke that Jesus is making because for most in the crowd they want Jesus to be like Pilate.

Yet standing against something is hollow unless Jesus is also standing for something.  And Jesus is standing for something: he is standing for the coming kingdom of God, the hope of God’s rule in our lives and our hearts.  Jesus is standing for salvation which leads people towards reconciliation, mercy, love, forgiveness, peace, inclusion; he is standing for fullness in life!

As Jesus challenges the politic and religious systems of his time he continues to question the political and religious systems of our time.  He rides into Jerusalem to challenge the way we are all complicit in these systems.  Jesus was challenging everything and Jesus was coming for everyone!

Jesus act was a universal declaration. It was political and it was very personal!

As church members by constantly coming and placing ourselves in the picture, each Palm Sunday, alongside the palm strewn, cloak-filled way we make Jesus entry about a select few: the ones who gather. Ironically, the select few that accompanied Jesus on that we know also turned away from Jesus later in the week.

But, if John’s version of Jesus is right and Jesus is acting as the High Priest for all peoples then his act of reconciliation is not limited to those who are present but he is acting for all humanity as he draws them into himself and as he is raised up.  According to the book Hebrews continues Jesus role as the High Priest recognised by John continues eternally.

Think about the scene and who wasn’t there. 

The woman who kept her children at home that day because raising her children safely in this war torn world was tricky and being involved in protests was dangerous.  Jesus came for her!

Or, The Roman soldier who had been sent out to Jerusalem away from his family to serve his Emperor, not understanding anything about the Jewish people and their strange religion, and certainly not knowing about Jesus. Jesus came for him!

And think about people half way around the world the Turrbal people who were living in this region of the world, Asians, Native Americans, Africans, the Vandals and Visigoths of Europe, the Celts and Scots. Jesus came for them as well!

God’s love for all that God has made!  God chooses not the destruction of the creation but its salvation.
It does not matter where you were standing on that day Jesus entry into Jerusalem was for you.

I have this conviction that it does not matter where you are standing on this day that Jesus entry into Jerusalem is for you.

God’s desire is to save us. To save us from ourselves from our wayward, petulant and even violent political systems.  To save us from our personal insecurities, from our pride, from our anxiety, from our greed, from our sense of hopelessness, from our arrogance. 

This is the good news – for the parent who simple wants to give the best opportunities in life, for the student worried about mid semester exams, for those confronting the drudgery of work as we worship, for the teenager struggling with western culture dreaming of fighting for ISIS, for the elderly still full of life and not wanting death to come, for each one of us here – Jesus comes.

Jesus came to be the salvation of the world – not just of some.  The High Priest stands in the place of all people to reconcile them to God.

We need to be careful with our individualistic notions of faith and our conditioning to think we might have waved the Palm branches and thrown our cloaks onto the ground. Something much bigger than you or I, and our personal decisions for Jesus, is going on here.  God is saving the world!

I have this conviction it does not matter where you were standing on that day Jesus entry into Jerusalem was for you.

I have this conviction that it does not matter where you are standing on this day that Jesus entry into Jerusalem is for you.

On this day as we gather as followers of Jesus in this time and place in history Palm Sunday invites us into the spectacular idea of the good news: that every person will be drawn into that moment when Jesus is raised up.

And our deepest hope: that there will come a time that every knee shall bend and confess Jesus is Lord, not as an act of submission but love. 

We are drawn into the good news that political and religious systems which seem to oppress are more or less an accident of history and that there is a coming kingdom grounded not in violence and hate but in love and resurrection.  We are invited to live sharing the news that God is breaking down the barriers, that we are being built into one humanity filled with love and grace and the Jesus rides for us.

See him coming now he rides for you.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The ministry of donkey fetching

It is easy to get ourselves caught up in talking about Jesus entry into Jerusalem and skipping over the preparation for the event.

As Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem we are told that he calls over two of the disciples to send them to get a donkey.  Of course the mundane task of donkey fetching is made special by Jesus prediction about where the two would find the donkey and what would happen when they got there.  Yet there is still a level at which it remains a mundane task. It was just something that had to be done – someone had to fetch the donkey.

