Sermons

Seventh Sunday of Easter, 13 May 2018, 9.30am

Mother's Day

Primary Texts:

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

1 John 5:9-13

John 17:6-19   

 

 

“My child it’s time for you to go, work hard and continue to lean on God as your rock, we will be here praying for you” These were some of the last words my mother spoke to me before I travelled to NZ for studies. Mothers, they always know how to comfort us with their words and love.

 

Today is Mother’s Day. It’s a day set aside for us to take our time to recognise and remember all the women who have made an impact in our lives.  For some, today is a tough time as we remember the impact our mother has made and that she is no longer here with us. Sensitive to say, there are those who have felt the pain of divorce or death and they have had to become both mother and father and at times have felt overwhelmed by the task.

 

On this Mother’s Day we should be grateful for their love and encouragement that carries us through valleys and struggles and difficult challenges and all of life’s circumstances. Such are our mother’s characteristics. One important gift of being a mother is the bond they have with their children. This bond begins in the womb and all throughout life.  What makes this mother child bonding so special is the mother’s love for her child. It is special because I believe mothers feel with their heats like no one else does in the family. Her love is selfless and true. This bond is so strong that we continue to feel it even when we are living far apart.

 

A mother’s instinct is to love, to protect, guide and care for their children and family throughout their life. That is the gift of motherhood from God. They say prayers as they send us off to school that first day. A prayer for safety in some whole new surroundings. They continue to say those prayers as we enter each new stage of life, ready to stride into the unknown. They are like a security blanket for us because often they save us from all problems before it comes to us. They never complain about their problems but always ready to listen to us. They always aim to make their children be a good human in life.

 

In the past few Sundays John has been trying to sum up what Jesus' life and mission is all about. He speaks at length of the bond between Christ and his Father.  A bond that can only be explained if we look at a mother’s bond with their child. It is from this bond of love that Christ was sent to us.

 

In our gospel reading today, Jesus portrayed this bond of love to his disciples. What was Jesus thinking about at that last supper? What was he talking about? What was he praying about? He was talking and thinking and praying about his disciples. Jesus’ love for his disciples is so immense that it endures eternally. He prayed for them for strength. He prayed for their protection and he prayed for them that they might have unity. “That they may be one, even as we are one.”

 

These things that Jesus prays for his disciples continues to apply for us today. We are his disciples today. Like a mother’s love for her children, Jesus prays for protection, strength and unity for us, his children, and the three prayers are of course one prayer, as when we have unity we are strong and protected.

 

In unity there is strength, and in strength the vulnerable are protected. And so, Jesus prays for unity for all his children, and not just a unity based on a common commitment to his cause but that “they may be one, as we are one”.

 

What does it mean to be one as Jesus and the Father are one? John is clearly suggesting relationships, specifically the intimate and mystical relationship between Jesus and his heavenly Father. Often it is hard to explain this mystical relationship but often becomes clear in any number of genuine relationships. Relationships between friends and lovers and partners and as mothers or parents to their children. This is the experience of that bond or mystical love that connects us together. That bond that connects us to each other.

 

This is the connection that Jesus wants us to have with him. In v21 of this chapter Jesus goes on to say, “As you are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us” Mystical as it is, it is fascinating when we sometimes find ourselves alive in Christ, with Christ in us and us in him.  It points to a reality that we cannot fully understand but is indeed a miracle where we as a community experience and make sense of who we are as members of Christ’s body.

 

I’m not sure whether I’m making a lot of sense in this, but what I’m wanting to suggest is that the unity Christ talks about here may not fundamentally be an institutionalised unity, where we are all officially a part of the same organisation, or even a functional unity, where we all wear the same colour and all play for the same team. It’s a unity that is found in intimate relationships, where the boundaries between me and we break down, and where we sense ourselves as a part of the body - Christ in us and us in Christ, and through Christ, one with another.

 

As a community of Christ, our love should not only be based within this community but to spread it out to the world. Christ wants his love and message inserted in the centre of the world, the city, the neighbourhood. As Christ prays for us, we must also pray for others.  Others who are beyond our active care. Since today is Mother’s Day, let us remember them in our prayers. Let’s take time today to seek for their forgiveness if we have disappointed or hurt them in any way. Let’s remember those mothers that are not with us. We give thanks for their nurturing and care. For all birth mothers, adoptive mothers, surrogate mothers, aunts and grandmothers, teachers, neighbours and all women who have shared their faith with us.

 

M... is for the million things she gave me, O ... means only that she’s growing old, T ... is for the tears she shed to save me, H ... is for her heart of purest gold; E ... is for her eyes, with love-light shining, R ... means right, and right she’ll always be. Put them all together, they spell "MOTHER” A word that means the world to me. 

 

In the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Litimai Sanegar

Fourth Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2018, 9.30am

Primary Texts:

Acts 4:5-12

1 John 3:16-24

John 10:11-18  

 

"I am the good shepherd" 

 

“In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Amen. For those of you who know already… go out and tell those who don’t! In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” I spent all day yesterday at the Decade of Mission Conference in Wellington which is where I was inspired to share that little mission statement with you this morning. Bishop Gabrielle Sharma from Tikanga Polynesia spoke of a new priest who had been asked by his bishop to do his very first sermon the following Sunday. In the leadup to that service the new priest, eager to impress his bishop, spent the whole week filled with great anxiety and each day that grew closer to Sunday, his stress levels escalated. He thought, how was he ever going to deliver this all-important sermon not only in obedience to his bishop but also in a way that theologically stimulated his congregation. The priest approached the lectern with great confidence, cleared his throat and began. “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen. For those of you who know already… go out and tell those who don’t! In the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” 

Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice”. Like Jesus we are to be the shepherds God wants us to be. To find the lost ones and call to them so that they come to the voice they know. Like the priest, those who know go and tell those who don’t”. We mustn’t be ashamed to proclaim Jesus as our shepherd and that he laid down his life for us. I acknowledge that it is easier said than done, but ashamed we must never be. 

As we delved deeper, at the conference, into the missional and shepherding tools we urgently need in our churches today, we discovered more and more that many of our churched, or those who know, may not necessarily want to go out and tell those who don’t. Many lack the inspiration or inclination to be shepherds in the field. There’s that notion that shepherding is only done by bishops and clergy. Not, me sitting in the pews. That’s what they were ordained for wasn’t it? 

Jesus, my shepherd… he is all I need. Let me play you a beautiful version of the 23rd Psalm sung by the acapella Australian group, The Idea of North…  

The shepherd image was common in the ancient Near East and obviously based on one of the principal occupations of that day. The Israelites were known as shepherds and the term shepherd came to be used in a much broader way, and to describe leadership. Terminology we still use in our churches today. It would be extremely difficult not to appreciate the simplistic beauty and comfort contained in the 23rd Psalm. Many of us know it off by heart. We hear it at funerals. We hear it in the evening prayer, and at the bedsides of the very sick. 

It is amazing to ponder that in order to become the Good Shepherd Jesus first had to become a sheep. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. So, as we wrestled with the shepherding tasks of mission at yesterday’s Decade of Mission, we came away as both sheep and shepherd. If you are to experience the comfort and consolation of Psalm 23, you can only do so as a sheep seeking the comforting shepherd. Psalm 23 is about every person who is one of God’s flock. Individually cared for as one of God’s sheep. 

Let us now say the 23rd Psalm together: 

The Lord is my shepherd I have all I need.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

beside the still waters he will lead.

He restores my soul, he rights my wrongs,

he leads me in a path of good things,

and fills my heart with songs.

Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,

there is nothing that can shake me

he has said he won’t forsake me, I am in his hands.

He sets a table before me, in the presence of my foes,

he anoints my head with oil, and my cup overflows.

Surely, surely goodness and kindness

will follow me all the days of my life,

and I will live in his house, forever and ever.

Glory be to the Father and Brother,

and to the Holy of Holies.

As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be

life without end. Amen. The Idea of North 

 Jacynthia Murphy

Third Sunday of Easter, 15 April 2018, 9.30am

Primary Texts:

Acts 3:12-19

1 John 3:1-7

Luke 24:36b-48 

 

...we are God's children now

 

Little Kenneth, you will not yet know what I am saying to you this morning, but I hope your mum, your dad, and your papa who is visiting you here in Aotearoa, your godparents, these parishioners, and all the rest of your family in India, will remember some of what I am telling you. At least from time to time. Because today Kenneth, I want to tell you that you are unique and you are special. Out of all the people who have come and gone in this world not one of them is you. Only you are you and we thank God for who you are and will be in the future. 

No one’s hair will grow exactly the way yours does. No one’s finger prints are like yours. And just like your fingerprints, your lips have little markings on them too and little grooves in the skin. Everyone has a different pattern, so no one’s lips are like yours either. No one has your nose nor do they smell like you. And no one’s eyes are exactly like yours. Not one person in this whole wide world is loved by the same combination of people that love you. You are uniquely Kenneth and there is no other individual that is you. 

And what better example of uniqueness have we known than that which is imbedded in Jesus. The Christ who breathed on others. Uniquely Creator and Redeemer who with the Giver of Life has blessed us all richly, and blesses you also, Kenneth. In John’s first letter we shall all be called a child of God. It says, little children, let no one deceive you. You are a child of God and just like there is no other Jesus and no other Saviour, Kenneth, you are unique too! 

As you grow and learn about yourself and your Creator, as you come to know Jesus and learn to be his follower, we want you to know that you are part of a church where there is room for difference and where there is diversity of faith, and that's just how it is supposed to be. You will have freedom to experience the wonder of God's love in Jesus, in your own way. We will be here for you to help you and share ourselves and our faith with you. So, Kenneth, that's the kind of church you're welcomed into today. A place where everyone is important, and everyone's needs are taken into consideration even if they conflict with our own. A place where you can learn and grow and when you need something we will try our utmost best to take you seriously, honour you, and encourage you to do the same for others. 

As you mature we want you to enjoy your uniqueness. We don’t ever want you to feel that your uniqueness is less than anyone else’s. You don’t have to pretend to be like someone else. They are their own unique selves so, you are not meant to be someone else. You do not have to conceal the parts of you that are different and not like the others. You were meant to be who you are. Every bone, every hair, every smile, and every thought. You were meant to be unique. If you did not exist, there would be a hole in creation, a gap in history, something missing from our lives. Treasure your uniqueness. It is a gift given only to you. Enjoy it and share it! God says you are more than you may ever think. You are designed in the way you are because that is the way God created you. You are uniquely different and because you are an important part of God’s plan we are faithfully thankful because there is no other Kenneth in the created world. 

What a blessing to welcome baby Kenneth into the family of God here at St Martin @ St Chads. Because we are the nurturers of new believers, as covenanted in the Anglican Communion’s five marks of mission, what kind of church is Kenneth being welcomed into? What kind of church is St Martin @ St Chads? Why as parents, would you want your child to be a part of this church or the Anglican Church? You don’t have to answer that by the way, though, one day, you may have to answer Kenneth, should he ask. 

I want to finish with square pegs, round pegs, and difference. I am a square peg. I’m a square peg because God made me that way. I’m not a round peg and I don’t know why round pegs keep trying to force me through round holes. I am a square peg and I will faithfully be the best square peg that God created me to be! We each belong to the body of the church and we each make up the parts of that body. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? Kenneth, you are special, you are unique. Thanks be to God, Amen. 

Jacynthia Murphy

Easter Sunday, 2 April 2018, 9.30am

Primary Texts:

Acts 10:34-43, 1

Corinthians 15:1-11

Mark 16:1-8

 

He has risen...

 

THE REALITY OF DEFYING GRAVITY

According to Matthew, 21:21, Jesus once remarked that ‘having faith and truly not doubting,’ could bring about great and unfathomed events.  It would seem, in this passage that the Marys and Salome of this story held such doubtless faith in abundance. For consider this: they had gone to all the trouble of organising their intended trip to the tomb, buying spices to anoint Jesus, and setting out to pay their respects and prepare Jesus having no idea what so ever who would roll away the stone from the tomb?  I was educated a few years back in, exactly, how heavy that stone was—for an interesting exhibit at the Liverpool Cathedral in the UK demonstrated that stone’s weight—and it was very difficult to move without numerous, helping hands.  And such, as we have heard today was the women’s faith, and their continued love for their saviour, that they were prepared to make the journey, and clearly expected to somehow find the answer for their dilemma.  Do we have such faith, I wonder?  Were these women 1st Century’s answer to ‘girl power?’  Or is it, as Paul tells us from today’s reading in 1 Cor.: ‘I am what I am and God’s grace towards me has not been in vain.”  Do we, in the 21st Century have such faith?  What massive boulders do we face in our lives, and have we asked God through Jesus to come to our aid?  Those women, in their darkest hour certainly did not hesitate.  How much easier, therefore, is it for us to boldly move forward in our own times of difficulty?  Need we fear boulders unexpectedly placed in our way?  What might your answer to that question be?

 

FORGIVENESS NOT ALLUDED, BUT TRULY DELIVERED

One of the most exciting days during my trip to the Holy Land was the day spent at Capernaum, for I had preached just in February about how this place was in a sense Jesus’ “office,” and the scene of many healings, cleansings, exorcising the demon-possessed, as well as teaching, and preaching (all of which, according to Mark 1 v31 he did on the same day).  Arriving in Capernaum was awe-inspiring, and a marvel of the gift of skilled archaeology.  For as I walked through the town, I could see remains of the original synagogue built in Jesus’ time as well as the 4th Century model that was built over the original.  And also the house of Simon Peter, where his mother-in-law had been cured by a touch of Jesus...no words mentioned or required.  Simon Peter was a friend of Jesus, and the man upon whom Jesus’ church would surely be built.  And as we know, he was also the man who betrayed Jesus and not just once, but three times before the cock had crowed twice.  Jesus knew in advance what Peter would do, and yet his belief in his friend never wavered, and his forgiveness was, as mentioned in today’s reading of Acts, v43 “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”  Listen again to the words of today’s gospel, “But go, tell his disciples AND Peter.”  This message, quoted by the man dressed in white, has been prepared by another, and then quoted to the women in the tomb.  We can of course rightly assume that Peter’s popularity was completely compromised, and why not?  He has not demonstrated anything this night but, well...........being human!  And in spite of all that, in spite of the anger and surely the contempt being demonstrated by others...especially his brothers and sisters in Christ, in spite of human fraility, IN SPITE OF IT ALL, Peter is forgiven, and is singled out from those others to whom the message from the tomb is to be delivered.

 

But, wait a minute!  Mark’s gospel has recounted time and time again how, after performing miracles, Jesus would caution those directly affected NOT to reveal what had happened (and which of course, they certainly did tell others).  Now the whole notion is being reversed, for the women in the tomb are being asked to “Go (and this word was in the imperative which is translated as a command) tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  And the women went out, fled the tomb, and they said NOTHING to anyone, for they were afraid.  FINALLY, people are told, commanded no less, to tell someone; and they do nothing.  It does rather leave you dizzy, doesn’t it?  For here was a plan to restart the whole movement—but initial efforts to broadcast that were being stymied out of fear.  That is of course human nature, and suggests to us to perhaps take a step up, in spite of our fear or misgivings.

 

THE EASTER MESSAGE AND JESUS’ GIFT TO US

Today, in the Holy City, that sense of fear and misgiving seemed to follow wherever I went.  There was tension, people talking in loud voices, horns honking in true frustration, people shouting either to be heard, or just out of anger.  It was hard to tell sometimes.  Jerusalem was amazing.  My friend and I were actually based in Tel Aviv, but travelled 5 times to Jerusalem because we just couldn’t seem to get enough of it.  It gets in your blood.  You can’t leave it.

 

Last Sunday, we climbed up to the Mount of Olives to join a Palm Sunday parade back down to the bottom to the Catholic church.  It was extremely warm, and we were accompanied by about 5,000 people!  Big mistake.  Expecting something entirely different we were caught up in a potential mob scene...people pushing and shouting, and doing so in a small space.  I for one wanted out.  And we ducked through a gate...which was the entrance to the Mount.  It was beautiful, and so quiet.  What a stroke of luck.  We discussed of what we had just been a part:  many different people, and more a political than a theological crowd.  I did imagine, however, how Jesus’ entry on a donkey from one end of the walled city would have measured up to Pontius Pilot’s entry on a war horse from the other end of the walled city.  The timing would not have been a coincidence, for sure.  That and the incidents of overturning the tables at the temple would certainly have thrown the 1st Century spotlight on Jesus.  There is courage in his actions and certainly an attention-getting plan to be noticed and heard!

 

Jerusalem has a “sound track” which reminds me of the movie Dunkirk.  Throughout the entire movie there is this audible hum that is constantly being played.  It’s rather distracting, and you can’t block it out.  I feel the same about the Holy Land.  The tension is real, very real.  And yet, the place works!  It actually hangs today.  Because people are actually talking to one another, trying to be polite, respecting the various religions, and attempting to make sure we all continue to keep talking and, as Marcus Borg would say, carrying on the conversation. 

 

I left the Holy Land somewhat enthused with hope.  I remember a good friend saying, when I announced I was going over, “why would you do that...Jesus isn’t there, you know!  And so I say with great joy:  CHRIST HAS BEEN RISEN! (ALLELEJIAH!)

 

And the Holy Land is talking, and people are listening, and there is something to be said about all that.  Because if we are talking, it means we are not shooting each other.  And if we are meeting together, in the same room, with different subjects upon which to talk about, well that can’t be a bad thing. On a bulletin board in St George’s Anglican Cathedral, the following prayer was pinned.  I would like to leave that thought:  Pray not for Arab or Jew or Palestinian or Israeli.  Pray rather for ourselves that we might not divide them in our prayers but keep them both together in our hearts.

 

CHRIST HAS BEEN RISEN. Amen.

 

Jean Rheinfrank 

The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 18 March 2018, 9.30am

Primary Texts:

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Hebrews 5:5-10

John 12:20-33

 

Unless a grain of wheat falls...

 

I was searching on the net for a light little ‘seed’ joke to start my sermon today and found this little ditty from Karen and Mike Garofalo. It’s titled: People are like Potatoes! Some people never seem motivated to participate, but are content to watch others ... They are called ‘Spec-tators’. Some are always looking to cause problems and really get under your skin ... They are called ‘Aggi-tators’. Then there are some who always say they will, but somehow, they never get around to doing what they say they will… We call them ‘Hesi-tators’. Oh yes, we got some that spend a lot of time sitting inactive in their gardens ...They’re called ‘Medi-tators’. For the strategists and tacticians trying to maximise their crop yields whilst reducing their overheads ... We call them ‘Compu-tators’. And finally, a wee insert of my own referring to some of my own whānau (family) and often being guilty of it myself. We have the researcher of information and profound explanation via the ever-knowledgeable medium of television … well, they call us ‘Couch potatoes’!! Seriously though, for all those wanting to be more cultivator than potatoes, let’s dig deeper into the soil and take a closer look at our humble seed.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit." In context, the teaching concerns Jesus' imminent crucifixion and resurrection. But in a more universal sense, it speaks of every treasure we have, including our greatest treasure: life itself. It includes the teaching in Matthew 25 where one of the slaves dug a hole and buried his talent in the ground knowing that his employer was a harsh man and so he was afraid… Here we have the classic hesitator. If we hang back, protecting ourselves from the challenges of life, we remain no more than a seed, valuable for our potential, but otherwise useless. We have to risk failure or ruin if we are to fulfil our potential and be of use to ourselves and to others.

Some seeds serve a dual purpose: they serve as food, as well as filling their essential function as seeds. But all seeds share an inherent power to become something far greater than what they are. We share this inner dynamic with seeds. If we fall into the ground and die, as a seed does when it is planted, we can become radically greater, and of greater use, than we are now. Falling into the ground and dying is necessary for this growth and greater usefulness. But it is a risky, frightening, even painful thing to do. We tend to resist it. When we meet the challenges of life, our natural inclination is to work, to fight, to do what we have to do to overcome them. But our greatest power to accomplish things is a power we find only when we surrender; only when we let ourselves fall into the ground and die. That is, we succeed best when instead of trying, we surrender; when we let ourselves serve as a medium for the power of God. 

That is never more true than when we face the kind of challenge that is, temptation. Temptations are most commonly seen at times when we are faced with alternatives of doing things our own way, using our best strength, skill, and judgment. We argue with others about the rationale of our actions and thoughts, and we may even satisfy our own desires and ego by bullying others into submission. We call these people agitators! The way to overcome these temptations is not to fight it, but to surrender and let God fight it. When we are faced with a challenging task, or even a completely internal struggle, the way to victory is to admit that we cannot overcome the challenge, and to figuratively fall into the ground and die where God's way does a great deal more. 

Living is to fall into the ground and die. This great lesson is for each us, today and every day. And when some are first reborn in this way, we might think that the good we do and the truth we talk about, comes from ourselves, when, all goodness and truth comes from God. If we think that it comes from ourselves, we do not yet have a life of genuine faith. Falling into the ground and dying has nothing to do with funerals, dying and being put into the ground! It has everything to do with approaching each episode of life in the best and most effective way. It is expressed through the symbolism of organic germination and growth. Jesus was talking to a group of people whom John called ‘Greeks.’ These were descendants of Jews who had been resettled after Alexander the Great conquered Israel some generations before, and who now returned from Greece to observe the Passover in Jerusalem. As a group they were better educated than many of the audiences Jesus addressed. Although he spoke to them in simple terms, he dealt with a deep contradiction that philosophically trained minds might comprehend. He simply said, ‘Unless a seed dies, it remains a single seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds and then much fruit.’

 

Each of us are called to sow seeds. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. It’s not just the call of vicars, archdeacons, and bishops. It’s your calling too. Our shared calling. In the pews of our churches throughout this province and the whole communion, we are God’s people. Jeremiah said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more”. We all are God’s people that Jeremiah speaks of. No longer should we simply say to each other ‘know the Lord’, but rather, we are to be the sowers, from the least to the greatest of those in our midst. Those in our community, and those in our homes and families. We are not to be simply consumers, the couch potatoes of God’s Word, but we are commanded to proclaim it to others as the sowers and cultivators. 

 

Dying is important for living. This is a fundamental law of life. This is a law of human psychology, human sociology, and human relationships. And the law is this,  it is in dying that we start living. St.  Francis of Assisi knew this law well when he wrote in his famous prayer for peace; “it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born again.” The Apostle Paul knew this law well when he said: “We will not be united with Christ in a resurrection like his, unless we are first united with Christ in a death like his.” 

 

And finally, fellow cultivators, when you meet a challenge that you have failed to overcome, or that seems overpowering, remember this simple, powerful command: fall into the ground. Let yourself go… and grow into the best you have learned on your various faith journeys, and surrender yourself to it, and to Jesus. Let’s lay down our struggles to maintain a fruitful harvest. As a seed must fall to the ground and die before it bears fruit, may the negative thoughts, feelings, and actions that separate us from God also fall away and die, so that new behaviours, new thoughts, and new feelings can come to life in us. As cultivators of Christ’s good works in the world let us take into our hearts the words of St Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which we must look out at Christ’s compassion on the world. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses others.” Amen. 

 

Jacynthia Murphy 

The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 11 March 2018, 9.30am

Primary Texts:

Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

 

For God so loved the world... 

 

For God so loved the world that she gave her only Son… What a perfect day to have this piece of Scripture because today is Mothering Sunday. This is a day of celebration, a pause in the austerity of Lent to give time to honouring Mothers. I know we have Mother’s Day later in the year too, but this one is specifically in our Church Lectionary to be observed in a Sunday Service each year. That’s not taking away the significance of celebrating Mother’s Day in May too. We can still accept the usual treats with husbands, or better still children, doing all that a mother does daily! So, we don’t mind honouring Mothers twice a year!! But today, we thank God and thank our mothers for our nurturing, our upbringing and chances in life, which they have given us, often sacrificially. Here we have a son being sacrificed. Being sacrificed for the common good, for all to prosper. And on this Mothering Sunday let us pay tribute to Mary, who stood at the foot of the cross, knowingly sacrificing what no mother should ever have to, a son birthed from her own womb, in obedience to God’s will, to die for our salvation.

 

On this Mothering Sunday Luke 2:33-35 says, “And the child’s mother and father were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed - and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Equally, John 19:25-27 says, “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus was his mother. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”

 

For God so loved the world that she gave her only Son… And who greater mother to honour today? A mother sacrificing her son, Mary. For she loved God that she gave her son obediently, for our sake. Mothering Sunday is about both mother and father. It is a day in which we celebrate the nurturing from both parents. As Christians we believe that we can ably speak about what God is like, because Jesus shows us God in human form. When we look at Jesus and his life we see the very best qualities which we need, to be good parents. One thing which we see very clearly in the life of Jesus was that God loves his children. When Jesus lived in Palestine he opened himself up to all sorts of people and showed an indiscriminate love. He welcomed thousands of people to the hillside and taught them and fed them all. He got along with the outcasts and the bad people, the undramatic and ordinary people. Jesus loved them all. This is what we expect from parents also.

 

Growing up in rural Hokianga, where the main gathering place is on marae, meant that we were a community that had to be welcoming, warm, and hospitable. Following all the formalities of speechmaking, history, genealogies, and stories, means that we are essentially creating loving connections with all those who walk through our doors, despite their background, status, or belief. These protocols conclude with feeding the multitudes and that seals our friendships and bonds forever. My parents taught me the critical importance of loving our neighbour as ourselves, and therefore our guests get the best of everything. We, as hosts, must wait until all others have been served before serving ourselves with whatever is left over. Practices still observed today. My mother would stand by and watch as aunts and uncles would order me to do this and do that. And, reprimand me when they felt the need to. Mum would stand by, say and do nothing. But, later would very gently brush my long hair and hum a little tune to put me to sleep after a day of work… My mother who sacrifices…

 

Last week I held a little baby, his name is Kenneth, and I felt a bit ‘mothery’… a tad gooey… because he was this little content sleeping baby. Kenneth was unfazed by all my fuss and simply kept on sleeping. For some parents that is when they are most beautiful and gorgeous, when they are sleeping. Sometimes though, we hear exclamations of delight of how beautiful a new born baby is, when quite frankly their faces are all squished up and wrinkled, and this by no means is any reflection on our little Kenneth of course! Have you ever wondered why they put boys in blue and girls in pink? It’s because when you look at new born babies it’s difficult to figure out their gender based on their looks… isn’t it? But, ask any parent, Mother, or grandparent, and they will tell you, without hesitation, that that child is the most beautiful, cutest, and perfect little treasure in the whole wide world! Parents, just naturally have that capacity to see all the beauty, wrinkled or not!! Therefore, we honour mothers, because mothers love their children, unconditionally, and see all the good in these little bundles. They love them so much that they still love them when they make mistakes.

 

For God so loved the world that she gave her only son… these loving words of unconditional love, sacrificial love, selfless love, is a good reminder that we are all God’s children. This love is something which we recognise very easily in Jesus. We can know that God loves us and forgives us freely, God knows that like children we all make mistakes and that the error of our ways, is human. We know from the way that Jesus treated people who had made terrible mistakes in their lives that God doesn’t use that as an opportunity to criticise us, but rather to forgive and hold out the opportunity for us to try again. God loves us so much. Jesus loves us so much, that he died for us and our mistakes. Made very clear on Calvary.

 

Churches are supposed to be places where God’s love is found. Where the qualities of our heavenly parent are made apparent. And when people come to our churches searching for love they can easily be soothed and comforted in its sanctuary. Sanctuary, a place where those who need a home, and have none, may find it. I like the concept of church being a safe place for all. A place of open doors and open hearts. It encourages us to be the kinds of people who show that forgiving nature of mothers. That forgiving nature of Jesus who healed, taught, and loved all those who came to him.

   

Today we remind ourselves that we are all part of God’s family. Jesus told us that we could speak to God as we speak to an earthly parent. We are all children of God and the church should be able to embrace all God’s children and welcome them with a love which demonstrates the best qualities of parenthood, to the extent that we are able to think of a ‘mother church’ which loves all God’s children as God loves them himself. We have a shared parenthood by virtue of our common humanity and baptism, to be the church mother to all who seek God’s love.

 

 

Every station of the Lenten season proclaims to us the unspeakable love of God. The God who loves is the God who gives!  And what does God give?  The greatest gift of all. Look at the cross that holds the Son of God. Feel the pain of a parent who gave a Son so fully. This is the price God paid. This is the price that Mary paid also. That “whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. It is by faith that we are saved. Trust in Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life and joy. We will sing about the wondrous love of Jesus. We will sing his mercy and his grace. He prepares a place for all who believe his precious promises. And when we all get there, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory. Then, we will all understand the mystery of God’s suffering and the divine love that sacrificed a Son for the salvation of the world. For God so loved the world. Praise God, who gave her only son. Amen.

 

Jacynthia Murphy

The Third Sunday in Lent, 4 March 2018, 9.30am

Primary Texts:

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

Jesus in the Temple... 

Isn’t this gospel account of Jesus disconcerting? It is so not like the many popular concepts we have of Jesus’ behaviour… but you’ve heard all of this before, haven’t you? There is no gently soft-spoken Jesus, no calm teacher and divine wisdom. Nope. Here we have Jesus with his sleeves rolled up, ready for a fight. After making a whip, yes, a weapon of assault, he brandishes it around the religious establishment striking forcefully and aggressively at a system that has become skewed, twisted, and warped. Imagine it! Jesus opens pens and cages of oxen, sheep, and doves with one hand, while, with a whip in the other hand, he is creating confusion and they all retreat… but you’ve heard all of this before, haven’t you?

 

Is John’s account of this scene, is it really our Jesus? What about his commandments to turn the other cheek? What about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you? Mercy and love do not seem as evident in John’s account of Jesus driving people out of the temple like animals. However, all four gospels agree that Jesus charged through the temple like a bull in a china shop, overturned tables, poured out the coins of inappropriate commerce onto the temple floor. Yes, he did! Jesus drove the money changers and animals… out!! At the height of the Passover season in a city filled with pilgrims gathered at the temple, an angry Jesus, God’s only Son, our merciful Saviour… well, we already know all about that don’t we? Do we?

 

Jesus’ staunch behaviour doesn’t fit too well with our precious views of Jesus as a teacher, healer, comforter and loving shepherd. We may even soften this account of Jesus and think that he didn’t swing the whip too hard and maybe just waved it around a bit. He may even wield it forcefully by cracking it in the air or on the ground like we might see in today’s rodeo theatrics!! Surely Jesus didn’t actually whip anyone with it! Did he? Jesus would never do anything that radical, would he? Maybe, maybe not. Did he do it, yes, he did. Was he angry, yes, he was. Scary? Most likely, yes!

 

Jesus is far more confrontational than we ever imagined. It is a characteristic of his work in the world. Jesus is constantly disrupting things, whether it be on the corporate level of, say, a religious establishment, or on the personal level of an individual’s life. Wasn’t it Jesus who used the purification jars to hold wine instead of water at a wedding in Cana? Remember the time he entered a house to eat with some Pharisees but refused to wash before dinner? Then, before the food was passed around the table he called his hosts a bunch of hypocrites and pronounced, “woe to you Pharisees” then left without eating. Try that the next time you’re invited over to someone’s house for dinner and see if that doesn’t cause an eyebrow or two to raise!

 

And what about the lives of his followers? Did Jesus not cause disruption in their lives? Fishermen who were successful enough to have boats and hired hands left their livelihoods behind to follow him into far more difficult and unsettling work of fishing for men, women, and children. Similarly, a rich tax collector walked away from a lucrative business and the security it gave him in order to journey with Jesus. Simply put, Jesus had that kind of disruptive influence upon people’s lives… but you’ve heard all of this before, haven’t you? Jesus still has a disruptive influence on our lives today. Career choices and goals have often taken a new course and reshaped. Family relationships and lifestyles might have been interrupted. Decisions to be a follower, be faithful, and obedient to Jesus’ influence on our lives, have collided with cultural values and expectations, time and time again.

 

Jesus was disrupting a very set-in-our-ways institution. The temple was rooted at the center of Israel’s religious and national life. The people believed it was the principal place where God in heaven meets us on earth. The temple took 46 years to build and traditions stretched back many generations. Sound familiar? Well…we already know all about that don’t we? Old buildings, generational traditions, etc. But something was wrong! While Israel’s sacrificial practices are spelled out thoroughly in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, it’s not altogether clear how or when money-changing and the sale of sacrificial animals originated in the temple. Somewhere along the way the religious leaders found it more convenient to allow for currency exchange and the provision of appropriate sacrificial animals on the temple grounds. Expediency was what it was all about! Traders could now make whatever exchanges were necessary on the spot. Very convenient indeed!! What a great system! More people could enjoy being religious; the system made being faithful a more comfortable, secure and accommodating experience… but… we already know all about that, don’t we?

 

Jesus steps into the temple wielding a whip like a wild man. He drives out the animals, turns the tables over, and spills the profits onto the temple floor. He kicks them out and tells them to take all their things away. “Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” They retaliate and Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up!” Can you imagine their responses? How preposterous! They said, “It has taken 46 years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” What they were really saying is, “Rubbish! You’re crazy! You can’t build a temple in three days! You can’t do it alone! Things are just fine the way they are, thank you, and there is no reason to change!”

 

 “After he was raised from the dead, Jesus’ disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” They could see all of this because they had come to know and celebrate the truth that Jesus is the Christ, the risen Son of the Living God, the One who was, and is, and always will be. We may live loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbours as ourselves. We belong to a disruptive God who boldly confronts that which is inappropriate within us and making us clean, whole and faithful. Let us praise God for disrupting us into obedience. Thanks be to God! But, we already know all about that, don’t we?

Jacynthia Murphy

The Second Sunday in Lent, 25 February 2018, 9.30am

Primary Texts:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38

 

...and follow me. 

 

The word gospel literally means ‘good news.’ Yet this week’s gospel is full of words that sound like really bad news, rather than good news. We hear the words suffering, rejection, losing your life, and carrying your cross. And Peter thought he could put a stop to it! Peter wants happy talk. He wants miracles and healing stories. He wants warm and fuzzy! He wants a staunch Jesus who seizes power, and stomps on his enemies. He wants a Jesus who praises and elevates his friends. But Jesus doesn't comply!


Jesus is not there to fulfil Peter’s wants and wimperings. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s love, the Lamb of God, here to save, here to serve. His kingdom is not of this world and will not be won by the weaponry of this world. Yet he is the greatest revolutionary the world has ever known. He will turn all rituals and order upside down changing lives and values, changing history, changing how we see ourselves and how we see each other. Most significantly, Jesus changes our entire relationship with God.  

Poor Peter, who wants a beaten Jesus, a humiliated Jesus, or a crucified Messiah? That wasn’t the plan! No… but that is what God sends us. A Jesus who will be beaten, humiliated and crucified. A Jesus who suffers willingly, and a Jesus who conquers death and rises above it all. For our salvation, God sends us a loving, humble Jesus Christ… both God and man… to teach us how to live, how to die, and how to rise again.

The life on earth that Jesus promises is not going as well as Peter thought. Christ tells us that his way is the way of the cross. It does not lead to earthly wins. It leads to sacrifice, and through sacrifice it leads to resurrection. Jesus does not call us to follow him, to take up our cross, just so that we can earn some brownie points towards our salvation. His cross has taken care of all that. He calls us to the cross because it is the essence of God’s unconditional love, the cornerstone of the new covenant. And that is what he wishes for us, to live as he lived and to rise again in his love.

In this gospel, Jesus is calling us to be what we call today a “servant/leader.” It is what he articulated in the Beatitudes. It is what he has demonstrated over and over again… in washing his disciples’ feet, in his compassion for the blind, the deaf, those in need, in his outreach to strangers, in his forgiveness of sinners, and ultimately in his sacrifice on Calvary.

We are called to be disciples. And as disciples our lives must actively proclaim the love of Christ. Not by trumpting on some street corner… but by a life of service. Like Jesus we must lead by serving. And in that context, leadership does not mean shouting out commands. It doesn’t mean dominating others. It doesn’t mean emotionally intimidating another person. It means example. It means inspiration. It means being a channel of God’s grace…witnessing the love of Christ in all we do and to all those we encounter. Sacrifice and service. The words are so easy to say but the life is hard to live. That is why Jesus accurately describes it as the way of the cross.
 

In an increasingly what’s-in-it-for-me world, we are called to carry the cross of Christ against all popular pastime. We are called to sacrifice and serve. But we can answer that call with confidence: knowing that we’re not alone, knowing that we’re on the right track. In Christ’s way, often a difficult way, the way of the cross.

Coming back to where we started, the word gospel literally means ‘good news.’ There is good news found in the tough words of today’s gospel. A suffering Jesus leads us to eternal happiness. 
In the translation of the Māori conversation with God on page 490 of the NZ Prayer Book we utter the words: Accept O God, our sacrifice of praise, and our response is: Ko tāu rourou, ko tāku rourou, ka mākona mātou. In other words, with your basket God and my basket, we your people will flourish! The good news just doesn’t get any better! Amen.

Jacynthia Murphy

The Sunday Before Lent, 11 February 2018, 9.30am

Pen and ink drawing of Jesus healing a leper, Rembrandt c. 1655-1660

 

Primary Texts:

2 Kings 5:1-14

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Mark 1:40-45

 

Being able to see Jesus

 

In her sermon last Sunday, Jean drew our attention to the fact that in the Gospel of Mark (or in relation to the Gospel of Mark) there are two sets of people who know that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God – these two groups being ourselves (the readers of the Gospel) and the demons who seem to recognise that Jesus is the Holy One of God. By way of contrast, the disciples again and again fail to really comprehend what is ‘staring them straight in the face.’

That is an important insight, worthy of reflection in its own right, but what I’d like to suggest is that there is another group of people who recognise Jesus, instinctively, as a person through whom the power of God flows in a singular way. Those people are the little, insignificant people, pushed aside by others, just like the leper in the Gospel this morning.

Why do they see Jesus as someone uniquely special and effective, whereas others do not?

That is worth thinking about, because it may give us some valuable pointers on how to advance in holiness – on our relationship with God and the things of God.

I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers to why people on the margins are able to recognise Jesus as being ‘full of God’ but I will suggest one or two possibilities.

Firstly, they aren’t distracted by the many concerns and busyness that the more ‘well-connected’ people around them are distracted by. Because they have been side-lined – as it were –  they have the opportunity (forced upon them) to look at the world around them, and at the people around them, and notice subtle differences between people that might be missed or disregarded by people whose lives are richer (on the surface), more complicated but ultimately shallow.

Another reason why the ‘little people’ in this life are able to see Jesus and recognise his worth is because they experience – up close and personal – the harshness of life. They don’t live with the sort of privilege that can immunise or tranquillise a person from the effects of injustice in the world. They are ‘doing it tough’ in order to survive from day to day, and that constant struggle makes them aware of the fragility of life and attuned to the things that offer the chance of real life – life in abundance, as Jesus called it. Rich people, who have everything and more than they need, can easily be distracted from what really matters in life, by what gives pleasure.

In our world today, but even more so in the ancient world where children were to be seen and not heard, the youngest members of any society are relatively powerless, restricted in what they are allowed to do, and often at the receiving end of unjust treatment. The children of first century Palestine recognised Jesus in the same way that the Leprous man in today’s Gospel recognised our Lord, and like him, they flocked to him. As you will recall, the disciples tried to get them to go away, but Jesus said to them: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” (Mark 10:14)

Yes, it was the people on the margins of society, either because of the disease they had, the work they did, or the age they were, who had eyes to see Jesus and recognise him as the Holy One of God. One term that Jesus used to describe such people, collectively, was ‘the meek’ for whom the earth would be their inheritance.

If we are serious about being blessed in that sort of way – to have eyes to see Jesus as he approaches us through the Holy Spirit today – and real hope in our hearts for a better future, we are going to have to become more like child-like and meek. How do we do that?

Live more simply – turn off the mobile phone. Go for a walk. Live with silence for a while.

That is what Lent is for. A time to return to God by becoming more child-like, meeker, simpler, and thereby more tuned in to what is really going on in our world, our family, and not least ourselves.

That is the sort of therapy that creates the possibility for positive change.

This morning’s first reading, from 2 Kings, drives home the truth that God’s remedies are frequently very close at hand, and usually simple. Naaman was expecting to be the subject of an elaborate set of prayers and actions to be cured by the great Hebrew Prophet Elisha; he is lucky that he had discerning personal assistants to encourage him to do the very simple thing that Elisha told him to do – ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?’)

Let’s get into that simplicity this Lent.

