Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Of Eunuch's and hope.

I love the question that Philip asks the Ethiopian Eunuch,

“Do you understand what you are reading?”

It’s a great question.  It is a confronting question. 

“Do you get it? Can you make a connection between what you are reading and your own life?”

I think it is the kind of question that is constantly before us; not simply when we read the Bible but when we engage with any reading or have experience from which we can learn.  For so often we read or experience something and we don’t learn, we don’t listen, we just keep on doing things the same old way.

So the question for us today is “Do we get it?”

I mean do we understand why this story is in the Bible at all. 

And even if we do, how does that relate to who we are and where we are going?

If we travelled back into those first early years of the Church there must have been hundreds, even thousands, of stories about people coming to faith.  What’s so important about this one?  Why is it included and why at this point of Luke’s recounting of the Acts of the Apostles? What was Luke trying to tell the early Christians? And of course even more importantly “What’s in it for me and for you?”

Hopefully by the time you leave today you will have at least some insight as to how this particular story fits with the good news of Jesus Christ and also with your own life’s story.

So let’s set the scene.  Jesus has ascended into heaven.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out on the disciples. The apostles had begun their ministry in Jerusalem; sharing the story of Jesus with anyone who would listen and performing many miracles.  

Despite their enthusiasm the reception they received was mixed to say the least.  In the previous Chapter of Acts we hear of the stoning of Stephen by the Jewish leaders, whilst the beginning of Chapter 8 speaks of the persecution of the first Christians in Jerusalem.

They scattered and Philip went proclaiming the good news in the city of Samaria, with great success.  From here an angel of the Lord directs Philip to head out on the road, the road that ran between Gaza and Jerusalem and it is here our story takes place.

As Philip travels along the road along comes a carriage containing an Ethiopian Eunuch returning from worshipping at the Temple.  Now in terms of why this story is included at this point I suspect some of it has to do with the witness to God’s faithfulness. 

The path had been a rocky one for the apostles in Jerusalem but God had promised to build the Church to the ends of the earth and whilst Philip had some success in Samaria the character of the Eunuch adds another dimension.  God reaches out through Philip and, as we shall see, the Eunuch responds and is baptised.

Now eunuchs did have a place within the people of God, despite being mutilated and having restricted access to the Temple

As well as being a Eunuch this guy was a Diaspora Jew, which basically means a Jew who had been living outside of Israel.  The Jews had been dispersed in the 6th century BC after the Babylonians had conquered the Israelites.  As a Jew this Eunuch must have been quite faithful as well, not only visiting the Temple but reading the scroll of Isaiah on his journey home.

He was also a man of power and of wealth. He was a court official of the Queen of Ethiopia, in charge of her entire treasury.  The fact that he could read and that he had a scroll are clear indicators of his position.

So Philip gets a prompt to approach the carriage and the scene becomes somewhat comical as he runs along beside the carriage and strikes up the conversation.

What is interesting here is that the Ethiopian recognises Philip has something to offer in terms of bring some light to the scriptures and invites him into the carriage alongside him.

After some discussion around the Isaiah passage and Philip’s explanation of whom Jesus was the Eunuch sees some water and exclaims, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptised?”

I have little doubt that Luke records this question especially because this is a loaded question.   What is to prevent anyone from being baptised?  Can wealth, race, sexual status, piety, understanding and so on and so forth?  The good news is for all and all are invited to share in the fullness of life with God and each other!

This is part of the essence of the good news in Jesus God breaks down barriers to include all people in God’s family.  The response of the eunuch to the message is automatic – baptise me!  God is at work!

The story was recorded because it was meant to inspire hope that the message of Jesus was going forth into the world as promised, even in the face of persecution and difficulties.

And we can find hope from this as well for our story connects with the same God who spoke in the desert to Philip and through him to the Ethiopian Eunuch.