Imagine years later these two disciples trying to explain the significance of their donkey fetching ministry.  Maybe the omission of their names from the story reflects how they might have felt about it.  So the question we could ask is why even bother including this part of the story, it has to be more than just fill.  I am sure the gospel writers were not working to a word count.

One of the things that strike me about the inclusion of this aspect of the disciples work is that even in mundane and ordinary tasks God can be encountered.  Jesus sends the disciples to fetch the donkey, and by predicting the encounter that the disciples would have, Jesus turns the event into a moment of revelation.

The appearance of the person questioning the disciples as Jesus had predicted is an affirmation for them of God’s work going on around them, even in the midst of this mundane task.

When asked, “Why are you doing this?’ their response is to describe what Jesus had said to them.  They relay Jesus prediction of the event.  Through this the disciples are once again reminded of Jesus authority and place within their lives.

Now, what if anything does this have to do with us?  By turning this mundane and ordinary task into something special, an encounter with the divine, I believe we are reminded that even the most mundane and everyday tasks in our lives can be places in which God speaks to us as well.

As we put our hands to work in the everyday humdrum of life making a meal, mowing a lawn, balancing our books, writing  and researching our PhD we can encounter God’s presence and be taught by God’s love just as the disciples were.

The great American preacher and activist Martin Luther King once declared “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.  He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Maybe in these moments of our everyday existence we will hear someone asking ‘why are you doing this?’  Why are you mowing the church lawn, why do you choose to write your PhD on this topic, why is it that you are nursing or teaching?  I wonder do we have sense that God has called us to these everyday tasks of life as an expression of ministry in the world.  Tasks that may seem everyday - even dull and boring – may be places we remember and encounter God and maybe when asked we might even have the temerity to explain that we had a sense that Jesus had asked us to do it.

Just as with the disciples and their task of donkey fetching so too we are called to do mundane and less than glamorous tasks in our lives – but God separate from these things.   

So the disciples return with the donkey and then we can safely assume follow Jesus as he enters Jerusalem.

Now, one of the dangers of this story is that, because we have handed out palm branches to little children for so many years, and smiled at their embarrassed cuteness as they wander the aisles of the church waving Palms, we forget that there may be something more than simply remembering a long dead story going on and being sentimental about childhood.

Jesus entry into Jerusalem is filled with tension and excitement – Jesus is fulfilling Zachariah’s prophecy.  His procession declares his identity. Jesus makes claim to be the Messiah and the people respond.  Jesus had already set his face towards the cross and now he goes to meet it.  It is a scene filled with ambiguity. 

Maybe you have heard it said before that the same crowd that shouts “Hosanna” at the beginning of the week will scream “crucify him” at the end of the week.  People are fickle and Jesus presence evokes a range of responses.

We who know the story of what occurs should also understand our place within it.  We are part of that crowd.  We are the donkey fetchers.  We wave our branches.  We gather in hope.  Yet as we do so we know that despite our enthusiastic response we too will lose our way with Jesus.  We will desert, we will betray, we will hide.

This is how we live our lives with a strange mixture of belief and scepticism; with a paradoxical ability to do both things which are good and bad, usually not even fully aware of what which is which.  We live as people celebrating God’s love yet denying his place in our lives.

Yet, the good news is that Jesus knowing this, rides on.  He travels towards the cross, towards his death and towards his resurrection to break through our fickleness and so declare God’s love for us and inclusion of us in God’s very life.

For me the gathering on Palm Sunday shows the other side of the coin of our spiritual life to the low key and mundane task of donkey fetching.  The times we encounter God as a gathered community – just like running to the roadside to see Jesus we come and gather here and in worship and in singing our Hosanna’s Jesus is present with us here in the midst of our fickleness, accepting our praise.

The hope that we find in the story of the donkey fetchers and of Jesus entry into Jerusalem is that Jesus is with us and alongside us.  He is there us as we go about our everyday tasks and he is here as we gather together to celebrate, not because we are worthy in any way of his presence but because he chooses to be so out of love.