I’ve speculated about the reason why the leprous man recognised Jesus when other people didn’t and I’ve suggested that we can learn from him what we have to do to be able to see Jesus (the Risen Christ) today. That is well and good, but the thing that shouldn’t be left unsaid is what happens in the story after the leprous man’s faith is rewarded with healing. His response to being healed is to run off and proclaim to anyone who will hear that Jesus has healed him. He just can’t ‘keep a lid’ on this good news, even when he has been asked by Jesus to do so.

We can probably learn something from that response, the deep gratitude that it demonstrates, the energy that it releases, and reflect on that in the light of our own encounter with Christ. If our response to our own encounter with Christ, to date, has yielded a less enthusiastic response than the one we heard about today in Mark’s Gospel, we might do well to ask why this is the case. The reasons might be many and varied, but they are worth seeking out, and Lent is the time for doing that, for, as our Lord says, ‘everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.’

This community is in a time of transition. That is uncomfortable for all concerned – believe me. Certainty goes out the window; new relationships have to built up, trust earned and so on. That is not a place that many humans like to be in. There is a significant silver-lining to that unpleasant situation though; it forces us to reach out in faith to God, and – if the gospel story we heard today is anything to go by – it places us in a position to see Christ with much greater clarity than we do when we are just cruising along in life. If that silver lining is received with the gratitude it deserves – in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving – it will lead to an outpouring of energy from ourselves, for God and the things of God. That is the sort of energy that revives the church, that makes a disparate group of people the Body of Christ, and that overcomes human obstacles (within and without). May this Lent help us all draw closer to the source of that power, in a spirit of simplicity, and allow the grace at work within us to overflow for the building up of Christ’s Kingdom to the Glory of God Almighty. Amen.

Tony Surman

The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, 28 January 2018, 9.30am

 On God’s authority

Primary Texts

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

 

I think all of us here will have seen programmes on TV, or been to talks or lectures by people who really ‘knew their stuff’ about a certain area of human interest – be that politics (when the media call up a professor of US Constitutional Law to talk about the impeachment of Presidents) or public health (when a specialist in disease is interviewed during the outbreak of an epidemic, such as whooping cough or Ebola), or sometimes even religion (when a church historian who specialises in the particular field under discussion is wheeled out of their dusty office to shed light on a current matter). No matter what the area is there is usually someone who knows a great deal about it, and it is usually pretty interesting and enlightening to hear what they have to say. We call these people authorities because of their deep (and sometimes unique) understanding of a particular area of enquiry. 

Many of the religious leaders who lived in Jesus’ time were authorities in this sense. They knew their scriptures very well – reading them every day – but they were also well-versed (no pun intended) in what other great religious leaders had said and written about each part of scripture. They approached their sacred writings in a systematic way, much as scholars in universities do to this very day, by reviewing everything that has been said about a topic up to the present day. That is a good practice. It prevents scholars ‘reinventing the wheel’ as they go about the business of understanding a topic, and it hopefully stops them following lines of inquiry that have proved fruitless in the past (though of course, there is always the chance that now is the time when that line of enquiry will be fruitful). By doing this sort of review, scholars – be it of the Bible or chemistry or the stars (in the heavens) become authorities on what has been learned about something to date, and we very often call them experts. 

Being an authority on something, however, is not enough – neither for an academic nor for a religious leader. What is crucial is the ability to make something of the massive amount of data that one has reviewed – to be able to draw some conclusions from it that have relevance for people in the ‘here and now.’ To be able to do that is both a gift and disciplined labour. It requires time on a person’s part to regularly and deliberately reflect on what meaning there is in their field of expertise, and – because it is a creative exercise (in many ways) and requires a certain amount of mental stamina, it is dependent to some extent on the particular tools of mind that God gives us. Let’s look at an example in science. 

After finishing his university studies Albert Einstein went to work in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland. His education in physics had exposed him to all the major thought on physics up to that date. I bet it was a very rigorous course, full of high-level mathematics. When he left university, his mind must have been filled to the brim with ideas about physics. Working in the patent office would have filled his mind even further with all sorts of uses of science, some elegant, some clumsy, some entirely misconceived. That, on its own, however, was no cause to hope that the most significant developments in twentieth century physics were going to come from Einstein – surely (his contemporaries must have thought) it would be academics, working at the highest levels in universities who would make the real breakthroughs. This expectation (which I think is still a wide-spread prejudice) underestimated the importance of creative thinking when it comes to making sense of knowledge or understanding things in their most essential way. Einstein was gifted with an unusually powerful imagination, with which he was able to perform what he called ‘thought experiments’ in which he tested out different scenarios, drawing implications from what he saw through the language of mathematics. He spent a lot of time dreaming in this way, and though it became his strongest attribute as a mature theoretical physicist, it almost certainly explained why he hadn’t risen, in the conventional way, to be a professor after six or seven years of continuous university education. In class his mind wandered but his weakness for daydreaming and creative thought became his ally and put him in a position where he was not only an ‘authority’ on physics up to his day, but able to speak with authority and reveal deeper and more fundamental truths about the physical world. He became a game-changer in the human understanding of the material universe. 

Jesus, as he is presented in all the gospels, not least St Mark’s Gospel, is a radical ‘gamechanger’ in the field of religion. Like the scribes and the Pharisees he lived with, he too was well versed in the scriptures and what had been said about them. But in a way akin to Einstein, he had a creative, imaginative gift that allowed him to sift through all that data and discern what was truly essential. That creative ability of Jesus’ was nurtured by his deliberate, disciplined decision to spend time with God in prayer. 

When Jesus prayed I doubt that his pray was one long list of petitions. I suspect instead that most of his time in prayer was about giving time over to God, allowing God to speak to him through his imagination as his mind reflected on the history of his people revealed in the scriptures, and on what he saw happening around him, on the big scale and on the small scale. Giving time over to God in that way allowed Jesus to move beyond his contemporaries (who were authorities on religion) to becoming a person who spoke with authority. The gift that Jesus had for doing so was unique in magnitude. He spoke, even more so than the greatest Prophets of Israel, the very words of God, fulfilling, Moses prophecy (first lesson) that God would raise up a prophet like himself who would speak every word to the people of Israel that God commanded; God would literally put God’s word in this prophet’s mouth. In the synagogue in Capernaum, almost two thousand years ago, the congregation experienced the fulfilment of that prophecy. 

The authority with which Jesus spoke was passed on to those whom he called – most explicitly to Peter (Matthew 16:18-19) before his death: ‘I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,’ but that authority was also inherited by his disciples in his Risen life. It is seen very clearly, for instance, in St Paul’s certainty that for Christians it is now fine to set aside a whole lot of laws about dietary observance. That was a radical step, but it was made in an assured and authoritative way by Paul even though his own experience of Jesus as an historical person was very limited, and given the fact that a number of the disciples, including those who had been very close to Jesus during his earthly ministry – Peter and Jesus’ brother James for instance – struggled with what Paul was teaching about food regulations (presumably because Jesus’ personal practice had been typically Jewish). 

St Paul believed ardently that he was speaking with the full authority of the Risen Christ on this matter. On other matters – such as the rightness or wrongness of marrying, he was less certain, but on the matter of what was right to eat and drink, Paul spoke with authority to the disciples of his generation, modelling or mirroring the way in which Jesus had spoken to the people he encountered from moment to moment. Paul didn’t have a set canon of new testament scripture to refer to and claim authority from. His authority was from the risen Christ himself. 

The particular problem that Paul is dealing with in today’s epistle is whether or not Christians should eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. Paul makes a good case for Christians having no concern about eating such food by reminding his readers that the ‘so-called’ gods to which these foods are offered are either subordinate to God or completely fictitious. As a consequence ‘we are,’ in Paul’s words, ‘no worse off if we do eat, and no better off if we do.’ It is a nice argument, and Paul is clearly confident in its strength. He is speaking with authority on this curly matter (and it must have been curly, because in many big towns in the wider Roman Empire, it would have been difficult for new converts to Christianity to avoid eating meat which had been offered to one ‘god’ or another). Jesus had not given a ruling during his earthly ministry on this matter. Paul, feeling himself full of the Spirit of Christ and called to be an ambassador of the Gospel, had no qualms about making this declaration.

We see the sensitivity and compassion of Paul in the way he bids his readers to respond to the liberty that he is giving them, by urging them to be mindful of those who are new to the faith, and still coming to understand right from wrong in this new way of living. In this concern he was at one with Jesus (Matthew 18:6 "If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”) Paul could see very clearly that if experienced Christians, in good conscience, purchased and ate meat that had been sacrificed on one of the pagan altars in front of a person who was just learning that there is only one God, then there was a very high likelihood that the newcomer would be scandalised – made to trip (Matthew 18:7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!)

The principle being talked about has relevance for any sort of choice that a Christian makes. That choice may sit very well with the developed conscience of the experienced Christian but turn away from the faith a person whose journey in the Christian life is just beginning. This is quite sobering news for any Christian, not least for those ‘in authority’ in a Christian community. On the one hand we need to be warning people about the risk of (you might say) making idols of their prejudices, while on the other being sensitive to the fact that people who are new to the faith often need some clear guidelines and boundaries, because the place they have come from was, perhaps, very dysfunctional and destructive – in which case a very prescriptive approach to religion (only eat fish on Fridays, no eating or drinking an hour before Communion, a modest dress code, and so) is probably very helpful.  

But we need to move on – to change gear, so to speak - because we have someone in our midst who has been walking with God for a long time now and is about to share a little of her faith journey with us. This is something she feels called to do, and I am pleased to facilitate this, hoping that, through her testimony, others in this community will do likewise over the coming year. Each of us here, as disciples of Christ, have been blessed with the Holy Spirit to enable us to make sense of - and speak with authority on - the one thing that we each have expert knowledge of – our own lives. So without further ado I’d like to invite Ailsa forward to speak to us about her walk with our Lord.

Tony Surman

Ailsa's Statement of Faith - 28 January 2018

Hi, My name is Ailsa Warburton, for those who do not know me, and I am telling of my journey with God.

What God means to me today is much as He did 50 years ago except I now know Him a lot better than I did then, or perhaps I had my mind on other things then. When He called back to the fold after 50 years plus it was a source of amazement to me as, apart from reciting the Lord's Prayer most days, I had neglected Him shamefully and why had He chosen me when I did not feel worthy of His attention..

Back then, as I recall, it was a different environment and, apart from being something that one did, there was less emphasis on His love and caring. I feel modern liturgy has a better way of expressing what part God plays in our lives .  Nowadays we are taught every week about what God can and does do for each and every one of us, which is much better.

What does God mean to me today?  God epitomises everything that is good. Caring, forgiving, merciful, tender, compassionate, just, generous and most of all, loving, and possibly a few other virtues I have omitted due to memory loss or ignorance.  He also likes His own way and can be a tad pesky when He feels you are dragging your feet, but I feel personally that God is entitled to be a bit impatient with us mortals, as if we were all perfect He would have nothing to do..

I have come to ask His opinion on many facets of my life these days and, while I do not always get the answer I want, He does listen, and replies, sometimes days or weeks later.

When He sent me back after my cardiac arrests, I kept asking why did He send me back, what did He want from me?  Well, a few months later a voice began to tell me I had to return to the church of my youth.  After I did, the voice stopped.

I have learned that when He is very pleased with me, as when I had my Renewal, He has His own way of expressing it.  When I am in a quiet space God tells me He is there by enveloping me in a cocoon of love and warmth, quite unlike anything a mere mortal could engender.  Unfortunately, I do not feel it very often!

He is with me when I am sick, well, happy or sad.  I can call on Him day or night and know that He is there with me, beside me every step of the way.  I know He is generous because He gave us Jesus and the Holy Spirit both of whom watch over us as well.

These are some of the things I have learned about God since He called me back and I have never regretted His call, even if I still don't know why.  Because of Him I have the love and friendship of everyone here, the help and teachings from Grant, Noel, David and Tony and have become a better person for it.  God, through them, has taught me tolerance, forgiveness, charity and to love and be loved.  Thank you, God for this wonderful journey to date.

The one comment I must make before I conclude is this.  Put your trust in God every minute of every day.  If you have not done so to date, then try it.  He will never let you down, and there are no barriers.  I only regret I cannot turn back the clock, so I can enjoy more of it for longer.

 

Thank you for listening, thank you Tony for giving me the opportunity to express my faith in words and to God for letting it happen.

The Third Sunday of Epiphany, 21 January 2018, 9.30am

James Tissot's nineteenth century imagining of the calling of Peter and Andrew from their fishing work on Lake Galilee.

Responding to God’s Call

 

Primary Texts

Jonah 3:1-5,10.

1 Cor 7:29-31.

Mark 1:14-20.

 

It would seem from the Gospel we have just heard (Mark 1:14-20) that Jesus’ call on Peter and Andrew, and James and John to follow him came to them like a bolt out of the blue. Mark records no other communication between these men and Jesus before this incident. It is certainly very possible that Jesus did call these disciples in that way but the glimpses that the Gospels of Luke and John give us of Peter and Andrew (at least) suggest that these disciples were already very familiar with Jesus and the broad outline of the mission that he was on.

In Luke’s Gospel, for instance, a reference to the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law precedes (Luke 4:38-39) the calling of Peter and Andrew from their fishing duties (the reverse of the case in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:29-31) and Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 8:14-15) where Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law after their call by Jesus at the lake). The way that Luke describes the healing of Peter’s Mother-in-law is consistent with Jesus already being acquainted with Peter (called Simon in this case). He doesn’t go to Simon’s house specifically to heal anyone, it seems, but because it was a natural place to retreat to after preaching and healing in the synagogue in Peter’s home town of Capernaum. Then, at the beginning of chapter 5 of his gospel, Luke refers to Jesus’ calling of Simon Peter, James and John following a miraculous harvesting of fish on the lake, with Jesus echoing the words he gives in Mark’s gospel today ‘Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.’ (Luke 5:10)

In John’s Gospel we don’t find any reference to Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, James or John from their work on the lake of Galilee itself, but what we do have is a record of Andrew and Peter being very early disciples of Jesus, since the time that Jesus had visited John the Baptist in the Jordan Valley. In John 1:40, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother is named as one of two disciples of John the Baptist who became followers of Jesus, immediately upon John’s advice. And then Andrew – apparently quite quickly, brought his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus. Following this incident, John’s Gospel reports on Philip and Nathanael becoming disciples (we heard about that last week), then we learn of the Wedding at Cana to which Jesus, his disciples and Mother went, before we learn that Jesus and his disciples, mother and brothers went on from there to the lakeside town of Capernaum, ‘and remained there a few days’ (John 2:12b) From there, the chronology is quite different than the other three Gospels, but what I think we can glean from this, and from the evidence in Luke’s Gospel, is that Peter and Andrew, James and John, as historical figures, were probably well acquainted with Jesus when he turned up on the shores of Lake Galilee and said to them, effectively, ‘I’ve got a real job for you guys; are you in?’ Based on all they had seen before, they knew they could not turn this opportunity down, so they ‘rose up and followed him,’ as the hymn we sang last Sunday puts it.

Of course, I may be wrong about this (as might Luke and John), and it may indeed be the case that Peter, Andrew, James and John were moved in an instant as they fished on lake Galilee by the powerful presence of Jesus, who was then a stranger to them. Certainly, from the way that Mark and Matthew present the calling of these fishermen we would be expected to draw this conclusion, which leads us to suppose that both Mark and Matthew are concerned to project the overwhelming power of Jesus when it comes to commanding the human heart - and there is nothing at all wrong with that! When we look at people who respond positively to Christ’s call to discipleship, some of them are, indeed, moved to accept that call without a deep acquaintance with Jesus (see for instance the handout this morning by John Shaw or the blog site where it comes from,  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-shore/i-a-rabid-anti-christian_b_551799.html). Others, however, have a longer latency period, during which God is working away on them, preparing them to make the most important commitment of their life-time – to follow Christ and work with him in the building up of God’s kingdom.

It doesn’t matter which category we fit into; what matters is that we accept the call and go – not just in word but in action, surrendering our life in its entirety into God’s hands so that God’s good purpose for us and all people might be achieved.

In the first lesson this morning, we have the example of a prophet whose initial response to God’s call was not positive at all. Jonah, as you will recall from your days in Sunday School, ran away from the call that the Lord had placed upon him, namely, of going to the Ninevites (in Assyria) and forewarning them of God’s judgement on them. His motivation for running away was probably influenced by his knowledge of how brutal the Assyrians had been to his people, and other nations across the Middle East – ‘let them get what is coming to them’ appears to have been a big part of his thought process in this matter. This is revealed towards the end of the story when the Ninevites do, in fact, repent (big time), to Jonah’s immense displeasure (Jonah 4:1) and he says to God, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.’ (Jonah 4:3).  God does his best to show Jonah how perverse that way of thinking is. He points out to Jonah how many human and animal lives would have been lost in Nineveh if Jonah had continued to resist God’s command to forewarn them of the coming judgement, the importance of these lives far outweighing the discomfort Jonah experiences bringing salvation to a people he doesn’t like very much.

The book of Jonah is very short but it has been preserved in the canon of scripture because it makes explicit the sort of mission that God calls his people on – a mission to bring real life, authentic meaning and genuine purpose to all people (salvation); not just the ones we think are worthy of our efforts, but the ones we are quite prejudiced against, often for quite ‘good’ reasons, humanly speaking - like the wealthy (if we happen to be achingly poor), or the poor (if we happen to be filthy rich), and so on. And the reason for that is that God loves us all without exception and as scripture puts it, ‘desires the death of no one.’ (Ezekiel 18:32)

We encounter St Paul, in the second reading this morning, fully engaged in that mission as a result of his calling by the Risen Christ. His message to the diverse congregation in Corinth is coloured by his expectation that Christ’s return to govern the world completely is very close at hand ‘the appointed time has grown short…the present form of the world is passing away.’ In that belief he was mistaken (just as one or more of the writers of the Gospels were mistaken about the precise way in which Peter, Andrew, James and John were called by Jesus), but we cannot mistake the fact that Paul cared deeply for each of the members of the Church in Corinth to which he wrote. He didn’t want any of them to lose the gift of life that God held out to them through Jesus Christ, or lose the effectiveness that Christ gave them to bring life to others. His motivation is quite the opposite of Jonah’s.

Would that we were so gracious and faithful to our calling in Jesus Christ.

Tony Surman

 

 

The Second Sunday of Epiphany, 14 January 2018, 9.30am

Jesus, expanding the boundary of the holy

Texts:

1 Sam 3:1-10

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

John 1:43-51

 

At the end of this morning’s Gospel our Lord refers to a future time when -  rather mysteriously, angels will be seen ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Nathanael is already impressed with Jesus’ ability to see into a person’s soul, and understand things about them they thought were private (‘under the fig tree’ as it were), and this later assertion by Jesus really leaves him lost for words.

The reference that Jesus makes to angels and their ascension and descension is an allusion to an occurrence found early in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, where Jacob, son of Isaac and Grandson of Abraham is alone in the wilderness and sleeping (somewhat uncomfortably) with his head on a rock for a pillow. As he sleeps he dreams of a ladder stretching from heaven to earth on which he sees angels ascending and descending. A divine message accompanies the vision, affirming that the place upon which Jacob is sleeping will belong to Jacob and his descendants forever (Genesis 28:10-19). So vivid and awesome is the dream that Jacob calls the place the House of God (Beth-el, Bethel).

For thousands of years people have reflected on the significance of this story, and what it means. The first people to do so – and who continue to do so – were the Jewish people. Their great Rabbis have left commentaries on this (and every other event in the Hebrew Scriptures). The Rabbis interpretations vary considerably.

One interpretation of Jacob’s dream, understood in the context in which he had it, is that it highlights a boundary, notably between the land that God first promised to Abraham and his descendants, and the lands beyond. Each of the lands has a particular set of angels looking after it and the holy-ones therein. As Jacob, the man of God, moves from outside the land promised to his grandfather Abraham and into the promised land, the angels who have protected him abroad go back up into heaven on their side of the same ladder that the angels of the promised land descend to take care of Jacob in the holy land.

Another understanding of the story focuses on the particular spot at which Jacob has his dream and speculates that instead of the place being the town of Bethel (a possible location for Bethel as it is referred to in the Bible is about 18 km north of Jerusalem, where the current Arab town of Beitin is located), it is to be understood instead as Mt Moriah in what would become Jerusalem, Mt Moriah being the place where the Jewish Temple was built – Beth El, the House of God. In this understanding of the story of Jacob’s dream, the ladder becomes a conduit to a sacred spot where the connection between heaven and earth, you could say, is especially strong.

How does all this help us understand what our Lord is talking about with Nathanael in this morning’s Gospel?

Taking the second interpretation first, our understanding of Jesus’ assertion about the Son of Man being a ladder upon which angels ascend and descend, is enhanced by the thought that Jerusalem, the Holy City – El Quds in Arabic – is the focal point of Jacob’s dream. Jerusalem was of central importance to Jesus’ life and mission. It is the place where he was circumcised on the eighth day and became a part of the covenanted People of God, it is where he taught, and healed; it was the place that broke his heart because of its unwillingness to accept his message; it is where he instituted the Eucharist which we will celebrate later in this service; and it is, of course where he was crucified, rose and ascended into heaven. Finally, it is the place to which he sent his Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, which gave birth to the Church. Taken together these acts lend themselves very well to us seeing Jesus as a very special ladder indeed between heaven and earth and particularly that place on it called Jerusalem.

If we turn to the first Rabbinic interpretation of Jacob’s dream (the first one I mentioned – possibly not the first that was made), namely, the idea that the ladder (as well as being a roadway between heaven and earth for angels) represents a border between the holy land promised to Abraham, and the rest of the world, then another light is shone on what Jesus’ says to Nathanael. In this case, Jesus (almost certainly equivalent with the Son of Man) is not only a bridge between heaven and a particularly holy spot on earth, but a type of boundary marker between the sacred and the profane. This take on what Jesus says to Nathanael reveals a truth that I believe is present throughout the New Testament, namely, that God connects with the world wherever Jesus treads, whether that be in the Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon, and the Decapolis or the deeply Jewish places that Jesus visited during his earthly mission, or the four corners of the globe that Jesus has made his presence felt in – in the hearts and minds of people over the last two thousand years. At each point of the earth – and presumably wherever one goes in the universe – where a soul accepts Jesus as the Son of God, holy land is created. It may look the same is it did before, but rest assured that the angels who guard God’s holy land, travel down the ladder that is Jesus to guard that sacred space.

In today’s second reading – The First Letter to the Corinthians – St Paul might be seen as one of those angels – or certainly as a man with an angel directing him – determined to protect the space that has been made holy through the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He doesn’t use the metaphor of a ladder to describe the saving, protecting, sanctifying effect that Jesus has on his people’s lives, but he might just have well have when he reminds the Corinthians that ‘anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’ and that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit…bought with a price.’ It is because of that intimate holy relationship that Paul bids the Corinthians to shun fornication because of its inherent incompatibility with a person being united, in every aspect of their being, with God. And in this teaching he echoes very closely the teaching of Christ about fidelity in our most intimate relationships. Presumably Paul needs to give this advice to the Corinthians because some of them have interpreted the things he has said about the law being rendered obsolete through the work of Christ more enthusiastically than he had intended (see the first part of today’s extract).

The importance of keeping ourselves united to Christ and with the happy ‘boundary’ he creates is prefigured in life of the Prophet Samuel, who was a powerful, dedicated man of God during a time in Israel’s history when ‘the word of the Lord was rare…visions were not widespread.’ From an early age Samuel had been installed in the Temple at Shiloh, in the Lord’s service, apprentice to Eli. Eli, the priest, was a good man, but his sons, who worked with him in the temple were corrupt, and one of their named corruptions was fornication with women who served at the temple (1 Samuel 2:22). God by-passed Eli descendants in favour of Samuel who would grow to be a powerful priest and prophet. Eli was broken hearted that his sons, his own flesh and blood had let him and God down, but he remained faithful in his formation of Samuel, guiding him to recognise the call of God on his life.

Our hope is that through the grace of God we too will be able to remain united with God in the sacred space that Christ has opened up for us and all people. To be successful in that bid, we need to cooperate with God’s grace, and be determined to live a disciplined life, that keeps its focus on Christ, and its ears open to hear Christ’s call. May it be so.

Tony Surman

 

 

The First Sunday of Epiphany, 7 January 2018, 9.30am

The Feast of the Epiphany

Principle texts:       Isaiah 60: 1-6; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12

The title of today’s service is a bit mysterious. If you think it sounds a little foreign, you would be right to think so. Epiphany is a word that we have borrowed – with very little modification - from the Greek language. In the New Testament scriptures – which were written in the common Greek of the first century, the word epiphaneia is closely associated with the arrival of our Lord – either for the first time, at his birth in Bethlehem (see for instance 2 Tim 1:10), or for the second time when he will appear at the end of time (see for instance 1 Tim 6:14). Epiphaneia connotes brightness or manifestation or illumination. Take for example, 2 Thessalonians where the author declares in the eighth verse of chapter two that (NRSV) “…the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation (epiphaneia) of his coming.

The last word of this verse in English, coming, is a translation of the Greek word parousia, which in Latin is rendered adventus. For those of us who can remember back to December 2017, we spoke and sang a lot about Christ’s advent, his coming amongst us in time and out of time, so it is clear there is a very close connection between advent and epiphany. You might say that they are two sides of the same coin, or that the epiphany is the light/brilliance/illumination that accompanies God’s arrival among us.

Well, in a very literal way there was a light that accompanied Jesus’ arrival in the world. That light was provided by a star that appeared in the night sky and was recognised by the astrologers (Magi) who observed it as indicative of the birth of the King of Jews. The light of the star drew those academics from their homes in the east all the way to Jerusalem and thence to Bethlehem. I don’t imagine this was an easy or inexpensive journey. There were no aeroplanes, trains or cars – just camels for crossing the desert, but the Magi pushed on so that they might see the person who would be King over God’s people.

Their tenacity was rewarded when the brilliance of the epiphany that had led them across hundreds of kilometres (quite probably) “stopped over the place where the child was.” (Matt 2:9). Saint Matthew tells us that at that point they were “overwhelmed with joy.” (Matt 2:10)

The epiphany of that star, sent to them by God, had revealed the precise place where the Jesus lay.

They went in, and saw Mary his mother and knelt down and paid him homage.

That is astounding.

We are talking here about a group of the most educated men of their day, from the most civilised, advanced part of the world (in their time anyway) bowled off their feet by a foreign child. It is not too often that academics will bow down to anybody… Something remarkable and historic had happened. By talking the Magi’s language – speaking to them through the stars – God had brought the representatives of a non-Jewish people to God’s self.

The Magi were not the only characters in the story who had their eyes opened by the events that transpired over those months. Herod, for instance was shocked to learn from the Magi about the star, and to hear about their intense interest in a new-born King of the Jews. Indeed, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were concerned about what the Magi were talking about. They may not have recognised the star in the sky, but the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem on their very deliberate (intentional) mission must have made it very manifest and clear to them that God’s hand was at work in their locality.

Many of them may have rejoiced in this, but others, most notably Herod, feared what was about to happen. He was, in name, King of the Jews, but his mission did not coincide very closely with the mission that God had called him and his people to through Abraham, Moses and the Prophets – which was to do justice, to show loving-kindness and to walk humbly with God. Herod’s concern was for his own survival. He should have rejoiced that people from the far corners of the earth were coming to pay homage to the God of the universe but instead he recognised the object of their quest as a threat to him. God’s epiphany, which had so moved the Magi was lost on Herod. And that was a great shame, for him, his nation and a particular tragedy for the innocent children he would go on to kill in Bethlehem in his bid to eliminate a rival king.

I think there is something (indeed, probably many things) for us to learn from the way the epiphany of the star of Bethlehem played out two thousand years ago. One thing, certainly, that it demonstrates is that God’s action and God’s call is heard by some of the most unlikely people (and here we all are today, Praise God). What do I mean by this? Well, what I mean is this. The Magi were astrologers and, as their name suggests, connected with the world of magic and what we would call the occult. The Hebrew scriptures take a pretty dim view of astrology. Consider the following:

In Leviticus chapter 19 the Israelites are told that, as well as avoiding eating anything with blood in it (like blackpudding for instance), they are not to use enchantment/divination nor observe the times/soothsay/observe dreams. (Lev 19:26b)

And again in Deuteronomy they are told that “no one shall be found among you who…practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer (Deu 18:10).

Despite these direct commands against astrology God - in God’s own wisdom, chose the stars to proclaim the message of Jesus’ birth to the Magi, and made them very receptive to that message; they did not, for instance simply look up at the sky and recognise the sign that a new Jewish King had been born and note that down on their piece of slate, but they were moved to go and see this child. Given their enthusiasm and determination, we are drawn to conclude that the epiphany marked for them the end in a road of development that they had already been walking with God, even if they hadn’t been formally part of God’s people. Many of God’s people, however, the insiders if you will, were much less sensitive to the epiphanies that God was sending regarding the birth of the Messiah, and few – apart from the shepherds whom St Luke’s reminds us of – were galvanised to go and see the new born King. 

This is relevant for us in the 21st century because we are now, as Christians, ‘insiders’ in a sense. We endeavour, like the Jews of the first century to live out our lives in conformity with God’s will as that is revealed to us through scripture and church tradition with the benefit of the best reasoning we can muster. And, like the Jews of the first century, we have a tendency to discriminate against certain groups of people based on their way of life and beliefs. Generally we try to be as loving about this discrimination as can be, but we wouldn’t normally expect God to chose to reveal Godself to them through the very beliefs and practices we disapprove of. But as the epiphany of the Magi clearly demonstrates – that is precisely the way God has operated in the past, so we might just expect that God could act like this in the future.

This might cause us to look at other religions somewhat more generously than we might currently do, seeing them as pathways through which God is drawing people to his Christ.

I had an epiphany of my own about 12 years ago while I was working as a paint chemist. My colleague, the production chemist, was a devoted Hindu but I learned that he also had a high regard for Jesus who he recognised as an (rather than our 'the') incarnation of God. 

It is also the case that Islam has a high regard for Jesus, viewing him as the prophet to the Jews, and understanding his significance, perhaps in a similar way to the Magi, as the rightful head of the Jewish people.

And I’m sure there are many other ways through which God is leading people to Christ.

God help us to be sensitive to those seekers, willing to listen to them, and, where appropriate, to follow their lead in their quest to pay Jesus homage, just as Herod ought to have followed the lead of the Magi two thousand or so years ago in Jerusalem.

 

 

Christmas Day, 25 December 2017, 9.30am

Christmas Day Sermon, St Martin’s @ St Chad’s, 2017

Texts:    Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20

The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

St Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth will be very familiar to many of you here. Together with the nativity story in St Matthew’s gospel – which has the Star (of Bethlehem) and the Magi (the Wise men) in it – it provides the basic ingredients for nativity plays – like the one we had here yesterday morning. It was great fun -  it warmed the heart – but it probably didn’t do full justice to the raw reality and discomfort of Jesus’ arrival in the world.

Luke does not shy away from the rather grim reality of Jesus’ birth. He is very specific about our Lord being born to a young woman, displaced from her hometown, having to cobble together a nursery with her husband in stable, ‘because there was no place for them in the inn.’

‘No place for them in the inn’ – and not even, you will note, an inn keeper to offer them the stable (they may have had to find it themselves). Jesus was born into a situation of deprivation and exclusion, and was fortunate to have resourceful parents who could improvise with what little they had in trying circumstances.

They found themselves in this undesirable state for no real fault of their own. The powers that be had decreed that everyone ought to be registered – presumably for tax purposes – in their home towns. I imagine many people struggled to find decent lodging in the ‘home towns’ they went back to for registration. They may have been away for years or even generations. To the local inhabitants, they were strangers, and, more so than the average stranger, a threat to local ideas of entitlement; Yes, those new arrivals would have been kept at arm’s length by the locals; there would have been no place for most of them at the local inn.

The undesirable situation that Joseph, Mary, the infant Jesus found themselves in because of a political decision made hundreds of miles away has obvious current parallels. Over recent years we have witnessed on our televisions the movement of hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Afghanistan, North Africa, and now Myanmar (the Rohinga people of former Burma) from their homes – some internally displaced, others migrating to neighbouring countries or seeking asylum abroad, particularly in Europe. These people are the victims of political forces well beyond their control; because of decisions made in Washington, Brussels, Moscow, London and perhaps even their own Capitol they end up in the firing line, and if they don’t want to become collateral damage, they have to move and live in make-shift shelter and hope that they’ll get a break and be able to put their lives back together. In all that they suffer, it might be some consolation for them to know that the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, stand in solidarity with them.

In our own country too, this last year, the problem of poverty has been centre stage as we’ve gone to the polls, and witnessed a diverse coalition-government take shape. Our new government is making all the right ‘noises’ as it were, reaching out to folks in society who usually remain unseen. That’s a good start, but the path to building a happier NZ is going to take sustained, concerted effort from across NZ society, not least from those to whom the help is being directed.

St Luke’s Gospel – perhaps more than the other three Gospels - demonstrates the special concern God has for people who are ‘doing it tough;’ for the downtrodden, the lost, the heartbroken and rejected.  We see this concern, for instance, in the song that Mary sings in Luke’s Gospel when, pregnant with Jesus, she visits her cousin Elizabeth and declares that God has ‘lifted up the lowly;’ [and] ‘filled the hungry with good things.’ – a song of praise often referred to by its Latin first word, Magnificat, sung at every Anglican Evensong. It is evident again in the prophecy that John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, makes (in Luke’s Gospel) at his son’s dedication, declaring that God had remembered his promise to save his people from their enemies, ‘from the hand of all who hate us,’ as he puts it; and we see it in this morning’s gospel where God chooses a group of shepherds to be the first official group to visit our Lord.

Shepherding, as a profession was not highly esteemed in Palestinian Jewish society. Shepherds lived on the margins of society, and moved around a lot, to find pasture for their flocks. Like the character ‘Kenny,’ who installed and maintained portaloos in the Australian movie of the same name, shepherds tended to be kept at arm’s length by their compatriots (actually, if you are looking for a Christmas movie this year, you could do a lot worse than Kenny, and I think St Luke would approve of your choice). In a typically counter-cultural move, to describe our Lord’s birth, St Luke portrays the God who ‘lifts up the lowly’ and rescues the downtrodden ‘from the hands of those who hate them’ privileging shepherds to witness to the Messiah’s birth, and using them as his ambassadors to spread the joyful news that the nation’s saviour has been born.

This loving God has the same strong desire to restore the displaced and despised people of our world to their full human dignity, as he had to honour the shepherds of Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth, as he had to bless humble Mary with the maternity of the Saviour of the world. And he is reaching out to us, I sense, through the gospel today, bidding us to align ourselves with that enormous project of restoration.

Precisely how we align ourselves with that project will depend on our gifts, talents and personal circumstances, but it will involve each one of us adopting, by God’s grace, hearts that are caring, down-to-earth, kind and courageous – like our Lord’s.

Only those hearts will have the eyes to see the angels (and the Kenny’s) God sends, and the resolve to carry out the mission that that God sends them on.

 

May God bless us, this Christmas, with hearts like his own and enable us to discover and take up our part in his joyful project of human restoration.

Second Sunday of Advent, 10 December 2017, 9.30am

Preached by Jean Rheinfrank

Texts:

Isaiah 40:1-11

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Mark 1:1-8

 

INTRODUCTION

In today’s pew sheet, Tony has pointed out that John the Baptist was charismatic, a man of great talents and had presence.  Personally speaking, I think his dress sense definitely solidified his instant recognition—clothed with camel’s hair, and a large leather belt around his waist.  His dress was reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet.  He was a big man, certainly an earthly man with a large following.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes him in a straight-forward sentence, as the “Forerunner of Christ.”  And I certainly agree with the observation that this was a very humble man, who recognised Jesus as the Messiah, and immediately stepped back to provide faithful acknowledgement and accord.  Let us explore this unique relationship and freeze this moment of time in history for reflection and discernment. 

 

“PREPARE THE WAY OF The LORD—CRYING OUT in the WILDERNESS

Mark’s Prologue, did not fish around, and was immediately direct and got to the point.  In fact, the word “immediately” was, for Mark, a useful term he could use concerning time! 

 

John’s message was relatively simple:  proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  These first, 8 verses are certainly about John, but his significance, from Mark’s point of view, lies entirely due to the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.  His words and his actions continually point forward to the Successor (Jesus) as the Coming One.  John acknowledges that he performs baptism with water, but the one who comes after will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  And by this action, John accepts with all humility that his position does not measure up to Jesus, requiring John to make his most humble submission that he is not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals.

 

Years ago I heard an amazing lecture about the role of servants and slaves in Biblical times.  Due to the climate of the region, and the dryness, walking around in open toed sandals left the wearer quite unable to keep the dust off his/her feet, away from the sandals, and the feet were simply covered in the dry dust.  If you look under the heading “Sermons” on our website, you will see a photograph of an individual’s sandaled feet, and that the toes and the top of each foot are fully exposed.  Within the slave hierarchy, the absolute lowest task was to be responsible for brushing off the feet, removing the caked dust from between toes, etc.  It was a thankless and most definitely un-enjoyable service to render!  So John is making quite a claim...that he is truly lower than the low! 

 

TRYING TO WALK WITH MARK THROUGH HIS GOSPEL

But for us to walk in sandaled feet with Mark, requires one to move at a very fast pace.  I have to confess to a personal regard for the Gospel of Mark.  As  a Greek student, I enjoy translating his simple style, chock full of more easily recognised words, and sentence construction that doesn’t take hours to translate.  Within the simple, however, there is an amazing beauty and many memorable phrases.  Mark was the first Gospel I studied as a theology student, and my introduction to translating Greek.  But you learned quickly that the author’s pace is not slow, not necessarily organised, and certainly doesn’t follow a coherent reporting of events in the order in which they occur.  And the author had a sense of exaggeration and exuberance!  For example, his statement in v5 that people from the whole Judean countryside and ALL the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and being baptized by him in the river Jordan, was quite impossible.  Were that true, it would have taken weeks of continuous baptismal celebrations, to which thousands would have attended and been involved.  Such would not have been practical, for one man to perform. 

 

And neither would have been the statement that John makes his appearance in the wilderness as it is stretching the claim that the banks of the Jordan River are actually in the wilderness.  But the point, nevertheless, is borne hope that it is John’s voice who cries, “prepare the way of the Lord,” invokes the idea, to a people steeped in the history of a sojourn in the wilderness that through Jesus they have arrived at a new Exodus, which divinely will incorporate all peoples. 

 

These first 8 verses from Mark’s Gospel become, in a sense, a wider Prologue to a Greek play, and the Good News, as it is played out in the Gospel of Mark, includes us all as players in a narrative leading from the rising up from the waters of the Jordan River to a cross on Golgotha.  And we, as readers, are given this knowledge from the very beginning.  How fitting, indeed, to hear this story again during the second week of Advent, which translated from the Latin term means “coming.”

 

CONCLUSION

You may recall Tony’s story last week that his opening sermon from the Gospel of Mark had framed his first sermon some 20 years earlier (please see below). As I sat and listened, I was reminded that my first sermon...in a far less shorter period of time, being just 3 years ago almost to the day...was also on the Gospel of Mark, and was this same Prologue, and was in fact preached here at St Martin’s @ St Chads.  Thus, as did Tony, I dug out that sermon and found, to my surprise, that it certainly contained a very interesting point which seems quite relevant still today.  This is what was said: 

In this modern age of mass production, high speed photocopying, and the technological wizardry that allows for instant transmission of words, pictures, etc., all over the world in an instant...it’s almost impossible to slow down and consider that in the first century of the Christian church communication—and in fact entire Gospels such as the Gospel of Mark-- were read out loud, and passed from individual to individual!  They didn’t distribute pew sheets—such as we do today--before the service!

Try to imagine being a member of the house congregation who might have heard Mark’s prologue being read out for the first time.  From the first verse, the audience would have been informed that Mark’s words concerned Jesus Christ, the son of God.  Only the listeners (who later would become readers of the gospel) would know that secret...All others (including the disciples first chosen by Jesus), would remain in the dark about Jesus’ true identity, until the cross!  There’s a certain honour—and responsibility—in being in league with Mark of such information.

 

And as we heard in Advent 1 we have been reminded to be awake, to fill our oil lamps, and see the signs of the fig tree and changing leaves that signal a new day!  From Mark we can now add that John the Baptist is pointing us forward to the one who is coming.  And so we continue to search for meaning, and continue to experience both Jesus’ coming, and God’s presence as we journey forth to our joyous Christmas celebrations.