It is hope that we experience in our story as a community of faith in the face of our own adversities.  Let me give you a concrete example of this hope. It would be easy for us as a congregation to look around Sunday by Sunday and be despondent – too many empty pews, too many elderly faces, not enough energy.  Yet to focus on these things is to forget God’s faithfulness to us as God’s people – new members who have joined and come to commitment in recent years; new opportunities in ministry opening up; new relationships emerging through our university relationships.  God’s faithfulness is ever present to us.

It is a hope we can see that unfolds in the compassion of the world around us.  Last week we heard the news of the terrible earthquake in Nepal.  And once again this week we have seen the capacity of people to respond: communities countries and individuals donating money, sending people and supplies.  Not wearied by the constancy of need after storms in NSW, cyclones in the Pacific, Ebola in Africa and refugees on the borders of Syria - once again people respond when the need is great.

It is hope that we can see in our own lives and our own encounters with God in others. Take a few moments to reflect on the last few days and consider where have you seen acts of kindness, where have you come to understanding or seen others being enlightened, where have you see reconciliation achieved.  How do you make sense of these things in light of your faith?  How have you been able to help others to see those connections?

“Do you understand what you are reading?” It’s a great question for all of us because sometimes we fail to make the connections that we should be.  We need Philip to come trotting alongside our chariots to help us to understand. 

Yet I believe more importantly for many of us who already follow Jesus we are called to be the Philips of this world, opening up people’s eyes to God’s faithfulness and work among us.  Joining the dots of what people read and experience and their own lives – in other words sharing our faith - being fishers of people!  

Take a few moments to consider when have been the times a person like Philip has helped open your eyes and also to consider whether or not you are taking the opportunity to be like Philip and help others know God by sharing your faith.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Anzac Day: A Postlude. “He restores my soul”.

For many millions of Australians and no doubt for many of you, yesterday morning your alarm clocks went off early and you arose and dressed and prepared yourself to go out to commemorate Anzac Day.  It is day which is often described as reflecting something of the essence of what it means to be an Australian: it is embedded deep within our psyche – you could say that it is part of our soul as a nation.

This morning you who are gathered here heard your alarm clocks go off again and rather than stay late in bed on a Sunday morning chose to come and to gather here on a day that is known in some sectors of the church as Good Shepherd Sunday.  It is a day in which we come and we hear hope proclaimed and we contemplate what it means to be God’s people, to be the sheep of God’s pasture.

As I contemplated the readings for today and the experiences of this week I was drawn to the phrase in the 23rd Psalm “He restores my soul”.

These words of longing and hope stood out to me as I struggled with the imagery of war and remembrance and as I thought deeply on the troubles of God’s creation and its people.  Anzac day for all its poignancy and sorrow is a difficult day to make sense of in the context of our faith and there is within me a longing that God restores our soul to face the week ahead.

I want this morning to share three reflections about having our souls restored by God that came to me as I engaged in reflecting on the meaning of Anzac Day.  In this sense I am giving you a good old three point sermon. And, the messages are simple: remember God, grow up and we are one.

So for the first time: He restores my soul

Lest we forget.

On Friday I was privileged to be asked to share a prayer at the Anzac Day Commemoration at Ironside State School and it lead me to research the origins of the words “lest we forget”.

The words “Lest we forget” came from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called The Recessional and were a reference taken from the Bible in Deuteronomy, where it says, “lest we forget the God of our forefathers.”

They were written by Kipling at a time when the British Empire was at its height.  Exercising dominion over so many other nations, including Australia, it could literally be said that the sun never sets on the British Empire.

Kipling wrote The Recessional as a challenge to the Imperialism of pride of his day.  Even to the point of the suggestion that the British Empire was in some way establishing the coming kingdom of God.  He was reminding them to be humble and to remember God and that before God’s own sacrifice all else was secondary.

On ANZAC day when we say “Lest we forget” they words can mean all sorts of things to us, especially that we should remember the fallen, but this was the original intent – to remember God: to remember God over and above our pride and our nationalism and to be humble.