(with thanks to Thomas Long for some inspiration)

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Some Greeks came to see Jesus

I wondered what the Greeks were expecting when they went to see Jesus.  I cannot fathom what they were hoping for so I wrote this poem based on the idea of my wanting to seeing Jesus, with all the expectations and presuppositions that I carry.

Who do you want to see?

God and man
Mystery and grace
The eternal Word made flesh
The incarnate Son of God
Present from before creation
Perichoretically indwelling the Godhead
Father, Son and Spirit

Born of Mary
Inhabiting the universe
A teacher to follow
Living life vicariously
Bound in history
Free from time
Present in the hungry
The thirsty and the poor
Died yet risen
Coming from the future
Present with us now
Spurned and rejected
Loved and exalted
Lifted up for the sake of the world
Risen from among the dead
Full of new life

I want to see Jesus
Not simplified
Not domesticated
Not pasteurised and homogenised
Full of mystery and grace
An unknowable paradox
Yet willing to be known
Yes, I want to see Jesus
But more
I want to be seen by Jesus
Knowing that he will
Love me as I am
And as I am becoming
Trusting that he is making me
One with him, one with God
And one with others

I want to see Jesus
Am I ready for such a joyous, mysterious revelation
Only God knows

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Lift high the cross!

Lift high the cross 
the love of Christ proclaim
Till all the world adore 
his sacred name.

Many of you may recognise the words of this hymn by Michael Newbolt.  And no doubt many of you would want to sing along gustily agreeing with the sentiment.

Yet the question that I have is what kind of cross do we envisage being lifted. 

The hymn goes on “Come Christians follow where our captain trod our King victorious Christ the Son of God.  Led on their way by this triumphant sign the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.”

For me the image that immediately comes to mind with these words is that of an army marching off on a crusade.  It is militaristic and imperialistic depiction of the faith and of what lifting high the cross might mean.

I find this imagery deeply disturbing because for me it creates an image of the cross which is the antithesis of what we actually find in the scriptures.

In his book, “Crucified God”, Jurgen Moltmann asserts, “In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.”

Yet the cross which Moltmann describes in his book is one far removed from such imperialism and militarism.

To understand then what it means to lift high the cross I think the reading from John 3 sets us off in a very different direction to understand what it means to contemplate the cross.

Of course the segment that we read today from John 3 is a part of a longer dialogue between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus and it is valuable to read the whole story.  Rather than do that own I would leave that for your own time.

But the vital point is the connection Jesus makes “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” 

It is commonly accepted that what Jesus is referring to here is him being lifted up on the cross and what he is saying to Nicodemus is that to understand the meaning of the cross involves understanding what Moses did in lifting up the serpent.

So let us take a moment to look at that story.

It is helpful to fill in a little bit of background to the people’s whinging about the bread and wanting to return to Egypt.  The bread they are complaining about was a miraculous gift, manna from heaven, when the people were hungry.  Not only had God provided bread but God had also led Moses to split the rock at Meribah where the Israelites had quarrelled with God to provide water for them.  And just prior to the incident that we read today God had given the Israelites a victory over the Canaanites, so great was this victory that the place was named Hormah which means destruction.

The Israelites had been cared for and provided for and protected by God and their response is ungratefulness – “sorry God the bread’s a bit bland, Egypt was better.”

Now God’s response may seem a little extreme as God sends fiery serpents among the people, biting them and even killing some of the people. 
When the people go to Moses and plead that the snakes be taken away Moses approaches God.  God’s response is not to take the snakes away but to provide a means of grace. It is a brass snake mounted on a pole, a symbol to be looked upon and a person would be healed.

What is interesting for us today is that it is the source of the problem, the serpent, which becomes the symbol of their healing.

Let’s bring this into comparison with the Son of Man being lifted up.

If looking at the serpent was looking at the source of the problems then looking at Jesus on the cross is at some level doing the same thing.

Jesus is the symbol, like the snake, of the source of our problems.

Now this may sound a little uncomfortable and it should be because this is the confrontation with our own humanity.

In Deuteronomy we read that the one who is hung on the tree is cursed by God.  So in looking at the Son of man lifted up we see that the things which are not of God in this world, the world’s turning away from God, our turning away from God, are tied up with the our human existence.