 

AMEN

First Sunday of Advent, 3 December 2017, 9.30am

Sunday of Hope

Texts:   

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13: 24-37

 

It is now the beginning of Advent – and the start of a new Church year. As I mention on the front cover of the pewsheet, we have moved from Year A to Year B of the church’s three year cycle of readings which means that we bid farewell to Matthew as our primary Gospel and welcome the Gospel of Mark.

I am looking forward to that transition – not because I think Matthew’s Gospel is deficient in any way, but because there is something about Mark’s Gospel, in its rugged simplicity, that makes the Good News very immediate (‘in your face’ as some would say); it gets straight to the point and has an uncanny ability – I find – to put Christ right in front of me. When I read this Gospel as a confused, anxious teenager – some years ago now, I found it truly transformative; it brought me back to God.

It actually happens that the texts that we have heard this morning are the same texts I preached on – in my first stint of church preaching – 26 years ago, almost to the day. It was at a youth service in the Catholic Church in which I was brought up, in the evening, on the First Sunday of Advent. How I got to be delivering the sermon is not so clear to me. It is pretty unusual for anyone except a priest to preach in a service in the Catholic Church, but we had a fairly accommodating (or easy going) priest overseeing young adults in the parish, so I got a chance to preach.

I came across the text of what I preached that day when we were moving home recently - coming here, I think, but honestly, we have moved around quite a lot in the last 21 years, so it is possible that I found it in an earlier shift. Be that as it may, I read the text with some trepidation, because I know some of my thoughts have changed over the decades – even over the last few years. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still agree with what I said then. I might have phrased things a bit differently, but it was still ‘me’ and possibly a better version of the same, so I will read it to you now (it at least has the virtue of being short) and you can judge for yourself).

In tonight’s Gospel we are called to stay awake until the return of our Lord. This call is a challenging one for any Christian. At times, usually when things are going well, we feel the presence of the Lord very strongly and want to praise and follow him. At such times our faith is wide awake and it seems it will never decline. At other times the distractions of the world and our short memories of the good things God has done for us, cause us to distance ourselves from God’s love and mercy. In other words, we fall asleep to faith, just as Israel had fallen asleep and turned from God in the first reading. This of course isn’t a good thing because we know neither the time that Christ will return to establish his kingdom, nor the moment when our individual lives may end. Yet God is merciful and he continuously calls us back to fellowship with him, rocking us out of our drowsiness through the institution of the Church and the challenge of the sacraments. And we must respond to this challenge with a sense of urgency. It is human nature to take the easy way out and putting off the return to God can be seen as the easier road to walk. We travel this road consoling ourselves that there will be time to change tomorrow, forgetting that we live in a world of some uncertainty, where the unexpected is so often the only thing that can be expected and in which tomorrow never comes. Our return to the post of faithful doorkeepers to the Lord should begin not tomorrow, but now. The important thing is to put your faith in God, who, Saint Paul tells us, is faithful and ‘will keep you steady and without blame until the last day.’ God then, will supply us with all the strength we need to stay awake until Jesus’ return. Our challenge is simply to let the Holy Spirit act through us by opening our hearts to the Lord and letting his word be the light which guides our lives.’ (TS, 1 December 1991)

These days I’d probably be tempted to comment on the apocalyptic mind-set of the Marcan community that had put the Gospel together, but I think that would only have detracted from the work that the Spirit was doing through the Gospel – encouraging every member of the congregation to get ready for God now, not tomorrow, let alone next week.

The message coming at us through Mark’s Jesus is very clear; we are to be vigilant in the way we live, keeping our focus on God and God’s commands, so that when the time comes we will be in a fit state to meet the one who created us and to whom we owe everything, not least the gift of life itself.

How can we do this; how can we stay awake?

I think there are lots of ways – private prayer, study and reflection are certainly very important, (beginning with the intentional offering of your life to God through Jesus).

Regular church worship certainly helps – congratulations to you all on that score! Corporate worship builds our relationship with God and with one another. One of the primary needs of human beings is companionship – literarily, someone with whom to break bread, from ‘com’ – with, and ‘panion’ from ‘panus’ – latin for bread. So when we determine to meet together in church, week by week, to worship God, we are building our relationship with God in a way that is not possible through private prayer and study alone.

Beyond the Church door there are innumerable human needs to be met, each of which presents an opportunity to draw closer to God, and to ‘stay awake’ in our spiritual pilgrimage. These needs range from the mundane and every-day [ensuring the next generation are given every opportunity to develop into fully-rounded human beings], to the truly extraordinary [relief after natural disaster], but my sense is that God values one just as highly as the other.

Our ability to meet any human need, not least our own, is completely dependent on God’s grace. That is a point that St Paul makes in his first letter to the Corinthians. The happy thing is that God is more than willing to pour that grace into our lives. He is the most generous of masters, ‘faithful’ as St Paul says to the Corinthians, and determined to strengthen his people to the very end.

Advent is the time of year when Christians endeavour, collectively and individually, to get back on track with God. Through the course of the year, one thing or another may have caused our eye to be lifted from the real treasure of life, from the pearl beyond price. Now is the opportunity to take hold of God’s promise of faithful support so that when the master does return, as he will, we will be ready, whether that return be at ‘evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.' 

Tony Surman

The Reign of Christ in all Creation, 26 November 2017, 9.30am

Primary texts:

 

Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

 

Compared to Feast Days like Christmas, and Easter, The Feast of Christ the King is a relative newcomer. It was first celebrated in 1925 – the 1600th anniversary of the First Council of Nicaea (325AD) at which the unity of Christ with the Father was defined (The Nicaean Creed). That made 1925 a fitting year to begin an annual commemoration of the ultimate kingship or sovereignty that Christ has over the whole universe.   

 

Over the past two millennia the way in which Kingship has functioned in the Western, Christian world has often failed to live up to the loving pattern of Christ’s life and teaching, and that makes some people wary of calling Christ ‘King’ for fear that the singular, special nature of his rule might be confused with the many rather poor examples of earthly kingship there are to be had, hence an alternative name for this feast is the Reign of Christ in All Creation.

 

The readings for this feast vary on a three-year cycle. If you were here last year (Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary) you will have heard Luke’s account of Jesus’ Crucifixion. Through those words we encountered Christ’s authentic kingship, contrasted with the counterfeit kingship of the world, and in my sermon I spoke about the way that Christ’s sovereignty is based on love, love which is so strong and pure that it is willing to go to death so that people might be reconciled with each other and the God who made them. It is a reign that is real and effective, but largely hidden from the world, and seen, I suggested, most fully by the powerless and the humble.

 

In this morning’s Gospel we are transported by St Matthew, not to the hill of Calvary, but to the Day of Judgement, when the Son of Man (Our Lord) will be visible in all his glory, in a way that every eye can see. The story will be familiar to many of you here. The Son of Man is in the judgement seat, surrounded by sheep and goats which he separates into two groups; one for reward, the other for punishment.

 

What is the significance of the sheep and goats? The sheep are easy to explain. Throughout the Bible God is portrayed as a Shepherd and we as the sheep of his pasture. Goats are also mentioned, quite frequently and often together with sheep. They were a significant part of the sacrificial system – on the solemn Day of Atonement each year, when the priests made sacrifices on behalf of the nation, it was a goat (the original scapegoat) that was ceremonially sent off into the wilderness to take away the sins of the people.

 

Now, I can remember one thing from Stage One archaeology about goats in the ancient near east, which is that they were hard to distinguish from sheep; as far as the skeletal remains are concerned, there was no significant difference in size or structure between sheep and goats – which leads me to suppose that the point Matthew is making is that, from outward appearances there is very little to distinguish the crowd gathered before the Judge of the world.

 

A key point that today’s Gospel is making is deadly serious, and it can be summed up in this way; as we care for people we are serving God and being drawn deeper into a relationship with the Divine. And, conversely, when we neglect the needs of others we move away from God and our relationship with God suffers.

 

This is a truth that is reiterated in different ways throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Let’s consider a few briefly.

The writer of Proverbs taught:

 

Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honour him. (Proverbs 14:31)

 

In Isaiah 58: 6-9 the close link between treating people justly and drawing close to God is made clear when the prophet spells out what God sees as the heart of religiosity

 

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

 

Similarly, in the prophet Ezekiel we read that a righteous person does,

not oppress anyone,...gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment...and is careful to observe [God’s] ordinances, acting faithfully—such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.   (Ezekiel 18:5-9)

 

This insight – that our treatment of people has direct implications for our relationship with God –  is taken to another level in our Lord’s teaching. Consider St Luke’s recollection of one of Jesus’ teachings;

 

...when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:12-14)

 

Saint John, after a long period of ministry in the early church declares (1 John 4:12,20):

 

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us...Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

 

And, of course, there is the well-known teaching from Jesus’ brother James.

 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)

 

Christ’s Kingdom is a reign in which the love and care we have received from God is handed on by us to others in need. When we do that, we are essentially giving back to God; and in that divine cycle we ascend a little further along a spiritual helix coil of love, ready at our new position on that helix to be drawn into a deeper way of caring, and, in turn, a richer understanding of God.

 

 

Each of us are on that heavenly helix, with God’s spirit urging us to take another step forward in caring for the people around us. They may only be baby steps, but that doesn’t matter if we are persistent about it.  May we heed that call and come closer to God, to others and to be the person we were always meant to be under Christ’s gracious reign. Amen.

Tony Surman

Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity, 19 November 2017, 9.30am

The Garden of Eden

Being Good Stewards of Creation

Preached by George Varghese, author of  Our Moral Crisis - Hope in a Troubled World (OMC, 2010)

Genesis chap.1.26. Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps  on  the earth.

Chap. 1.31. Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.

Chap. 2.15. Then the Lord God took man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it.

 

Romans 8:38-39

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Matthew 6:33

But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things that men desire shall be added unto you.

 

Our creator God, we have gathered here to worship you and listen to you. We pray that you  speak to us and give us hearts and minds that listen to you. Amen.

 

After God made the heavens and the earth, He looked at His creation and saw that it was good. Then God made man and put him in God’s garden and God told man to care for it. Today, let us take a look around us to see how we have cared for God’s garden and how we have used our power to dominate.

 

Last night, one seventh of the people in the world went to bed hungry – while at the same time one third of the food produced in the world is wasted. It is estimated that every year millions children die because of starvation and civil war.

 

In many cities the air is so polluted that fresh air, often sourced from the mountains of New Zealand, is sold in tins. You have to pay to breath fresh air.

 

Deserts are encroaching on what was once fertile land.

 

Every year hundreds of plants and animal species become extinct. Never again shall we see those beautiful creatures.

 

While we still see the glory of God reflected in the glorious beauty and diversity of His creation, much has been destroyed and lost. A lot of the damage is the result of human activity, abuse and neglect.

 

We have not cared for God's garden. We have misused our power to dominate. When God made the earth and the heavens, he provided enough resources to ensure that everyone gets their daily bread. The problem is not a shortage of resources but the wrong utilisation and distribution of resources.

 

In our single minded pursuit of economic goals, we are leaving behind us a trail of destruction that could eventually catch up with us and destroy us. If we don't change our ways, we, like the dinosaurs, could simply vanish from the face of the earth. With global warming now taking place and the existence nuclear weapons, that threat is becoming more imminent.

 

We seem to be involved in the rather strange process of filling our pockets with money and our homes with possessions while depriving ourselves of fresh air, clean water and healthy food.

 

What should we do about this.

 

In the face difficult situations, we should turn to the word of God for answers – for the word of God is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.

 

1. Jesus cared for the earth in the best possible way - by living a simple life. Jesus said, "Foxes  have holes and birds have nests but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head".

 

We should live simply so that others may simply live. We are consuming resources at such a rate that future generations may not have much left to live on.

 

It is possible to live an abundant and wholesome life without many of the material things that surround us. As Albert Einstein said, “a quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest”.

 

If material wealth was the route to peace and happiness, the Americans should be the happiest people since America is one of the richest country in the world. Instead, however, they have one of the highest homicide rates, the highest divorce rates and the highest drug abuse rates in the so called developed world. Their economic wealth has not brought them the happiness they are seeking. Jesus said, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

 

2. We should always use technology which is efficient and non polluting. Though such technology exists today, we are so bound by short term profit considerations, that we don't invest in such technology. We should never compromise the future for the sake of the present.

 

3.  We need to educate people all over the world about the need to care for the environment. People need to know that if we don’t care for the earth, the earth will cease to care for us.

 

4.  We should stop migrating to the cities. Isn't it better to be in the countryside and enjoy God's free gift of fresh air instead of having to buy it in containers.

 

5.  We should plant more trees and stop the destruction of forests. Trees provide us with fresh air, clean water and healthy food. Forests also provide a home to thousands of endangered species. As Swami Vivekananda said, "A tree is the greatest unilateral benefactor. It provides shade even to the axe man who comes to chop it down". The pews on which you are now sitting were once trees. Even in death the tree continues to serve. We must preserve the beauty and diversity of God's creation by caring for the plants and animals that are now threatened with extinction.

 

6. In one simple, succinct sentence, our Lord Jesus told us how to achieve progress – progress that is worthwhile, long term and sustainable. Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things that men desire shall be added unto you”. Upon this basis and upon this basis alone, can there be any worthwhile, long term and sustainable progress. Such progress is not measured only in terms of money and is not dependant on resources. In the absence of peace, goodwill and integrity no amount of resources, money or hard work will bring about progress.

 

Today we do not face an environmental crisis. Nor do we face an economic crisis. What we face today is a moral crisis which manifests itself as an environmental, economic and social crisis. That is why Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things that men desire shall be added unto you”.

 

However seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness is easier said than done. There are many difficult questions to answer. For example:

·         How do we know the will of God?

·         How can we be motivated and inspired to do God's will?

·         Should we, like Mother Theresa, sell all that we have and become homeless people? All of Mother Theresa's possessions would have fitted into a bag not much bigger than this shoulder bag.

 

I don't have the answers to those questions, but as we ponder on those and other questions, may God be our guide and our inspiration.

 

A long time ago the psalmist echoed similar sentiments when he said, "Behold how good and joyful a thing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."  In the present context of environmental destruction, it may be more appropriate to say, “Behold how good and joyful a thing it is for all of creation to dwell together in harmony." 

 

Such a vision may seem like an utopian dream – hopelessly unattainable. The challenges on the way may appear insurmountable and we may be led to despair and disappointment. In the face of such fears, we have four reasons for hope.

 

The first reason for our hope is that many people all over the world are realising the importance of caring for God's garden and are doing something positive about it. For example:

·         The Anglican Diocese of Auckland has committed to operating in a carbon-neutral manner by offsetting the carbon it generates through travel by planting trees in Fiji.

·         Countdown and other supermarkets plan to eliminate the use of plastic bags.

·         Personally, I drive a hybrid car which consumes one third the petrol of a conventional car. Not only is it good for the environment - it also saves me money. But there is more that I can and should do to care for God's garden.

 

The list could go on and on about how people all over the world are beginning to care for the earth and we, as a church, have an important role to play in it.

 

The second reason for our hope is that God has given us the freedom to choose and the power to implement our choices. Sadly, we have often made the wrong choices. For the price of one missile, a school full of hungry children could be provided lunch every day for 5 years. The choice is ours. Only a fraction of the money and the resources that are now being devoted to the weapons of death and destruction are sufficient to turn all our deserts green. God has given us the freedom to choose and the power to implement our choices. May He also give us the wisdom to make the right choices.

 

The third reason for our hope is that a long time ago, Joshua had similar fears and doubts when he was called upon to lead the people of Israel. At that time God told Joshua, "Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, neither be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go." Today, in the face of new challenges, opportunities and threats, we have the same confidence and assurance. We are co-workers with God in the ongoing process of creation. We plough the fields and scatter the seeds. Then God makes it grow.  With God working alongside us, our labour shall not be in vain.

 

The fourth, and probably the most important reason for our hope, is that in the midst of conflict, chaos and change, God is still in control and I believe that, God’s love, His wisdom and His might will ultimately prevail over our foolish ways. As St. Paul said, nothing can separate us from the love of God as revealed to us in His Son Jesus Christ.

 

Praise be to God.

 

Caring for God’s garden calls for a change in our values and the way we live. That change must begin with me and with you. Then when our children look at God's garden they would still be able to say, “Behold, how good and beautiful it is”.

 

Shall we pray. Sovereign God,  creator and sustainer of all things visible and invisible, we thank you for giving us your garden to live in. We are sorry for not caring for your garden. We thank you for giving us the power to dominate. We are sorry for misusing that power. We pray for the grace and wisdom to serve you more faithfully and follow you more closely. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

Patronal Feast Day, 12 November 2017

The Feast of St Martin of Chad and St Chad of Mercia

 

The Rev’d Dr Tony Surman

 

Primary Texts

 

Deuteronomy 15:7-8,10-11

1 Thessalonians 5:4-11

John 13:31-35

 

Not long before he was put to death in Jerusalem, Jesus is reported by John to have been at a meal in his honour in Bethany (John 12:2), where a very unusual thing happened. Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, came in, and anointed Jesus’ feet with a very expensive ointment. Her action was extravagant, scandalous even. It caused at least one person in the room to exclaim that the money spent on the ointment ought to have been used to support the poor. That person was Judas Iscariot. His motive in saying what he did, at the time, was not pure according to John. John comments that Judas, who used to keep the common purse, was in the habit of stealing from it himself (John 12:6). Jesus’ measured response to Judas was that the ointment was intended for his burial and that “you will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John12:8). In the Gospels of Mark (14:3-9) and Matthew (26:7-13) Jesus says the same thing under similar, though not identical circumstances. In those instances Jesus is in Bethany, but there is no reference to Lazarus, Martha or Mary; there is a woman, but she is unnamed, she pours the oil on his head, not his feet, and the disciples /observers generally are miffed, rather than Judas alone, who goes off to betray Jesus as a result; all of which suggests that the three records we have point to an historic event in which Jesus was the recipient of an extravagant personal gift, delivered by a woman, which scandalised his companions and led to him commenting that the poor will always be around to be looked after, but he would not.

It is almost certain that Jesus, through that comment, was referring to a passage in the text from Deuteronomy that we heard this morning, ‘…there will never cease to be some in need on the earth’ (Deut 15:11a). The verse in question, in its entirety, helps us to see that Jesus was not making a glib remark at the expense of the wretched masses. Verse 11, as we have heard reads, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’ (Deut 15:11). Jesus lived that commandment as completely as it can be lived. Town-loads of people would come out to him to be healed, for instance, and he never turned them away. His disciples ought to have been getting worked up about how they could imitate his kindness and generosity. Instead they, as a group, or just Judas alone, adopted a ‘holier than thou’ attitude ostensibly driven by concern for social justice, but really motivated by something much darker and selfish.

Our Lord and the author of Deuteronomy were spot on in their observation about the persistence of poverty. It continues to be a feature of our society. Solving the problem is not straight-forward but it needs to be worked away at constantly because one of the central values of our faith is the requirement to look after our neighbours, our fellow nationals (and in an increasingly global world), the whole of humanity.

That value is spelled out as a very clear commandment in Deuteronomy. It is not in the form of a riddle. It isn’t cryptic. It’s very black and white: Look after the needy in your society. Of course, one could contend that the society or nation being referred to here is the people of God, which today is represented by the church or the baptised rather than all the people who make up a modern nation (So forget everyone else, just look after your buddies in church), but I think that misses the point that the people of God being referred to in Deuteronomy was a diverse nation of people, committed to some core values, but differing on other matters (as you would expect in a federation of clans or tribes). The modern nation state parallels that situation quite closely. In New Zealand, for example, most of us can agree on a number of core values, but we disagree on how they might best be achieved – by more government intervention, smaller government, redistribution of wealth, greater personal responsibility, and on and on it goes. So when the writer of Deuteronomy calls on his fellow nationals to have a real heart for those in need in his society, his more recent counterparts are people like Richard John Seddon, the NZ Liberal Premier who oversaw the passing of the Old-Age Pensions Act of 1898, Michael Joseph Savage, the PM of the first Labour government which significantly broadened the welfare state, and a host of good people from all walks of life who used their talents or their success to give other people a chance to flourish.

Our Lord’s teaching in the Gospel today, in the context of his last meal with his disciples before his crucifixion, is a plea for them to be united through mutual care for one another. As well as being a good thing in itself, the love they have for one another has an evangelistic element; it is through the love that they have for one another that the world will know that they are his disciples (John 13:35)

This is a teaching that every Christian community would do well to take to heart and concentrate their efforts on. Unfortunately, it all too frequently slips down a rung or two on the ladder of priorities. Usually the slip is not too dramatic, but still disappointing – parishioners harbouring grudges for something that was or wasn’t done, people being short with one another, by-passing certain people, a refusal to look someone in the eye, or to look them in the eye unkindly; the list could go on! Sometimes the absence of charity (of love) is so severe, however, that war breaks out in congregations and fists fly.

I’m very pleased to be able to report that there have been no assaults between parishioners over the last year (none that have been reported to me anyway), and, positively, I can honestly say that everyone here makes an effort to accommodate everyone else – allowing a bit of room for each of our peculiarities (speaking for myself at least when it comes to being peculiar). The worse things that I’ve had to deal with have been the occasional uncharitable remark made by one person or another to a fellow congregant. That shouldn’t happen, but sometimes it does, and it does cause hurt, not only to the person it is directed against, but to ourselves collectively and our mission to the world which depends on the witness of mutual love between Christians – ‘By this [says Jesus] everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

This parish is one of the friendliest I’ve encountered. It really does have a family feel about it, and I know from talking with people who have been here much longer than me that this has long been the case. That is a culture worth preserving and cultivating. By the simple act of looking after one another, being kind to one another, considerate and caring we preach the gospel and create an environment that is quite uncommon in much of the modern world – an environment in which people looking for meaning in life, seeking out God, can feel safe and at home.

We are fortunate to have two saints watching over us as a community – St Martin of Tours and St Chad of Mercia. I’ve written a bit about them on the pewsheet, and I won’t rehearse that again now, suffice to say, both our patrons opened their hand to the poor and needy, in their respective times and places, and we to, through the power of the Holy Spirit are compelled to do the same.

Something that might help us remember that call, and the power behind it, is the new artwork that has been lovingly made by parishioners for the church. Some kind people here gave money for the purchase of tiles and other material, and others gave their talent and time to putting it together. It is finished now, so I invite the Mosaics on Monday group to come forward to have their icon blessed.

Prayer of Blessing (from The Book of Occasional Services, 1979):

Almighty God, whose Son our Saviour manifested your glory in the flesh, and sanctified the outward and visible to be a means to perceive realities unseen: accept, we pray, this representation of the Holy Spirit; and grant that as we look upon it, our hearts may be drawn to things which can be seen only by the eye of faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

All Saints Sunday, 5 November 2017, 9.30am

Primary texts    

 

Revelation 7:9-17

1 John 3:1-3

Matthew 5:1-12

 

 

As I mention in the pew sheet this morning, the word saint has come to describe a person of exceptional virtue or exemplary behaviour. That definition is fine, but it fails to address something that is even more fundamental to sainthood. That deeper meaning becomes apparent when you look to the origin of the word. Saint came into English from the Latin word, Sanctus, which we translate today as Holy. The core of saintliness, then, is holiness. Holiness is a key property of God – later in our Eucharistic prayer we will affirm this when we say together

 

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.

 

Now, it is helpful to know that saints and God have something in common – namely, holiness – but it can be a bit tricky putting one’s finger, as it were, precisely on what holiness is. That is not surprising, really, when you consider that it is a property best exemplified by the Creator of the universe, who transcends time and space, and whose ways and thoughts are – as one of the prophets puts it – as high above our ways and thoughts as the heavens are above the earth (Isaiah 55:9) In fact, it is the massive gap that exists between God and the world– in terms of love, understanding, justice, and so on – that provides us with a practical definition of holiness; to be holy is to be different and set apart from things as they normally are.

 

Saints, then, are people who have been called by God to a way of life – to a way of being in the world – that sets them apart in some way from the world around them.

 

The way in which saints are to be set apart is spelled out by Jesus in this morning’s Gospel. In that important teaching (often referred to as the Beatitudes; from the Latin to be happy or blessed) our Lord lists the behaviours and dispositions which lead to real happiness. On the face of it, many of the qualities which Jesus sets out as blessings are what the everyday world would describe as misfortune or misdirected (think  of mourning – what is good about that, the world asks – isn’t it just an unfortunate emotion to be put behind us as quickly as possible so we can move on to more pleasurable experiences? or they are  what the world might call a failure to seize the moment (being meek or poor in spirit is viewed with suspicion by a society that expects people to be assertive, competitive and concerned about self-actualisation above all else) or these qualities are what the world might consider a waste of effort altogether (think of what worldly wisdom would have to say about the blessedness of peacemaking in the middle-east for example; ‘a hiding to nothing,’ many would say); there can be no doubt that a person who lives out these teachings of Jesus will stand out in a world that operates according to a different set of values. They will be distinguishable on the spiritual level from many of the people with whom they rub shoulders on a daily basis. They will be holy. They will be saints.

 

Over the course of Christian history a number of people have stood out from the world in the way that Jesus describes as happy or blessed. By allowing the grace of God to work in their lives, and by responding positively to the promptings of the Spirit, they learned that what Jesus was talking about was the way to abundant life and extraordinary effectiveness, paradoxical as that would seem.

 

Take one of the most well-known and loved Saints of the middle-ages for example, St Francis of Assisi. Francis very intentionally became poor in both the spirit and the flesh. His approach to living out the beatitudes was so extreme it almost certainly contributed to his early death. My feeling is that he went too far in his bid to mortify the flesh but I don’t doubt at all the purity of his intention to be a true disciple of Christ, a saint, set apart to reflect Christ’s life to his own generation. God rewarded Francis’ pure intention through the burgeoning of spiritual life in Europe that followed Francis’ remarkable witness in the world. The ongoing importance of Franciscan spirituality is evident in the decision of the latest Roman Catholic pope to take the name Francis. Like his namesake, the current pope has distinguished himself by living as simply as a person in his position can, and he seems to be relatively unconcerned about courting the good opinion of the power brokers in his church. His pontificate to date has really been quite refreshing. His commitment to living simply and keeping the needs of the poor in the forefront of his mind has made a man in his every 80s (born 1936) with one lung, strangely compelling to Christians of all denominations, and effective in proclaiming the Gospel beyond the church to the world. 

 

Moving closer to home, we have the equally compelling figure of Bishop George Augustus Selwyn who set aside the prospect of a cushy posting in Britain for a life of challenge and uncertainty establishing a church in this land. Selwyn was very idealistic. His vision for St John’s College, for instance, was that it would be a community that engaged people of every age in study and practical work, and be a model for others to follow. His vision in that instance was not fully realised; not because it was a bad idea but because of flaws in the world and in human character. That set back doesn’t make him any less a saint; his sainthood depends (as does ours) on his intention and attention to building communities in which the dignity of every person is respected, where the potential of each person can be realised, where reconciliation between enemies is facilitated – where, basically, the beatitudes that Jesus’ taught are lived out in their fullest.

 

The saints of God, then, are a people set apart – not for their own glorification – but for the building of a world which exemplifies, or makes real, the loving principles that are at the heart of God. Those principles run counter to many of the cynical, earthly truisms upon which we base our everyday lives. It takes great effort and time; it takes blood, sweat and tears to combat those negative forces and to build a society that conforms more closely to the divine model. Thanks be to God it is a work that has already begun and that we, as individuals, and even as a generation, do not do alone. The foundation of this mighty work was laid by Jesus of Nazareth who, in his life and death, showed us what love really is, and by his resurrection, assured us of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty over all things.

 

Generations of saints, following in the footsteps of Christ, have built on that foundation until today, 80 or so generations removed from the church of the first century, the Gospel has become the pattern to which approximately a third of the world’s population have committed– in theory at least – to conforming their lives to. There is still a lot of work to be done. That is our task. It is a work that moves ahead when we let go of the world’s priorities and expectations and commit ourselves to the properties and qualities of God. When that change of focus occurs in our lives, new sensitivities develop and a fresh ability to make positive changes in our own lives and in the lives of others is unearthed. Our empathy with the bereft becomes more acute; we are indignant rather than indifferent when people are treated unfairly; and we are willing to forgive because we are more acutely aware than ever of how we ourselves have needed and have received mercy.

 

 

So you Saints of God, I salute you. Go on to fight the good fight. Run the race to the finish and trust that the love which has enabled you to change this world for the better, if only in part, will bring both you and your work to full completion in God’s good time. 

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 29 October 2017, 9.30am

Primary Texts

 

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Matthew 22:34-46

 

The most important Commandment

 

 

We are in the same scene (as it were) in today’s gospel as we were last Sunday. Once again Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem, surrounded by people, and being quizzed by religious experts. The question asked of him today, however, doesn’t seem to be asked with the same degree of malice that the question about tax was asked. The person (or group) that asks Jesus ‘what is the greatest commandment?’ has already seen Jesus deal very effectively with tricky questions, knocking the wind completely out of his opponents, so the question this time appears to be asked with real interest about what the answer will be.

 

The first part of Jesus’ answer mirrors the words from Deuteronomy 6:5 which I commented on last week (love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind (Jesus)/strength (Deuteronomy).

 

This commandment is incredibly important. The instruction immediately after it in Deuteronomy is to “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

 

And it continues, “Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9)

 

This instruction is kept in a literal way in orthodox Judaism. Two boxes (Phylacteries) with scripture in them (from Deuteronomy 6 and Exodus 13 -  the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt) are worn on the forehead and forearm in morning prayer. There is also an old tradition of keeping the texts of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (which outlines the blessings God promises to those who obey his commandments) in a small cylinder beside the entrance door of the home. This is called the Mezuzah, and it is touched or acknowledged in some other way as people pass it (rather like holy water at a church entrance way or in some homes), with the words of verse 8 of Psalm 121 being said in Hebrew – “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” It is a nice tradition that brings a bit of focus to a person’s comings and goings.

 

The second part of Jesus’ answer to what is the most important commandment is that we should love our neighbours as ourselves because that is ‘like’ the commandment to love God. I elaborate a bit on this on the front cover of the pew sheet, suggesting that our love of God is shown in the way we look after people, or treat people. Given that each person is God’s loving and loved creation, it follows that our treatment of people says a great deal about the value we place on God. This is a principle that we need to keep reminding ourselves of quite regularly – hour to hour, even minute to minute, as we interact with people at home, in the workplace, on the street. If we really love God, those interactions will be so much the smoother because we will see the person before us as something of great worth, and that will cause us to find areas of common ground in our meeting, even if our immediate purposes are at odds.

 

The job that diplomats have to do, for instance, is dependent on them being able to build relationships with world leaders who often have mutually incompatible visions of how the world ought to be. Their role can only be effective when they can see through the tangle of policy differences present at any meeting, to the human beings they are negotiating with, created in the image of God and priceless. The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, appears to be a person with this ability. It is unfortunate that his boss is less gifted in this regard (Trump told Tillerson, via twitter, that he was ‘wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man’ when Tillerson was attempting to have dialogue with the North Korean leader Kim Jon-Un). It is early days, but I think it is already fair to say that our new Prime Minister is cut from the same sort of cloth as Tillerson, with a similar instinct and ability to build relationships between very different people. The coalition negotiations are testament to that gift. May she continue to build relationships across NZ society and give glory to God through the respect she shows friends and opponents alike.

 

After answering some very curly questions very well, Jesus turns the tables on the people who have been quizzing him and he asks them a question which reveals something significant about his status in God’s plan for the world.  To understand what he is driving at it helps to know that the Psalms (or at least the majority of them) have been traditionally understood as being composed by King David, and that it was the common belief that it would be someone descended from that beloved King who would rescue the Jewish people from the oppression of other nations; the Pharisees answer Jesus’ question about who the Messiah is son of, by saying that the Messiah is David’s son. Jesus then notes that in Psalm 110 the writer, David, refers to a powerful figure before whom every oppressor will be vanquished (God will ‘put his enemies under his feet’). David describes this person as superior to him (he refers to him as his Lord), and his majesty is almost indistinguishable from God’s own majesty (this Lord will sit at God’s right hand, which is the place occupied by the crown prince). The implication is that if ever there were a Messiah, this person would be the one.

 

 

This baffles the Pharisees into silence. They have just heard a very convincing argument that the Messiah need not be a descendent of David. Almost certainly, most of them would have been keeping watch, for a long time, over well-connected families in the elite who might just rear a child who could be the next ‘King David.’ They wouldn’t have expected that person to come from the poorer end of society, and it is unlikely that they thought of Jesus as being in any way a descendent of David (although we know from Matthew’s genealogy that he did have a connection in a sense). Now, however, they had been given good reason to entertain the possibility that the Messiah could come from anywhere and be anyone. And, given the quality of the answers Jesus gave to their questions and the questions he himself asked, they must have felt, in their heart of hearts, that this could very well be the one destined to sit at God’s right hand. They had a difficult decision to make. Some of them, we know, decided to follow Jesus (Nicodemus)– perhaps not at that very moment, but after more time and reflection. Others did not. That is unfortunate, but what is important, here and now, is that we see what God was and is doing through Jesus of Nazareth, slowly (perhaps) but steadily vanquishing the powers of darkness within and beyond people, to the honour of God who made them, and who alone deserves our complete adoration, which is demonstrated by the way we look after each other. 

Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, 22 October 2017, 9.30am

 

Texts:

 

Isaiah 45:1-7

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

 

 

Giving God God's Due

 

"Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matt 22:21)

You will no doubt have heard the old adage that there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes. There is truth in this statement. Death has been a part of life on this planet for the millions of years over which life has evolved from the simplest, single-celled organisms to the incredibly complex forms of life which grace the earth today. Taxes, understood as levies gathered in a systematic way from a population by those who govern that human unit are not millions of years old, but they are certainly thousands of years old and have been with us since humans began to cluster together into sedentary communities that required an administration to maintain law and order, and provide some level of defence from outsiders. The Roman Empire which occupied Palestine in the first century had a well organised system of taxation but it didn’t operate in quite the way that it does in twenty-first century New Zealand. In first century Palestine taxes were collected by agents who obtained the right to raise taxes on condition that they guaranteed to pay the Roman authorities a set fee – whether or not they were able to extract that sum from the people. They were, however, allowed to raise more money than their quota. There was a strong incentive to do so, because that surplus remained with them. It was ‘their cut.’ This system worked well for the Roman state. They were guaranteed a certain income. It wasn’t so wonderful for the population concerned, who were pursued by tax agents anxious to achieve their quota in tax lest they fall foul of the Roman justice system and keen to extract as much money as possible from each person they met. It is understandable, then, that tax collectors were despised by the local population. Any revolutionary figure might have been expected to be a harsh critic of the tax system and to have encouraged his/her compatriots to resist paying it. This is what the Pharisees were banking on when they quizzed Jesus about the justice of paying tax to the Emperor. If Jesus said it was wrong to do so, they could run straight to the Roman authorities and accuse him of sedition. If he said it was just to pay tax to the Emperor, Jesus – the Pharisees might reason – would be made to look weak to his followers. Jesus deflects their cunning, pointing out that there is justice in the paying of tax to the Emperor (“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s”). His ‘knock-out blow’ to the Pharisees is to bring God into the conversation when he states that we must also give God what is God’s due. This makes the Pharisees look very petty. They should have been spending their time asking Jesus questions on how we are to achieve the latter. That would have been a very productive thing for them to do, and so it remains today.

 

Tony Surman 

 

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, 8 October 2017, 9.30am

Primary Texts:

 

Isaiah 5: 1-7

Philippians3: 4b-14: 

Matthew 21: 33-46: 

 

The passion with which St Paul writes in this morning’ second lesson is very moving, very persuasive. For Paul, his relationship with Christ was absolutely paramount, and as you know, completely life changing. He was a Jew by birth and upbringing – he was a part of that vineyard which God planted when he called Abraham and Sarah to a new place and promised to be faithful to them and their descendants, if they were faithful to him – yet Paul counted those formal qualifications (I guess you could call them that) as nothing in comparison with being united with Christ.

 

The first reading and the Gospel today are hard-hitting and important, but they are also dangerous. They are hard-hitting and important because they portray in vivid terms the nature and the consequences of humankind’s rebellion from God. They characterise human nature as having a tendency towards being self-serving (‘look after number one’ as the saying goes), and they demonstrate what happens when selfishness becomes the order of the day in human society, and the pursuit of God and the virtues and values which that entails ‘goes out the proverbial window.’ That is an important lesson for any age.

 

The danger they (the first reading and the Gospel) bring with them is the risk of incitement to hatred of a particular people – namely, the Jews, because it is pretty clear that they, or at least a significant group of them, are being singled out as villains here in the story of God’s interaction with humankind. That is understandable in the context in which the readings were being set down. In Isaiah’s case, the critique is harsh but it is being made by an ‘insider’ for the benefit of insiders. In Matthew’s case, Jesus’ reported speech also has that self-critical element to it (Jesus was a Jew, speaking so as to influence Jews – in the first instance), but the words themselves were being set down a generation or more later by communities that had been deliberately isolated from mainstream Judaism and were the victims of oppression and persecution (to some extent at least) from that community.

 

The problem with writing anything down is that when the context in which a text is read (sometimes centuries later) differs from the context in which it was set down, the text can have consequences that the original writers never intended (at least in their better moments). I think that is what did happen as Christians became the dominant group in Europe and Jews existed as tiny minorities with little or no security of tenure in any one country. The temptation for Christians was to read texts like today’s Isaiah and Matthew texts, as rationales for keeping the Christian foot firmly on the Jewish throat because these were the ‘bad guys’ in the story, wicked tenants and Christ-killers to boot, who were brazen enough to say in Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus’ impending crucifixion, ‘his blood be upon us and on our children.’ (Matthew 27:25)

 

As an example of the way in which changing contexts can have dangerous consequences on things that are written down, consider the great – and in a sense, the original – reformer of the western church, to whom our brand of Christianity owes a great deal – Martin Luther. This year is the 500th anniversary of his posting of his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral (31 October). Luther was a truly great reformer, and a man of energy, courage, vision, and fine intellect, but he was, in many ways, still a medieval, pre-modern man, in the way he thought about the world. One of the prejudices he carried with him was anti-Semitism. He hoped to be able to convert the Jews to Christianity, but when this proved unsuccessful (in some cases, Jews were making converts of Christians), he vented his spleen by writing some very horrid things about the Jews. In his 1543 work, ‘The Jews and their lies’ he wrote

 

“What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:

 

(I will just give the lead sentences to the paragraphs that follow)

 

First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them…

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed... 

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them…

Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb... 

Fifth, I advise that safe­ conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews…

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…

Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3[:19])…

 

The prejudices and outright hatred that Luther expresses here are no doubt influenced by a culture in which Christianity was dominant, powerful, and - though interested in reform - arrogant and lacking in self-criticism. So they read texts such as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants as indictments of the Jews, as a people of faith (if not a people, full stop). That almost certainly wasn’t the intention of our Lord, who was born and raised as a Jew, called Jews to be his disciples, and, even in his risen life, called a Jew to be his primary ambassador to the non-Jewish world. 

 

But there was worse to come. Luther’s own anti-Semitic writings – penned in the coarse and crude idiom of the time – in combination with the prestige he had in Protestant parts of Germany in the 20th century – provided an inroad for the Nazis to sell their policy of the elimination of Jewish culture - and ultimately Jewish lives – to Germans who identified as Christian, with ease. Luther, I’m pretty sure, would have recognised the sheer evil of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ of the Jewish ‘problem’ if he had been alive to see it. But he wasn’t there. All that remained of his thought on the matter was his angry rhetoric, penned in frustration that the Jews of his time had not converted to Christianity as he hoped they might. We must beware of what we write in anger.

 

(Returning the Gospel) What we might have benefited from doing, as a church, across Christian history, when we read Matthew 21:33-46, was questioning the extent to which our assurance in the church as an institution, and all those rites and observances through which we find our identity, was more important to us than our relationship with Christ; we should have been rehearsing our ability to say, in parallel to Paul in the second lesson, that despite being a faithful, dyed in the wool Anglican /Catholic/Presbyterian/Baptist (you name it), we regard that fact (relatively speaking) as loss compared with the ‘surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, our Lord.’ I really think that would have been appropriation of the scripture that was more in keeping with the Spirit of Christ, revealed through the NT as a whole, not least through the letters of St Paul.