The reality is though that Australia is far from remembering God, we are not now nor ever have been a Christian nation – we have never had a state religion.  Ian Breward describes us in a challenging way in the title of his book “Australia: the most Godless place under heaven”

The Psalmist cry must also be our cry: He restores my soul, restore also the soul of our nation – help us to remember God: Lest we forget!

Now for the second time: He restores my soul

It is often said of the landing at Anzac Cove that it was our baptism of fire possibly even inferring that it was our coming of age. The historical inaccuracy of such claims that Anzac was the birth of our nation or even the first blood shed confronts us. Further, it is often said about Anzac that it was about defending our freedom and our values and our way of life: our mateship.

But this week I read stories and quotes from men who actually landed on that terrible beach.  I could share many of the quotes with you but two comments from the survivors stood out:

The first from:

Ted Matthews, of the 1st Division Signals, [who] was the last survivor of those who landed on April 25... [he] said " Some people called us "five-bob-a-day murderers" but the politicians were the murderers. Politicians make up the wars. They don't go to them."

In another article I read words that back up Ted’s view. It said:

"War has its certainties. One is that politicians will always send young men to fight it. Another, that politicians will always lead the commemoration for those killed (“sacrificed”) in it."

The second quote is from:

Roy Kyle, of the 24th Battalion, who enlisted at 17, said: “I don't take any pride in the medals at all. I was a silly boy and should have had my bottom smacked for joining up at that age."

Much of our rhetoric about Anzac Day and nationhood ignores some of the deep and difficult realities that the men experienced.  Many were not there to fight for our values or freedom, many simply did not know why they were there – it was a terrible place of death and suffering and little sense can be of it.

For me Roy Kyle’s comment is telling: he was a silly boy – he needed to grow up.  The war was not the way to do this. 

Last week a group of teenagers was arrested in Melbourne for plotting to engage in a terrorist attack on Anzac Day.  Young impressionable Australians responding to a call to war from another nation – it feels eerily similar, except that it was a call to go to war on their own nation.

As we travel through life it is easy to think we have found the answer and we know better the bold passion of youth can often deceive us. But we, we need to grow up, to have our souls restored.

The Psalmist cry must also be our cry: He restores my soul, restore also the soul of our nation; help us to grow up.  To grow beyond naive mythologies, to accept that part of life is that we do not knowing everything; and, to receive the comfort of shepherd who guides us

And now for the third and final time: He restores my soul

We are all God’s sheep.

For me one of the most powerful expressions of the truth of our common humanity and the reconciliation that we should be seeking comes to us from the great Turkish commander Ataturk.

Heroes who shed their blood and lost their lives! You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

It has long been my view that the Spirit of God blows where it wills and for me I hear the words of hope for humanity in this extraordinary man’s words.

I believe that what he acknowledged was that on the fields of battle men who fought now embrace one another side by side in death.  The cross and crescent, symbols of two faiths mingled in the ground.  Boys, sons, fathers, friends, enemies sharing side by side in the ground in death as no doubt God longed that they might share in life.

Restore our souls: let the peace and reconciliation Ataturk declared for dead be ours in life!  We live in a world beset by division and sectarianism, divided ideologies and aspirations.  Jesus our good shepherd reminds us:

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

It is not our place to judge who is in and who is out when it comes to God’s love – Jesus came into the world not to condemn but in order that it might be saved through him.  We are all God’s creatures in life and in death – let us not wait until death on a battlefield to learn to embrace those who are different to us.

The Psalmist cry must also be our cry: He restores my soul, restore also the soul of our nation; help us to know God’s love is for all nations and God’s desire is for peace and reconciliation as was proclaimed at the birth of Jesus.

Restore our souls, O God.

Tomorrow, your alarm will go off again.  You will rise and you will face the day. 

The shepherd his rod and his staff will guide you and he will restore your souls as you enter into life in the community around you: at work, at home, with family and with friends.