We are the snake biting ourselves!

The temptation for us who are Christians is to forget just how confronting this image of the cross is and that it continues to apply to us.

When we lift high the cross we are confronted by the way in which as human beings destroy our very humanity and so therefore God’s will and way.

Let me explore on three levels.

As a person I know that there are times that I fail to honour others as I should and this most obvious in the intimate relationships that I have. 

In an angry word or dismissive gesture I can cause hurt to my wife or children.  I can disregard me parents or in-laws and by my apathy I can fail to show the love I should to my siblings.  In each moment that I do these things I destroy something of their humanity and mine – I fail to live as God intended.  We all do it and like it or not it is what sin is all about – being less than God created us to be, destroying the life given to us or others as a gift.  It is an intensely personal and at the same time an entirely universal thing.

Personally I would argue sin is not on a sliding scale, sin is simply what it is sin, whether it is these simple personal interactions or something more dire: sin is sin!  It is our turning away from God and so also, and maybe inevitably, each other.

What we do in our intimate relationships carries through into our communities; whether in the church or in the locality.  Our Australian urban culture is typified by the building a bigger fences between or neighbours.  We often don’t even know their names.  As people we are becoming more isolated and independent from one another. 

And yes even as the church we fail.  The existence of the many denominations is a sign of our inability as followers of Jesus Christ to be faithful.  It is not simply that we like different things and express ourselves differently, which we do, but that we do not know how to love one another. 
Even internally, no congregation I have ever been with or had association with has been free of tensions and disagreements. 

This is what the cross reveals about humanity that we are the source of our own problems – we are the serpent that bites itself and the consequences and implications are far reaching.

In a world full of inequality the lifestyle we live is propped up by countries in which people are working in what any of us would say are intolerable conditions.  Much of our coffee and chocolate is picked by children, sometimes dealt with as slaves.  Many of the clothes we wear come from the sweat shops in other countries.  We out source our manufacturing of technology to the places we can find the cheapest labour.  We pick up our next bargain and it does not cross our minds as to where it has come from. Ironically, we do all this whilst vocalising our concerns for the poor of the world.

We are a paradoxical people.

Lift high the cross – what we see is that we human beings are very much the source of our own misery.

So where is hope?  Where is God in all this?  The answer is to look to the cross.  Returning to Jurgen Moltmann’s book the title gives it away “The Crucified God”.  God in Christ takes this ‘god forsakeness’ into his death and transforms it.

The triumph of the cross is as Paul says foolishness – God identifies with us in our turning away and all of its consequences and says I am with you and I will lead you home.

As Paul writes to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

Despite our ignorance, despite our deliberate waywardness, and despite our plain stupidity the cross says to us that God is with us and that God has not forsaken: even we who would nail God to the cross.  This is grace.

As people we are drawn into this grace as we lift high the cross and as we are lifted into living again with hope.  Living with hope that sees past our human predicament and the paradox of our rejection of God and seeks to live again led and empowered by the good news that has been revealed to us.

Renewed constantly in our relationships with one other we learn to forgive each other as we indeed have been forgiven and we live as forgiven sinners, not perfect, yet witnesses to a hope in God’s love.

As Paul says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

This is the good news the Son of Man has been lifted up just as the serpent was lifted on the pole in the desert and in the source of our affliction we also find our healing. 

The relationship came first then the rules

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

This simple statement by God at the beginning of the passage, commonly known as the 10 Commandments, raises for us a fundamental question.  It is in some ways the age old question, “Which came first the chicken or the egg?”

Or, “Which came first the rules or the relationship?”

I have a definite view that the relationship precedes the rules but I am aware that for many people both within the group who claim to follow Jesus and beyond that group it is the other way around.  Rather than the relationship giving rise to the rules there are many people who consider that to be a Christian it is about the rules which then opens out the relationship.

Let me indulge you with a brief story about my own process to beginning my Doctorate to demonstrate my understanding of relationships and rules.

When I first began to contemplate engaging in further study I did not look up the website at UQ to find out the requirements of entry or the rules of how I would do the study.  No! Rather I contacted my now supervisor and went and met with him. Together we began to explore my options in terms of a topic. 