 

What is it to ‘know Christ Jesus, our Lord’ as Paul would have it? That is a big question. Maybe we can start by saying what it isn’t rather than what it is. It isn’t to do with knowing a lot of things about Jesus, although this probably helps. That is to say, it isn’t to do with how erudite we are as scholars, or how well we can quote scripture and verse from the New Testament – though both of those capabilities might be very useful. St Paul, as he tells us today, was very accomplished in his faith tradition. As a Pharisee he would have been in regular – likely daily – contact with the Hebrew Scriptures and would have been trained, and no doubt adept at debating with colleagues about the meaning of a passage of scripture. That was all well and good, but he managed to do that very happily while he was still, in the Risen Christ’s words, ‘kicking against the goads’ (Acts 26:14) or resisting God’s call to him through Christ.

 

If it wasn’t ‘knowledge as facts and figures’ that Paul was referring to when he asserted that he wanted to ‘know Christ Jesus, our Lord’ then what was it that he was referring to? Well, I think it is knowledge in the sense of acquaintance. That sort of knowledge is experience based, and it depends on an encounter with the Risen Christ. Paul’s own encounter with Christ, which led to his conversion, is reported three times in the Book of Acts and it is referred to in his first letter to the Corinthians and his letter to the Galatians. That encounter was very intense and powerful, but it was not a one-off incident. Paul’s whole life from that moment revolved around deepening his acquaintance with Jesus. That pattern is apparent in the lives of all the great saints – and it is the pattern that we are called to as well.

 

We need to keep focused on that core work, on keeping our relationship with Christ as central to our lives, even though there are so many things to distract us from that imperative, in the world, but also in the church where there is always the risk of getting caught up in serving the institution and its perceived needs rather than Christ and the concerns he has for all people. God forbid that we ever become so distracted from our central obligation that we fail to recognise the landowner’s Son when he comes to us, as he will, and very likely incognito, disguised, so as to be recognisable only to those who are well acquainted with what it feels like to be around real holiness. May we rise to that occasion by God’s grace.

 

Tony Surman

 

 

Thanksgiving for Creation - Pet Sunday, 1 October 2017, 9.30am

The three young men who sang the original Benedicite

Primary Texts

Song of the Three 52-65

Galatians 6:14-18

Luke 12:22-34

 

It is quite possible that this is the first Sunday you have heard of a piece of scripture called the Song of the Three but I assure you it is the reading that our official lectionary assigns as the first lesson on St Francis Day (who was mad about creation – and this is the closest Sunday to his feast), and it has been a major part of Anglican worship since the publication of the First Book of Common Prayer in 1549. In that book, the words of praise (which every part of creation is called upon to give to God – and taken from the Song of the Three) are part of the service of morning prayer – Matins. They come after the first lesson (reading) there, and were an alternate to the Song of the Church (Te Deum Laudamus). And that has continued to be the case through all the editions of the Book of Common Prayer, where the Song of the Three is called by its Latin name Benedicite. By the way, the Three people being referred to are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Azariah) who were thrown into a blazing furnace by Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3) for refusing to worship the gods of Babylon. They were miraculously preserved by God. The song is their spontaneous response to God’s salvation.

Benedicite means ‘Bless ye,’ and may ‘ring a bell’ for you because we have one of our very own in the second Eucharistic rite in our 1989 NZ Prayer Book – Benedicite Aotearoa (p.457) which calls on everything from glaciers to pipi and from saints to shrimps to give praise to God. Even the creatures and things of creation that a bit problematic to our way of live are there – rabbits and avalanches for example, but this follows the pattern established in the Song of the Three, that everything, regardless of the apparent benefit it gives to us, has been put in the universe for one paramount purpose, namely, to praise God who made it. Some of those things, recorded in parts of the Song of the Three we don’t hear this morning, are ‘winter cold and summer heat,’ ‘ice and cold,’ ‘lightning and clouds,’ – not things that you are likely to find included in the advertising for a holiday destination. But it is all meant to praise God, and in fact, does praise him, through its very existence.

Which is why it is so good to have some creatures in our church today, beyond the human kind, whose purpose, like ours, is to give praise to God who made them.

They give that praise in all sorts of ways, just as we do, by using the gifts they were given to the full – running, jumping, playing – hunting even - but one special way in which they praise God is through the loving relationships they forge with us.

It is often said these days by people who make their living thinking and talking about God that the way in which human being can be said to be bearers of God’s image is through our capacity to relate to others – we are relational beings and God is a Trinity of relationships that move within and beyond God, reaching out across the cosmos. I think that is true and helpful, but it can’t fully explain how we image God in a unique way because we know that animals of all sorts can develop very strong, lasting relationships with their human companions. Rather than seeing this as a problem to be solved, however, I think this is something we should celebrate and it is something that ought to make us think long and hard about the way we treat animals. When we get that right, on this planet, then we might just be safe to be let loose on the universe which is likely to be inhabited by other life forms, but probably none who look like us - in the least.

 

There may not be any alien life with us today, but there are certainly some dogs and a few plants of various descriptions, which I invite down to the front of the church now for a blessing.

Tony Surman

Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, 24 September 2017, 9.30am

Digging into a Parable

 

Primary texts

 

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Philippians 1:21-30

Matthew 20:1-16

 

St Matthew sets before us this morning a parable that highlights the scandalous generosity of God - a generosity that challenges our sense of fairness; labourers who have only worked a small portion of the working day receive the same reward for their labour as the ones who have worked a full day. That’s a bit odd isn’t it? One of the church’s hymns contains the verse: “In the just reward of labour, God’s will is done.” Is what the landowner does in today’s parable just?

Well, on the face of it, we can say, at least, that the landowner’s behaviour is not strictly unjust; he pays the first set of workers precisely what had been agreed when he hired them (that was all set forth in their employment contract you might say), and is within his rights to reward other workers precisely as he feels fit. Nevertheless, it upsets the earlier crew – and probably would perturb us too, were we in the same situation – when there is no distinction made between those who worked the full day, and those who worked one hour.  This is the sort of case where treating everyone in a situation equally (paying them the same amount) smacks of unfairness.

In a bid to shed some light at what might be going on beneath the surface of this parable I’m going to focus in on particular parts of it, with some particular questions in mind. Quite a bit of meaning can be teased out of it if we focus our attention on the reaction of the disgruntled workers, who laboured all day and were paid no more than the ones who worked for an hour. The initial question I would ask in relation to these workers is; who do they represent?

I would suggest that the earliest workers represent the first people to respond to God’s call to holiness, that is, to being a people set apart for God and to be a blessing for the world. That is to say, they represent Abraham, the wandering Aramean (Deut 26:5), his wife Sarah and their descendents, who became the Hebrew people, led out of captivity in Egypt by Moses, who in turn became the Jewish people - a national identity forged in further exile and costly return to the promised land, a people of whom and for whom Christ was born – together with us of course!

There is a lot of salvation history bound up in that last paragraph. Abraham’s positive response to God’s call at the metaphorical dawning of the day in God’s vineyard committed his descendents to a relationship that was at times very demanding, causing them to move beyond their comfort zones into uncharted territory and to trust that God really would be their redeemer. The Old Testament is largely the record of the ups and downs of that relationship, that work in progress.

When Jesus was born on the cusp of the first century, the situation for religious Jews in Roman Palestine was not great. The glory days of the Jewish people were centuries in the past; now they lived in a land dominated by a people who worshipped earthly power - they called their rulers gods - and had precious little regard for the dignity of human life.  Many of the Jews who remained faithful to the idea that God would redeem them from their enemies saw the only possibility of this happening being miraculous, divine intervention. The first century was for them ‘an end of days;’ God’s redemption of the faithful was just beyond the horizon, as it were, where the Sun was now setting, marking the end of a hard day for the people of God in God’s Vineyard.

If the earliest group of workers in this morning’s parable represents Abraham, Sarah and their descendents, then it is easy to see why they would be disgruntled that newcomers to God’s cause would get the same reward as them without having to ‘tough it out’ for centuries as servants of God. Their response is natural, understandable and expected; in fact, we would be surprised if it were otherwise; which is why we, like them, are compelled to pause and reflect more deeply on the point that is being made here when the God of justice and righteousness behaves in a manner which, on the surface, is less than even-handed.

The starting point of my reflection on this apparent anomaly is to assume that the perceived problem is not with God - who remains just, and good – but with my (and the disgruntled workers’) way of understanding what is transpiring in the landowner’s action.  This leads me to examine more closely the nature of the payment that God - the landowner - makes to the labourers in the vineyard.

Now, if the parable involves a re-presentation of salvation history, from its beginnings in Abraham and Sarah through to its imminent conclusion, then the payment that is being made to each worker is nothing less than the reward of eternal life – the life of unbroken relationship with God. You simply cannot put a price on that reward; it is of infinite worth; hence you could work your whole life (or for generations) for it and not truly deserve it. Which is to say that the reward is, strictly speaking, not remuneration at all, but a gracious gift, handed over with abandon by a God who really likes the world he has made and the people he has put in it, and desires - quite recklessly by our measure – the eternal good of both.

We, on the other hand tend to be rather less altruistic than God, and we cling (subconsciously if not explicitly) to the belief that some people really don’t deserve the grace that God would lavish on them - which is true, in so far as they don’t deserve it, but false in so far as it implies that we are somehow more worthy of God’s grace than others. As St Paul was quick to point out, we all fall short on the glory of God (Rom 3:23). 

Human beings can be incredibly cold-hearted to the fate of outsiders – of those beyond our particular group. I think that is one of the issues being addressed in this morning’s parable (and it is very clearly there too in the first reading). If you are willing to accept that the payment each group of workers gets is of infinite worth then you would have to question why it is that labourers who had the good fortune to work with a landowner they knew to be so generous did not welcome with open arms later workers; if they really loved them, they would have rejoiced that individuals once lost had now been found. Instead they sought to ration God’s love and acceptance of people so that it accorded with their need to feel more special, more deserving than others.  They behaved like the comical Prophet Jonah did when the wicked Ninevites responded positively to his call to repent – like him, they sulked, complaining about God’s generosity towards those perceived as less worthy than themselves.

So there you have it, one way of reading this morning’s parable – not a particularly radical way, and one that certainly does not exhaust the meaning contained within this parable, which like so much of Jesus’ teaching, disconcerts and destabilises us, so as to re-orientate us, and remodel us into the Children of God we are called to be in a community that is meant to be expansive, growing ever wider, giving life, life in abundance.

Tony Surman 

Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 17 September 2017, 9.30am

Don Henley, 2015. photographed by Danny Clinch

Forgiveness 

Primary Texts

Genesis 50:15-21

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

 

Forgiveness is a major theme in popular music. I’m thinking, for example of Don Henley’s 1989 reflection on the breakup of a relationship in his song entitled, ‘The heart of the matter’ a refrain of which goes:

‘I've been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter, but I think it's about forgiveness, forgiveness, even if, even if, you don’t love me anymore. 

Then more recently (2010), there is Bryan Adams,’  ‘Please forgive me, I know not what I do,’ in which the writer asks forgiveness of his lover for loving her so much – slightly cringe worthy but it sold very well (the single sold over 3 million copies world-wide).

And there is the more (shall we say) down-to-earth, 1976 song by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’

It's sad, so sad (so sad), it's a sad, sad situation, and it's getting more and more absurd. It's sad, so sad (so sad); why can't we talk it over? Oh it seems to me, that sorry seems to be the hardest word.

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list, but it goes some way to demonstrating that forgiveness and associated feelings of sorrow, remorse, vulnerability and grieving are a big part of our common consciousness as human beings, and they point to the fact (in various ways, some more tasteful than others) that forgiveness is about the restoration of relationships – not necessarily to where they were before, but to a place that brings healing and wholeness to the reconciled parties.

The Bible reports on or reflects on forgiveness, one way or another, rather a lot – which is not surprising for a collection of works that is concerned (in a broad sense) with how people ought to behave in a world that has a tenuous relationship with the God who created it, and in which human relationships are marred by selfishness and a plethora of associated weaknesses.

The first reading this morning is an extract from a much larger story found in Genesis (and reflected on in other parts of scripture) about Joseph, the second youngest son of the patriarch Jacob who was his Father’s favourite and the victim of his older brothers’ jealousy. He nearly died at their hands, but was spared by his brother Reuben who suggested putting him in a cistern (a hole in the ground from which he secretly intended to rescue the lad). Alas Reuben was unable to rescue Joseph who was sold to merchants headed for Egypt.  Although he entered Egypt as a slave, Joseph, by the grace of God, was enabled to rise to be the prime minister of Egypt, second only in majesty to Pharaoh, and was in charge of the gathering, storage and distribution of grain in the country.

The story of Joseph is one of the most polished stories in the Old Testament, which points to it having been a deeply cherished story that was told and retold for generations before it was committed to papyrus or parchment. In the extract we have before us this morning, the story has just reached a climax that it has been building up to for a long time - the revealing of Joseph’s true identity to his brothers, who are in Egypt attempting to purchase grain from the government stores which Joseph governs. Up until that point, they had thought that they were dealing with an Egyptian administrator. The realisation that they were dealing with their long-departed brother filled them, understandably, with dread and fear; here they were, with the brother they had all but consigned to death, now in a position to do with them and their families as he wished; that is the sort of power Joseph had by this point. The best that his brothers could hope for was to have their lives spared, so they pled for forgiveness with that hope, no doubt, in mind.

Joseph, to their pleasant surprise, forgives their trespasses against him fully, which reveals something even more fundamental about Joseph’s identity, that he is blessed by God with a wise Spirit that enables him to interpret his situation with/from a God’s-eye view. Yes, evil was done to him by his brothers, but Joseph’s fortune, as a person of faith, was assured by God who has a knack of bringing victory out of apparent disaster – not victory about which any one person can boast, but victory in which life itself is the champion: ‘even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.’ Would that every prime minister and head of state were as gracious and as willing to let bygones be bygones.

There is something about Joseph, son of Jacob, that is very Christlike. His faithfulness to God was pure, and capable of sustaining him through the worst of times in captivity and prison, and through the temptations of life at court and in high office. The portrait that the Old Testament paints of Joseph is of a righteous and humble man, not unlike the portrayal of our Lord in the Gospels. When Joseph’s brothers ask him for forgiveness he responds in the same way that Jesus did when he was confronted by the grief that Lazarus’ death had caused his family and friends; he wept. In both cases the emotional response stems (I would suggest) from deep regret over what might have been avoided, even though both Joseph and Jesus knew that God had the power to make good the damage that had been done.

The same humble, graceful spirit is evident in the second reading, in which St Paul pleads with the Roman Christians to get on with each other, respecting their quite different approaches to religion (on what to eat or not to eat; on which, if any, days are holier than others). They should refrain from arguing and judging one another because it is God who upholds the faithful and makes them ‘able to stand’ (‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.’)

Paul had come to realise, through an encounter with the risen Christ, just how capable God was (and is) of ‘making people stand,’ not counting their trespasses against God, but instead unilaterally (from his side alone) restoring the relationship that sin had rent asunder. Paul’s primary sin, before his conversion, was presumption or arrogance – specifically, feeling assured that his understanding of religion was the correct understanding. It had no place in it for a Galilean carpenter who criticised the current best practice in religion and ended up being executed for his trouble. So, as the Book of Acts puts it, he went about ‘violently persecuting the church.’

That all changed when the risen Christ came into his life on the road to Damascus, convicted him of the error of his ways, and forgave him absolutely. Paul knew that it was Christ alone who had made him stand, and that if he could make him stand, he was more than up to the challenge of redeeming people whose religious scruples were misdirected.

Paul was the antithesis (or opposite) to the slave Jesus refers to this morning, who was forgiven to an outrageous extent by his master, but refused to forgive a fellow slave his miniscule debt to him. By way of contrast, Paul was so moved by the forgiveness and grace that he had received from God through Christ, that he dedicated his life to furthering Christ’s ministry of reconciliation wherever he went.

We are called to the same ministry and we, like Paul – and like the great patriarch Joseph hundreds of years before him, can only do this by the grace of God which empowers our lives to the extent that we repent, turn to God in Jesus’ name, and commit to being forgiving people – again and again and again, despite getting it wrong a thousand times, because the heart of the matter really is forgiveness, the overwhelming forgiveness that God holds out to us in Christ, and that we are compelled to extend to others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, 10 September 2017, 9.30am

Keeping watch in a post-modern world

Primary Texts

Ezekiel 33:7-11

Romans 13:8-14

Matt 18:15-20

 

The Hebrew term (H6822, tsâphâh, said, tsaw-faw') which our first reading today translates as ‘Sentinel’ is translated in the King James Version of the Bible as ‘Watchman,’ the first verse beginning there as:

 

‘So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.’ (Ezekiel 33:7, emphasis added)

 

I tell you this, not because I want to revive the weekly reading of scripture from the authorised version but because it creates a link to the next step I’m about to make, which is to refer briefly (I assure you) to the 1662 Ordination rite and one of the demands that that rite places on priests, which is namely, to be watchmen (please forgive the gendered language this morning. What I’m about to say applies as much to female priests as male ones). This duty is named in the introductory part of an extended speech that the presiding bishop makes to the priestly candidates or ordinands in that service. The introductory part I refer to goes like this (original spelling and punctuation):

 

‘…we exhort you in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, That you have in remembrance into how high a dignitie, and to how weighty an office, and charge ye are called; That is to say, to be Messengers, Watchmen and Stewards of the Lord;’

 

and then in the next section the primary functions of each of these offices are spelled out, which are,

 

‘to teach and to premonish (forewarn), to feed and provide for the Lords familie…’

 

Lining up the offices of messenger, watchman and steward with these functions, respectively, would suggest that a priest’s role as watchman or sentinel involves the task of forewarning (or premonishing or admonish) the people to whom they are sent. Which is precisely the role that Ezekiel was placed in by the Lord, the implications of which are spelled out in a very sobering fashion in the first reading today, where Ezekiel is told by God that he must forewarn the wicked to repent of their ways, on pain of death (his own) if he chooses not to do so.

 

This seems rather harsh, but what is driving this policy is God’s explicit desire (spelled out at the end of the reading) that the wicked repent rather than die (‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked’), and the implication that Ezekiel and others called to his position as mouth-pieces of God, are vital, perhaps even necessary agents of God’s saving work. That is to say, without them doing what they are meant to be doing, people will die spiritually, if not physically. So we can understand the penalty that God places on watchmen who fail to raise the alarm when they encounter evil on their watch.

 

Returning to the bishop’s speech in the 1662 ordinal for a moment, and moving slightly ahead in that text, it becomes absolutely clear that the bishop’s earlier reference to priests as watchmen with a duty to forewarn sinners, is to be understood in the light of Ezekiel’s commission by God that we heard this morning. The bishop says,

 

‘…if it shall happen the same Church, or any member thereof to take any hurt or hinderance by reason of your negligence; Ye know the greatnes of the fault and also the horrible punishment that will ensue. Wherefore consider with your selves the end of your ministry towards the children of God, towards the spouse and bodie of Christ: and see that you never cease your labour, your care, and diligence until you have don all that lieth in you, according to your bounden duty, to bring all such as are, or shall be committed to your charge, unto that agreement in the faith and knowledge of God, and to that ripeness and perfectness of Age in Christ, that there be no place left among you, either for Errour in Religion, or for viciousnes in life.’

 

The theology of priesthood that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer sets forth remains current (foundational to our Constitution), so I guess people like me in the church continue to have a duty to admonish people, to stop them going to their destruction.

 

Don’t worry, this is not going to be a sermon where admonishment is given free rein – where I spend the rest of my five minutes telling people off. That would be a rather abusive thing to do, and would probably be in contravention of the principle that Jesus sets out in today’s Gospel for dealing with misbehaviour in church – the principle being that you should start very discretely and then, only reluctantly, allow the matter to become a full-blown concern of the church as a whole.

 

The duty of admonishment that priests have is a trickier one to exercise than it was, four centuries ago, when people’s understanding of what was right and what was wrong was much more universal – or if not universal, everyone knew that the authorities brooked no dissent. People, broadly speaking, did what the authorities told them and believed what the authorities told them to believe. It was a much more conformist society, in which a clergyman was often a village’s only well-educated person with a significant secular role (you could say) in society. They were often magistrates for example – Samuel Marsden was one in New South Wales for example.

 

Over the course of the last hundred years, and the last 50 years in particular, people throughout the developed world have become increasingly suspicious of claims by any authority to know what is best for them. The experience of the first world war (with all its jingoism), and the destructive forces of fascism and soviet communism revealed to an increasingly well-educated public that the authorities are not always right, and that we need to think for ourselves. Running parallel to this were developments in our understanding of how people read texts, of how fluid the meaning of a text can be – so that ten people reading one document can arrive, for good reasons, at quite different conclusions. There were developments in the fields of ethics too, with different approaches to discerning right from wrong yielding very different results (on war, on the distribution of wealth, on gender issues, etc). And on top of that the world has become a much smaller place through international travel, becoming a global village in which any major city, anywhere in the world, is composed of many different ethnicities and religions. The world in which we now live, as a consequence, is a pluralistic one, in which people hold quite different views, for different reason, many of which are very well thought out and conscientiously held.

 

Rigid conformity is gone. That is a relief to many people, but it does make a priest’s role as sentinel or watchman less simple than it once was. You can’t just excommunicate a person now because she has had a child out of wedlock – thank God. Everything is now much more nuanced.

 

There must be some ‘bottom lines’ however, to help the Church’s Sentinels know which fight (as it were) is the right one to pick -  which errors are ones that must be actively addressed. That bottom line is the principle that St Paul sets forth in the eighteenth chapter of Romans – which we also heard this morning. As Christians we are called to love:

 

‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.’

 

This of course directly mirrors the teaching of our Lord and Saviour. When asked what the most important commandment was (Mark 12:28-31; Matthew 22:37-40), he said it was to love God with all our being (I’m paraphrasing), and that the second commandment was to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

 

And in John’s Gospel, Jesus says,

 

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ John 13:34-35

 

The corollary to this is that if a priest sees things that are not loving going on (that is, something they would not like happening to them if they were in the same circumstances) they are duty bound to take action.

 

At Synod last week it was very clear that people of good will can hold very different opinions on almost any matter before them. I’m glad to report that there was a fair bit of neighbourliness to, and that our bishops worked hard to maintain that.

 

 

I was at Synod with our Parish’s two Synod representatives, Di Boyd-Bell and Jean Rheinfrank. I’ve asked them speak to you about one part of Synod each which ‘spoke to them’ which they feel is relevant to our life as a parish. I hand you over to Di now, and Jean will report to you when she is on as Officiant on 24 September.

 

Tony Surman

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 3 September 2017, 9.30am

St Stephens' Chapel, Parnell (1857) where Amanda and Andrew, and thousands of other couples have committed themselves to love one another in the way that God loves each of us.

Living and Loving

 

Primary Texts

Jeremiah 15:15

Romans 12:9-21

Matthew 16:21-28

 

This morning’s second reading is one that many people here are likely to be familiar with. It is a popular reading at weddings – perhaps not as popular as 1 Corinthians 13, but it may rival it in years to come through Royal patronage; it was given the Royal stamp of approval in 2011 when it was read at the wedding of Kate Middleton and his Royal Highness, William, Duke of Cambridge (supplemented with the first two verses of the chapter, which we heard last week, including the exhortation to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:2)

Well it so happens that in November 2013 today’s second reading was read at St Stephen’s Chapel, Parnell, at the marriage of a couple, Amanda and Andrew, which I had the privilege to officiate at. The couple had picked this reading themselves, which I commended them for, and in the short reflection I gave after the reading I said the following:

“[In this passage] we see that real love is a matter of commitment of the head and the heart. It is about determination, resolve, forbearance and kindness. It is what Christianity and every decent religion is about at its core, and it is the work to which Amanda and Andrew are called in marriage.

And I declared that

“If Amanda and Andrew continue to love each other in the way St Paul recommends, their marriage will be spectacular. They will develop and flourish in ways that are unimaginable now, and the world they leave to their children, grandchildren (and great grandchildren!) will be a much better, brighter place because of them.”

As I contemplate the same passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, three and half years later, my opinion of its importance and significance has not lessened in the slightest. In the space of a few sentences it sets forth the virtues that are to mark us out as followers of Christ – having a deep care for others which is completely genuine (keeping it real as they say these days), constantly seeking the good in every situation, treating others as we would like to be treated, sharing in people’s joys and sorrows, being ‘switched on’ and enthusiastic in our service of God, even when the going is tough, being charitable, hospitable, down to earth, and perhaps most importantly, given that a whole paragraph is given over to it), being willing to overlook injuries to oneself, forgiving others so that evil may be overcome by good.

Fundamentally, the advice that Paul is giving the little church in Rome is concerned with helping them achieve peace, happiness, fulfilment and flourishing both as individuals and as a community.

This is helpful in many ways, not least because it brings into perspective the sometimes very blunt and provocative statements that our Lord makes in the Gospels about the way we ought to live.

Examples:

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26

“But Jesus told him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead. " Matthew 8:22

“The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing.” John 6:63a

Today’s Gospel is a case in point, I think.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ Matt 16:24

Taken on its own it might be seen as an encouragement or command even, to have nothing to do with the material world, to detest even one’s own body and to focus all one’s energy on the life here-after.

I’m not saying that that is the only way it can be read, but I am suggesting that this text, and others in a similar vein, probably explain the prevalence within Christianity of a strand of piety that views the material world, from human bodies to the places we inhabit, with suspicion and bids the godly to withdraw as much as possible from it in favour of solitude and spiritual contemplation – which again is not necessarily bad (and may indeed be very good for some people), but has the negative effect of making common human relationships, such as marriage, family, friends, work colleagues, etc, etc, look a bit second rate.

That is where St Paul, with his developed understanding of the church as a body, of which we are all members, each with different tasks to perform in church and in the world, gives some valuable perspective to the teaching of Jesus as it is reported in the Gospels.

Paul’s description of the church as an organism or body directly precedes the words of the epistle (Romans 12:9-21) we heard this morning, with its life affirming message. It is not that Paul contradicts what Jesus says – Paul, as much as any other apostle, and probably more than most, knew that the Christian life involved suffering and persecution, and he kept in his mind’s eye the truth that the Cross of Christ is the only thing that Christians should glory in - but thanks to the Holy Spirit at work in him he was able to affirm, on no uncertain terms, that loving human relationships are a part of God’s plan, that they testify to the love that Jesus demonstrated in his living and dying, and that they are a sign or foretaste of a kingdom that is progressively breaking into and restoring the world that God created and declared, at its creation, to be ‘good.’ (Gen 1:31)

The idea of the church as the body of Christ, of which we are all members, with Christ himself as the head is a concept that became overshadowed, through time, by the idea of the church as an institution, constituted by officers of different rank in a hierarchy that stretched from the great mass of the baptised up through minor church orders, to deacons, priests, bishops and eventually to a single person (in the western church anyway) who directly represented Christ on earth. There was, perhaps, something inevitable about that development, given the way that Christianity had grown into an international phenomenon (any organisation needs structure – and a big organisation usually requires a more complex structure than a small one), but something very valuable was lost when the bulk of Christians were relegated to a position in the church that was (by implication at least) furthest from Christ and away from the place where the profoundest interaction with God was felt to be – at the altar specifically.

That way of thinking was a long way removed from the way Paul thought about the Church as a living organism, constituted by relationships of genuine love between Christians who are equally important in the divine scheme of things, each with their own work to perform in Christ’s name. Thankfully, Paul’s understanding of the church has been progressively recovered over recent centuries, and particularly in the last 60 years or so has become influential in even the most hierarchical churches – the documents of Vatican Two, for example, define the church very much in these terms, and represent a real revolution in thinking in the Roman Catholic Church.

When the church is thought of as a body of which all the baptised are members, discussion of the way Christians ought to treat one another is more than simply advice on how to have a quiet life. It becomes a way of describing how the church is properly constituted, and a guide for recognising a church’s health. If love is mutual between members, if bygones are left as bygones, if all are zealous for God, but still have their feet on the ground when it comes to meeting human need, then the church in that place is healthy.

I think we are doing quite well in this regard. We need to celebrate that and give thanks to God for it, because it is God who enables that to happen, but we need to keep on keeping on, building a church constituted by the bonds of mutual affection. That is a job worth doing because - to adapt slightly the message I had for Amanda and Andrew three and a half years ago… 

If we, in this church, continue to love each other in the way St Paul recommends, our life together will be spectacular. We will develop and flourish in ways that are unimaginable now, and the world we leave to those who follow will be a much better, brighter place because of us.

May it be so. In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Tony Surman

Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 20 August 2017, 9.30am

Learning and being taught

Texts

Isaiah 56:1,6-8

Romans 11:1-2a,29-32

Matthew 15:21-28

 

Last week’s Gospel saw Jesus and the disciples in the region of Galilee, where he was walking on Lake Galilee itself and helping Peter to do the same. Following that miracle, Jesus and the disciples arrived in a place that Matthew calls Gennesaret, which is most likely to be a particularly fertile strip of land on the north-western side of the Lake. Fertile places in otherwise-arid places attract large human populations, so we might imagine that Jesus had his work ‘cut out’ there when, as Matthew puts it, ‘the people of the place recognised him,’ and ‘sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.’ As well as offering healing in that place, Jesus taught the crowds and defended the meal-time manners of his disciples against accusations that they were ‘breaking the tradition of the elders’ by eating without ritually bathing their hands. In their defence, Jesus contrasted practices that have little or no effect on a person’s sanctity/holiness/relationship with God, with intentions of the heart which can be very defiling and destructive of a person’s relationship with God and their neighbour (Matt 15:19-20) ‘For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’ Jesus’ analysis was spot on, but it would have earned him a number of enemies in the religious elites. It is perhaps not surprising then that after reporting this statement, Matthew records Jesus’ movement away from Galilee, northwest towards the Mediterranean and into Non-Jewish, Gentile country – Phoenicia, the region around Tyre and Sidon. My guess is that he went in that particular direction because he needed some rest, and had reason to expect that he might have a quieter time there, away from his co-religionists. That, of course, was not to be the case because ‘just then’ as Matthew puts, a Canaanite woman, begins to stalk his disciples and him, desperate to have her daughter healed.

The Jewish relationship with this region, Phoenicia, had had its ups and downs. Both Tyre and Sidon where powerful cities that weren’t conquered as part of the Hebrew people’s conquest of the Holy Land. They had their own culture and religion, distinct from Israel’s. During the time of David and Solomon, relations between Tyre and Israel were evidently strong. David and Solomon’s building programs depended on the material and skills of the people of Tyre, and King Hiram of Tyre was happy to provide these. Later, however, after the United Kingdom of Judah and Israel had long collapsed, the relationship was less happy. Tyre, with its strong economy and proximity to Israel could exert a powerful influence over Israel’s cultural life, including its religious beliefs. This influence is exemplified in the story of Jezebel, daughter of a king of Tyre who married the Israelite King Ahab. Jezebel is portrayed as a cunning, ruthless, powerful woman who schemes to advance her religion over that of Israel, and will stop at nothing to get her way (witness the case of Naboth whom she had killed on trumped up charges of blasphemy because he was preventing her husband buying Naboth’s family’s vineyard – 1 Kings 21). I tell you this because it might have a bearing on the way we understand Jesus’ and the disciple’s reaction to the Canaanite woman; it might prepare us for a potential display of prejudice on one or both of their parts.

I should also say that the way we interpret this story will depend on our convictions about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth at this point in his mission. If we are wedded to the idea that Jesus, during his earthly ministry had the full mind of God and knew all things, at all times and was infinitely good and consistent in his behaviour, then you are really forced to see the words that Jesus speaks to the Canaanite Woman not as statements of fact but as a means to elicit from her something good and worthy – and that object could be ‘determined faith.’  As I suggest in the pewsheet, we might read (or hear) Jesus’ words not as statements about the way things ought to be (normative statements) but as the vocalisation of strong prejudice that he knew existed amongst his disciples. I quite like that solution, but I don’t think I have the sturdiest grounds for holding it because the narrator (Matthew) offers no explicit statement that this is the case – and you think he would in a situation that, on the face of it, make Jesus look pretty mean-spirited. Matthew doesn’t say, for example, after the disciples ask him to get rid of the Canaanite woman, ‘but Jesus, knowing that the disciples were terribly prejudiced against the local inhabitants, vocalised their prejudices to allow the woman to shame them through her display of resolute faith.’ On the other hand though, if you go back a couple of chapters in Matthew’s gospel, you find our Lord saying something relatively positive about Tyre and Sidon: Matthew Chapter 11, verse 21 – ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! (both Jewish towns) For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.’ It may be the case, then, that Matthew felt he had given his readers all they needed to approach Jesus’ words to the Canaanite woman in an ironical sense…perhaps, but that may be a bit of a stretch.

If you are not so attached to the idea that Jesus, during his earthly ministry, had a mind that was as infinite as God’s mind, then you might interpret this story quite differently, seeing it as an example of the way that Jesus’ understanding of the mission that he was called to developed, and shifted in a significant way when he was confronted by a feisty woman who wasn’t afraid to ‘push back’ at him when he rudely fobbed her off. This sort of reading is typical of mainstream theologians over the past hundred years, really, who have accepted that our Lord, though Spirit-filled and wholly dedicated to the mission that he was called to by the Father, had a human brain and human physical endurance, and was capable of getting worn out, and making sub-optimal choices, from which he learned valuable lessons.

The Old Testament, with which Jesus was very familiar, can be quite one-eyed and prejudiced in places, to the point of inciting genocide (consider for example, Deut 20:16-17, 1 Samuel 15:3 and the last part of Psalm 137. Some of that world view is likely to have rubbed off on our Lord as he grew up – it is a part of being human that we become imbued with the values of the culture in which we grow up and with which we identify.

In those same scriptures, however, he would have encountered passages, and indeed, whole stories (Ruth, for example and Jonah) that subvert the tribal, ‘us and them’ theology that runs through much of the Old Testament. The first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, is one of those subversive texts. Jesus was probably well aware of this passage, and if it is the case that he was learning when they Canaanite woman talked back to him, it is likely that this passage or ones like it, came to his mind at that water-shed moment.

The ‘us and them’ theology which is a significant strand in the Old Testament, unhappily, found a new home in the Christian tradition once Christians began to think of themselves as the new, exclusive people of God. The Jewish people, in a cruel twist of fate, came to be seen in Christian eyes, generally, as enemies of God, of Christ and of his Church, and centuries of persecution and genocide followed. Fortunately, the Christian scriptures contain some very solid teaching on the matter at hand that subverts the idea that the Church is now the new Israel, the new people of God with an obligation to root out any pretenders (as it sees it) to that special relationship with God. We have heard that teaching in the second reading this morning, from Paul – God does not abandon people he has made promises to, and he uses the natural competition that exists between different people and peoples to bring about his desired ends (I think that is what the slightly cryptic statement Paul makes at the end of today’s text means).

I leave it up to you as to how today’s Gospel’s ought to be interpreted, but suggest that however you read it, it challenges cultural and ethnic prejudice, whether that prejudice be present in Jesus or the disciples or in we who hear the story, and it demonstrates the incompatibility of such attitudes with God’s ultimate purpose of drawing all people Godward. There must be a lesson in here for us, in the twenty-first century, as we seek to navigate through a plurality of worlds, where prejudice is still alive and kicking at every level, and amongst every people and religion, appealing to the fearful and destructive side of our nature.

Into that milieu, the wisdom of God calls with a foreign voice, across two millennia, reminding us that there is a place for all at the table God has set. May it be so. Amen. 

 

Tony Surman

Ninth Sunday after Trinity, 13 August 2017, 9.30am

Walking on Water, Ivan Aivazovsky (c.1890)

Faith that walks on water

Primary Texts

I Kings 19:9-18

Romans 10:5-15

Matt 14:22-33

 

Lakes, for all their beauty can be treacherous places. The Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias or Gennesaret) is no exception. Though it is a beautiful body of water, it experiences violent wind changes that can turn a placid lake into a place you really don’t want to be in a small boat.

After rowing through those sort of conditions, at night, for hours, the disciples’ nerves must have been frayed when they saw a figure moving on the water.

Their anxious fatigue goes a long way to explaining the fear they had when they noticed this person walking on the water; was he an omen that presaged disaster, the grim reaper perhaps?

The mysterious figure spoke up, with a voice strangely familiar to them, bidding them to “Take heart” and telling them “it is I; do not be afraid.” Clearly Jesus thought he had given enough clues by this stage for his disciples to work out that it really was him they were perceiving. Peter was far from convinced, it seems, and in his typically impetuous (spontaneous and rash) fashion, he makes a deal with apparition “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And the figure says, “Come,” so off he goes, over the side and on to the water. So far, so good.

He makes some progress towards Jesus, but then loses his nerve as the wind comes up and the reasonable part of his brain petitions the impulsive portion about the impossibility of the thing that he is doing; and it wins the debate.

I think we can identify with that feeling – we take on something challenging, and then the old ‘internal worrier’ comes to the fore, and we get cold feet and panic.

Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s loss of nerve ought to encourage us when we have the same sinking feeling. Notice that our Lord reaches out to Peter as soon as Peter calls for help. He doesn’t leave him dangling for entertainment, no, he is immediately on the case, steadying Peter when Peter calls out for help. Here we see the power of prayer set out strongly.

Jesus’ approach to helping Peter might be criticised by modern day coaches who are trying to help people gain confidence, because Jesus leaps in quickly to rescue Peter rather than allowing him to find the ‘strength within’ to overcome the obstacle he was faced with (staying above the water). That criticism isn’t really fair though, because the task being asked of Peter was, undeniably, above and beyond human capability – that is to say, he could have looked around inside himself all day, at his natural resources, but he still would have sunk. His only hope of staying above water, when every physical law in the natural universe was against him, was to call upon the supernatural power of God. And that is what he does, albeit implicitly, when he calls out to Jesus for help.

There is a lesson here for us when we are facing conundrums that don’t have simple solutions – if they have solutions, humanly speaking, at all. Those situations may be many and varied. They may be no way as dramatic as the situation that Peter found himself in, but they are just as intractable, just as insolvable in human terms. It could be a family struggling to preserve a loved one from harm, when that person is hell-bent on destroying themselves; or it could be a person with a terminal illness, desperately concerned about the fate of their loved ones when they are not around; or it could be a business owner driven into receivership by circumstances beyond their control; or it could be one of a hundred or more situations where no amount of digging deeply into your personal resources is going to help. What we need at those points in our lives is God’s power, and that is just what Peter called out for.

Jesus criticises Peter’s lack of faith at this point, which may suggest that he sees Peter’s problem as something to do with his self-belief or self-confidence, but I don’t think that is what our Lord is upbraiding him about. What he is disappointed in, I believe, is Peter’s lack of trust in God’s goodness and God’s power. Peter’s faith in God was still a work in progress. It had gaps in its walls and in some places, the foundation wasn’t even complete, which is why he began to sink when he was out on the lake, and felt the full blast of the storm and realised, in a very understandable and human way, that the position he was in was an impossible one.

For God, of course, nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37; Matt 19:26), which is why it is so important for us to build a strong relationship with God, working away at that task, by God’s grace, quite religiously (that is to say, in a methodical way, regular way). If that relationship is strong, our response to intractable problems won’t be quite as panicked as it might have been. It will still be the case that our strength is not our own, but God’s -  and it will still be perfectly fine to put in an extra prayer for strength at that time, but the alarm caused to ourselves and others as we deal with the situation will be much less harrowing and more immediately productive.  

Paul’s letter this morning talks about God’s word being ‘near to us, on our lips and in our hearts’ (Roman’s 10:8) where he paraphrases Deuteronomy 30:14, “No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” That is absolutely true. Through baptism the Spirit of God is poured into our hearts to strengthen us for the work that we are called to do as members of the Body of Christ, the Church, of which Christ is the head. As members of Christ’s body, we have within us a very powerful energy source, and we need to connect with that vital force regularly so it is ready to engage when a testing situation arises.

And that power source is not only there for our good, and the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ already; it is also there to enable us to commend to others the faith that we have ourselves received. ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news,’ says Paul, quoting loosely from Isaiah (52:7). Somehow, we in our day and age, and in our suburbs of Sandringham and Mt Roskill have the obligation to bear good news to the local population (and beyond). There are different ways of doing that (and there are ways that you are doing that already). During the announcement time, after Communion, Matt will speak about an initiative that will offer everyone here a chance to put into words the way in which they sense God is active in their life, and then present that statement to the world, even if that is only, in the first instance, to the people who venture into our doorway.