Remember God, grow to maturity in Christ, and remember all people are God’s people.


Friday, 24 April 2015

An Anzac Day Prayer

The words “Lest we forget” came from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called The Recessional and were a reference taken from the Bible, where it says, “lest we forget the God of our forefathers.” They were written by Kipling at a time when the British Empire was very powerful and Kipling was reminding them to be humble and remember God. I think on ANZAC day when we say them they can mean all sorts of things to us but this was the original intent – to remember God.

Loving God

On this Anzac Day, 100 years on, we remember that your gift of life in this world is to be treasured by all people. We remember that you long for all people to live in peace; loving one another.  We also remember that so often because of our pride, our lack of understanding, our desire for power, or our fears we do not live loving and honouring one another as human beings. And for this we sorry and we pray: 

Lord God of hosts be with us yet, 
Lest we forget, lest we forget.

Lest we forget
That today commemorates a particular event in the life of not one nation but an event that many nations were involved in. It is a moment to mourn the dead and reflect deeply on how we are called beyond patriotism and hatred to love our fellow human beings.

Lest we forget
That too great a pride in one's nation and its place in the world can lead us to think less of other nations and so see them and their people as people to be opposed,exploited or ignored rather than treated as fellow human beings.

Lest we forget
That war is no game. That death should not be glorified. That wars and enmity are the opposite of your design for us as humans to live together in peace and friendship with one another.

Lest we forget
That when deep and dark decisions lead us into war with one another men and women and children die; and, many are left with physical and mental wounds that last their whole lifetime.

Lest we forget
That there are many innocent people who are drawn into war even though they do not fight: the conflict robs them of children, husbands, fathers, colleagues and friends.

Lest we forget
That we as human beings remain fickle and suffer from our forgetting of all we have learnt about war and its futility.  We know as we meet in safety wars continue to rage and Australians stand alongside people from many other nations and opposing people from many other nations.  We long for an end to war and the safe return of those who are on the front lines.

Lest we forget
That you are indeed a God of love who promises to be with us in all things and stay by our side, no matter what! That your deepest desire for us and all peoples of all nations is life and life in all its fullness.

On this Anzac Day, God of all nations, we remember all these things and we pray that through remembering you and your purpose for all humanity to live loving one another we will be transformed to be agents of peace; as we continue to mourn those who died and those who suffer because of wars: past, present and future.

God of peace, be with us yet,  
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

In Jesus name we pray


Saturday, 18 April 2015

Proclaiming Repentance and the Forgiveness of Sins 2015.

This is the third Sunday of the Easter season.  It is the time that we celebrate that Jesus rose from the tomb. And we reflect and what that means for us.  What does it mean for you and I that Jesus came and lived and died and rose again? Over the last couple of weeks we have been exploring this question as we examined the first responses of the disciples to the news.

On Easter day we came and stood before the empty tomb and we gathered with the disciples filled with belief and misunderstanding.  We came with our questions about life and death and our meaning and purpose and we listened to the mystery of our faith – he is not here, he is risen! And we listened with Mary as Jesus called our names.

Last week we stood alongside Thomas and with all of the disciples in their doubts and scepticism.  We remembered that it is “acceptable to be sceptical” as we explore the news of Jesus resurrection and what that might mean for us.  And we heard amidst the questioning a moment of revelation from Thomas, who declared, “My Lord and My God!” A declaration that we hope we can share at some point in our lives.

And now for this third time we come and hear again of Jesus appearing to the disciples and their response is fear and terror.  Once again the disciples mirror the confusion and apprehension we have as we encounter the risen Christ.  Yet, once again we hear Jesus word of hope standing against the wall of emotions emanating from the gathered group: peace be with you!  Even after the this declaration we are told the disciples “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”.