We developed a relationship based not primarily in academic rules but in our concern for the development of thought and understanding in the church.  It is a concern that we would have shared whether I decided to enter into the formality of study or not.

This relationship has lead to the need for me to explore the rules of studying at UQ and the rules basically provide map for me to get to where I felt I wanted to go using the vehicle called UQ.

The relationship came first.

When God speaks the words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” God is reiterating an already existing relationship It is a promised relationship, a relationship which is grounded on the willingness of God to intervene for the good of God’s people.

The act of bringing the people of God out of Egypt was the way God's intervened to save this group of people to be God's chosen people.  They were to be a sign of God’s love before the other nations of the world.

The relationship came first.  A relationship that God was willing to save.

We can hear within the story God's commitment to be in the relationship. It is only when this relationship is established and that the story of God's relationship is told that we hear the so called commandments of God.  These commandments are meant to help people be in the relationship.  They are a gift to help people to enter into the community of humanity as God's people, to live within the relationship which was already a given.

I do not want to delve too deeply into the nature of the 10 commandments but rather give a brief commentary as we might view these words as an encouragement or resource in the relationships we have with God and each other.  Broadly speaking the commandments fall into two these two categories and to start with our relationships with each other it is helpful to reverse how we think about these commandments.

In the New Testament Jesus says to the disciples that they should “do to others what you would have them do to you”.

If we view the commandments dealing with how we behave toward one another through this lens then we should think about them this way:

I would want my children to honour me so I should honour my parents.
I would not to be murdered so I should not wish murder on anyone else.
I would not want to be betrayed in my relationship with my wife so I should not betray her.
I would not want my things stolen from me so why would I steal what belongs to another.
I would not want lies told about me so I should not lie.
I do not want people to be jealous of my possessions so I should not be jealous of them.

When God gives these instructions to us God is not imposing something on us that is unfair or unwieldy but inviting us to think about how we wish to be treated in our lives.

In the same way we can reverse the commandments about God:

God has chosen to be in the relationship with us so we are invited to place God first in our lives.
God has entered into the relationship with us personally so we do not need to construct images to be in the relationship.
God honours us by speaking to us by name and with honour and so we can respond in the way we talk about God.
God has given us the freedom to live day by day in this wondrous world, so we remember God as creator by honouring the Sabbath.

This is not about earning God’s love.  This is not about fulfilling rules so we can get to go to heaven.  This about living within the world God has made in such a way as to honour others and God, just int eh same way we would desire for ourselves.

The relationship comes first – the rules simple help us to live in this relationship.  They are a resource for us, they are a helping hand and we should view them this way.

The reality of course is that all of us can easily forget that the relationship came first and we can turn faith into a set of laws to be obeyed.  We can begin to use the laws to define God rather than God’s willingness to save us.

This is why we see Jesus in the temple driving out the money changers and the animals being sold.  The money changers and animal sellers were there specifically to assist people live out the requirements of their faith by making the appropriate sacrifices.  They were there to help people live out the laws.

Whilst there may have also been corruption in the system Jesus concern was that the religious practices and practitioners actually barred the way into the relationship with God.

The relationship came first.

In all of the communities that we are part of - families, schools, universities, residential colleges, work places and even this congregation the same principle applies.  relationships are established - the rules are there to help us live well within those relationships in such a way that all members of the community might reach their potential.  Sometimes the rules can take over or seem to be a burden and some of the rules we make as humans are imperfect - but generally most are about helping build the possibilities of life for the members of the community.

God desire to be in a relationship with each of you.  God desires this so much that God shared our life in Jesus.  The rules are only there to help us live in the relationship, Jesus presence in the world confirms again God's commitment to us.

In this congregation this year we have determined to followers and fishers.  This means that we do understand that God has called us into the relationship and that God’s commitment has been to stay beside us and all humanity in Christ.  This is how we celebrate God’s goodness, this is part of how we are living the relationship – following Jesus and telling others of God’s love.

How do you enter into the relationship with God?  And how do you approach the rules you encounter in life?