So we have, this morning, a gospel text that touches on the importance of prayer and of our need to keep working in that area so that our faith in God, and our general resilience is built up. It is an encouraging text because it demonstrates the responsiveness of God to our cries for help. Our Lord was beside Peter when he began to sink and reached out to save him as soon as he called out for help. The God whom Jesus revealed in his earthly ministry is still close at hand, in our hearts and minds if we will only permit God entry.

Let’s keep our lines of communication with God in sound working condition so that we are in a position to help ourselves in the challenges that life sends our way, and are able, in turn, to reach out and be effective to others as they navigate through the storms of life.                    

Tony Surman

The Transfiguration of the Beloved Son, 6 August 2017, 9.30am

Inside the Church of Transfiguration on Mt Tabor.

 

 

Primary Texts:

 

Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14

2 Peter 1:16-19

Luke 9:28b-36

 

Today’s Gospel represents perhaps the most dramatic revelation of what God was doing in and through Jesus, besides the resurrection itself.

It comes at a point of transition in the story of Jesus’ ministry as told by Matthew, Mark and Luke, marking the end of Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee region and the beginning of his movement towards Jerusalem, his arrest and execution; from this point on, Jesus’ face would be resolutely turned towards Jerusalem.

The Transfiguration follows on, quite closely, in all three of those Gospels, from the clear identification of Jesus as Messiah or Christ – the long awaited heavenly agent who would redeem and restore God’s people. In each of these Gospels, Jesus questions his disciples with the words, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (Luke 9:20; Matt 16:15; Mark 8:29,30) and in each case Peter replies, referring to Jesus as the Messiah, but stating that identity slightly differently in each case. In Luke’s account he replies, ‘The Messiah of God’ while in Matthew’s account he declares, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,’ [Matthew has a tendency to ramp things up throughout his account of Jesus’ life] and Mark’s record simply refers to Peter declaring, ‘You are the Messiah’ [this too is in keeping with the style of Mark’s Gospel, which avoids embellishment]. Six days later, according to Matthew and Mark (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2), and eight days later, according to Luke (Luke 9:28), the Transfiguration occurred.

I think that the proximity (closeness) of Jesus’ identification as Messiah (Christ) to the Transfiguration event serves to underscore the importance of this transition point in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It implies that whatever is happening in the next stage of Jesus’ life and ministry is central to who Jesus is and what he is about.  As people who have read this story to the end, we know that this stage in Jesus’ journey will surprise and disappoint his companions in the first instance, which, I think, explains why the turning of Jesus’ face towards Jerusalem is presaged by a dramatic event that indicates clearly to its recipients and later readers that everything is under control at the highest heavenly levels, whatever should happen.

The Gospel of John does not have an account of the Transfiguration – which is intriguing given that its authorship is traditionally ascribed to one of the apostles who Matthew, Mark and Luke describe as being present at the event. One probable reason why John’s Gospel doesn’t record the Transfiguration is that John’s Gospel is concerned, from beginning to end, to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity; as they say in the trade (Biblical Scholarship), John’s Gospel has a higher and more developed Christology than Matthew, Mark and Luke. Those three Gospels focus instead on Jesus as a unique and remarkable man of God, but interrupt that pattern at key points to give us a glimpse of Jesus as he relates to God in his glory – one of those points being the baptism of Jesus, another the event we celebrate today.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel a bit more closely. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high, but unnamed mountain, to pray. The mountain may have been Mt Tabor to the south of Nazareth, but, for a variety of reasons, it probably wasn’t. At the time of the Transfiguration, Jesus appears to have been travelling far north of Lake Galilee, near Mt Hermon, the source of the Jordan river, and it is more probable that it was on one of its foothills that Jesus prayed with his closest disciples, Peter, James and John.

Whatever mountain Jesus and his disciples were on, it is during prayer that Jesus’ appearance changes – he becomes ‘dazzling white’ in Luke’s words. Then two figures appear beside him; Moses and Elijah. Both individuals were central to the historical development of God’s people. Moses was the law-giver (and prophet), and Elijah, the powerful prophet and healer, taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.  Their presence with Jesus in his glory indicates that Jesus – as he himself stated, had not come to overturn the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them. That is to say, Jesus both stands in continuity with a long-established tradition, and represents the end or goal to which that tradition was directed. He is the ultimate ‘scribe of the Kingdom of Heaven’ which we reflected on last Sunday, who takes out of his treasure that which is old and that which is new (Matt 13:52).

Jesus talks with Moses and Elijah, specifically about ‘his departure which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.’ It would have been very interesting to have been a fly on the wall to the details of this conversation. A stunned Peter, half-awake, speaks up just as Moses and Elijah were departing from Jesus, and he has the impulse – which is natural enough, to capture the moment by building dwellings for Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Luke says that in doing this, he didn’t know what he was saying. That lack of awareness was made very clear to him and his companions moments later when they were overshadowed by a cloud and a voice said to them.

‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (in other words, get with the programme Peter!). I think we all get a bit over zealous when we see something amazing, and rather than just savouring the moment, and letting it inhabit us, we want to immortalise it, commandeer it or domesticate it.

The words that come from the cloud are very close to those that are spoken from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. The similarity signals to the reader that this is a transition or pivot point in Jesus’ life, just as his baptism signalled the transition from private, civilian life, to public ministry.

Peter, James and John told no one about what had happened on the mountain ‘in those days.’ That is natural enough. It had disturbed them, frightened them, and at the end of it, they were none the wiser to what it meant. It was only later, when the events of Holy Week and Easter unfolded, that they were in a position to begin to understand what the Transfiguration of Jesus had been about.

Nevertheless, among the mixed emotions the apostles had, there must have been joy and wonder, for having had the opportunity to see further and deeper into the mystery of life and the universe than is typically possible. That would have gone some way to giving them the energy and resilience they needed to get through the difficult weeks that lay ahead, not least, helping them to cope with the emotional fall-out stemming from their inability to step up to the plate when their master was killed.

We too need those glimpses of the divine. Hopefully we get them when we come to worship. Perhaps not every time, but at least sometimes. We hopefully get it in times of prayer and meditation and quietness, and sometimes, the revelations just come out of the blue. Latch on to those revelations. They are there, and come to us for a purpose – to build us up, to move us out of ruts, to sustain us when the going is tough, and to be a sign of hope for others [just as the transfiguration of Jesus, some two thousand years ago inspires and comforts us as disciples of Christ today] 

At the time of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John could hardly have imagined how demanding Christian discipleship could become. Those three disciples would soon learn about the cost of discipleship, of faithfully following Jesus. There would be pain and suffering and death, but there would also be resurrection and the rapid transformation of the church from a small band of Jewish individuals to an assembly drawn from every human culture.  It was one amazing journey, and it continues today as we place our feet upon the way with Jesus and work with him to transform ourselves and our world into a place where everyone has the opportunity to shine, to flourish, and ultimately be transfigured into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18).

 

Tony Surman

Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 30 July 2017, 9.30am

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast or leaven...

What the kingdom of heaven is like

Primary Texts:

1 Kings 3:5-12 – Solomon prays for and receives the gift of wisdom.

Romans 8:26-39 – Nothing can ‘separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’

Matt 13:31-33,44-52 – Parables (word pictures) of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We’ve just heard Jesus describe what the kingdom of heaven or reign of God looks like to his disciples through a number of evocative images – word pictures or metaphors, each one revealing a truth (or truths) about the kingdom of heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven or the Reign of God is like:

A mustard seed.

Yeast or leaven.

Treasure hidden in a field.

A merchant in search of fine pearls.

A net thrown into the sea that draws in fish of every kind.

And the text ends with a metaphor or word picture to describe a Christian writer or teacher - ‘a scribe…trained for the kingdom of heaven.’ That person is like ‘the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’

Let’s look at each of these images in turn, and see what they might tell us about the kingdom of heaven (the reign of God)

The Mustard Seed.

It is, indeed, a very small seed (though not strictly the smallest – some tropical orchids have seeds that are only 85 microns long but in Jesus’ world, the mustard seed was probably the smallest seed known.

Spreads prolifically – it is a weed (John Dominic Crossan’s insight)).

Grows into something very large. When we compare the church of the first century, to the church today, the scale of change that Jesus talks about, from mustard seed to mustard tree, seems like a pretty apt choice of metaphor.

Yeast

An amazing organism that has been important in human diets for thousands of years.

Important in the production of bread and beer.

A little bit goes a long way. For thousands of years the mechanism by which yeast did its magic was hidden from us. In the nineteenth century the mystery was solved by Theodor Schwann (1836) and Louis Pasteur, from 1858 onwards – brewer’s yeast, as a living organism, converts sugars into alcohol and carbon-dioxide. You don’t have to know those details to recognise that yeast has a dramatic effect on the items it is added to. That same holds true for the kingdom of God – when it is present and active, even in the tiniest of forms, it has the potential to make a huge difference in the world.

Treasure hidden in a field

We turn to our Lord’s next metaphor, the kingdom of heaven being like treasure hidden in a field. This word picture suggests that the kingdom of heaven is both something very valuable, and something that is stumbled upon by people, as if by accident. And what is more, when it is discovered, as if by accident, it completely wins over the heart and mind of the discoverer. We have numerous examples of individuals in the New Testament who stumbled across the reign of God unintentionally. You could argue, for instance, that each of the disciples discovered the kingdom of God as if by accident; while they were going about their everyday lives, Jesus stepped into their normal pattern of life and, little by little, they came to realise that Jesus was the treasure that they had been waiting their whole lives for, and that their people had hoped for centuries. 

The part that may be a bit problematic in this metaphor is the hiding [the concealment] of the treasure which the discoverer subsequently enters into. That doesn’t sound very evangelical, but it is consistent with Jesus’ advice (and example) about being careful with the way we speak the truth to unfamiliar audiences (lest those with malicious intentions take advantage of the knowledge – ‘do not cast your pearls before swine (Matt 7:6).’ Also, notice that while the treasure is hidden, the discoverer goes off and sells ‘all that he has and buys that field.’ We are not told that he continues to keep the treasure hidden, and we might suspect that now he is safely in possession of it, he is poised to display that treasure to the world.

A merchant in search of fine pearls

The kingdom of God is not only found by accident. Some people, of course, have their intentions set on finding God and God’s purposes (they are seekers of the divine), and when they find what they have been searching for, they recognise it straight away and snap it up.

The two people that spring to mind as examples of this dimension of the kingdom of heaven are the aged Simeon and Anna. When the baby Jesus is brought to the Temple to be dedicated, they recognise straight away that they have discovered the ‘one pearl of great value’ and at that point they are content to leave the world in peace. There are many like Simeon and Anna alive today, people of all ages who are genuinely searching for the meaning of life, for their purpose in it, for the right thing to do. God’s promise to them is that their search will be rewarded.

A drag net that picks up everybody in its path

If the last two images suggested that the impact of the kingdom of heaven or the reign of God was limited to a fortunate few, the image of the kingdom of heaven as a drag net highlights the fact that God’s reign reaches out to and impacts everyone – all and sundry.

This is one of the metaphors of Jesus’ that has helped Christians over the centuries understand why the Church is made up of people who are less than perfect, and occasionally, plainly evil [the parable of the wheat and the tares being another one in the same chapter of Matthew (13:24-30)]. I read the metaphor of the drag net in the following way. The reign of God would seem to have an irresistible allure for a wide range of people (just as a net has for fish of every type) but the motivation behind a person’s attraction to the kingdom can be imperfect – maybe they are attracted to the kingdom for purely selfish reasons: the social kudos (less a problem now that the church doesn’t work hand in glove with society in general); power and influence, aesthetics – you name it, all sorts of things motivate people to pursue any goal, but a goal as perfect as the reign of God requires an intention in those pursuing it that is perfect - something which is humanly impossible, but as St Paul points out today, is supplied by God, through the Spirit.

A Scribe Trained for the Kingdom of God

The final metaphor that Jesus puts before us today describes not the kingdom of heaven, as such, but a person who teaches others about the reign of God:

 ‘A scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven.’

That teacher is like ‘the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old,’ which I take to mean, has a solid awareness of the way God has interacted with people across time, whilst still being able to see the new ways (maybe entirely novel) in which God is working in their present. Prime examples from the New Testament, again, are Simeon and Anna, who were steeped in their religious tradition - continuously in the Temple praying and hearing the scriptures, yet able to recognise, in an instant, the new thing that God was doing when Mary and Joseph arrived with Jesus at the Temple, and as our contemporary expression puts it, were able to ‘speak’ to that novelty.

Teachers and preachers of the faith have a wonderful model in Simeon and Anna. They demonstrate that reverence for the way in which God has operated in the past (through the Hebrew Scriptures for example) is not only compatible with building up the body of Christ in every day and age, but a necessary component of doing that job well. This is case whether you are a Sunday School teacher, a parent at home reading Bible Stories to your children, or a Professor of Theology.

Fundamentally, it is about being wise in the way we pass on the Treasure from one generation to another; being able to recognise, gather up and treasure the virtues that are revealed throughout scripture, from the Old to the New, noting the new things that God was doing in Christ, and being open in turn to new insights of the Holy Spirit today.

Which I think is one of the things that came to the fore in our first Study Group session on Wednesday, last week, discussing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new book ‘Dethroning Mammon – making money serve grace.’ That book bids us to look for and take hold of the pearl beyond price, which is the love of God demonstrated perfectly through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and to view everything else that we own as subordinate to that relationship.

Easier said than done, but something we are bound to pursue through our calling and baptism which has made us heirs or inheritors of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, in which Love rules supreme. 

Tony Surman

 

 

Social Services Sunday, 23 July 2017, 9.30am

The Freeset Family

Setting one another free

Primary Texts

Micah 6:8-12, James 2:14-17, Matthew 25:31-45

As many of you are aware, myself, Mai, Bobby and Thom spent 5 and a half years in livng and working in Kolkata, India, with an organisation called Freeset Bags & Apparel.

For those unfamilar with Freeset, let me share a little about the organisation.

Freeset is a business located on the fringe of three light areas in North Kolkata, India. Freeset has three core functions. Firstly, it is a business that offers prostituted women, and those at risk of being prostituted, an alternative employment opportunity making fair trade bags, t-shirts, and fashion accessories. Secondly, Freeset provides health, counselling and family support to the women it employs. Thirdly, Freeset seeks to create a vibrant Jesus centred community in which women feel safe, loved and supported, and where Jesus can be encountered, as they journey towards healing, wholeness and freedom. Freeset's work exists to liberate and empower women out of places of oppression and into lives of wholeness centred on Jesus.

This freedom journey is often difficult, painful and messy, but despite the difficulties, freedom, new life, transformation and hope are unfolding in the lives of many women at Freeset.

Take Priyasha's story for example - story can be viewed at https://youtu.be/TPVC7mVHEhg

I find Priyasha's story incredibly inspiring and challenging. In her story, we herd of her speak of her experience of betrayal, rejection, alienation from family, and a deep sense of loneliness. Over time however, through her experience at Freeset, things changed and we herd her speak of finding increasing self-confidence, respect, a new sense of family, and a desire to see those in her community that remained trapped in cycles of violence and abuse liberated.

Priyaha's story of transformation is incredibly beautiful, and many others like her have found similar hope, joy and new life.

But it isn't only the lives of women that that were being transformed, as a member of the Freeset community, I was being transformed too.

I can only describe my experience at Freeset as one of heartbreak and hope. During our time at Freeset, we witnessed the brutality of life in the sex trade, we cremated friends that died much earlier than they should have, we lost friends back into the sex trade, and we witnessed the devastating effects of drug and alcohol abuse on the lives of our friends and their families.

These experiences were difficult, confusing, and heart breaking, and at times we struggled to find God amid all that was happening.

But in the midst of the pain and confusing there was hope, God was profoundly present, God was active, God was redeeming, God was making all things new...

A women another year sober.

A women graduating from training and receiving her certificate.

A women signing her name for the first time.

A women becoming debt free.

A women praying prayers of heart filled thanks to God for liberating her from "the road of darkness and on the path of light." (their words, not mine).

A shared lunch on the factory floor or in their small room home.

Radical acts of generosity and love that were extended to one another in times of difficultly.

In a red-light area on the other side of the world, in and through uneducated and outcast women and the life we shared together I was meeting Christ Jesus, I was seeing new life bursting forth out of situations of brokenness and despair, I was encountering the unfolding of God's kingdom.

There is a quote by Lilla Watson, an aboriginal activist, that says:

“If you have come here to help me, your wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then lets us work together.”

This quote has been somewhat of a guiding principle, a mantra of sorts, that has guided, inspired and challenge how I engage with the world and live out my faith in it.

An example of my liberation been bound up in the liberation of the women of Freeset happened when I was without my family at Freeset. Mai, Bobby and Thom had returned to New Zealand to get some health concerns we had regarding Thom investigated further. It was a stressful, worrying and difficult time for me personally being separated from my family and worrying about what the future might hold for Thom.

But the community of Freeset carried me, women with difficult and heart breaking issues of their own watched out and cared for me in my time of need. Every day they would ask me how I was and how Thom was. Every day they would cook for me. Every day they challenged me and inspired me in to deeper relationship with God. I will never forget standing up in the quality control area of the factory and being challenged by six women about how I was responding to the situation regarding Thom.

They said to me "every day you stand up in at devotion time and remind us that God is with us through the good and the bad, that God will never leave us, and with God there is hope. We believe that. But right now, we see you don't and you need too!"

Through these women, God liberated me, God healed me and gave me renewed hope.

As I reflected on the passages read today...

"To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humby..."

"To feed those that are hungry, to cloth those who are naked, to visit those in prison..."

"To ensure how we act in the world reflects what we believe..."

There seems to me to be a reminded of a call to action, and as I reflected on my experiences at Freeset that action can be profoundly transformative when it is done in solidarity with those that are suffering, with those that are vulnerable and those that are marginalised. When we incarnate our lives in to the lives of those who live in the margins of life there is a beautiful opportunity to meet Jesus together, to struggle for the kingdom together, and to journey into healing and wholeness together. This will look different for each one of depending on our age and cultural background, but it’s about what the work is exactly, it’s about responding to the individual call of God on our lives to enter the pain and participate in the healing and redeeming work of God.

Amen.

Dan Lander, Parishioner and Student at the College of St John the Evangelist.

Fifth Sunday after Trinity, 16 July 2017, 9.30am

The Sower (1850),  Jean-François Millet

Preached by Jean Rheinfrank

 

Primary Texts:

Isaiah 55:10-13

Romans 8:1-11

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

 

INTRODUCTION—GOOD AIM

      Every time I hear this amazing good news, of which we will turn in a moment, I smile and think of Jimmy Goff, from my Bible class once upon a time in Omaha Nebraska—way too long ago to count the decades!  After our vicar read this parable, he asked Jimmy, “well, Jimmy what do you think?”  Jimmy proudly said, “you’ve got to wonder about the guy who hired that sower fellow.”  And when the Vicar asked him why, Jimmy followed up, “well his eye sight wasn’t very good, was it!  He couldn’t seem to find the field!”  By the way, Jimmy was the vicar’s son.

      So this particular parable is a favourite of mine for many reasons.  Not the least of which it is good news and highly optimistic, as we’ll now explore.

MATTHEW’s CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE GOSPEL

      The Sower is not original to Matthew as both Mark and Luke also refer to this parable.  In fact Matthew, if writing in the 21st Century, might be an academic headache; as he borrows quite often from others, and we are not even entirely sure who Matthew is.  We aren’t here today to consider in great depth WHO Matthew was; but it is interesting to note that in the 1st Century it was completely acceptable to write and put someone else’s name to the writing—particularly someone important.  Naturally allowing others to assume that Matthew was the Apostle Matthew wouldn’t hurt one’s odds of being taken seriously as a writer.  It boggles my mind (given every thing I write needs to be checked verified and all that jazz as a student—and honestly I do wonder sometimes if I own a single ‘Jean’ thought in my head), it was nevertheless a common practice to perhaps append an alias writer to a manuscript.     Matthew included more than 60% of Mark’s gospel into his own, as well as including other gathered writings (and so you can ask why would the Apostle who was there at the time of Jesus borrow from someone else who was not there).  But this we do seem to know: Matthew was a teacher, a preacher, most likely a Jewish-Christian of the day, striving to pen a church handbook for use by others, and let’s face it he was a very good writer (remember his reporting of the Sermon on the Mount).

      And as we are dealing with a parable, described by Graham Stanton as “one of the most distinctive features of the teaching of Jesus,” my study bible provides an excellent definition for the word parable.  Specifically “It’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”  Using both the language and subjects of the specific time period, it’s hard really to take it out of its original context, which probably helps to explain a parable’s longevity and little editing.  A parable is both easy to discern and easy to remember.  This is a tool which Jesus used quite well and very effectively, and has been used with great success and acceptance by the four Gospel writers.  Mark included 6 parables in his gospel, Luke 29, and Matthew 21.  John’s gospel was centred more in his “I am” statements, with less reliance on parables.

      Each Gospel, utilising the parable form linked some of the parables explicitly to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.  But in that tool Jesus also recognised that certain members of his audience were not always there to hear him, but rather to find ways to trip him up and harm him.  These people were extremely suspicious of the Kingdom of God, and wholly threatened by that which the larger majority of the crowd rightfully interpreted as good news.  Thus speaking as he did, and with his parable format, Jesus knew that those of hardened hearts or other objectives would not get his messages, thus ‘anyone without ears (or hearts) to listen needn’t bother.’

THE PARABLE OF THE SOWER EXPLAINED

      And what a story, indeed, as these descriptions explain.  Those who hear about the Kingdom of God, but have no understanding of its meaning watch as the evil one (and we shall call that one Satan) swoops in like a greedy and ravenous bird to snatch the good news (like seeds) sown into the heart and destroys it.  Rocky ground represents the condition of one who hears the word and believes what has been heard, but is overly burdened and side-tracked by the dramas of life: taxes, poor luck, loss of wealth, status, health, friends.  They want to believe, but can’t find the stamina to make it over that rough road.  As for the good seed sown among thorns, life once again presents physical thorns, such as a harder life, and choking off belief and sowing instead doubt and perhaps self pity.  Ahh, but then the seed is sown in good soil and the one who hears, who believes, and who knows that which is said is true, bears the fruit and enjoys amazing harvests a hundredfold...sixty...thirty; year after year and for, as John Dominic Crossan explains, “forever, forever, and ever!”  That promise is quite worth tolerating hungry birds, rocky steps, and thorns!

      I mentioned John Crossan’s quote because it is included in a favourite book, The Power of Parable.  You can find it in the library...well, not just at this moment, because I’ve got it.  But I highly recommend it to you.  I’ve checked it out so many times just this year alone, I’m wondering why the library just doesn’t surrender and let me have it!  I have thought of buying it, but my book budget somewhat resembles the national debt, so HOORAY for libraries!  The merging together of all the Auckland libraries as a result of the super city has been a great advantage...possibly the ONLY advantage, but great nevertheless.  If you’ve never used the library system, you can go into their website, type in either the author name or the title for Search, and zap, up it comes and you can then reserve it.  They do everything for you, except read the book!  That’s your pleasure.

CLOSING—WHEN AND WHY FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

      Thumbing through the Parable book looking for a particular quote with which to close, I stumbled across some thoughts which very much captured my imagination, my heart, and frankly my hope, including these two!  First, you will remember at the beginning, it was stated that Matthew wholeheartedly took on Mark’s gospel and used it quite liberally.  Here’s an example how one thing by one writer possibly became a little bit better through another:  Mark described those coming to Jesus as a “crowd,” (suggesting the people gathering did not relate to one another; and remember they advanced upon Jesus to a point he felt it necessary to speak to them from a boat pushed away from the edge of the shore).  Matthew also used the word “crowd” but then developed that crowd into, “the crowd,” which then became “crowds,” (suggesting continuous gathering numbers), and ultimately the group became “the people as a whole.”  This was a community, coming together and recognising each other.  I very much like that for it suggests people--Christians included--coming together for a common purpose and hearing together the things Jesus had to say. 

      Secondly, we are told that at the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire was an amazingly strong and very, very powerful force.  Everything else was gone, except the Roman Empire.  The hope of change seemed impossible against such might, and establishing a new Christian order seemed to centre around three questions (with regard to the Kingdom of God): “in speaking about God’s “kingdom,” if not now, why?  And if not now, when?  And, finally Will God act soon?”

      Crossan suggests for us all to think about the following as part of the answers, “is it possible We have been waiting for God, while God has been waiting for us?  We want God’s intervention.  Is it so difficult not to understand that perhaps God wants our collaboration?  Crossan concludes: God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as we accept it, enter it, live it, and (here comes the tricky part) we thereby establish it.”  It cannot be done without God, but neither will it happen without us.  It is about a divine-and-human collaboration, not a divine-only intervention.”

      Try this out:  The sower parable does not want you to get INTO its story, but to get OUT of it.  This isn’t about agriculture...so what do you think it is about?  Consider that, and bring on the good news!

 

AMEN.

Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 9 July 2017, 9.30am

Primary Texts

 

Zechariah 9:9-12

Romans 7:15-25a

Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

The yoke that Jesus refers to at the end of the Gospel this morning is the device put over an animal’s neck to allow it to pull a load and be controlled by a driver; it is not the centre of egg.

He is using the image of a yoke – which would have been fairly common on the streets and in the fields of Galilee – to describe, on one hand, the dehumanising servitude that people are all too often subject to, and, on the other, the life-giving service that people enjoy through commitment to him.  

Jesus was not the first person in the Hebrew tradition to use the image of the yoke to describe the bondage that people find themselves in, individually and collectively.

In Genesis, Isaac uses the same metaphor to describe the subordinate place that his son Esau was in, with respect to his younger brother Jacob, now that Jacob (even though through trickery) had received his blessing and become his heir:

Isaac says to Esau, “By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose, you shall break his yoke from your neck." (Genesis 27:40)

And later, when Moses lays down God’s law before the Israelites, the term pops up again to describe the curse that will befall those who depart from God’s law: “You shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and lack of everything. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you.”  (Deuteronomy 28:48)

Later still, following Solomon’s death, when Israel was at the height of its glory, the people came to Solomon’s heir, Rehoboam and said, "Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you." (1 Kings 12:4). Unfortunately, their plea fell on deaf ears, and Rehoboam’s reply to them three days later was, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.'" (1 Kings 12:14b).  He trumped them, well and truly, and what might have been the cementing of a United Kingdom that built on David and Solomon’s success, rapidly disintegrated.

In the gloom of the dark centuries that followed, prophets, such as Isaiah, used the term to describe the servitude and bondage that people were in to the superpowers of the day, Assyria, Egypt or Babylon – and to show God’s commitment to helping them find liberation: [Thus says the Lord] “I will break the Assyrian in my land, and on my mountains trample him under foot; his yoke shall be removed from them, and his burden from their shoulders.” (Isaiah 14:25) 

But Isaiah also used it to describe the oppression that occurred within Israel itself: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6) - This is beginning to sound a bit more like Jesus, isn’t it?

And the term ‘yoke’ was used after Jesus’ ascension by Paul who used the same metaphor to describe the negative effect that a legalistic approach to religion brings with it. In his letter to the Galatians he writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (that yoke being slavish obedience to the law, which, of course, represents a revolution in the thinking of a man who was brought up with a full awareness of the curses set out in Deuteronomy for those who depart from the law of Moses.

Today we find Paul using a rather grisly image, akin to a yoke, in his letter to the Romans where he talks of the enduring power of sin in his life which prevents him doing the things he knows he ought to do. He describes this burden as a ‘body of death,’ attached to him, which he cannot shake off. The ‘body of death’ that Paul refers to is almost certainly an allusion or reference to a practice in the ancient world of chaining a corpse to a person convicted of murder. Being yoked to a putrefying body would be insanely horrifying, which is why Paul latches on to that image (pardon the pun) to describe the pervasive and powerful effect of sin in and on his life.

I talked a little about sin last week, mentioning that it was a term that connoted the missing of a target, the failure to be all that one could be. That, as I mentioned as well, is not the popular conception of sin which tends to be focussed on particular acts – murder, robbery, fornication, etc. Those acts clearly miss the target of moral goodness that God sets for us, but we deceive ourselves if we think that is all that sin is. Sin has to do with all the devices and desires at work within us that would seek to dethrone God, and put ourselves on that throne in God’s place. St Paul recognised the universal nature of that instinct, which is why he could honestly describe himself as a sinner even though he was probably one of the most sober, wholesome, honest person to have walked this earth.

The sin that Paul refers to is a yoke which holds us back from becoming the person God wants us to be. Thanks be to God though, that through Jesus Christ, the power of that yoke is broken. But although we are unchained from a force that would destroy us, we are by no means perfect; no, we are just set on the way, and into a process of sanctification through our cooperation with the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. The sin from which we have been freed remains perilously close which is why we need to call on God constantly – religiously – if we are to become the people God has called us to be.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sets out the categories of persons who are most likely to respond positively to his message, to lay aside the yoke of slavery they have been labouring under and, instead, put on the yoke of righteousness which is friendship with him. One of these groups he describes explicitly as ‘infants;’ the others are implicit in his call to those who are ‘weary and…carrying heavy burdens.' He contrasts the ease with which these groups accept the gospel with the rejection that the gospel receives from the ‘wise and intelligent.’ Why do infants, the weary and the downtrodden receive Christ and his message whereas the ‘wise and intelligent’ do not – or at least tend not to do so?

In the case of infants or the young in general, they have less invested than their elders in a world that is, in some parts at least, antithetical or opposed to God’s purposes. That is to say, as we get older, there is more risk that we compromise our high ideals, and put our faith in what is expedient rather than what is right. Children do seem to have a keen, natural sense of justice. We see this revealed in the case of very young children when it comes to games. On the whole, children recognise very quickly when an injustice has been committed in the game – when someone has cheated, or if someone has failed to be given a turn in the game (particularly if that child is them!). Then there are the young and idealistic people who fight for the rights of those who miss out in some way in society – think of some of the movements over the 20th century that were characterised by a large membership of the young. The situation in Palestine of the first century may have been less radical in terms of youth culture than the 1960s in America, for instance, but if you look at the people who associated with Jesus, they were young, or if not young in years, they were, like children, not the ‘movers and shakers’ of society. They were little-ones.

In the case of the weary and down-trodden, it is not surprising that they recognised and rejoiced in the gospel that Jesus was proclaiming – and that such people continue to do so. They found themselves yoked to some pretty nasty and exacting masters, and knew what it was like to be treated as beasts of burden. The wealthy, well-educated folk who commanded and exploited them didn’t have to think about what it was like for the poor to be treated badly, but the poor couldn’t avoid reflecting on it because they were on the receiving end of ill treatment all the time. When John the Baptist appeared on the horizon and called people to repentance, the down-trodden masses knew exactly what he was talking about, because they were at the sharp end of the evil that develops in a society that is fundamentally turned away from God, even though a veneer of religiosity is evident. Later, when Jesus began preaching about the imminence (closeness) of the Kingdom of Heaven where Justice and Peace would abound, ordinary people again recognised the presence of God in his person and his teaching. In Jesus, they encountered a person who spoke with more authority than any of the authority figures that controlled their lives, but who, unlike their overlords, treated them as friends. Within the category of the ‘weary and down-trodden’ we might also include another group, namely, the detested, tax collectors and prostitutes. Their positive reception of Jesus was understandable because our Lord, scandalously, went out of his way to engage with them, heal them, and call them back to the right path. His willingness to dialogue and eat with them, in itself, might have been enough to win them over to his message, but what motivated them very powerfully, I suspect, was their knowledge of exactly what it is like to be a slave to sin, to be yoked to a way of life that was destructive of their dignity as human beings, the bearers of God’s own image. Their religiously observant brothers and sisters weren’t aware, in the same existential way, of the pain that people are subject to when they are labouring against God’s purposes. There are probably a lot of people in our society who know that feeling.

So the young, weary, the down-trodden and detested turned to Jesus in their droves and were happy to exchange their yoke of slavery for the live-giving yoke that Jesus promised. They continue to do so today. It is in the poorest parts of the world that Christianity is making the biggest inroads today. Thanks be to God. But we must temper our acclaim of this situation lest it lead us to a mindset that equates one group of people (the poor) as those loved by God, and another group (the rich) as God’s enemies. That sort of binary categorisation is incompatible with the accounts we read in the New Testament of wealthy, well-educated and intelligent people coming to Christ (from the wealthy women who supported Jesus ministry financially, to Joseph of Arimathea who provided a new tomb for Jesus, to Nicodemus and Paul, both well-educated Pharisees. There is hope for everyone in Christ Jesus, the Son of God for whom nothing is impossible, and whose yoke is easy and burden light. May we take hold of the yoke that Christ has put on  us at  baptism with joy – or if we haven’t done it, consider  doing it soon – and give thanks to God for the privilege of being called into a service that is life-giving for us and for the world around us.

Tony Surman

 

Third Sunday after Trinity, 2 July 2017, 9.30am

Looking towards the entrance door to Mar Saba Monastery

Preached by The Rev'd Dr Tony Surman

 

Primary Texts:

Jeremiah 28:5-9

Romans 6:12-23

Matthew 10:40-42

 

In 2006, when I visited the Holy Land for the first time with my family, I encountered quite a lot of things that were new to me. One of the things I experienced, and continued to encounter throughout the stay, was the hospitality of people. It is an expectation in the Middle-East to treat guests well – to make sure that once they are in your house they are well fed and watered. I experienced this care while I was in the Holy Land – mainly in the Palestinian Authority, in and around Bethlehem (where my wife was born) – and was humbled and impressed by it.

In the weeks after we arrived in Bethlehem we went around visiting relatives and friends my wife hadn’t seen for 12 or more years. Big lunches and dinners were prepared for us and I can tell you, it was very difficult to avoid putting on weight.

The kitchen’s in the places we visited were often a hive of activity. People, mainly women, were engaged in assembling food to exacting standards, so that when it arrived at the table, it was a feast for both the stomach and the eye.

I enjoyed those meals. They tasted great and they represented a lot of love on the part of the meal’s creators, who live with all sorts of economic (and other) uncertainty.

What I appreciated just as much though was the time people spent with me, in these different places, just chatting, sharing ideas, even solving the world’s problems. I speak hardly any Arabic, but many people in the different places we visited made a real effort to pass some time in conversation with me in what is their second language.

The space they created for dialogue was a place of hospitality - not as visible as the hospitality signified through food, but just as rich and real.

As well as visiting family and friends, we also visited some out-of-the-way places in the hill country east of Bethlehem where monasteries cling to the sides of cliffs as if they have grown out of the rocky earth itself.

One of these monasteries, Mar Saba (named after St Saba, its founder), is quite large and has been a home for holy men of the orthodox church since the fifth century – more or less. Upon first inspection their hospitality is a bit on the thin side.

For one thing, they will not allow women into their world; this is for – what we would call in NZ – health and safety reasons: at some stage in the distant past, it is said, a woman did enter the site and her presence caused an earthquake..Even for a man though, getting into Mar Saba is not plain sailing. There is a monk stationed inside the entrance who responds to your request to come in by asking you what religion you are. ‘Greek orthodox’ is the best response, but Roman Catholic will do – others need not apply it seems.

The welcoming-monk then rings a bell a certain number of times to let his fellow monks know the nature of the visitors that he is bringing down. When we got to the main courtyard of the monastery it was clear that the signalling system had worked. There was an American orthodox priest who greeted us and took over our tour of the site. He showed us around for about 25 minutes. We looked in the ornate little chapel where St Saba’s body had been laid to rest initially and then he showed us the saint himself, now in the much bigger chapel where his little body resides in a glass case. Light is kept to a minimum around St Saba’s body, but a battery-powered torch – a strange blend of the old and new, made him quite visible.

The monk continued to show us around the monastery and talked with us about its development. He was very generous with his knowledge and welcomed questions. I found out that the monastery has no electricity and that the monks have a very simple diet. They don’t end meat.

Their basic life isn’t divorced from the modern world altogether though. When we arrived at our final stop, another monk was trying to decide what sort of pizza to have for dinner -obviously vegetarian, but they must have developed more types than pizza-hut.

They also aren’t teetotallers; one of the treats they offer you at the end of the tour is a drink of arak (spirit with aniseed).

If we lay aside the exclusionary practices they have, what the monks do seem to model quite well is; hospitality understood as the gracious making of space and time for others.

At Mar Saba Monastery, the food was very basic, but the event was enriching and memorable because our hosts quietly and unhurriedly, spent time with us. Likewise, in my other visits in Palestine, some of the most memorable encounters occurred in the simplest of settings, without fanfare and feasting.

I think that the monks and the other kind people I met in the Holy Land were living examples of Jesus’ teaching this morning, which bids us to be hospitable to strangers, particularly those who profess faith in him but – as I point out in the pewsheet – in reality, anyone, because our ability to discern a true disciple from a false one is something that takes time to develop.

Our discernment has that limitation because of the mysterious put pervasive phenomenon which Paul talks about this morning in the Epistle to the Romans. Sin. Sin is the English translation of a Greek word that originated in the world of skilled outdoor pursuits, where it was used to describe the missing of a target. By the time Paul wrote his letters to the first generation of Christians its meaning had widened and it could be used to describe a person’s failure to hit the mark in a moral sense.

In the popular imagination – I think it is fair to say -  talk of sin conjures up a narrow range of acts, but as the background of the word Paul uses suggests, sin is a very broad phenomenon and includes anything that distances us from God and the virtues we encounter in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the deficiencies or blind within us that leads to sin, and indeed is sin itself, is the failure to recognise the face of Christ in other people’s need – whether we are related to those people by blood or through baptism or simply our shared humanity.

 

God give us eyes to see Christ in our neighbour’s need and to respond hospitably to them, so that we do not miss the target that Jesus has set for us.

Second Sunday after Trinity, 25 June 2017, 9.30am

The damage done to a church in the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh, Iraq on 27 Dec 2016 by ISIS. Photo by Chris McGrath—Getty Images

The Rev'd Dr Tony Surman

 

Primary Texts

 

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Romans 6:1b-11

Matthew 10:24-39

 

Persecution of Christians was a reality in the early church from its inception. The strongest attack, early on, came from within – in a sense – from Jews like Paul and other hard-liners who – in contrast to the Jews who came to Christ - were not convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. That persecution was sporadic to begin with but became increasingly organised and systematic (Act 8:1) following the stoning of Stephen.

 

Later the attack would come from Rome itself. Again, the persecution began in a localised way – Nero’s execution of Christians in Rome in 64AD being an example of how bad things could get at that stage of Christian history – but it became an empire-wide campaign in the latter third century – thankfully coming to an end (as I have mentioned in the pewsheet) when Constantine legalised Christianity in the early fourth century.

 

Why were Christians persecuted – first by Jews and then by Rome?

 

There may be a number of answers to this question, but I think that the ultimate reason they were attacked was because they were adamant that in Jesus, they had found a truth that was to be found no-where else - not in Judaism (even though, as St Stephen’s Speech shows, the Christians recognised a great deal of truth in the Hebrew tradition) and not in the Religion (or religions) of Rome (even though Paul had an admiration for the Philosophies of the Greek/Roman world). That assuredness on their parts put them at odds with Jewish authorities who were equally adamant that they had a monopoly on truth, and later, with the Roman state which, though relatively liberal in its acceptance of religious diversity, still required allegiance to the gods of Rome.

 

The truth that early Christians found in Christ, was something they could not set aside because it was not just an intellectual belief, but it was something that captured them at the most fundamental level of their being. They believed that truth was to be found in Christ in the same way that they believed the floor would still be there in the morning when they woke up to start the day. That truth had, to borrow words from the Prophet Jeremiah, enticed them, and they had been enticed, and had become so convinced that Christ is the way, the truth and the life, that they simply had to speak about that truth to others, defend their position in the face of opposition, and resist making concessions to any other religion, philosophy or policy that was at odds with their deeply help conviction that Jesus is Lord – not Caesar, nor Herod, nor the High Priest and Council in Jerusalem. They could not be persuaded otherwise, even though the temptation to avoid the psychological and physical suffering that got them into must have been very real as well – again, like Jeremiah, one part of them wished that they could keep their mouth shut, while the better part of them had to speak the truth because it burned within them. How do you get to have the conviction about Jesus that those people had?