Confronted with the mystery, doubt, fear, disbelief and joy of the disciples we can find reassurance that they, like we, were human.  It is into this volatile bunch of emotional men and women that today we remember Jesus speak words of commissioning to his followers: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”

This year we have continued to pursue the theme followers and fishers and today as we continue to contemplate the conundrum the disciples faced in their encounter with the risen Jesus we too are listening to Jesus commission to us that we are to proclaim “repentance and the forgiveness of sins”.

I want especially to focus on the proclamation of repentance. 

The word repentance is laden with spiritual meaning for us and it literally meant turning back to God – it was about a change in heart and mind.  If you can imagine with me for a moment that our lives are a journey and that God is situated at true North Jesus challenging proclamation is to remind us that we are not travelling towards God but we have other destinations and courses plotted on the map of our personal existence.

It is not as if we are simply travelling North or South but as people we travel to all kinds of places different directions on the compass and I would like to suggest a few of those directions with the help of a few of you.

I have made up a number of characters, with significant names, to help us understand the other directions we might be travelling and what it might be that we need to repent of.

(arrow up down)
Let me first introduce you to Plato Jones who lives down in Central Avenue.  Now Plato has a conviction that when we die we are judge for the good and bad that we do.  How we are judged determines what happens in our afterlife.  The biggest question in Plato’s life is, ‘What is going to happen to me when I die?’  Life for him is a test and the direction he travels is not towards God but towards his desire for eternal life.

(brief case)
Now let us meet another friend of mine Max, Max Weber – no relationship to the barbeque.  Max thinks that his purpose in life is his work.  He works down at the University and a mentor of his John Calvin told him that life was all about vocation – your job.  Max’s obsession with work is reflected in the fact whenever he meets someone the first question that comes out his mouth is “What do you do?” and Max’s biggest fear is retiring because retiring will take away his meaning for existing.

(smiley happy face)
Here now is another friend of mine Alexander Pope, he works down the humanities end of the University and is a bit of a poet and he once wrote “Oh, happiness, our beings end and aim!”  If you meet Alex in the coffee shops, where he likes to hang out, if you tell him about your life he is always going to ask you, “But, are you happy?”  The pursuit of personal happiness for him is more important than anything else.  He is a great guy but I do admit he can be a little moody.

(cash box)
Now Alexander introduced me to another friend of his who works over in the school of economics. Mr Adam Smith, come on down!  Adam knows that life is all about supply and demand and that the most important thing in life is to a build a solid portfolio.  He had a friend called Gordon who once said that “Greed is good!” Adam probably doesn’t think this but a nice tidy port folio for retirement is essential for the modern man because money gives you freedom so if you ask him what you look for in a job he will always want “How much are they going to pay you?”

(signed picture)
Recently I met a new international student Fred Nietzsche who is concerned that there is really no purpose and meaning to anything.  Ask him and he’ll respond with the question, “What’s the point?” I ran in to him arguing with another friend of mine Andy recently who was telling him that we would all get our moment in the sun our 15 minutes of fame and so we would all be remembered.  It left me thinking about whether the purpose of my life and your life was “will we be remembered?”

(family photo)
And finally one more introduction to James Dobson a gut I met at theological college who told me that families matter.  And you know when I ask kids at school what the most important thing is in their life again and again and again they say the same thing “My family?”  Is this destination that we are travelling towards, the thing that we make the most important in our lives? Is family the most treasured part of our existence?

Now I have introduced these characters because these characters represent some of the key destinations we worry about and we travel towards: heaven or hell, vocation, happiness, wealth, recognition and family.  Objectives for our lives that can relate to our faith but when they become the primary direction of our lives, and they do, they take us on a journey away from God.

When Jesus says to proclaim repentance he is making all of these directions and the many others we might travel a secondary distraction from our journey towards God.

Jesus wants us to encourage others to turn and glimpse the divine, to look at our origin and our true destination: God!

And what we will see and experience if we turn.  Well if we listened to Jesus and his injunction to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins when we look at God, when glimpse God’s story then maybe what we see is a merciful and gracious Father running to meet his son returning from the far country.  And we like lost sheep are already being carried towards that celebration.

This is the good news – we have glimpsed God coming to us, running, full of lavish grace and forgiveness, wanting us to be part of the celebration.  And we have been invited, instructed, implored to share this vision with others.

Turn from these directions around which you base your life and witness to a hope that transcends anything we can imagine we are loved; we have a future; we have a calling; we have a joy; we have riches beyond compare; we are remembered; and we have a family in God which is all humanity.

We stand with the disciples filled with a myriad of emotions, our doubts and our fears, and Jesus says, “do not be afraid”, “peace be with you”; and he gives us purpose: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”

Hear and believe that this is good news.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

How good it is to live in unity

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

In the words of the Psalmist we are reminded of the joy of living lives which are found to be at peace with one another: the joy of sharing generously one another’s existence as we were created to do.  It is the joy and peace which God longs for us in our relationships with one another; it is why Jesus came and lived and died and rose again that we might have peace with one another and with God.  Life in all its fullness is life with each other and God.  Is this not a great vision of whom we are mean to be as a human race – people who live together in unity: in joy and peace with one another

But let us not deceive ourselves as God’s people – this is not how we have lived and it is not who we have been.  1 John 1 verse 8 confronts us with being people who have honesty and integrity: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” 

Those men and women who struggled with the idea of bringing the Uniting Church into being recognised that the Church was falling short of God’s gift and will for the church which was its unity.  Jesus had prayed “that they may be one so that the world might believe” but the church has not been one and our behaviours have not been those of people who live together in unity governed by peace.

On a personal level my own experience of being a member of the people of God is a story which involves a continual confrontation with disputes and complaints and hurtful behaviours which have destroyed that peace and unity given to us as a gift.  It has been a journey of trying to understand why the church has fragmented and has been beset by schisms through the centuries. 

On both a grand scale and in the smallest of congregations division and dissension undermines the unity.  And where often we as the people involved don’t see it and we think of ourselves as good people and welcoming congregations often outsiders that we come into contact with tell a different story.

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

But how very, very bad and unpleasant it is when kindred live in tension with one another and despite this tension and disunity try to pretend we are something that we are not.  This self deception is what has left people labelling Christians as hypocrites and I believe our disunity and disputes have caused many to turn away from coming to church or wanting to have anything to do with the church.

In the first letter of John we read, “If say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

You know recently a person told me that they thought they did not like my preaching – they said I was too negative and too challenging.  I actually took the challenging bit as a complement and as for being too negative I believe to understand grace all of us need to be more honest with ourselves about who we are as God sees us.

We do not live in the kind of unity that God has made for us in and through Jesus and in this we sin.  We fail to love each other as we ought as communities of faith and as individuals within those communities.   

The existence of different denominations attests to our brokenness.  The vehement attack of evangelicals against progressives and vice versa does little for the church and its unity as we champion our particular doctrines.  We are a shattered community.

Yes, it is true to say that often within congregations there are deep and abiding and supportive relationships – friendships that have lasted years and in which real care and concern is exhibited.  But just as this occurs in every congregation there are always people who feel marginalised and excluded and more often than not there are disputes that exist between the differing groups of friends.

We are broken people and as much as we might want to love one another more often than not we fail.  Often instead of loving each other we talk about tolerating one another and putting up with one another.  But we need to be honest in this: the gospel of Jesus Christ does not ask us to tolerate one another it asks us to love one another as Jesus loved us, and this means everyone in the congregation not just our friends.

You see whilst we should see each other as friends in the congregation we should also remember that every one of us is to be the friend of all those who are baptised.  The difference of Christian friendship is we do not get to choose who our friends are – we have all been made one with each other.

Now I am not so naïve as to suggest that we are going to ever do this perfectly and given all of the problems of the church it would be very easy to walk away from the church: to walk away from its disputes and complaints and disunity and abuses and congregational bickering.  Goodness knows many have already! But does walking away mean we have given up on the good news or that we expect that the world beyond the church is any less divisive?