 

It is a gift of God, ultimately, but like any gift, it has to be properly received and nurtured. We can see that pattern in the development of Jesus as God’s Messiah and the world’s Saviour. He received the Spirit in a very powerful way in Baptism, then he went away – was actually compelled to go away by the Spirit – to the wilderness, a place where he would be deprived of distractions and able to focus completely on God. That ‘time out’ was surely something that allowed Jesus to see things as they really are, to notice truths that can easily be missed when one is surrounded by the distractions of life. Jesus kept returning to prayer throughout his ministry. He was even praying on the Cross.

 

Similarly, by the cultivation of a close, living relationship with God, we followers of Jesus have our best opportunity of coming to a deeper appreciation of ourselves, of the people around us, of our world and, of course, God. We become aware of the inner, hidden beauty of things through this change, which begins, as Paul points out today in his letter to the Romans, when we are baptised. Paul portrays baptism as a sort of dying, the end of one way of being so that we ‘might walk in newness of life.’

 

Once we are up and walking that way, and connected to God by prayer, we know that there is no turning back, because the lesser truths of life that used to console us, give us pleasure, distract us, etc, have now yielded to a superior truth, dear I say, to the truth. That vision galvanises our efforts and gives a certain degree of toughness or resilience to our character, an ability to withstand stresses, strains and temptations that would otherwise have got the better of us. The vision which gives us this motivation and effectiveness depends, as Paul recognises in his Letter to the Romans, on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, on the reality of his victory over sin and death:

 

‘We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death has no dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’

 

Being ‘alive to God in Christ Jesus’ is a pretty good way to be. Once a person experiences that, they recognise the deep truth that there is in the Gospel, they see God’s hand at work in the world, and they can only be turned back to the half-truths that once informed their way of being with reluctance and heartache.

 

That is why persecution was a feature of the early church – and continues to be a feature of Christian life around the world. Our Christian forebears weren’t persecuted for committing heinous acts against society but for refusing to yield to half-truths and outright lies. They had encountered the truth and it would not let them go.

 

Even the bonds of family relationships could not overcome their belief in the truth of Christ – that is what I believe is being alluded to by our Lord this morning in the Gospel when he declares that he has come ‘to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother’ etc. It is not that he loves conflict for the sake of it, but that he sees, with absolute clarity, that once people are in possession of real truth, of the pearl beyond price, they will not fit into their family system in the way they did before. They will cause disruption, as much by what they don’t do as by what they do, and invoke through that change hostility and even outright violence.

 

That is quite a sobering message, but it needs to be acknowledged because it is part of the truth about Christ and the mission of God in the world, which is to take a world where there is a lot of brokenness and half-truths, and transform it into something that everyone can be proud of and inspired by. Parts of that world will resist that transformation because they have too much invested, as they see it, in a world in which chaos and violence rule supreme – be that on a domestic level, an institutional level or in the field of national and international politics. At times their resistance, their ‘push-back’ has and will be deadly. The early church was on the receiving end of that violence on numerous occasions. Many paid the ultimate price for their conviction that Jesus is Lord.

 

Today, we in the west, are relatively safe in our Christian vocation perhaps because the society we live in has been formed in quite a Christian way, even if many people in our society aren’t aware of that. Christians in many other places, for all sorts of reasons are not so lucky. The Coptic Christians of Egypt have been on the sharp end of a lot violence over the last few years, as have the ancient Christian communities of northern Iraq that were over-run by the so-called Islamic State.

 

This world clearly has a lot more transformation to go through until we get to the point where God’s Reign is rolled out in its entirety. We need to keep praying for ourselves and for our fellow Christians everywhere, facing hostility – be it passive aggressive or full-frontal attack – that our faith will stay strong, that the vision which first captured our imagination when we came to faith will spur us on to ‘have no fear’ but instead proclaim the Gospel in full daylight, even from the rooftops.

Te Pouhere Sunday, 18 June 2017, 9.30am

The Rev’d Dr Tony Surman

 

Primary Texts:

Isaiah 42:10-20 – God’s determination to lead the lost and save them.

2 Corinthians 5:14-19 – We live for Christ, as new creations, and our ministry is one of reconciliation.

John 15:9-17 – Love one another, live as friends and be productive in your calling.

 

Our Bible is a collection of works, some thousand years in the making. It contains many different types of literature (called in the business, genres – sounds better, even if it doesn’t impart much more information) – short stories (Ruth and Job), sagas (the extended story of the Patriarch’s that runs through Genesis), prophetic works (individual voices speaking the word of God directly), apocalyptic works (quite bizarre imagery often), wisdom and poetic material. And that is not an exhaustive list.

Such a diverse range of literary genres are grouped together in scripture that it may seem unlikely that anything like a common theme can be discerned from them when taken as whole. Unlikely as it may be, however, many people, throughout the history of the church, have picked out key themes that run through scripture. Indeed, that process was already happening before Christianity had a definitive set of scriptures of its own, and played an important role in the way the Apostles, and others within the early church wrote about Jesus. They looked to the Hebrew Scriptures with which they were familiar and they could see there a trajectory of divine themes that were fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. They saw, for example, that God is portrayed time and again in scripture as a redeemer, as one whose purpose is to save people, and indeed creation itself – and they saw that theme (or meta-narrative) brought to fruition (or at least lifted to a new level of prominence) in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Another of the overarching themes that was discerned in scripture by the earliest Christians (and, indeed, generations of Jews before them who were involved in the long process assembling and editing the Hebrew Scriptures) was the principle that God, more often than not, fights for the weaker party, for those who are oppressed, trapped or in any way held back from achieving their full potential. That is to say, God takes up the cause of the underdog; something that is plainly evident in this morning’s first lesson, where God is described in military terms, being likened to a soldier or warrior who goes forth stirring up his fury ‘against his foes.’ And who is he going out to fight for but the ‘blind’, those who are walking in darkness. God’s desire to fight for the ‘little guy’ or the battler is made evident in the people God chooses to support and champion throughout the Bible. Consider for example, the following:

Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob’s twin brother Esau was a natural ‘go getter,’ a hunter, a man’s man, so to speak, and the one favoured by Isaac to continue the family line. God had other plans though, and, with Rebekah’s help, ‘stay-at-home’ Jacob became the father of a nation.

Joseph, Jacob’s second youngest son, was despised and rejected by his brothers (they sold him into slavery) but he became, against the odds, second only to Pharaoh in Egypt.

Going ahead a few hundred years you have David, the youngest child of a family from a small village who becomes King of Israel.

And of course, in the New Testament, the story is all about an apparently uneducated tradesman called Jesus who subverts all sorts of social conventions and bears the consequences of challenging that system (violence and death), only to emerge victorious and be elevated to God’s right hand.

In the search for individuals in the Bible whose lives make the point that God has a preferential concern for people who the conventional world writes off, Jacob, Joseph, David and Jesus are stand-out examples, but they are not alone. Look a bit more closely and you see this divine pattern apparent throughout the Bible. Ruth, for example, the great grandmother of King David has a book named after here. Conventional wisdom would not have given her a snowball’s hope in hell (if you pardon the expression) of achieving such greatness. She was a foreigner, a Moabite (a person with whom parts of the Bible declare that God’s people should not interact, Deuteronomy 23:3) yet she was elevated by God to be an ancestor of David and metaphorically, if not directly, an ancestor of our Lord, because of the loving kindness she showed her widowed mother-in-law Naomi, displaying the sort of selfless care that Jesus would go on to bid his disciples to emulate ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’

In a conventional sense, these characters were not destined for greatness. They weren’t the first born, or they weren’t particularly strong or remarkable - or even ‘in the running’ at all as far as changing the world was concerned. Yet God saw fit to champion their cause and give them success.

Why have I gone on about this theme that overarches our Scriptures, when today we are meant to be commemorating the 1992 Amendment to the Anglican Constitution which brought into being a Church with a unique and controversial structure, in which three cultural strands (Tikanga) are joined together in Communion around Christ, the mooring post for our three distinct wakas (Maori, Pakeha and Pasefika)? Is it because I think I’ve written about it enough in the Pewsheet and just want to talk about something else? Tempting, but no. I’ve rambled on for a purpose, because God’s preferential concern for those who are battling against the odds provides the primary rationale for the amendment that was made to our Church’s constitution in 1992.

As I point out in the Pewsheet, Maori Christianity, with its distinctive origins (via pre-Waitangi Missionary efforts), evangelical pattern (Maori evangelising Maori), liturgical life (the Prayer Book) and Scriptures (Authorised Version, both in Maori) was quickly swamped by the rapid influx of Europeans after 1840. Within less than a generation, Maori were a minority in the land that had been home for them for hundreds of years. By the turn of the century, Maori were a small minority of the overall population (just over 5%), living largely unseen in the rural backwaters. The vision that the larger culture had for their future was assimilation; Maori culture would yield and become indistinguishable from the broader colonial culture. That is simply how the world tends to operate when a dominant culture dwells side by side with a minority culture – and that, only on a good day; when minorities are more numerous than Maori were for most of the 20th century, the way of the world can be very violent, resulting in the expulsion of minority peoples and even the genocide of entire populations.

The Kingdom of God, however, is not of this world. It is, instead, something altogether new (a point that Paul makes today in the second lesson) and its purpose is one of reconciliation rather than domination. Based on God’s past practice then, it is reasonable to surmise that God was labouring alongside Maori Anglicans, and their many Pakeha supporters, over the decades that led up to the writing of the new Constitution in 1990 and its passage into law in 1992. Maori have henceforth been in a position to order their own Spiritual House, in line with their particular church traditions whilst maintaining Communion with their Tikanga Pakeha and Tikanga Pasefika partners, who each have their own church traditions, but together with Tikanga Maori, cling to Christ via a common tradition that holds in the highest respect, the Bible (KJV), the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles of Religion.

The 1992 Constitution of our Church might be seen, then, as a victory to the underdog - a turn up in events that is unusual in a world where the winner usually ‘takes all’. And in so far as that is the case, it bears the marks of God’s deliberate action, of God’s zeal to redeem, recover and restore people that the world would rather forget. That is good news for a lot of people, not least ourselves as we endeavour to remain a viable, fruitful, productive parish in the face of some sobering financial realities.

We do well to remember that it is when the chips are down that our Lord is right beside us –  our advocate, our defender and not least, our friend, as Jesus assures his disciples in the Gospel, who demands nothing more nor less from us than that we love one another, doing all we can to honour the dignity of every person and group with whom God has joined us through baptism, even if that impacts negatively on our immediate self-interests. The process of building a Three Tikanga Church has, at times, caused discomfort and dis-ease when it comes to the nuts and bolts of resource sharing between Tikanga partners, but that pain will be as nothing when the justice of the cause leads to the flourishing of the church – which is precisely what our Lord appointed us for: ‘to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’ May it be so, in Jesus’ Name. Amen

 

Trinity Sunday, 11 June 2017, 9.30am

Preached by the Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

Primary Texts

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

 

There is probably not a Sunday in the Christian Calendar that is more apt to lead a preacher into heresy than Trinity Sunday, so I pray to God that I may speak as carefully as possible on this topic, and that you may listen only to the truth that I speak and either fail to hear the rest, or perceive the error and forgive my deficiencies nevertheless.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think it would be fair to say that most Christians around the world begin their services with these words:

The movement of a hand in a cross-like shape over the body (something quite ancient) usually accompanies these words, and the way the moves are performed says something about the ‘sub-branch’ of Christianity one belongs to:

Up… down…left to right for Western Christians, often with a return to centre in the Anglican Church;

Up… down… right to left for Eastern Christians –

with a variety of finger positions to remember the two natures of Christ… and the three persons of God.

In many churches, different words replace the traditional masculine names of the first two ‘persons’. In our NZ Prayer Book the alternative formula is Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life. This has the advantage of gender neutrality, but I have heard it criticised because it could suggest that each person of the Trinity has a distinct function, specific to them alone to play in the life of God (namely, that the Father does all the creating; the Son does all the redeeming, and the Holy Spirit has a monopoly on life giving). That sort of compartmentalisation is difficult to square with Scripture that presents the Spirit of God (as it does right at the beginning of the Bible) as intimately involved in the creative process sweeping over the primordial waters of the deep (Genesis 1:2), and which presents Christ, the Son, as the one through whom all things were created (Witness the beautiful prologue to St John’s Gospel which declares that “All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:2). However, if what is meant by this formula: Creator, Redeemer, and Giver on Life, is that God, as a whole – and in each part -  is involved in creating, redeeming and giving life – well and good).

 The Trinity is a distinctly Christian way of understanding God. It developed over hundreds of years, and continues to develop.

If you scan your Bible for the word Trinity, you might be disappointed by the results; it is just not there – not explicitly. The ingredients or components for a Trinitarian understanding of God are, however, quite clearly present in the New Testament.

For one thing, it is plainly apparent that the earliest Christians viewed Jesus in divine terms – believing that he was, as the author of Hebrews writes:

 “...the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being.” (Heb 1:3)

 

In St John’s Gospel, Jesus’ equality with the Father is made even more strongly; in chapter 10 of his Gospel, St John reports Jesus as saying:

 

 “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)

 

At which point his hearers picked up stones in their attempt to execute him for blasphemy, at claiming equality with God (John 10:31).

 

In other places though, the New Testament makes it clear that whatever God is, God is one...In St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus states that the primary commandment is:

“Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Mark 12:29)

 

What Jesus said here is a quote from a part of the Hebrew Scriptures (Deuteronomy 6:4) that has been – and continues to be – central to Jewish, Christian and Islamic understandings of God.

 

The idea (i) that Jesus is God; (ii) that the One who sent him is God and (iii) that God is one, is very difficult to deal with conceptually.

One way out of the pickle (that many in the early Church took - Arianism) was to downplay the very Divine images of Jesus in the New Testament and to cast Jesus as preeminent in Creation but not God as such; images of Jesus as the ultimate prophet, or the ‘new Adam’, or even the ‘first born of creation’ might be interpreted this way.

Another way around the problem was to deny that Jesus was really human at all. Perhaps he was a projection of God (Docetics) who just appeared to be human? This made it easier to imagine that God could still be one, but it didn’t sit very well with New Testament images of a very real, human Jesus, who even in his resurrection ate with people (Luke 24:43) for instance.

Debate on these matters came to a head in the fourth century when Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire. The burning issue the Emperor (Constantine) wanted sorted out was the nature of Christ – how divinity and humanity existed in his person. I suspect that his motivation was primarily to find a solution to the problem that everyone could (or would have to) unite behind. Constantine called a Church Council in 318AD in Nicea. The Council produced a statement that Jesus was both God and human. This statement forms part of our Nicene Creed.

This was well and good. But now the Church had to go on to define more closely what this meant for our understanding of God. You see, Jesus had spoken a lot of God as his parent – his Abba or Father. How did Jesus’ divinity relate to the divinity of this Father?

And what about the Spirit that Jesus refers to in Matthew’s Gospel this morning; the same Spirit which the author of 2 Corinthians refers to at the end of this morning’s second lesson:

“The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. “ (2 Cor 13:13)?

How did this third figure or entity fit into a model of God?

Well, there was a lot more talk... angry letters written, and more gatherings of bishops.

The idea that God was somehow three distinct ‘persons’…

 … (but not ‘persons’ as we understand them)…in one ‘substance’… (or ‘essence’ or ‘being’) …

 …came to be accepted, and made definitive of Christianity in the Creeds, though precisely how this multiplicity-in-unity occurs... was anyone’s guess.

Discussion about the Trinity continued in the Eastern Church – where the great Creeds were forged, but in the West, the mystery slipped from centre stage. What came to be stressed more was the oneness of God, with the different ‘persons’ being seen as properties within a single mind.

This was the ‘psychological model’ of the Trinity!

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a great shift within theology.

Trinity became a hot topic. ‘High Calibre’ academics started thinking hard about what it meant for God to be diverse yet one - and to ask what it might mean for the Church and for the world.

The idea of the Social Trinity, made up of three persons bound together in love became very popular. This model has been used to justify different ways of being community and of being Church – it underpins much of the practice of Local Shared Ministry for instance. It is a helpful corrective to the ‘psychological model’ of the Trinity but, as I point out in this morning’s pewsheet, if it is pushed to far it can do injury to the idea, put in the strongest terms by our Lord, that God is one.

What might we, as 21st century Christians say about the Trinity?

Well, firstly we might say that the outline of the Trinity sketched by the early Church Councils in the Creeds is an important ‘bench-mark’ or ‘standard’ for us to refer as we reflect on the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The Creeds effectively lay down the properties we have to accommodate into an adequate understanding of God, even when those properties defy any straightforward conceptualisation.

We might also do well to recognise that intellectual and spiritual humility are called for whenever we think about God; because there is always a great risk of projecting onto ‘God’ what we wish God might be like. I have a hunch that some of the models of Social Trinity have erred in this way.

Finally (and by no means least) we would do well to take seriously the way we experience God –accepting and appreciating that experience even when we lack the language to describe it in a way that satisfies the rational, critical mind. This morning’s first reading, from the first chapter of Genesis might be case in point. It introduces us to a God who is plainly ‘out of this world,’ and beyond comprehension, but intimately involved in every aspect of the created world. Such a God cannot be dissected in a bid to understand him but instead commands respect and awe with all our being.

It is that God who has brought us here this morning. A God who is ultimately beyond understanding but has been revealed to us by Christ and the Spirit, who come to us on a mission that begins in the heart of God and reaches out through us – by the grace of God, to the whole of creation, looking forward to a time when, as St Pauls predicts, death itself will be conquered by Christ after which “the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:28)

 

Pentecost Sunday, 4 June 2017, 9.30am

Pentecost, El Greco, c.1600

Preached by The Reverend Dr Tony Surman 

Primary Texts

Numbers 11:24-30

Acts 2:1-21

John 20:19-23

 

On this day in our church’s year we remember a special moment in time when the Apostles were enabled, in a spectacular way, to do an extraordinary thing.  At Pentecost the Holy Spirit allowed the disciples gathered in Jerusalem to speak and be understood by their fellow Jews, gathered from around the Ancient World, despite natural barriers of language.  Through this special gift of the Spirit, Jesus kept his promise to the disciples, the promise that he made in John’s Gospel – that he would send an advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to continue the work he had begun.

Over time the Spirit that Jesus sent allowed the disciples to perform works that, in a sense anyway, eclipse Jesus’ own achievements; that much was predicted by Jesus himself, again in John’s Gospel:

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12)

The Day of Pentecost which began this great wave of achievements witnessed the outpouring of a particularly ‘high octane’ variety of God’s Spirit. Through it, the Apostles could speak, and be understood by people from all over the known world – the confusion of languages that human pride brought about at Babel had been overturned (Gen 11:1-9).

It was not, of course, the first time that God’s Spirit had been active in the world. Indeed, it had never been absent from the world, and was present with God at the beginning of creation – the ruach Elohim, Spirit of God or Wind from God, ‘moving or hovering on the face of the waters’ (Gen1:2), bringing order into chaos.

Throughout the Old Testament the Spirit of God is alive and active, operating as the motivation and the means whereby the characters of the Old Testament story achieve remarkable things, often against impossible odds. It was the Spirit of God who called Abraham and Sarah out of Haran (Genesis 12), led them on a perilous journey to the land of promise, and blessed them with their first child in their old age. The same Spirit watched over and guided their descendants as they struggled to carve out a life for themselves in the arid land of Canaan. When the climate there changed for the drier it was Joseph the dreamer, son of Jacob, who the Spirit moulded into a powerful leader and the gracious redeemer of both his extended family and the nation of Egypt even though it had been his brothers who had sold him into slavery in that land. Centuries later, when the descendants of Jacob had been reduced to slavery themselves in Egypt, God called his servant Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead his people back to the land God had promised Abraham.

Moses was a rather unlikely candidate for the role. He was a simple soul [‘Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.’ (Numbers 12:3)] and had a natural aversion to public speaking [When the Lord told him to speak to Pharaoh, ’Moses said to the LORD, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."’ (Exodus 4:10)].

Neverthless, God empowered him, and gave him the means to achieve what was humanly impossible. We find him this Sunday, at the height of his powers you could say, after he has just gathered 70 people to share his work as a leader of God’s people. It takes a strong person to be able to share power with others. Moses was strengthened by the Spirit of God, that had moved into him because he was a humble person: ‘For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite,’ (Isaiah 57:15).  God took some of the Spirit that filled Moses and gave it to the seventy ‘elders’ – and even to a couple of extras, Eldad and Medad. Moses reacts to the news that Eldad and Medad have received the Spirit as well in a manner very akin to that of Jesus, years later, when the disciples told him that someone who wasn’t formally connected with them was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. On that occasion, Jesus told the disciples to leave the person alone – whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40). Moses reacts in a very similar manner when his second-in-charge (Joshua) bids Moses to stop Eldad and Medad prophesying; ‘Are you jealous for my sake?’ says Moses to him, ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’ Here we have Moses, the humble man, filled with the spirit of God, the originator of shared ministry!

Skipping ahead a number of centuries, the Spirit of God fashioned a young shepherd, David son of Jesse, from the little town of Bethlehem, into the most effective political leader that Israel had known. The same Spirit went on to bless David’s son, Solomon, with both wisdom and worldly riches, and for a while it looked as though God’s Kingdom may have come on earth. Unfortunately it hadn’t.  Solomon became distracted by the things of this world, which he had in abundance, and failed to properly acknowledge the Spiritual source from which those blessings came. Disintegration of the Kingdom David had united quickly ensued following Solomon’s death. As the fortunes of the remnant of that kingdom ebbed and flowed, God breathed his Spirit into Prophets who continually recalled their people to the programme God had called their ancestors to centuries earlier, to be a light to the nations, a sign of hope for the world, defenders of the weak and down-trodden. There were the ‘rock-star’ prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Elijah, and the more modest but equally powerful ones like Amos and Micah who each challenged the idea that ‘might is right,’ and went out to bat for individuals and groups who had become the victims of exploitative economic practices, greed, and deception. The greatest of these prophets, according to our Lord (Matt 11:11), was John the Baptist, Jesus’ kinsman and a man blessed by God’s Spirit from his conception to prepare the nation for the arrival of their God.

It is that Spirit which led John to baptise the repentant in the waters of the Jordan, and the self-same Spirit which allowed him to recognise Jesus as the Lamb of God through whom the Spirit of God would enter, cleanse, reorder and renew people’s lives in a dramatic way.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry that Spirit of God was supremely active and effective. Straight after his baptism by John it drove him out into the wilderness and prepared him for an intense period of public ministry that would affect the lives of hundreds of individuals who encountered the pre-Easter Jesus and the Spirit working through him. But more amazing things were yet to come following Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The Spirit could not be quenched, but instead became the irrepresible force for a movement committed to the vision that Jesus had proclaimed.

Acts 2 presents us with a remarkable scene of numerous disciples, blessed by the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the gospel in such a way that it is intelligible to anyone present, no matter what their language group. This sort of blessing (or something akin to it) continues to this day (think of Pentecostal Churches where speaking in tongues is a normal feature of worship life, and Charismatic movements which have been a feature of most major denominations over the latter part of the 20th century). It can revive individuals and churches. At times, however, a sort of spiritual elitism can develop around charismatic movements, which affords high status to those who can speak in tongues, these people being seen as particularly blessed by the Spirit. A healthy corrective to this way of thinking is provided in the Letter to the Galatians (5: 22-23) where St Paul – himself very familiar with the business of speaking in tongues – sets out nine virtues that depend on a person being in receipt of the Holy Spirit. These are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, nine qualities of character that we encounter much more frequently than we do the extraordinary charismatic activities recorded in Acts 2, but which, nevertheless, are sure signs that the Holy Spirit of God, sent by Christ, dwells within us.

 

To that holy, healing, enabling Spirit be all power and glory, now and forever. Amen

Seventh Sunday of Easter (Sunday after Ascension)

Preached by Jean Rheinfrank

Acts 1:6-14

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

John 17:1-11

INTRODUCTION

What a delight to be back in the familiar words of St John...who has been compared with writing as though weaving a “seamless robe!”  I’m with you, you are with me, and back and forth, and over again.  John is perfect for the 21st Century.  He makes us take a breath, slow down, and read slowly.  That’s quite a breath in this rather fast paced world of ours.  As we pursue this reading, we’ll see why the approach of slowing down will be rewarding.

A FAMILY PRAYER FROM THE OPEN JESUS

During study of the Apostles in 2011, a favourite theologian, Graham Stanton[1] illustrated “the gap” that exists between descriptions of Jesus by Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels); and then John!  I hear in my memory banks that most familiar warning you get to “mind the gaps,”[2] when boarding an underground train in London.  To me, it’s like coming home!  And for Stanton, the gaps between apostles are quite identifiable and make an impression.  In John, Jesus “speaks regularly and in exalted language about himself and his relationship to God.”[3]  In the Synoptic Gospels, however, you have more of a ‘historical Jesus,’ and Jesus is far more guarded and speaks reluctantly about his relationship with God. 

An often used Otago study bible highlights from today’s gospel reading that Jesus was addressing “to their common father,”[4] a family prayer, “for the disciples to whom he helped to pray were part of his family.”[5]  Jesus, in praying for the 12, is following a tradition which dates back from Jacob[6] who, when dying, prayed for the 12 Patriarchs,[7] and Moses[8] who prayed for the twelve tribes.[9]  For us, the verses of this today’s gospel reading, and in particular I mean v5: “So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed,” is confirming “of the glory which he (Jesus) had with the Father before the world was made.”[10]  There is much going on here, including the reality of the age of their relationship, and the familial relationship for us all.  Personally, it creates a most comfortable awareness in having such knowledge of our Christian togetherness.

Though our gospel reading does not go beyond verse 11, following verses in Chapter 17 clearly confirm we Christians, whilst in the world, are not of the world.  We are salt of the earth and certainly we are together.  Stop a moment—look around...come on, look to your right and left, now look behind.  Of course we do this every week in our marvellous St Martin’s @ St Chad’s sharing of the peace with every, single person under this roof!  It is extremely special to be away, come back, and have someone, during the peace, say “welcome back, it is good to see you!”  To be missed.  What an amazing Christian thing to do!

LESSONS LEARNED FROM SOUTH AFRICA

One of my reasons for being away was an intensive study session concerning South Africa and, from the public theology point of view, how the horrible and quite evil practice of Apartheid came into Africa’s daily life and how...finally, thank God...it was defeated.  Personally, it was a very complicated, painful, and totally frustrating process. 

I learned, however, a very important point, which now allows me to put into clear speech, why “separateness” (and that is the true translation for “apartheid”) is so wrong.  And we can thank our “here I stand, I can do no other,”[11] Martin Luther for the explanation!  Simply put, “God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul.”[12]  For Luther, “man-made law” cannot be “imposed”[13] upon the soul, for God has no word in the law.  Apartheid has truly derived from man and not God.  As Luther points out, “If there is no word of God for it, then we cannot be sure whether God wishes to have it so, for we cannot be certain that something which he does not command is pleasing to him.”[14] Upon reading this, I became quite excited.  It was something I could easily explain, in a public forum, and use language that anyone could understand.

There was, regrettably so, another moment of great irony.  On the very night of the Manchester event, we were all studying the matters of the 1976 Soweto Uprising where somewhere between 250 to 700 young students were killed by authorities.  As history would show, that situation inspired millions in South Africa and around the world to change their minds, to do something about it, and even forced the church to become quite visibly involved with the political implications.  And we discussed this event, looked at it from many points of view, and then recoiled in great sadness the next morning upon opening our newspapers and reading about the events in Manchester.  Do we never learn, I asked in prayer.  How do we replace this with love?  Well I heard the answer and I suggest again, look around you.  We under this roof are not without power and knowledge and a great deal of love to help make changes required in our own city, our own neighbourhood, and in our own Diocese.  That’s what happens when the family gets together!  And that’s what happens when Christians get motivated.

     

 



[1] Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2nd Ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press,

     2002), 240-1.

[2]

[3] Stanton, Gospels and Jesus, 240.

[4] John 17:1.

[5] Verlyn D. Verbrugge, Ed, and Harold Lindsell, Study Helps, NRSV Harper Study

     Bible (Grand Rapids, MICH: Zondervan Publishers, 1991), p. 1588-9.

[6] Gen.49

[7] Verbrugge, NRSV, 1589ff17.1.

[8] Deut. 33

[9] Verbrugge, NRSV, 1589ff17.1.

[10] Stanton, Gospels and Jesus, 240.

[12] Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority.” in Luther’s Works (Fortress, 1999), 105.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

Sixth Sunday of Easter, 21 May 2017, 9.30am

Just as Darryl Kerrigan depended on the advocacy provided by his lawyers in the 1997 film, The Castle, so we depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us through our trials

The Holy Spirit, our Advocate

Preached by The Rev'd Dr Tony Surman

Primary Texts

Acts 17:22-31

1 Peter 3:13-22

John 14:15-21

 

If you need to go to court for any reason, either as a plaintiff or a defendant in a civil trial or as the accused in a criminal trial – God forbid – you would do well to choose a lawyer who can ably represent you, who is well versed in the law pertinent to your case, is quick on their feet and determined to win. In other words, your selection of a lawyer should be based on their ability to advocate on your behalf in a courtroom situation. Indeed, in some countries court lawyers – or at least some ranks of court lawyers – are referred to as Advocates. This isn’t common practice in New Zealand, but the word appears in the title of two recent New Zealand books on court practice, ‘Introduction to Advocacy’ edited by Judge (Sir) Bruce Robertson (2nd ed, New Zealand Law Society, Wellington, 2008), and the 2013 book by Judge Anthony Willy and the Barrister James Rapley, simply titled, ‘Advocacy.’

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus uses a term that is translated as ‘Advocate’ to describe the Spirit he will send the disciples when he is no longer with them in person. The word that is used in the original Greek text of John’s Gospel is ‘parak/lētos’ – paraclete in English – which (not surprisingly) refers to someone who intercedes for another, who offers advocacy, help and, through that, comfort (which is the word that the King James Version uses to translate parak/lētos). So when Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to send them an advocate, it might pay to have in mind the ablest QC you can imagine, coming to the Apostles’ assistance.

And when you consider the effect that this spiritual advocate had on the early church, defending it from a variety of powerful and wily enemies who wanted to assign it to oblivion, I think you will agree that that image, of a top-notch, totally dedicated lawyer is a reasonable metaphor for the Holy Spirit in relation to the earliest believers. The Book of Acts is cram-packed with miraculous escapes from prisons and assassination, and replete with reports of the church’s astonishing growth, against the odds. Acts according to at least one biblical scholar is primarily a book about power[1] – the power of the Holy Spirit, and it records the extraordinary things that irresistible force was capable of. Over the course of our readings from Acts this Easter Season we’ve encountered that truth again and again. For those who heeded God’s call, and obeyed Jesus’ commandments, the Spirit was legal counsel and advocacy that no amount of money can buy. It enabled them to make their cases before angry crowds, religious leaders, and state officials simply and with great power. And when they weren’t defending themselves in the face of hostile audiences, the disciples were helped and comforted by the same Spirit as they sought to explain their faith to others.

Paul of Tarsus, though not a lawyer by profession was well trained in the art of arguing a case. That natural ability was catapulted to a new level of effectiveness when he became a Christian and he began to work with the Spirit, rather than against it. We encounter his charisma this morning as he preaches to the Athenians where he, very cleverly argues for the reasonableness of the Gospel in terms that his audience will understand.

It is likely that the wording of the speech recorded there is constructed by Luke, the probable author of Acts, but that he based that construction on the writings and teachings of a man he was well acquainted with (it was an accepted practice in the ancient world to ‘put words’ into people’s mouths – word’s you might reasonably imagine them saying).  So whether it was Paul or Luke who was particularly responsible for the shape of the speech we heard this morning, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit was behind it when it was written, and that that Advocate, intercessor and comforter, moves into our hearts when it is read.

From that place (in our hearts, at the centre of our being) it urges us on to become the people God hopes we will become. In other words, it bids us to fulfil our potential. And to the extent that we allow it to do its work, we change for the better. There are, within us, however, subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) layers of resistance to the Spirit’s action. Fundamentally this resistance has to do with our human proclivity to want things ‘our way’ rather than God’s way – I think a song may have been written about this..

There are parts/aspects of our lives we find difficult to surrender to the sovereignty of God. Some of those resistances can be dealt with relatively easily, others take years or a life-times work to get on top of (and perhaps that work continues into the after-life), but it is important to work on them, to chisel away at them, because they rob us of fullness of life and they inhibit our Communion, our spiritual relationship with God, the Holy Trinity: ‘They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me,’ says Jesus to us today, ‘and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ Yes, friends, we are missing out on a lot if we don’t surrender completely to God through Christ.

When Jesus left them, the disciples were a small group of Jews from the ‘back-blocks’ (Galilee of Gentiles – hardly the centre of institutional Jewish life), but in a generation or so (the period covered by the Book of Acts) the church had become an international phenomenon that included a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles. It was an extraordinary work, performed by ordinary people, enabled entirely by the irresistible power of the Holy Spirit.

The achievements of the early church recounted in the Book of Acts are quite staggering; there are mass conversions, miraculous healings, decisive meetings of church leaders – gathered to consider the thorniest of issues - and the development of committed Christian communities around the north-eastern Mediterranean.

That work was powered by a mighty Advocate, which was sent forth into the world from the heart of God. It proved so effective because a good number of people received it in a deliberate way, and were determined to be obedient to Christ. They kept his commandments and they achieved remarkable results. The good news is that we are alive in the same season as those heroes and heroines of old. The Advocate is still at large in the world, bidding us, and enabling us, to set aside our idols for a bigger vision and a lasting kingdom. May it be so for us individually and collectively; in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 



[1] See Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, pp. 120-135

Fifth Sunday of Easter, 14 May 2017, 9.30am

Preached by The Rev'd Dr Tony Surman

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60

1 Peter 2:2-10

John 14:1-14

 

If you were here on Good Friday when we reflected together on the Seven Last Sayings of Jesus on the Cross you will recognise immediately the similarity between two of those utterances and the final words of St Stephen, reported in this morning’s first reading.

(Stephen) Lord Jesus, receive my spirit (c.f. Jesus: Father into your hands I commend my spirit)

And then, (Stephen) ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ (c.f. Jesus: ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’)

St Stephen’s final words, which mirror Christ’s so closely, drive home just how radical the Christian call to hope and mercy is. He perfectly models Christ’s teaching and example as he prays to God for his killers’ forgiveness.

In light of today’s Gospel (John 14:1-14) there is something else very pertinent about Stephen’s final prayer. That ‘something’ is to do with the person to whom Stephen’s prayer is directed. In Jesus’ case, as he hung on the Cross, his prayer was directed to the Father, whereas Stephen’s prayer is directed towards Jesus, ‘standing at the right hand of God,’ ready to receive Stephen’s Spirit just as the Father had received Jesus’ Spirit when he died on the Cross. That is a very significant development, one that implies an effective equivalence between the Father and the Son - which is precisely the point that St John is making in this morning’s Gospel: “If you know me, you will know my Father also,” Jesus tells his bewildered disciples, before declaring, a little later, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

The equality of the Father and the Son is a fundamental part of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Because of it, we can speak of the Divinity of Christ – and, of course, we then have the task of explaining how that divinity coexists with Jesus’ humanity. This is a great mystery that has exercised the minds of Christians from the church’s beginning but it is not essentially an intellectual puzzle to be solved, so much as an encounter to be experienced and proclaimed. The oneness of Jesus with the Father that St John proclaims in this morning’s Gospel attests to the truth, recognised from the earliest days of the church, that an encounter with Christ is equivalent to an encounter with God. 

Let’s reflect for a moment on the context in which Jesus self-disclosure to his disciples occurs. It happens just after his last meal with them (John 13:2), a meal at which he washed their feet (John 13:4-12), predicted Peter’s denial (John 13:21-30) and Judas’ betrayal (John 13:36-38) and commanded his disciples to love one another just as he had loved them (John 13:34). His declaration of his oneness with the Father, then, occurred on a night when there was already a lot happening -  no wonder poor Thomas and Philip failed to grasp what he was getting at.

What Jesus says in response to Thomas’ question “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” is the oft-quoted piece of scripture: “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Sometimes only the first part of this answer is quoted. That is understandable. It is deeply comforting to know that Jesus is the means and the end (the goal) of our striving for God. What is not always quoted with the same readiness is the second part: ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’ That caveat grates with many Christians because it appears so blatantly exclusive, implying, perhaps, that people who live decent, loving lives, but do not explicitly accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord are barred from a real relationship with God. Is that what Jesus meant to say?

Possibly, but not likely – not in light of other teachings by Jesus’ on how people would be saved, particularly Matthew 25:31-46 where the nations are judged and access to the Kingdom depends, as the Son of Man puts it, on an individual’s kindness towards “the least of these who are members of my family’ (Matt 25:40); and when Jesus taught his disciples to pray he told them to pray to the Father, and through that prayer showed that a godly life is grounded in reverence of God’s holiness and purpose (hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come), faith about God’s provision (give us this day our daily bread), and goodwill towards all people (forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us). Similarly, in his ministry, Jesus brought God’s healing to the masses without demanding from the recipients of his care any assent that he was the exclusive channel by which God’s healing reaches out to people; indeed, he sent out his disciples to be channels of the same healing and wholeness. When, for example, Jesus appointed seventy people to go ahead of him and preach the coming of God’s Kingdom (in Luke 10:1-12) he acknowledged the massive scale of the mission before them and told them to ‘ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into the harvest.’ (Luke 10:2b). Then he told them what they were to do, which (after obtaining food and lodgings) was to ‘cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The Kingdom of God has come near to you.”’ (Luke 10:9) There is no mention, then, of healings being contingent on people naming Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, but there is an emphasis instead on God’s good purposes being worked out – purposes which we know are exemplified perfectly in Christ, our Lord and Saviour.

So when Jesus says ‘no one comes to the Father except by me’ he might be read as saying:

“It is by walking the way I have walked through life, speaking the truth that I have spoken and living the life that I have lived that you will find God; there’s no other way.”

St Stephen walked in Jesus’ footsteps, bravely and faithfully, loving God with every ounce of his being, soul, body and mind - the speech that he gives in chapter 7 of Acts, on Salvation History testifies to his determination to use his intellectual gifts fully in the service of God. He spoke the truth when accused of apostasy, and, in the end, was so at one with the way of life that Jesus had modelled that his thoughts were virtually identical with Jesus’ (he was concerned with only two things; that his spirit would be received by God and that his persecutors would be forgiven); only now, for Stephen, Jesus and the Father to whom Jesus had prayed throughout his earthly life were now all but indistinguishable. Stephen recognised him, as the disciples should have recognised much earlier, as the Son of Man, sitting at God’s right hand, that is, in the position of a crown prince relative to the sovereign, effectively the same in terms of power and majesty.

We come to worship Jesus in his risen glory today. We believe that he is living, listening to our prayers and pleased to respond to them ‘so that,’ as Jesus puts it, ‘the Father may be glorified in the Son.’ (John 14:13) And we take comfort from his assurance that in ‘[his] Father’s house there are many dwelling places,’ (John 14:2) alongside the dwelling place Jesus has set up for his disciples.

Perhaps those other mansions are for those who love God the way that Jesus loved the Father and are committed to doing the things that Jesus lived, died and rose for?

We know that Jesus is the sure and certain way to God, so we are right to commend Jesus to others as the way to fulness of life, here and in the hereafter, but we are not in a position to pass judgement on those who are approaching God by what appears to be an alternative route, because it just might be that our Lord is walking ahead of them too, on a road, which, when we look at it more closely, has all the contours of Jesus’ life and teaching about it.  

To him be the glory, the victory and the majesty, now and forever.

 

Amen 

Fourth Sunday of Easter, 7 May 2017, 9.30am

Preached by The Rev’d Dr Tony Surman

 

Texts:

Acts 2:42-47

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

 

In John’s Gospel there is a variety of metaphors or word-pictures that Jesus uses to describe himself, his role in salvation, and his relationship to his followers and the one who sent him, who he calls ‘Abba’ – Father.