The counterpoint to the negative assessment of our human condition is this: the risen Jesus came and stood among his disciples and said peace be with you.  Jesus resurrection speaks to us of a new beginning for the whole creation and all people, a beginning grounded in God’s peace – or shalom as it was in the Hebrew.

The ‘shalom’ of God is more than a sense of serenity, God’s peace is about the mercy shown to us in Jesus Christ and the reconciliation that has been won.  When Jesus declares “peace be with you” to his disciples he is really saying you are forgiven and set free and even the face of death you can find hope.

It is why sharing the peace as a congregation is such a meaningful act.  We admit we need God’s peace and also acknowledges that far too often we lack that peace!

The centring in on Jesus wounds in John’s gospel emphasise two things.  First, that Jesus resurrection was exactly this: a bodily resurrection.  Second, that in his resurrection whilst a transformation has been wrought in Jesus he stills bears the scars as reminders of what has been.

The idea of Jesus resurrection inspired the early Christian communities.  It was a radically new way of viewing life and death and gave hope a new direction.  Jesus’ resurrection was an anomaly for the prevailing Hebrew thought and Greek philosophy.  God was doing something new and different and this gave people hope.

It was these things that kept people in that early church and inspired them to share the good news – God’s peace had been declared and a new hope, a new future was promised in Jesus Christ. 

The witness of those early Christians described in Acts captures something of how that witness occurred: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

So it was, that from that small band of followers, great proclamation and deeds flowed generously and graciously into the world; the church blossomed and grew from a handful of followers to be the dominant faith in the world.  Here is the echo of Psalm 133 coming to life: oil lavishly running down onto the beard of Aaron or the dew from Mount Hermon filling the streams with life giving water which flowed on to the surrounding plains.

Maybe we need to reconsider how we do things in our day and age.  Years ago I read a great book about the idea of ‘Collaborative Consumption’.  It encourage shared ownership of items in neighbourhoods – lawn mowers, tools, even cars!  It made me think of the early Christian communities but it was not coming from within the church but from people looking to live more sustainably.

We are being given the opportunity to begin again to rediscover together Christ’s call upon us, to be honest about our shortfalls but to find hope in the resurrection and so share the good news in word and deeds.  Sometimes even I worry about what we do not have – there are too few people, and many of those we have are not committed enough, and we need to be more contemporary in our transmission of the gospel and… and… and…

As you hear again the word of hope that our future is not our own, that we belong to the Lord, that his grace is more than sufficient how does that change how you and I live.  We believe in a risen Lord who declares peace – as his people let us again discover that peace and share it with one another. 

Friday, 3 April 2015

A Preference for Bunnies

The disciples arrived at the tomb and they saw and believed yet they still did not understand. They were puzzled to pieces.

On Easter Day it is very easy for us to race to celebrating the incomprehensible event of Jesus resurrection without pausing to reflect on just how perplexing the event is.

Maybe, this is a reflection of our culture which pursues happiness above all else.

Maybe, this is why I would say to you on this day that it would appear to me that Easter Bunnies and Chocolate goodies appear to have won.  we live in a culture that has a preference for bunnies.

We prefer the instant gratification of a chocolate hit over the confusion of an empty tomb.

Even in my short time in ministry, a mere 16 years, the ascendancy of the alternate story has infiltrated and saturated the Easter holiday.  This week as I asked people about the meaning of Easter the answer that came back was about chocolates, relaxation and family time.

To be blunt I do not think I can compete with this message ambiguous as it may be.

In Coles on Thursday every employee was wearing rabbit ears.  As two people dressed in bunny suits wandered past I asked the guy at the checkout whether he was enjoying his bunny ears and he said under his breath no.  Then quickly said I better say yes just in case my boss is listening.

When I shared what I did he told me he would be going to church on Good Friday – it was a family tradition.  They don’t go on Easter Sunday, just Friday, and he really couldn't make any sense out of why they went given they don’t go to church any other time.  He said it was bit like Christmas.  He was puzzled to pieces.  None of it really made sense.

It left me asking myself, ‘why do we bother coming here on Easter Day?’  Why aren't
we at home spending time with family or eating chocolate or more likely both?

You see we come and we stand before the empty tomb and I think for many of us we are as puzzled as the disciples: we are puzzled to pieces.

We come; I come, with all the pressing questions of life and its meaning.

Why am I here?
What is life all about?
Is there a purpose?
What happens when I die?
What happens when those I love die?
Is there a heaven?
Is there a hell?
Why is there is suffering in my life?
Why is there is suffering in the world?
Why do people hate?
Why do I hate?
Where is God in all of this?
Why is the tomb empty?
If Jesus is raised why don’t people believe it?

The questions seem unending and the search for answers takes us beyond simplicity.

The disciples believed but they did not understand.

Are we the same?

We believe but we do not understand!

And if we believe what do we believe.

The empty tomb, the church, the scriptures, faith are places of mystery as we encounter the divine.

As a theologian I explore these questions all the time. It is part of my role to seek out the questions and to see out the answers.

This morning I piled some of the books that I have read about this God and this good news we share, as you can see I too am in over my head!

I don’t have all the answers: I stand with Peter and Mary and the other disciple.  I stand with you who come with your questions and with hopes and with your faith and with your doubt.  I too am puzzled to pieces.

So what can I say on this day that for most people is about relaxation, family and chocolate – none of which I offer.

I asked my family what to say today and I want thank Lucy who suggested I talk about the shape of the tomb.  It is from that yawning opening that we experience the fullness of mystery and grace as we bring all of our questions.

Lucy suggested a talk about one issue, but after some consideration I have three points to make.

The first which Lucy reminded me of is that the shape of the opening, from whence the stone was rolled, is a circle.  She reminded that a few weeks ago that I pointed out the circle, which is on this Celtic cross that I wear, is a reminder of eternal love.

The opening of the tomb she said is a reminder of God’s unending love.  It is as simple and as complex as that.  With all of our belief and not understanding, with all our questions and puzzlement, God loves us steadfastly and forevermore.

Secondly, the tomb is a hollow space it is empty but once it did contain something.  A few weeks ago I watched an episode of Shaun Micallef’s show Stairway to Heaven.  He was sitting in a cave with a Hindu holy man – a guru, in the Himalayas.  When they spoke about the cave the holy man likened it to a womb, a place of security and safety.  A place I would argue from which new life springs forth.

As I considered this insight and wondered at standing before the cave in which Jesus body lay, and I remembered Jesus words to Nicodemus, I could not help but think that this empty tomb, was the womb from which God brought forth new life.

Birth, re-birth, new birth, is about hope for the future.  As we stand with all of our questions and puzzlement the empty womb represents God’s desire for new life in us and says to us there are other ways to live.

And finally it was the metaphor of the mouth that came to me as I imagine myself before this empty tomb, this cave, this womb.  Jesus was laid in a tomb which was pretty much a cave and each cave has its mouth.

A mouth opened calling out – maybe in joy, may be in hope, maybe in surprise.  But it is Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden which is most telling.  Mary in her confusion, in her belief but not understanding, does not recognise Jesus. 

But then he calls her by name.  In that intensely personal moment of revelation Jesus speaks her name and so as I stand before that open cave mouth, as each of you stand there as well, I wonder can we hear Jesus calling our names as well.

You see I don’t have all the answers; what we believe from Christian to the next seems to change.  And, we all have our own questions.  The disciples believed but did not understand yet as puzzled as they were the open and empty tomb spoke to them and it speaks to us with all of our questions.

God’s love is unending.
God is bringing to birth something new.
And God is calling us by name.

Can you hear it?  Can you hear God speaking your name?