 

He describes himself in John 15, for instance, as ‘the true vine,’ (verse 1) with his disciples being the branches (verse 5) and his father being the one who grows the vine and tends it (verse 1):

 

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)

There are seven ‘I am’ sayings, spoken by Jesus, in John’s gospel. This morning we have heard one of two ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus that draw on images related to shepherding. The first of these is said twice in the passage we have just heard, emphasising its importance:

“I am the gate for the sheep…I am the gate,” says Jesus as he explains the meaning of the word-picture he’s just put to the Pharisees (presumably) who observed him (as is noted towards the end of chapter nine in John’s gospel) being worshipped by a blind man and who took umbrage with Jesus’ declaration that he had come “into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do not see may become blind.” (John 9:39)

I think it is pretty clear from the explanation or interpretation that Jesus gives at this point that he is setting himself forth as both the proper access way to the reign of God or the Kingdom of God (because gates are all about access when they are open), and the means by which his followers are protected from real harm (because gates are about protection when they are shut).

In the word-picture that Jesus draws this morning he also makes mention of ‘the one who enters by gate [who] is the shepherd of the sheep’ (verse 2) and he refers to ‘[t]he gatekeeper who opens the gate for him’ (verse 3). It is not spelled out specifically who the gatekeeper is, but a plausible explanation is that the gatekeeper is the Holy Spirit, that part of God which is active and moving throughout all creation and in the hearts of people, opening  minds to truths never contemplated before, opening eyes to new opportunities for human flourishing, softening hearts of stone to love more fully; all so that we may be able to hear the voice of the shepherd who calls us forth by name, and then respond faithfully to that call.

The shepherd who calls forth the sheep would appear to be God the Father, the one who sent Jesus, the Son, into the world. How could it be otherwise, when Jesus emphatically claims to be ‘the gate,’ and the gatekeeper, whoever he is, performs the subordinate role of opening the gate for the shepherd (verse 3)?

Well, read on to the next verse in chapter ten that follows the passage we’ve just heard and it looks like what was building up to a tidy, straight-forward Trinitarian description of salvation, involving the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit each in their specially allocated corners, has to be set aside, because in that verse Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” (verse 11) and he says it again in verse 14…

“I am the good shepherd”

If Jesus is both the gate for the sheep and the shepherd of the sheep then the mental image (or conceptual model) we have to develop to hold these two truths together has to be more sophisticated than we first thought.

That’s to be expected, I guess. When we’re dealing with God, and the things of God there is a valuable rule of thumb that theologians use, ‘If you can explain it, it’s not God’ - that is to say, no amount of human thought and language can hope to explain God, the ground of all being (as one theologian put it [ Paul Tillich] who inhabits the universe whilst remaining in perfection beyond space and time.

That said, God has given us brains, and our Lord expects us to use them (love God with all your mind – see Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27; ), so what I am drawn to conclude from the mixed pastoral metaphors that Jesus uses in chapter 10 of John’s gospel is that Jesus, as well as being the one who protects the sheep and allows access to God, is also God, co-equal with the Father. In other words, what I think we have here, in these word-pictures, taken as a whole, is a clear assertion about the divinity of Jesus, about the complete correspondence of his purpose with the Father’s purpose. And I think I’m pretty justified in thinking this way because only a little further on in chapter 10 Jesus declares that:

“The Father and I are one,” (verse 30)

Okay, this is all good to be aware of as we contemplate today’s passage, but the compilers of our lectionary, in their wisdom, have given us Jesus to be thought of as a gate or door this Sunday, so we’d better reflect on what that aspect of our Lord’s person means for us today. And at this juncture I’m reminded of a scene from a recent New Zealand movie, The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, based on a Barry Crump book (Wild Pork and Watercress). Taika Waititi, New Zealander of the Year 2017, wrote the screenplay, directed the movie, co-produced it and made a cameo performance in the film, as a minister, preaching at a funeral and using some of the metaphors we’ve been contemplating this morning. (To hear what the minister has to say, try the following link, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86w_RV_fcEk).

Well it’s quite funny, and as with all good humour, there is some truth in what this clip has to say about ministers – who aren’t always 100% on form – and about the difficulties preachers can get into when they push metaphors too far, and rely on them completely as a teaching tool.  The minister is right though about life being at times a maze presenting us with different doors or gateways to choose to move through.

We may, for instance, be at a point in our lives where an important decision needs to be made for ourselves, and/or those we love, or those for whom we have a particular responsibility – be we the President of the United States, the Prime-minister of NZ, a teacher, a bus driver, you name it, there are tough choices that need to be made, sometimes on a daily basis. The door that we aim for, as Christians, is the one we hope to find Jesus behind because we know that doorway will lead to our flourishing and the enhancement of other’s well-being too. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” (verse 10b) says Jesus at the end of this morning’s Gospel. Yes, choosing the door that Jesus is behind is a win-win for all concerned even if the immediate effects don’t make this so plainly obvious.

Choosing that door or gate is not always easy because there is a mountain of distractions both inside and beyond us which clouds our decision making, but also because the decisions we have to make sometimes are very complex and it is not immediately clear what the most godly decision would be.  That’s when we have some real homework to do, using our minds, and often-times the minds of others, to make the best choice we can. Those decisions are made easier though to the extent that we commit to following Christ, the good shepherd and gateway to the Father. And for that commitment to work we need the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes, our hearts and our minds to the presence of Christ so that we can move through the right doorways in life, enjoying the really good things life has to offer – things far greater that L&P, burger rings or even Coke Zero, wonderful as they may be.

Have a great week, and may the right doors open for you at the right time, in Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Third Sunday of Easter, 30 April 2017, 9.30am

Rembrandt, Christ at Emmaus

Preached by The Rev'd Dr Tony Surman

Texts:

Acts 2:42-47

1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

 

About six weeks ago I took a funeral for a long-term resident of Sandringham and parishioner of St Chad’s, who had died in her nineties. She was quite a character, and deeply loved by the family she left behind. From my point of view it was quite an easy funeral to arrange because her family were very organised and already had the hymns worked out, and were very pragmatic when it came to selecting the reading – St Paul’s lesson on the nature of real love, 1 Corinthians 13 was the scripture reading. The hymns they wanted were 'Amazing Grace' and 'Abide with me.'

When I left them and was working to put together my script for the service, and writing my sermon, I latched on the idea of commenting not only on 1 Corinthians 13 (which would be my usual approach), but the words of the hymns themselves. One thing that caused me to do this, on a conscious level, was my concern that ‘Abide with me’ might be heard by people unfamiliar with Christianity as a rather dreary piece, rather than an allusion (a reference back) to one of the most joyful, life-changing, awesome parts of scripture.

So, on the day of the funeral, I commended their choice of this hymn, and told them that it was a very appropriate hymn to have at a funeral because it is a hymn of faith, about faith. The plea in the opening line, and at the conclusion of each verse, ‘abide with me’ refers to an incident, I said, that occurred after Jesus’ crucifixion when two discouraged disciples bumped into a stranger on the road near Jerusalem (the account from the 24th chapter of Luke’s Gospel that we have just heard) At first, I pointed out, the stranger didn’t appear to know about the terrible event that had just occurred there, but then he began to speak to them about Jesus’ death pointing out that it wasn’t something to feel hopeless about, and in the course of his long talk with them he lifted the spirits of the two disciples, who, as evening drew near invited him to stay with them and have a meal – as it is written in the Authorised Version, ‘Abide with us for it is toward evening and the day is far spent…’ (you see the connection with the hymn) When their invitee sat down to eat with them, he was still a stranger, but when he broke the bread at the meal, they recognised that they were in the presence of Jesus and had been with him all along as they journeyed from Jerusalem.

That, I suggested, was why I could say that ‘Abide with me’ is a hymn of faith, about faith - not a triumphalist sort of faith, but rather the sort of faith that comes to us when we are virtually bereft of faith and hope, which comes to us as a gift of grace (which is the truth that ‘Amazing Grace’ points to) brought to us by the God who is love itself. And that is the sort of gift that people grieving the loss of a loved one really need.

The ‘Road to Emmaus’ story is a testament to the way God breaks through our despondency, renews our hope and puts the skip back into our step. Notice how the story unfolds. It begins with a couple of Jesus’ disciples walking and talking together in the afternoon of the first Easter (a Sunday, like this one; the first day of the week). We come to learn, once Jesus (unbeknownst to them) questions them, that they are disillusioned and deeply perplexed by what has happened in Jerusalem in the past three days. Who could blame them for that! Some pretty incredible things had been happening – Jesus’ body was missing and a rumour was going around that he was alive again. They might have thought this was a sick joke – designed to add insult to the injury they had suffered already, watching their innocent friend and master being killed; or they may have suspected that the psychological stress caused by Jesus’ execution had caused some of his other followers to lapse into delirium.

 Sad and confused as they are about the way things have panned out, these two disciples continue, nevertheless to talk about Jesus, to reflect on what it all might mean. Their persistence suggests that Jesus really meant something to them, just as he does to us. We have then, in these two disciples, people with whom we can identify when we gather to talk about Jesus in church, and are sad, in grief, or confused in any way.

Now, notice how the sadness of the disciples is relieved and their spirit’s calmed; it is by reflection on and exposition of the scriptures. In the case of these lucky two disciples, their preacher is Christ himself. They don’t recognise that, but they begin to sense the same joy in their hearts through his preaching that they had experienced when Jesus spoke with them before his crucifixion. That feeling, that strange sense of calm and excitement, compels them to invite the stranger to stay with them. He has revitalised them.

 Fortunately, the stranger is happy to take up the invitation to abide with the two disciples. Notice what happens next. As they gather to share a meal together, the stranger’s true identity is revealed to them as he takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. That gathering and action is precisely what Jesus had told his disciples to do to remember him. And that night, in a house on the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ command worked just like he said it would. Jesus was revealed fully to them through that meal, which itself was the end-point in a process that had begun with two confused disciples doing their best to understand what God was up to on the first Easter Sunday. They ‘gathered’ in a sense of bewilderment, with which we can often identify as we gather before God, and were greatly aided in their quest for answers when the scriptures were explained and Christ’s Eucharist kept.

They were fortunate to have the Resurrected Christ himself to revitalise their flagging spirits, but, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the pattern that was established on the road to Emmaus remains the primary pattern by which our lives are reanimated, realigned, built up and invigorated for Christ’s mission in this life and the next. 

Second Sunday of Easter, 23 April 2017, 9.30am

St. Thomas Putting His Finger on Christ’s Wound,  Caravaggio (1603).

THE ALL TOO FAMILIAR “LOW” SUNDAY

 

I remember years ago--having started my theology degree--attending a service at Holy Trinity Cathedral.  I asked why the particular day was called “Low Sunday?”  At that time, our current Bishop (then known as Dean Ross Bay), explained the ramifications of being in church on that Sunday, the possible technical problems of preaching the week after Easter!  I asked, “what do you mean?”  And he answered that preaching the Sunday after Easter was a rather hard act to follow!  Well...this is my third, “Low” Sunday sermon in three years.  And frankly, I think I’m getting the “gist!”  And I must say, it is very exciting!  Let me explain. 

 

DUMBLEDOOR & DOBBY—HARRY POTTER

 

I have a confession to make.  I’m a serious fan of the Harry Potter books and especially the movies.  During the past week and weekend, I have spent many hours on SKY TV...I am not saying HOW many hours, mind you...watching several Harry Potter movies.  One edition (and I’ve truly lost count of specifically which movie number), was particularly distressing as two of the major characters died in the one film—The Wizard and Headmaster of Hogwarts, Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, and an adorable little free elf, Dobby!  Admittedly, I cried...more than once!  I had to remind myself this, after all, was a children’s story!  But this is what got my attention on that Easter weekend.  

 

Harry Potter is quite visibly moved by Dumbledore’s death.  We see Harry walking around in the former Headmaster’s office.  It is quite emotional to be sure.  And with real life, there is of course no comparison, but I suddenly thought as I watched it, “I wonder how did each Disciple feel,” when it was reported that Christ—as we heard it last week on Good Friday—made his incredible statement, “it is finished,” and died?[1]  

 

What a harrowing moment it must have been for the Disciples.  All the time they had had with Jesus, studying and learning, going out on the road to practice their faith.  What is completely remarkable, we actually don’t know how the Disciples felt...because the disciples were not there at the end (except for the one identified as “the disciple whom he (Jesus) loved.”).[2]  It is fair to say that the disciples (remembering there were now eleven as Judas had committed suicide) were quite disorganised, as their hopes, dreams, and plans had been completely ripped away with Jesus’ crucifixion and they were extremely fearful and felt compelled to be locked behind a door in the “upper room.”  In short—these men were hiding away! 

 

And although this first encounter of the disciples of Jesus is also mentioned in Luke, only here in John do we understand that the disciples were keeping behind locked doors, ‘for fear of the Jews,’ and that they, too, like Jesus,  could end up being executed.[3]  

 

In the last two passages of this story, St. John clearly describes why he has written this Gospel, these (words) are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  This, a name, was also quite important, because up to this point, the members of this group loosely referred to themselves as “the way.”[4]  Having no name was only one of the problems--there was no developed liturgy or method of worship. 

 

But, wait, there’s even more!  Now think of Peter.  What possibly could he have been thinking or feeling?  Jesus had told him that he (Peter) would deny knowing Jesus not once but three times between Jesus’ capture and crucifixion.  Peter must have been devastated.  And the other disciples—surely they would have been extremely perplexed with Peter’s responses.  Luke provides us a reasonably telling account of the after math of the crucifixion.  But it is in John’s writing that we are being propelled as eyewitnesses to the somewhat chaotic and human consequences of this dilemma.  These were not small problems.   

 

Jesus fully understood what he needed to do, and his message, as reported to us in Holy Trinity’s Great Easter Vigil on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday was to remind all the Disciples, “Do not be afraid.”[5] 

 

Jesus was seen five times on Easter weekend,[6] and we will hear next week about one of those times, on The Road to Emmaus.  These appearances weren’t “off the cuff,” and had specific purposes designed to achieve a specific outcome.  We cannot know if Jesus’ second appearance in the Upper Room (one week later)[7] was previously planned, as Thomas was not in attendance a week earlier and he made rather specific requests which only Jesus could fulfil.  But clearly with Jesus’ second visit, he intended to interact with Thomas—but we are jumping ahead of the timeline.

 

WHAT IF THE DOORS HAD NOT BEEN UNLOCKED? 

 

Upper Room visitations do draw us into a bit of a game of “What If.”  Here are just a few aspects that could have changed dramatically had any of them gone in a different direction. 

 

First of all, getting IN to that room, and talking with the disciples took something pretty special.  Being specific...it took a divine, resurrected man to get in there.  How long might these tired and quite fearful men have waited, I wonder to venture forth?  What would they have been discussing...what were they planning?  We simply do not know.  Could the group had fallen apart?  Highly likely seems a reasonable response.  We just don’t know. 

 

What we can say is Jesus convinced them to pretty much get on with it, and do something.  In fact, he said quite a bit and truly lit up both the room, and the men.  As one Benedictine monk described this interaction, “the organisational structure, the great institution of the church simply wasn’t there.  There was an apostolic band of followers.  You had this tiny, vulnerable, poor, often persecuted group of people who were on fire with something!”[8]  Or as another historian put it, “they were the movement’s cutting edge, the big bang moment for Christianity...the apostles blasting out of Jerusalem and scattering across the known world!”[9] 

 

FISHING...AND PULLING IN THE BIG CATCH!

 

And here is the biggest “what if,” of them all.  Thomas (who would be known for ever more as ‘doubting Thomas,’) refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected and demanded to see him.  Thus the second ‘upper room’ appearance.  That meeting, as described by the NRSV Harper Study Bible[10] results in Jesus asking Thomas a “watershed” question, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[11]  Thomas states to Jesus, “My Lord and My God.”[12]  Scripture, as written by St. John, underscores a watershed moment, through the utterance of Thomas which does not suggest he dared to touch those wounds, but that Jesus Christ IS God manifest in the flesh.  

 

Thomas’ comment sets forth this small group who will venture and carry with them this new religion.  Of the 11, only John will die of natural causes.  And Thomas...well, it is truly amazing what he accomplishes: Doubting Thomas, history will record, went on to India, and founded the first Christian church in the heart of the Hindu nation in 52 C.E.  His travels took him through what is now Syria and Iran, as far south as Southern India.  In miles alone, Thomas travelled further than Paul in his three missionary journeys.  Thomas, it is commonly believed, was speared and died during his travels and pursuit to bring Christianity to the people of India.  His success in that mission is seen today with over 27,000,000 Christian Indians.[13]  I think we can safely say that “the way” was found, and that was one, significant big bang!

                 

ALLELUIA!  CHRIST IS RISEN

He is risen indeed.  ALLELUIA

AMEN.

 

 

 



[1] John 19:30.  See Good Friday sermon on St Martin’s website:

     http://www.stmartinstchads.org/431955104.  Item 6, in the sermon printed.

[2] John 19:25b-27.  See Good Friday sermon on St Martin’s website:

     http://www.stmartinstchads.org/431955104.  Item 3, in the sermon printed.

[3] John MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible NKJV (Nashville, TN: World Publishing,

     1982),  p. 1627, ff. 20:19.

[4] Andrew Tudhunter, The Apostles, National Geographic, VOL, 221, No 3 (NY, NY:

     National Geographic Society, March, 2012), p. 47.

[5] The Right Reverend Jim White, Holy Trinity Cathedral The Great Easter Vigil,

     (Auckland: NZ, Holy Trinity Cathedral, 15 April, 2017 at 8:00 p.m.), 9.

    

[6] Verlyn D. Verbrugge, Ed, and Harold Lindsell, Study Helps, NRSV Harper Study

     Bible (Grand Rapids, MICH: Zondervan Publishers, 1991), p. 1555.  The first though

     not an appearance was the empty tomb, 2nd was Mary Magdalene,  3rd with the two

     travellers on the Road to Emmaus,  4th to Peter in Jerusalem, 5th to the 10 Disciples

     in the Upper Room.

[7] Ibid., 1555.

[8] Andrew Tudhunter, The Apostles, National Geographic, VOL, 221, No 3 (NY, NY:

     National Geographic Society, March, 2012), p. 47.

[9] Ibid., p. 48.

[10] Verlyn D. Verbrugge, Ed, and Harold Lindsell, Study Helps, NRSV Harper Study

     Bible (Grand Rapids, MICH: Zondervan Publishers, 1991), ff28, p. 1596.

[11] Ibid., John 20:29.

[12] Ibid., John 20:28. 

[13] Tudhunter, The Apostles, National Geographic, 48.

Easter Sunday, 16 April 2017, 9.30am

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Tomb) in Jerusalem. The priest is emerging from the door beside the place where Jesus' body was placed after his crucifixion and remained until the early hours of the first Easter Sunday when he was resurrected.

Preached by The Rev’d Dr Tony Surman

Texts

Acts 10:34-43

Colossians 3:1-4

Matthew 28:1-10

St Matthew’s account of Easter morning is, arguably, the most dramatic, action-filled, account of Jesus’ Resurrection that we have in the Bible. The other Gospel writers are content to report that the stone was already rolled away from the entrance of Jesus’ tomb when the first disciple or disciples arrived (Mark 16:4; Luke 24:2; John 19:1)  but Matthew writes about a great earthquake that preceded the arrival of an Angel who rolled the stone away and sat on it.

This sort of flourish is apparent in other parts of Matthew’s Gospel. If you were here last Sunday to hear the account of Jesus’ arrest, trial and death read in its entirety, you will have noted how gripping that story can be; not only does Matthew have the curtain in the Temple tearing in two (as Mark and Luke report) when Jesus dies, but he reports that the earth shook and rocks split (Matt 27:51) and tombs opened “and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”(Matt 27:52). These are powerful images of an extraordinary nature.

But let’s not get distracted because this morning we have an Angel of the Lord – apparently a pretty high ranking one (‘his appearance …like lightning, and his clothing white as snow’(Matt 28:3) sitting on the stone he has rolled away from the entrance of Jesus’ tomb. What is revealed when the stone is rolled away is a dramatic absence; Jesus’ body is gone.

The absence of a body in the tomb is common to each of the Gospel accounts. They vary quite a bit on the details, but they each agree that early on Sunday morning Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb.

Imagine how disturbing, how heartbreaking that absence would have been to the disciples who discovered it. In John’s version of events, Mary Magdalene is brought to tears by Jesus’ disappearance  (John 20:11) – so sure is she that his body has been taken away, while in Luke’s account the women  were ‘perplexed’ (Luke 24:4) to find his body not there. In Matthew and Mark’s account of things, however, they don’t have much time to grieve because there is an angel immediately on hand to explain what has happened.

In this morning’s Gospel, the Angel of the Lord explains the absence of a body to Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (Matt 27:56) by declaring: “He is not here; for he has been raised...He has been raised from the dead...” (Matt 28:6-7)

This was good news – delivered, albeit in a rather terrifying way. 

As they leave the tomb, they do so “quickly” with mixed feelings of “fear and great joy.”And then they run into Jesus. And he gives them a big hello – ‘Greetings,’ he said.

What a shock that must have been! It appears to have bowled them over altogether, and from an apparently prone position they took hold of his feet (obviously not wanting him to get away!) and worshipped him.

Jesus responses to the two Marys in the same positive, forward-looking tone he adopts in all his resurrection appearances; telling them to put aside fear (Matt 28:10) and instead to go and do something.

That something, that mission, is to tell the other disciples what they are to do next (which is to go to Galilee) so that they too will be able to see Jesus. These two women, then, are the risen-Christ’s first missionaries.

The way Jesus refers to the other disciples says something about Jesus’ magnanimity, his great capacity and willingness to forgive. Jesus refers to the men who deserted and denied him as his ‘brothers’ and there isn’t a hint of irony in what he says. However disappointing their behaviour was in relation to his trial and execution, it is now, as it were, ancient history to him. He is looking forward, focussing on opportunities, on life and growth, and he wants them to be a vital part of that brave new world.

Now at this point I am running the risk of making the risen-Christ look like a model ‘rational manager’ for the twenty-first century – a person able to deal with issues decisively before moving on to grasp new opportunities. Jesus certainly had that ability, but he wielded it to an extent and in a manner that is beyond comparison with any manager, alive or dead.

When it comes to dealing decisively with things, Jesus was singularly decisive. On the cross he confronted the problem of evil head-on and in his own person, and in his resurrection he moved his followers on, to new possibilities that they had never imagined, and he put them in situations that demanded they keep rethinking the role they were to play in the development of God’s Kingdom.

Our Lord’s ‘management strategy’ was not motivated by profit or popularity, or expediency. What motivated the risen Jesus to respond to his disciples in the positive way he did, was and is love.

Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is the glorified embodiment of the love that (as St Paul famously put it) “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:7)  That is to say, Jesus cannot help seeing the potential in people and the possibility in any situation.

That positivity towards life is a cause for real hope because it gets things done that need to be done. It is the positive force that has caused the church to develop from a small group of frightened Galilean Jews, to a Church that has spread around the globe and become a powerful vehicle for good in society – from care of the ill and destitute through to advocacy for peace and social justice; yes there have been instances of denial, desertion and betrayal within the Church over the last two millennia (some of it absolutely shocking) but the redeeming power of love, the love demonstrated on the Cross and in the Resurrection keeps returning the Church to its central mission of being salt and light to the world.

May this Eastertide be a positive time for us, for those we love, and for those we struggle to love. May we experience Christ’s acceptance of us, and know that we really are forgiven, and may we accept with joy the positive mission that Jesus now sends us on, to our own Galilee, to our own sisters and brothers who yearn to see and touch the risen Christ.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

 

 

Good Friday - The Seven Last Words of Jesus

Reflections on the Seven Last Word of Jesus from the Good Friday Service at

St Martin’s @ St Chad’s, Sandringham. 14 April 2017, 9.30am

(Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version) 

Reflections by Tony Surman and Jean Rheinfrank

  1. The First Word

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.                                                          -Luke 23: 33-4

 

Reflection: Tony

The God who Jesus revealed to his compatriots is a profoundly merciful God; gracious and generous – a God concerned for the wellbeing of every creature, a God who causes rain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous.

There is a place in this God’s heart for every being God has fashioned; like a dotting parent – or perhaps even more like a dotting Grandparent, the God who Jesus revealed to the world can see the promise and potential in even the most wayward of his children.

Jesus showed that it was in that graciousness, in that inherent willingness to forgive, that God’s perfection lay.

We see that perfection exemplified in Jesus as he prayed for his persecutors, for the ones who set him up, metaphorically, on false charges and to the ones who set him up, quite literally, on the wood of the cross. He prayed that God would forgive them, and his plea for clemency, on their behalf, was that they did not know what they were doing.

On the face of it the plea that Jesus made is absurdly generous; surely the members of the Temple Council, the Sanhedrin, knew what they doing when they conspired to do away with Jesus; and when Pilate condemned him and the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross, surely they knew what their business was about?

Look more closely though and you see just how right Jesus was about their ignorance. Most members of the Sanhedrin had probably never heard Jesus teach first hand; or if they had, they would not have a grasp of his message in anything like its entirety. As politically savvy men what they did know was that Jesus posed a risk in a city packed to the gunnels with Jewish pilgrims awaiting the Passover. Word on the street was that he wanted to establish an alternative kingdom. The crowd might easily be swayed to insurrection.  And they knew, as well, that Pilate, the man who kept the Roman Peace in Judea, would be pleased to use any pretext as an excuse to crack down on them and the faith they sought to protect.

Pilate too, had a limited understanding of what he was doing when he sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. He had, it seems, a sense, a gut feeling, that Jesus was not the villain that the Jewish authorities made him out to be, but he is very unlikely to have known anything about Jesus’ teachings. He acted out of expediency and probably, in all reality, cruel indifference – if a conquered people wished to sacrifice their best and brightest to placate their overlord, who was he to protest?  And further down the chain of command, the soldiers who flogged and then crucified Jesus were probably completely oblivious to Jesus and his message. 

What is truly remarkable is that Jesus not only recognises that their attack on him is driven by misunderstanding, but he takes the step of advocating on their behalf to his Father; a more natural response would be to complain about the injustice being meted out by the ill-informed, but Jesus, strangely, forgoes such a words.

This unexpected response is altogether disarming.

For a moment or two it must have arrested the soldiers tasked with hoisting Jesus onto the Cross. They may then have laughed off what Jesus said as pious non-sense, but as they watched the other events of his passion unfold, his prayer for them – his care for them – would have started to win them over to the side of Angels.

It is that grace of God which effects change in human hearts; grace operating in the face of the most hostile opposition; grace that is willing to endure hell’s fury to redeem even the most blemished life. That is how the Cross works; it points to the extraordinary grace of God.

We may know a few more facts about the way the world operates than our ancestors did, but just like the people who put Jesus to death, our knowledge of what is really going on in the world around us is strictly limited. We understand things from a particular point of view. We see what we want to see. We see what we are brought up to see. We avert our eyes from the truth when that truth interferes with our perceived best interests. We are nearer to Caiaphas and Pilate than we would ever like to admit to being. Thanks be to God, just as our Lord prayed for their forgiveness, so he prays for ours.

2.            The Second Word

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”                                                                                                                            -Luke 23: 39-43

Reflection: Jean

Jesus, hanging from the cross is in true agony, and there is a further compounding problem, in that this innocent man is joined—one on the left, and one on the right, by two criminals.  Jesus was being blasphemed by one of the guilty men, but the other attempted to quiet that accuser.  Jesus offers salvation and promises they will all be in Paradise before the end of the day.  Racked with horrible pain, unable to breathe properly, Jesus, in spite of his own discomfort, seeks out to help another, someone he does not even know.  Could any of us—be so magnanimous?  Could we be so unselfish?  Could we care so much, hanging in such pain and suffering, and provide such words of assurance: “truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise?”

 

3.            The Third Word

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.                                                                                                                                                                                                      -John 19: 25b-27

Reflection: Tony

In the pages of the New Testament that record his life before his crucifixion, Jesus appears, at times, rather thoughtless in his treatment of his mother. When he was around 12 years of age, for instance, he deliberately remained behind in Jerusalem without telling his Mother Mary, or Joseph – or anyone else it seems – that he intended missing the caravan of family and friends returning to Nazareth. This caused Mary and Joseph a great deal of emotional distress as they turned over the city for three days looking for their lost child. When they found him, the excuse he gave was that they should have known he would be in his Father’s house – that wasn’t really the most thoughtful explanation that a young person in his situation might have offered up. There was no expression of remorse for the distress he had caused them, which does strike me as rather odd, but then, he was a young person, and maybe the way he delivered the words was so guileless that his parents weren’t too wounded by what he said.

Many years later, at the start of his public ministry, it was Mary who prompted Jesus to perform his first miracle – turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Jesus’ initial response to his Mother’s prompting, however, doesn’t appear all that gracious. St John tells us that:

When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” [which does seem a bit blunt, doesn’t it]. [Then], his mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

And Jesus went and did what his Mother requested.

Later in his ministry, Jesus was even more dismissive of his Mother’s concerns. This time it was her concerns for his safety that he fobbed off. At the height of his public ministry, when he was gathering crowds around him wherever he went, Jesus was clearly in danger, speaking as he was about an alternative kingdom, a Kingdom of God, in a land that was under foreign occupation. To thwart that danger, Mary and Jesus’ siblings sent word to Jesus to tone things down. The people who came to him told Jesus

‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ 33And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 

This is technically true, but it is not diplomatic in the least. It is quite a blow for his Mother, brothers and sisters, who I am sure were motivated to approach him on this matter out of loving concern for him.

These blunt responses of Jesus to his Mother might make us suspect that Jesus’ didn’t have much natural affection for Mary. That possibility, however, is ruled out by the way Jesus responds to his Mother when he is at the extreme edge of life, on the Cross.

 On the Cross it is clear that his love for his mother, who brought him into the world and nurtured and protected him, was, and had always been strong.

Here we behold our Lord, Mary’s Son, as always, thinking of the welfare of others, even in the midst of extreme violence and injustice against himself.

4.            The Fourth Word

 

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”                                                                                                       - Matthew 27: 45-46

Reflection: Jean

Six hours...according to sources, including the Gospel of Mark...is the length of suffering Jesus withstood on the cross.  And yet, during this time, Jesus was fully aware and quite prominent in helping those he saw around him from the cross.  His pondering question to God, “why have you forsaken me,” is an echo from Psalm 22:1, and includes a specific prophecy of the soldiers gambling for the saviour’s seamless robe.  Graham Stanton shows us—in fact he stresses—how men such as Pilate and Herod recognized Jesus as the innocent party in this surreal ritual.

Jesus’ “feeling” of Abandonment can be understood within the time frames of his excruciating 6-hours on the cross.  His words, say authors of the Jerome Bible Commentary, fall short of despair, given he was praying to God during that particular point.

Great care, it can be noted, is taken by the various writers in showing Jesus as serenely confident, and one who dominates proceedings from his arrest to his triumphal final cry from the cross.  So much care and detail has been carefully handled, in recording Jesus’ last moments on earth.

5.            The Fifth Word

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.                                                                                            -John 19: 28-9

Reflection: Tony

As Jesus hung from the cross, bleeding and sweating, his thirst became intense. Months earlier, in happier times, he had been thirsty too as he sat beside Jacob’s Well in the midday sun.

On the Cross it was plain to all that he was in need of water. When he stated that he was thirsty, Jesus could reasonably be understood to be pleading for water. As he sat beside Jacob’s Well, Jesus’ thirst may not have been as evident. In that instance he asked a Samaritan woman quite directly to give him a drink. 

On both occasions he did not receive the simple thing he had requested; the Samaritan woman became caught up in deep conversation with him and ran off excitedly into town, leaving her water jar, presumably empty behind; and at the Cross, the soldiers delivered him wine – according to John (sour wine according to the other Gospel writers) which is hardly as quenching.

Yet although Jesus’ immediate human need is not met, he demonstrates  – as he sits by the well, and hangs on the cross – that there is a well of life within him that springs up and is effective, despite the worst that the world can throw at him. He may not have got a drink from the excited Samaritan woman, but the word of life he spoke to her became a spring of water which went on to convert a village of people – people who would, in the normal run of things, have had nothing to do with a person like Jesus.

And despite being given wine instead of water on the cross, Jesus’ forgiveness of his tormentors, his loving-kindness towards family and friends and strangers around him, conquers hearts. Even as he dies, Jesus proves to be a well of living water to those around him - through the words he speaks, and the forbearance he demonstrates.

 

We have seen how his word was a river of life to one of the criminals crucified beside him. As we continue our reflection on Jesus’ final words we will see the transformative effect of them again, until, at the last, there will be barely a person present at the crucifixion who has not been reshaped (if only in embryonic form) by the living waters flowing up through Jesus.

We thirst a lot in our lives. Sometimes that thirsting is quite superficial – and easily remedied. At other times, though, our thirst is not so easily quenched. If our hunger is for a sense of meaning in our life; or for peace as we cope with the grief of loss, or for hope as we face uncertainty, then the water, the sustenance, we require can only come from a deeper well. Thanks be to God, that well is closer to us than we dare to think. That well is Jesus Christ, the word of God, the Son of God, and Son of Man who thirsted like we do, who knows us and our needs and crucially - literally by the cross – is able to meet our deepest needs because he has endured them at their most extreme.

6.             The Sixth Word

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.                                                                                                                                                   - John 19: 30

Reflection: Jean

We are told in the Study Bible that those who died by crucifixion normally raised their heads at the end, gasping for breath and then dropped them when they died.  Jesus—in a sign of submission bowed his head to His Father’s will—showing he gave his life by his own volition and not because he was powerless.  His work, given to him by His Father was now completed.  Nothing to be added—nothing to be taken away.  “It is finished,” he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.

7.            The Seventh Word

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.                                                                                                                  -Luke 23:46

Jesus’ death on the Cross marked the end of an extraordinary ministry (where he had given of his Spirit completely to the mission of God; now that Spirit was going home). He had transformed the lives of hundreds, even thousands of people.  During his lifetime he had included others in that ministry of healing, restoration and liberation, and today, the seed of the church that he established through his disciples has blossomed into a mighty tree – just as he promised it would.

As Christ’s disciples today we called to participate and continue that ministry.

We know that our success in that venture depends on our faithfulness to the way marked out for us by Jesus, but we might wonder how far we have to go in our imitation of Christ to be deemed successful; we might wonder whether we have to give ourselves up unto death to make the grade as a Christian. Is martyrdom a prerequisite for a life to be called ‘well-lived’?

I can’t imagine Jesus answering this question in the affirmative

Death on the cross was not something that Jesus pursued with any relish, and I am sure he would not want his followers to see the pursuit of pain, suffering and death as a noble end in itself. He did not have a death wish, and even a very casual glance at his ministry reveals a man who was, generally speaking, very happy to remain ‘below the radar’; he did not seek to make an exhibition of himself. He had a knack for being able to slip through crowds when they became nasty or wished to push him into an action he did not wish to pursue.

He could have gone on doing that, being evasive, until ripe old age. He didn’t do so because he needed to prove something – not to himself, but to the world. And what he needed to prove was that God could redeem anything, could remedy and restore the worst damage that evil could do.

We do not need to pursue martyrdom to make this point again. It has been made once and for all by Jesus. His is the final, definitive word on the matter.

And we can rest assured that if the worst should happen to us – God forbid – our  lives are securely in the hands of the God who overcomes death, from whose love nothing in heaven or earth can separate us.

Prayer

Hear us, O merciful Lord Jesus Christ, and remember now the hour at which you commended your blessed spirit into the hands of your heavenly Father, and so assist us by your most precious death that we, being dead to the world, may live for you alone, and at the hour of our departing from this mortal life, may be received into your heavenly kingdom; where you live and reign with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

 

  

Maundy (Holy) Thursday, 13 April 2017

Leonardo Da Vinci's impression of Jesus' Last Supper before his crucifixion.

 Preached by The Rev'd Dr Tony Surman

 

Texts:

 

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14

1 Cor 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 

Tonight we call to mind two of Jesus’ straight-forward instructions to the church.  One of these was to take bread and wine, give thanks to God for it, and share it in remembrance of him. The other command (found exclusively in John’s Gospel) was to wash one another’s feet in the same way that he had washed his disciples’ feet on the night before he died.

The meal command was taken up by the first generation of Christians, quickly establishing itself as a tradition by the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The washing command does not appear to have been taken up with the same vigour or enthusiasm. I guess it’s not difficult to see why. To wash the feet of a large congregation every Sunday is a bit more complicated than blessing and distributing bread and wine, and a bit more physically exacting as well. It’s also a bit less, well - mysterious – at least on the face of it, than celebrating a meal that promises communion with the Divine. So this command has failed to catch on except as an annual ritual which some churches do and others don’t, although all are committed to the commandment of Jesus that stands behind this instruction (and we heard it tonight at the end of the Gospel), namely, that we are to serve one another with the same loving kindness as our Saviour served his disciples.

The ritual meal that St Paul describes in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians, not surprisingly, bears a resemblance to Jewish meals of remembrance and thanksgiving to God - those meals (particularly the Passover meal, but also the weekly rites at table which begin the Sabbath) which call to mind the liberation God has wrought for God’s people.

Meal rituals were not restricted to Jews and Christians in the first century. Groups of all sorts would eat together on a regular basis, in temples, sharing food in a ‘potluck’ style. For workers’ guilds these meals were a chance to socialise and I’d be surprised if the rites surrounding their communal dining were very complicated. Some groups, however, that existed specifically for religious purposes developed quite elaborate meal rituals to accompany their meetings. The allure of these cults was that only a select few, those in the know, knew what the rituals were and they guarded this knowledge jealously. The so-called mystery religions of which these meals were a part promised a way for a minority to know God. They were an inherently elitist and individualistic way of approaching the Divine.  

It is significant that Paul, in tonight’s reading, is very open about what goes on in the Lord’s Supper, and it is clear that he is talking about a rite that is communal and essentially simple even though profound; he spells out clearly what the rite involves. He is not trying to keep a mysterious veil over proceedings, and in so far as he takes that approach, he sets forth the Eucharist in stark contrast to the mystery religions.

Paul held the memorial of the Lord’s Supper in high regard. It was the meal that proclaimed Christ’s death – so it paralleled the Jewish Passover meal because both spoke of redemption and liberation from oppression. Paul was concerned that the meal was approached reverently – people were to examine themselves so that they approached the table worthily. That was fine and proper, but as time went by, and one generation gave way to another, the Eucharist – I think it would be fair to say, became more otherworldly or mysterious. To some extent that change represented a justifiable extension of ideas implicit in the New Testament. Some of the shift, however, seems to have been due to the influence of the pagan cultic practices. And along with that influence came elitism and distinctions between people that are difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ message.

The Gospel of John was probably written towards the end of the first century - that is, approximately three generations (seven decades) after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke which were written somewhat earlier, John’s gospel does not contain an account of Jesus taking, blessing, breaking and sharing bread and wine with his disciples. That absence or silence is intriguing. It may be a sign that in the community for which that Gospel was written, the Eucharist was not celebrated, but that is very unlikely (consider, for instance, the bread of life discourse in John 6).

My suspicion is that the silence was a deliberate attempt on John’s part to reclaim something that is at the heart of Jesus’ message, namely, looking after one another’s most basic human needs. That core, I suspect, had been under threat as the Eucharist came to greater prominence in the ritual life of the church. There was nothing wrong with its centrality, except the danger that it would become seen as the magic pathway through which an in-crowd can make it to heaven.

By turning our attention to Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet, John drives home the same truth that St Matthew does in the 25th chapter of his Gospel; namely, that our pathway to real communion with God is bound up with the way we treat the least in our community – the hungry, the thirsty, the displaced, the defenceless, the sick and the imprisoned (Matt 25: 35-36).  

The command that Jesus gives in John’s Gospel, to love one another reminds us of the crucial truth that our ‘Communion’ – our living relationship with God, develops as our arms open to those in need, as we become more humble and committed to serve. Elitism has no role to play in that truly mysterious movement.

The saints throughout the ages have recognised this truth and continually called the church back to a life of simplicity, in which love is genuine and reflected in acts of kindness, generosity and self-giving.

Over the next few days we will see this sort of living exemplified in the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we each take away a new insight from that encounter, one that moves us from the heart to be more effective instruments of love and peace in a world where elitism and selfish desire are still very much alive and need to be challenged and transformed; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2 April 2017

The Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt, circa 1628-1632

AGM Vicar's Report,

The Rev'd Dr Tony Surman

Gospel Text: John 11:1-45

 

There is a tradition here of the Vicar delivering their AGM report during the sermon slot. I think that is a good practical way of doing things, but I can’t resist the urge to say one or two things briefly about the Gospel before I continue with my report.

 

Firstly it demonstrates the power of God – to raise a man from the dead, who has been that way for days is no mean feat; it requires a power that we still, in the nuclear age do not possess.

Secondly, it provides a window into the purposes of God – allows us to understand God’s intentions.

And what we see through the glass of that portal is a God who wants to give people life – be they already dead, as in the case of Lazarus, or drained of life as a result of grieving for a loved one (Mary and Martha).

This intention, to give life, allied with power to make it happen, fosters hope. We note that many Jews believed in Jesus after Lazarus was raised. In two weeks we will celebrate an even more decisive victory of God over death – Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning, a victory that continues to draw people to faith and to give the faithful hope when their path is hard and their cross is heavy. In the past year we have bid farewell to four parishioners here, who died in the faith of Christ, and who, we pray, are experiencing the fullness of his company now in heaven. They were Margaret Travers (March 2016), Susan Jackson (April 2016), Donald Arthur (August 2016) and Alan Conlon (November 2016). May they, and all our loved ones departed this life over the past year, rest in peace and rise in glory.

Parish Leadership from 1 January – 31 December 2016

The year began with The Rev’d David Steele as part-time Priest in Charge. He had taken over from The Rev’d Grant Robertson whose last service here was on 15 November 2015 (the Patronal Festival). For the greater part of 2016 the Parish was in the process of discerning a new priest to take up the reins on a full-time basis. David kept things ticking along well, ensuring that the Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday Eucharists were celebrated, that pastoral care was available and all aspects of administration maintained. He was assisted in that work by a large, capable and motivated group of parishioners – lay leaders, who have consistently put the well-being of this Parish high on their list of priorities. David had the help of The Rev’d Noel Cox who is now priest-in-charge of Warkworth. Between them, David and Noel offered effective priestly ministry here over the first ten months of 2016. A new priest, yours truly, was inducted as Vicar on Wednesday, 9 November by Bishop Ross and my first Eucharist was on the Patronal Festival, Sunday, 13 November, which was followed of course by a shared lunch. This was a busy time for all concerned. It highlighted to me the generosity, energy and commitment of the people of this parish.

Development of Church Plant

A number of improvements to the plant have occurred over the course of 2016. Some highlights would have to be the resealing of the carpark, including repairs to the pavement around the church. That has made things safer and improved the street-appeal of the church and hall. The new church sign, on the corner of Sandringham Rd and Taumata St, although not installed until late January this year, were signed off by vestry in Dec 2016.  Inside the church there have been upgrades to the sound system and to the lighting (in the stairwell) and to the vestry door (which now swings into the room and not into the landing), but there have been other repairs to the church, crypt and hall which, together, have improved things considerably.

Website Development

By mid-November 2016 we had a website up and running for the Parish. I keep it up to date on a weekly basis. There is information on the website about upcoming services and events, information on where we are and how people can contact us. I put the Sunday sermons up on the website on Monday. They are all available, back to the sermon I gave on my first Sunday here – so if you’re having trouble sleeping, why not go on line and check it out J I would welcome any news items you might have that relate to parish life here.

Data Projector and Screen

The data projector and screen has been put to use to illustrate a number of sermons over the last few months, and to guide the Christmas Services. It is a helpful resource that saves on the cost of printing, and the feedback received on its use for those purposes has been very positive. We do lack a remote control for operating the projector from the floor. If anyone would like to contribute to the cost of a universal remote (approx. $50), please let me know.

Lovelink

I continue to be impressed and heartened by the quantity and quality of goods that parishioners offer up, Sunday after Sunday, in support of Lovelink which supplies food and essential goods to people in the local area who are in particular need of help.

Sunday School

The education of children during the Sunday service continued over 2016. The number of children attending on any one week fluctuated, but we remain committed to actively supporting this element of our parish’s mission. Many thanks to Anna Kuruvila, Karin Marneth and Soshamma George for leading this ministry.

Adult Education

This parish is blessed with a number of groups that gather for fellowship and learning. During Lent last year you had an interesting and, at times, challenging Lenten Study led by the Reverend David Steele. On Wednesday this week we have session five of six sessions that are looking at the way in which Christianity has developed and changed over two millennia. Through the year the Ladies Book Club met on the first Wednesday of the month and a Study Group met on the fourth Wednesday.

Spiritual Outreach into the Community

Throughout 2016 the regular pattern of Eucharists in the surrounding community was maintained:

The Eucharists at Hillsborough Heights Retirement Village every Tuesday at 10am preserves a personal link between former parishioners of St Martin’s and us, as well as drawing in people from all sorts of Christian backgrounds.

Dominion Home, Dementia Care. There were Eucharists there every 2nd and 4th Wednesday. This service is truly appreciated by staff and most residents. As an aside, a van of residents will be joining us for Easter Sunday.

Mission to young people encountering grief and loss: Seasons for Growth.

Over 2016, Di Boyd-Bell Chaired the committee which oversees the operation of Seasons for Growth in this part of Auckland, all the way out to Massey in the West. It was a busy year, involving changes in staffing at the local level, and changes in the way in which the operation is licensed at a Diocesan level. Di handled these challenges and changes very well. As of last month I am now the chair of the local committee.

Mt Roskill Union and Community Health / Hauora O Puketapapa

Shortly before I was inducted Vicar here I was approached by a doctor at Mt Roskill Union and Community Health (Hauora O Puketapapa) – a medical centre on Dominion Road Extension - to see if I would be willing to be nominated to the Board of that primary health care provider. Their AGM was only days after my induction here, but I’m pleased to say that with the support of the Church Wardens and Bishop Ross I was duly elected to the Board, which I have been Secretary of for the last few months. Health Care is not an area I am very familiar with, so this role has been an education for me, but I’m happy to be doing it because it provides a real link between this parish and the people of Mt Roskill, of every faith and none, and to that extent it is a missional exercise that I am pleased to carry out on your behalves.

Total Ministry

My observations of how things operate at St Martin’s @ St Chad’s, through what I’ve witnessed and what I’ve read as I’ve poured over minutes of past vestry meetings, is that this is a community which shares the ministry of Christ very deliberately and effectively between its members. I’m sure that if that hadn’t been the case, this parish wouldn’t still be here now. One way or another, everyone who comes here regularly and calls this parish home ministers to others here, and/or other people to whom Christ calls them through the week. That is to your credit.

Some ‘thank yous’ are in order. Thank you to those who welcome people at the door and bring down the offerings, to those who read and lead services from the front, to those who assist with the administration of the chalice, or the setting up of this space for worship, to those who do battle with the sound system, or the low hanging trees, to those who bake and make preserves to raise funds or simply raise people’s spirits, to those who monitor the care contractors take of their work around the church, to those who take responsibility for convening the various groups that operate here, to those who educate the young and the old in our midst, to those who count the donations offered after every service (at the risk of missing out on the best cakes) and those who bank it, and account for it on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis with the Diocese, to those who regularly take the food offerings every Sunday to their distribution point, to those who purchase the essential supplies for kitchen and bathroom, to those you print pewsheets and pull out weeds, to those who faithfully record what happens at our meetings, to those who play the organ, to those who make sure the vicar knows what he’s doing, and present concerns of the parish to him, to those who monitor and facilitate the hiring of the church and hall, and not least to those who come here so that they might be spiritually refreshed for the exacting mission that Christ has called them to in the world beyond this institution.

According to the New Zealand Prayer Book, one of the prime purposes of an ordained person is to enable the total mission of the people of God. It makes my job that much easier to be working as a priest here where a lot of people are already fully active in the church’s mission. Something else that helps is the presence of someone here who has been brought up through this system and is now formerly on the road to ordination and becoming an enabler of mission in her own right – Jean Rheinfrank who was chosen for DTP training towards ordination mid last year and is now on that formational course. I’m also pleased to report that this year St John’s College have placed two of their students here, Dan and Matt, here to learn about church leadership as they study at our Province’s premier Theological College for 3 or 4 years. I sense that as the months and years go by, Jean, Matt and Dan will be catalysts for new missional ventures here and beyond.

So, by way of conclusion, we have much to give thanks to God for, as God has guided us through 2016 and into 2017. To that Holy, Healing, Enabling God be all power and glory, now and forever. Amen. 

Mothering Sunday, 26 March 2017

Preached by The Rev'd Dr Tony Surman

Texts:

1 Samuel 1:20-28

Colossians 3:12-17

Luke 2:40-52 

 

This morning’s Gospel reveals an episode in our Lord’s life when his behaviour towards his parents, Mary and Joseph was questionable, if not worse. They had scoured Jerusalem trying to find their son after he had failed to join the caravan of extended family back to Nazareth from the Holy City, but all they get for their trouble when they find their adolescent charge is a remark that sounds rather dismissive – rude even.

‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph did not understand him – which may be a euphemistic way of saying they were very upset with him – and he informs us that Jesus did return home with them and was obedient to them – you can bet he was!

The recovery of lost children is just one of the emergency responses that parents engage in as their children develop independence and explore their world. More often than not that recovery takes place in a shopping mall rather than a temple, but regardless of where it takes place, anyone who has misplaced a child knows how terrible that feels – even if the child is only lost from sight for a couple of minutes.

It is not easy being a parent, and I think that every parent here would empathise with Joseph and Mary’s plight, searching for their lost child in the busy, narrow streets and alleys of Jerusalem.

For three days they keep looking, and I’m sure they would have kept on looking until they had left no stone unturned. That is just what good parents do, and on this day in our church calendar, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we offer thanks to God for the parents who have nurtured us, particularly our Mothers who brought us into the world, nursed us and guided us through the sometimes difficult terrain of childhood, adolescence and beyond.

The second reading today (Col 3:12-17), with very little modification, could be turned into a job description for a Christian Mother; ‘The holder of this office will, at all times, exercise compassion and kindness, be down-to-earth, gentle and incredibly patient, able to let bygones be bygones, love with all her heart, have Christ at the centre of her life, and be eternally grateful.’

Wonderful, but it is a tall order. I don’t think any Mother or Father should beat themselves up too badly if they fail to be this sort of person 24/7, but this is, nevertheless, the bench mark that Mothers, Fathers, indeed, every Child of God has to aim for.

As we aim for this standard, by God’s grace, we should be encouraged by the great cloud of outstanding Mothers who have gone before us, marked, with the sign of faith.

One of the greatest of these is Mary, Mother of Jesus, whose annunciation we recalled yesterday in our Church Calendar – yes, as I’ve mentioned in the pewsheet -there are now less than nine months until Christmas!

The portrait of Mary that has been built up by the church over the centuries is complex; with images of a quiet, passive Mary, meek and mild, at one end of the spectrum and high, exalted images of Mary, Queen of Heaven at the other. I’m sure there is something helpful in both images, but I’m not going to examine that possibility this morning. What I am going to do instead, is to tease out, a bit, from the pages of the New Testament, the consequences, for Mary, of her choosing to be the Mother of Jesus. The image that emerges from this little exercise may be surprising but I think you’ll find it an encouraging portrait, an icon to gain strength from when nurturing becomes a costly venture.

Let’s begin to piece together this image by reflecting on the implications of Mary’s acceptance of God’s plan that she, an unmarried woman, bear the Messiah and become the care-giver to the Son of God.

Firstly, I imagine there was a social stigma attached to a being pregnant outside of wedlock in first century Nazareth (as there still is today in NZ, broadly speaking), but what was more dangerous, I’m sure was becoming pregnant, once betrothed, to someone other than one’s betrothed. In a traditional, patriarchal society I think that condition would be life-threatening. When he discovered that Mary was pregnant, and not to him, Joseph might well have accused Mary of adultery and had her stoned to death.  Thankfully, Joseph turns out to be a decent man and he is willing to be persuaded that Mary’s pregnancy is of God.

Secondly, by agreeing to give birth to the prince of peace, Mary ran a strong risk of injury as her child’s goodness would inevitably be met by resistance and rejection in the real world.  You get a chilling sense of the enormity of this risk, [this threat of agony by association], at the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, when Mary is addressed by Simeon in the Temple. She is there with Joseph to have her son circumcised when Simeon comes in, takes the baby, offers words of praise (the Nunc Dimittis) and then turns directly to Mary and says:

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2:34b-35, NRSV)

Very sobering. It is not long before Simeon’s vision is realised. In Matthew’s Gospel we learn how Herod’s paranoia about the possibility that an alternate king of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem, led him to order the killing of all children in that town under the age of two. We don’t have historical accounts beyond the New Testament to verify this massacre but we know enough about Herod to be sure that this sort of atrocity would be for him, ‘politics as usual.’ Fortunately, Mary and Joseph got out of town before the murders began, but the blows the infants of Bethlehem sustained must have been felt by her; they had been meant for her son, she knew that, just as she would have known many of the victims of the massacre and their mothers. It must have been a heart-breaking time for her; she may have felt guilty for the deadly consequence that her saying ‘yes’ to God had had; and she had every reason now to suspect that worse was yet to come.

I suspect that she naturally kept Jesus ‘wrapped in cotton wool’ as much as she could for the rest of his childhood. The one incident we have of Jesus as a young person in the New Testament is when he gets separated from Mary and Joseph in Jerusalem – the story we’ve just heard and reflected on. The response that Jesus gave to Mary and Joseph - ‘didn’t you know that I would be in my father’s house, doing my father’s business’ (Luke 2: 49), as well as being rather impertinent would have been harsh words for Joseph to hear, under-lining as they do the fact that he was not Jesus’ real father. But for Mary they would have been deeply troubling because she realises now that her son has no tact whatsoever when it comes to speaking his mind to figures of authority; he’s an accident waiting to happen. You can bet they spoke some home truths to him that day, while at the same time fearing that his future was going to be rocky and marred by violence inflicted upon him, directly, and them vicariously.

As Jesus’ public ministry developed, Mary and the family became very concerned for him. They must have been aware that his ministry was making him powerful enemies. They began to doubt his mental health (Mark 3:21)– and from a human point of view, you can hardly blame them; gathering great crowds of people together and preaching to them about an alternative kingdom in a country under foreign occupation is risky, to say the least.

Jesus’ response to their concerns registers as harsh; when the crowd tell him, for instance, that his mother and brothers are looking for him (Mark 3:33) he tells them that his mother and brothers are those who do the will of God (Mark 3:35) – the cutting implication being that Mary, who started him on this journey, has not fully surrendered to the will of God. But can you blame her? – what mother is willing to let their child put themselves in harm’s way, without opposing their course of action?

She didn’t want to have to endure another massacre [of the innocent]; not now; not while her son was in the prime of his life – not ever, really.

When Jesus is crucified, Mary is there.

And when he is brought off the Cross, she is there.

She has been there before his whole life. The word ‘surreal’ could only partial capture the way she must have felt at that moment. Simeon’s prophecy had come true.

Mary shows us the cost of loving, nurturing discipleship, the price we can expect to pay when we say ‘yes’ to the life of love that God calls each of us to through Jesus Christ.

What a cost!

Who would take it? Why would you take it?

For the answer to that, jump forward to the next place Mary encounters Jesus; at the empty tomb, and then with the disciples in Jerusalem after his resurrection. The power of the sword had done its worst. Mary’s soul had been pierced, but now the song of praise she had recited to Elizabeth three decades or so earlier could be appreciated in a whole new light because God had indeed shown strength with his arm, scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is the saint we can turn too, and draw inspiration from, when the cost of our journey with Christ as nurturers and carers of others becomes especially trying and glib words of encouragement don’t cut the mustard. She has done the hard yards of living with, and dying with, the man we all say we love, but usually manage to keep at arm’s length, safely domesticated. Mary, as Jesus’ Mother, didn’t have that option. She is God’s miracle.

 

The Third Sunday in Lent, 19 March 2017

Christ and the Samaritan Woman (1890) by Henryk Siemiradzki

Preached by Jean Rheinfrank

Primary Texts:

Exodus 17:1-7

Romans 5:1-11

John 4:5-42

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Seriously, you have to hand it to the “Vicar’s Desk!”  I’m beginning to cherish this piece of furniture that keeps bringing to us very thought-provoking statements.  As has been written in today’s comment, “this particular gospel reading is one of the longest passages we hear.”  And that is certainly true.  I might add it is also one of the more difficult to put into a sermon.  Where to begin...what to include...what to leave out...it’s like having a 5c coin to spend, and standing in front of the main window of a candy store.  But as Tony pointed out, the Spirit is here to assist in the discernment, and it is clear that the Samaritan woman at the well seems to stand tall and her presence looms large before us.  Her very nature, and the fact that over 2,000 years later this nameless individual still commands such respect and curiosity makes her story impossible to ignore or brush aside.  So let us ponder her role in Jesus’ ministry.

 

UNDERSTANDING SAMARITANS’ IMPORTANCE WITHIN THE JOHANNINE COMMUNITY

 

Why a Gospel was written, and for what specific purpose could fill weekly sermons for an entire liturgical year—and still leave a room full of unanswered questions.  Throughout the ages, defining a written gospel’s purpose may change, and even now entirely new reasons for their being written are presented by a myriad of respected theologians.  Perhaps the good news in all this is that the never ending supply of questions about Gospel writing keeps the Gospels fresh and worthy of being read, re-read, and always appreciated.              

 

Each Gospel, however, certainly was targeted to a specific audience, and the writing of John and the makeup of the Johannine Community do fit nicely together as cause and effect.  Clearly the Fourth Gospel writer had serious issues with “the Jews” and the targeted readers of the originating group of the community included active followers of John the Baptist and easily accepted Jesus as the Davidic Messiah.[1]   Into this original group then came a second group; Jews who believed in an anti-Temple bias and believed in Jesus and made converts in Samaria (Jesus’ reference to the resulting “harvest” alluded to in 4:35-9).  For this group, Jesus had been with God, seen Him, and brought down His words to people—this was the Mosaic Messiah, and evidence of this is clearly drawn historically from John 4, today’s reading.[2]  The addition of the second group (probably in the 8th decade roughly mid 80’s to 90’s of the 1st Century) provided the Gospel writer with an additional reading audience for whom the Jews’ sense of suspicion that the Johannine community was abandoning their Jewish roots would resonate.  Ultimately the Jews’ suspicions would result in expulsion from the synagogues for most of the Johannine community.[3]

 

These Jews strenuously objected to the Samaritans, who were a mixed breed between Jews and Assyrians.  As a result of the mixed pagan and Jewish blood, the Samaritans were despised by the Jews, who would have nothing to do with them.  Both scribes and Pharisees suspected Jesus of treason because he openly ministered to the Samaritans.[4]  Jesus’ intentional efforts with the Samaritans further compounded the growing list of grievances and concerns the scribes and Pharisees had about him.  Thus into this environment the Gospel of John appeared and along with it the account of Jesus and the woman at the well.

 

MEETING AT THE WELL

 

In last week’s sermon here at St Martin’s @ St Chad’s[5] we heard about Nicodemus’ night-time conversation with Jesus.  The event was transformative for Nicodemus, and Jesus succeeded, yet again, in winning over another individual with his teaching style.[6]  In fact, Jesus successfully had the same effect on many in the crowds to whom he spoke in Jerusalem, including the police of the Pharisees.[7]

 

Today’s gospel story of the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus at the well is yet another example of Jesus’ teaching and the woman’s reaction to him.  Her story in John--which is one of only a handful not appearing in any other gospel--represents a dialogue “with Jesus whose portrait (is) finely drawn.”[8] And her status as one of only a handful becomes entirely more meaningful in that Jesus bestows on her the title of “sower” by his reference, “One sows, while another reaps.[9]  This Samaritan woman is accorded a very prominent role in Biblical history, for Jesus has labelled her a missionary, which Raymond Brown honours with the title of “quasi-apostolic” which has been bestowed to a woman.[10]  The Oxford Bible describes her interactions with Jesus as “demonstrating his openness to women; by her testimony she becomes one of the earliest missionaries.”[11]  Here is why she earned such a title.

 

The usual route from Judea to Galilee lay through Samaria and took 3 days to travel.  Jacob’s well (built by Jacob as told in the Jewish Bible and where Jesus and the woman met) was positioned at the major fork in the road.  Sychar (which is probably modern day Askar), was located on the east slope of Mount Ebal and not far from Mount Gerazim where the Samaritans had built a temple).[12] The well was roughly ½ mile SW from the settlement.[13]

 

The meeting between Jesus and this unknown woman is fascinating, and brings great credit to her.  Permit me these observations:  she is humble, direct, doesn’t take a backwards step, clearly knows and accepts who she is, inquisitive, respectful, and as we learn surely commands respect given her ability to convince others to come back and meet Jesus for themselves.  She seems comfortable in the presence of Jesus, and even when he tells her of her previous five husbands, she neither avoids the topic, nor tries to change the subject.  If anything, she is even more inquisitive after his remarks. 

 

As a result of the sinful woman’s testimony to others, Jesus was persuaded to stay with them for two days, resulting in “multitudes being converted.”[14]

 

The two most amazing parts of the conversation, however, and representing the ultimate good news of this incredible reading are: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you,”[15] and the almost after thought on the part of the writer to include an observation with many interesting aspects, “Then the woman left her water jug and went back into the city.”[16] 

 

Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι (I, I am the one speaking to you)

 

Last year the significance of the “I, I am” statements in John were explored, examining their use revelatory comments when spoken by Jesus.  As a Koine Greek language student knows, because the 1st person singular and plural subject (nominative) is included in the construction of the verb, the pronoun which is used for “I,” is not used except when “particular emphasis or contrast is intended.”[17]  In John’s Gospel, Ἐγώ εἰμι statements are used seven times,[18] as Jesus strives to emphasise that he is, indeed, the personification of the metaphor being used.  His straight forward response to the woman’s musings as to the identity of “a Messiah coming”[19] and that “he will declare everything to us,”[20] is interesting, in that Jesus provides a straight forward answer.  Clearly he sees this woman as someone able to comprehend the truth about him, and he speaks quite plainly to her.  This adds to her credibility and to the role Jesus sees her playing as a missionary, which indeed is realised during his two day visit.  For us it is a reminder that with God’s help and God being “in it (our lives),” nothing is impossible, in fact great things can indeed be accomplished.

 

The Important Role of the Insignificant Water Jar

 

The obvious observation we can make is that the woman fully intends to come back!  The jug is valuable as it is capable of transporting life-sustaining water.  She has already acknowledged the importance of the jug, thus we can assume her leaving Jesus is but temporary, and we could say she absolutely knows she will be successful in her task to bring other villagers back to meet Jesus!  This is positive action in progress.  Another way of looking at the jug, metaphorically, is that the woman having met Jesus is quite prepared to leave everything, including her past, in pursuit of mission with and for Jesus.[21]  What an exciting prospect, available to us all.

 

The symbolism attached to water takes us right back to the beginning of this Gospel reading, as Jesus being the source of “living water,” distinguishes him as being greater than Jacob; which the Samaritan woman is prepared to accept.[22]  At the time of writing the Gospel, and within the Johannine community, true worship was based “on confession of Jesus as prophet, Messiah, Saviour of the world, and equal to God.”[23]  And again, stating the obvious, water is of course important for and to baptism, going down and dying with Jesus to rising up and being reborn.  One assumes such a baptism would have, eventually, occurred within the Samaritan community by those who would have returned with the woman.

 

CONCLUSION—JOHN’S GOSPEL, A THEOLOGY OF LIFE[24]

 

Recently, after struggling for hours and hours with 10, simple verses of John needing translation, I found myself reading various copy blocks from the Oxford Bible Series.  Incredibly reassuring, it reminded me why John is such an excellent writer.  Today’s Gospel reading is such proof of that which I was reading.  Because he presents a seamless block of text that cannot be edited or words left out without changing the meaning (hence you have to read over 800 words in one go); he provides us with splendid good news that through Jesus there is always life and, indeed, fullness of that life as evidenced spiritually AND through the physical dimension as shown by the 7 signs and Jesus’ revelatory statements from “I, I am.”[25] 

 

John is not one for defeatist language:  his subjects are not inclined to take a backwards step (the Samarian woman), his language favours light over dark, uses life and love far more often than is used in the synoptics, and his writing style constantly seems to adhere to a keep it simple formula...and yet “many of the sayings of Jesus found only in John’s gospel are among the best-known passages in the New Testament.”[26] 

 

Is it little wonder, therefore, that John’s gospel has been described: “like a stream in which children can wade....And elephants swim!”[27]

Amen.

 

               

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Paul Trebilco, The Gospels Semester 2, (Dept of Theology and Religion: Otago

     University, 2013), 284, citing D.A. Carson, ‘Recent Literature on the Fourth

     Gospel: Some Reflections,’Themelios 9 (1983).

[2] Ibid., 286, citing citing Raymond Brown, Community of the Beloved Disciple

     The Lives, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament

     Times (NY, NY: Paulist Press,1979).

[3] Ibid., 284.

[4] Lindsell and Verbrugge NRSV Harper Study Bible (Grand Rapids,

     MICH: Zondervan Press, 1991), 1564 (ff.4:5-6).

[5] Tony Surman, The 2nd Sunday in Lent, 12 March 2017,

      http://www.stmartinstchads.org/431955104 .

[6] Ibid., citing John 7:40-4.

[7] Ibid., citing John 7:45-8.

[8] Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus 2nd Edition (Oxford, UK: Oxford

     University Press, 2002), 97.

[9] Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple The Lives, Loves, and

     Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (NY, NY: Paulist Press,

     1979), 188. 

[10] Brown, Community of the Beloved, 189.  This compliment for the Samaran woman

     is further elevated thanks to the company in which she has been included in

     Brown’s mention of only four other women in John’s Gospel:  Mary Magdalene;

     Mary and Martha; and Mary the Mother of Jesus.  The Samaritan woman’s

     role as the “first missionary” is also mentioned in The New Jerome Biblical

     Commentary (p. 956), edited by Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Roland E Murphy.

[11] Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, eds., The Oxford Companion to the Bible

     (NY, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993), 671.

[12] Lindsell and Verbrugge NRSV Harper Study Bible, 1564 (ff 4.5-6).

[13] Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, Roland Murphy The New Jerome Biblical

     Commentary (UpperSaddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 956.

[14] Lindsell and Verbrugge NRSV Harper Study Bible, 1565 (ff.4:39).

[15] Jn.4:26.

[16] Jn.4:28.

[17] Jeremy Duff The Elements of New Testament Greek 3rd Edition (Cambridge, UK:

     Cambridge University Press, 2011), 104.

[18] Lindsell and Verbrugge NRSV Harper Study Bible, 1558.  “I am the bread of life;

     I am the light of the world; I am the gate for the sheep; I am the good shepherd;

     I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, and the truth, and the life; I am

     the true vine.”

[19] Jn.4:25

[20] Ibid.

[21] Metzger and Coogan, Oxford Companion, 968.

[22] Brown, Fitzmyer and Murphy Jerome Commentary, 956.

[23] Ibid., 957.

[24] Metzger and Coogan, Oxford Companion, 376.

[25] Ibid. 376.

[26] Stanton, The Gospels, 97.

[27] Ibid.

The Second Sunday in Lent, 12 March 2017

Detail of the figure of Nicodemus from a painting by Fra Angelico of the Disposition of Christ from the Cross (1432-34), Tempera on panel.

Preached by The Rev’d Dr Tony Surman

 

Primary Texts:

 

Genesis 12:1-4a

Romans 4:1-5,13-17

John 3:1-17

 

Nicodemus is an intriguing figure who plays an important role in John’s Gospel, when it comes to Jesus’ teaching about the nature of redemption or salvation. He is taught by Jesus the same basic truth that Paul outlines in Romans 4 (today’s Epistle) namely, that our salvation (our entry to the Kingdom of God) depends on the Spirit of God which blows into human hearts according to its own rationale. One of the problems with Paul’s expression of this principle in his letters is that he comes dangerously close to setting up a rigid distinction between Jews and Christians as he makes his passionate plea that we are saved by faith rather than by works. He does this to make a point (and it is an important one), about the way God redeems or saves people, presenting Christianity, on the one hand, as the way that accepts the truth taught by Jesus on this matter, in contrast with the prevailing Judaism which he associates with the idea that salvation is something earned by the keeping of the religious law.

The tight distinctions (contrasts) that Paul draws are understandable given the context in which he was writing – constantly having to defend his faith in Christ in the face of hostile opposition from the Jewish authorities, but over the course of centuries the distinctions that Paul draws between Jews and Christians on the nature of redemption allowed a distorted view of Judaism to develop, caricatured as legalistic and self-righteous, which fuelled the anti-Semitism that has been a feature of European history for centuries. The appearance of the professionally-religious Jewish character, Nicodemus, in John’s Gospel is something of an antidote (or inoculation) to this unhappy trend. He serves as a reminder to believers today that every stratum of first century Jewish life – not only the poor and illiterate but the well-off, educated and authoritative too – had people in it who responded positively and courageously to the Gospel of Christ. This would suggest that Jewish religion (Judaism) at the time of Jesus was not diametrically opposed to Jesus’ message, nor inherently averse to the idea that salvation is essentially a gift of God that can never be earned, and that is a healthy corrective for we Christians living in the 21st century to have as we strive for good relations with people of all faiths, not least the people who brought us the first three-quarters of our Bible.

This morning we meet Nicodemus early on in John’s Gospel (John 3:1-17); he re-emerges, briefly, in the mid-point of the same Gospel (John 7:50-51), where he raises a point of law in Jesus’ defence; and we encounter him for the final time at the end of John’s Gospel where he assists Joseph of Arimathea with the removal of Jesus’ body from the Cross (John 19:39-40). In each instance, Nicodemus has a clear sympathy for Jesus and his teaching, and on each occasion when his life intersects with Jesus’, his courage to acknowledge his growing conviction about Jesus increases.

Nicodemus was a man of prominence within his religious community; he was a part of the establishment, a respected Pharisee, and he sat on the council that ordered the life of the Temple in Jerusalem. That explains his visit to Jesus by night – he wished to remain unseen so that his visit to a controversial figure wouldn’t set tongues wagging amongst his colleagues or the community of people he presumably shepherded as a teacher of the faith.

The conversation that develops between Nicodemus and Jesus starts off looking as if it might follow the pattern of other encounters Jesus had with religious leaders; one that begins with the questioner offering Jesus feint praise before trying to trap him with a curly question (I’m thinking here particularly of Mark 12:13-17 - Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.’)

On this night though, Nicodemus gets no further than a statement of praise of Jesus before he is, as St John puts it, ‘answered’ by Jesus. That’s intriguing.  Is it that Jesus is anticipating an attack and trying to deflect it, or is it that he is simply ‘cutting to the chase’ because he knows Nicodemus’ heart already? My guess is that Jesus has read Nicodemus well and recognises that he is there with a genuine purpose. Jesus senses that Nicodemus is not out to trick him; instead he’s there to find out for certain what his heart is already alerting him to, namely that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah and that the Reign of God is drawing very near.

If my guess is correct, then Jesus’ ‘answer’ - “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Reign (kingdom) of God without being born from above,” ought to be taken by Nicodemus as a compliment:  Jesus may be pointing out to Nicodemus that for him to have come this far, he must already be ‘born from above’ or ‘born again.’

This nuance is lost on Nicodemus, who goes on to question how anyone could be born a second time. He misses the point that his ability to recognise God’s action in Jesus is itself a gift from above, a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus goes on to give quite an extended talk on the ways of the Spirit, which leaves Nicodemus completely befuddled.  The final intellectual ‘blow’ comes when Jesus intimates that this Spiritual stuff is as nothing compared to the doings of ‘heavenly’ things. By this point, it is not only Nicodemus who is lost, but – really - every reader of the passage. And I think that is quite deliberate because it alerts us to the truth, repeated throughout scripture, implicitly and explicitly, that God’s ways and thoughts transcend human thought and action every time (Isaiah 55:8-9 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts).

One could get the impression at this juncture that Jesus is showing off a bit. In the context, however, of a private meeting, with someone who has been drawn to him, in a spirit of good-will, Jesus’ talk is not about ‘making an impression’ to boost his ego; instead, it’s about opening Nicodemus’ eyes to the wonder  and mystery that is at work in the apparently ‘mundane’ and the earthly - every moment of every day.

There is, I think, a lot of Nicodemus in all of us. Like him, we endeavour to live as uprightly as possible and, generally speaking, we know goodness when we see it, but in our busy lives we can neglect to consider what it is that motivates and directs these behaviours and intuitions. They simply become ‘second nature’ to us. And that’s fine up to a point - if we were to spend all our waking moments trying to fathom our Christian intuitions we might well end up neglecting some important aspects of life. At the other extreme though, if we don’t reflect on what moves us as Christians to do the things we do, we not only become impoverished ourselves, we fail to be beckons of hope and transformation for others. This is one of the points that I think Jesus was trying to impress on Nicodemus – a ‘teacher of Israel’ – with a responsibility to not only open the eyes of his fellow Jews, but to be a light of guidance to all people.

Jesus’ admonishment of that ‘solid citizen,’ Nicodemus, might be read as a plea to his twenty-first century church not to forget the divine, spiritual, mysterious and powerful force that underpins our faith and the choices we make in life. By becoming aware of that immense reality, we might just be better instruments of transformation in a broken world.

Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus ‘by night’ transformed him, probably not all at once, but inexorably into a person who was ready to stand up for the truth in ways that were increasingly risky given his position as a religious leader. We are told in the seventh chapter of John’s Gospel that when Jesus was teaching the crowd in Jerusalem he so captured the hearts of his listeners that even the temple police who had been sent to arrest him were won over. This infuriated the authorities in the temple who had sent them on this mission. They said to the policemen who returned to them empty-handed, "Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? (John 7:47) Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law--they are accursed" (John 7:48). The (ironic) thing is, though, that at least one of their number had become a believer in Jesus, and that was Nicodemus who piped up in Jesus’ defence, saying "Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?" (John 7:51) This won him no friends that day – at least among those who replied [image of the following words] "Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee." (John 7:52) It did, however demonstrate that within Judaism itself, to the highest levels, there was sympathy for Jesus, his cause and his teaching.

The Nicodemus who, at the end of John’s Gospel, assists Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body off the Cross is transformed even further. Now we see him, out in the open, for all the world to see, witnessing to his love for Jesus, unafraid of the consequences. What can have caused that change?

Quite simply, the Spirit of the living God whom Jesus revealed perfectly in his life and teaching, had got under Nicodemus’ skin, awakening him to the fact that there is much more to life than what we have to eat or drink; that behind, through and over it all, there is a God who will go to any length to redeem and to reconcile; and it is that God we rightly praise today for giving us the grace to lay aside all the baggage that prevents us being the person we were always meant to be, and the courage to follow where the Spirit leads, through Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

The First Sunday in Lent, 5 March 2017

Al Pacino playing the part of the John Milton, aka, the Devil, in the 1997 movie, 'The Devil's Advocate.' Milton is an incredibly wealthy businessman with interests across the globe. The third temptation that Jesus suffers in the wilderness might be read with the image of Milton in one's mind's eye.

Preached by the Reverend Dr Tony Surman

Primary Texts:  

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Romans 5:12-1

Matthew 4:1-11

 

The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each refer to a period of testing, trial or temptation of Jesus that followed his Baptism by John. St Mark’s account is the briefest. It does not mention the particular temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness, as Matthew and Luke’s accounts do, but it agrees with them that Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. Both Matthew and Luke refer to three specific tests put to Jesus by the devil. They are clever tests that are worth reflecting on. They presage the trials that beset Jesus in his ministry, and they are almost certainly ones that come the way of Jesus’ followers over the course of a life-time.

 

But first, a word or two about the devil and his purposes. The devil or Satan is presented in the New Testament as a wily character whose purpose is to deceive people and lead them to their destruction. He is, as St John describes him, a liar, a thief and a murder (John 8:44 – “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”). He “prowls around like a roaring lion, waiting for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).” He is subtle and deceptive in his action, “disguising himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). He is, in short, everything that God, the source of truth and author of life, is not.

 

The scope of his operation is extensive. John’s Gospel sets him forth as “the ruler of this world” (John12:31; 14:30). The author of 1 John declares that the “whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (1 John 5:19). In Ephesians he is described as “the prince of the power of the air.” (Eph 2:2). He schemes against the people of God (Eph 6:11) who are encouraged in Ephesians 6 to “take up the whole armour of God” (Eph 6:13) as a defence against him. Because his intent is deadly and his reign is global, the devil is taken very seriously by all the New Testament writers.

 

In the Old Testament, I think it is fair to say, Satan is a slightly more ambiguous figure. In the book of Job, for instance, he is still a deceiver and destroyer of lives, but he is something of an itinerant – a journeyman rather than a multinational.  Twice, in the opening pages of that book Satan comes into God’s presence and converses with him about Job, a man exceedingly blessed by God. Satan asserts, in effect, that Job is just a fair-weather friend of God, whose affections have been bought by the Almighty’s generosity. God’s response, intriguingly, is to engage the services of this character to test Job’s faith. On the first occasion of their meeting God says to Satan “Behold, all that he [Job] has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (Job 1:12). The devil makes full use of this allowance, but Job remains faithful to God. The second time they meet, God allows Satan to go even further in his torment of Job, licensing him to afflict Job’s own body, sparing only his life (Job 2:6).

 

We have no record of a similar conversation going on between God and the devil regarding Jesus’ temptation, but there are certainly parallels in our Lord’s temptation with the story of Job’s torment – the most obvious of which is that Satan is a tester of character. He is not, however, an even-handed examiner; he is hostile towards his examinees and his intention is their destruction.  Inadvertently, however, he furthers God’s good intentions; in both the trial of Job and Jesus there is no doubt that God is ultimately in control, willing the success of the person tempted, and present – if invisibly – throughout the trials...  That ought to give us some comfort in our trials.

 

Today’s Gospel text begins with Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness ‘to be tempted by the devil.’ God, then, is in a commanding role here, and God’s will is being done here, even though it is painful, and even though the agent through whom the pain is inflicted has no intention of doing anything good whatsoever.  

 

We can infer something else from the reference to Jesus being led by the Spirit. It is that Jesus, as he wandered through the wilderness, was focussed on God and the mission upon which God had sent him; he is not in the wilderness so much as to “find himself” as he is to lose himself and find God.

 

Each of the temptations tests Jesus’ resolve to do God’s will rather than follow his human or earthly inclinations. The Spirit that has driven Jesus in to the wilderness is concerned to perfect the relationship between him and the one who sent him. That perfection depends on Jesus mastering his passions and his ego.

 

One very understandable passion that emerges as Jesus wanders in the wilderness is hunger for food, so you can understand why the first temptation the devil places before Jesus is to turn stones into bread. This temptation is more than a test of his ability to withstand hunger pangs. It is also a test of his spiritual maturity. Having been brought along by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, to something very close to physical death, he must have been tempted into thinking that his entire sense of calling was a fiction. When the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread, Jesus is in a psychologically vulnerable place. If Jesus had any false pride when the devil tempted him to turn stones into bread, he might just have attempted to do so to maintain his sense of self worth – as well as to have something to eat.

 

Jesus, however, had overcome ego – or in the language of scripture, mastered the flesh. He could resist the need to prove himself to the devil or anyone else when challenged. He stayed on target, trusting in God’s promise to deliver the righteous.

 

This test was a taste of what was to come. Jesus would be tempted in the same devilish way when he hung on the cross: in Matthew’s Gospel the passers-by mocked, ‘You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”’ (Matt 27:40). Through all of this, Jesus remained resolute, though you can imagine the inner turmoil must have been enormous. He simply would not be drawn to perform an act that had not been prompted by the Spirit of God; he waited for his deliverance patiently.

 

The second temptation that the devil confronts Jesus with is to do something awe-inspiring. This temptation appeals to a hunger for fame which appears to be a big motivator of people still. The temple in the Jerusalem was a popular spot, so to throw oneself off the top of it, only to be scooped up by angels would be noticed! Once again, it is the sort of temptation that would move a person who wasn’t 100% sure about their faith to either take up the dare or throw in the towel. Jesus respond’s well – “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

 

The third temptation is about that a lust for power which seems to transcend time and place. To have control of the world, all that a bright fellow like Jesus need do is recognise the authority of the master of the world’s misery. Jesus resists this temptation. A similar pattern is apparent throughout Jesus ministry; he consistently resists being made a king according to human standards, and – tellingly - when his top-ranking disciple takes umbrage with his master’s determination to follow the will of God all the way to death, Jesus calls that Apostle ‘Satan’ for setting his mind on the things of man, rather than the things of God (Matt 16:23).

 

What lessons might we draw from Jesus’ very cosmic temptation?

 

Well, one thing we might look at seriously is our spiritual resilience or, you might say, psychological toughness – so that our vulnerability to trials or malicious attacks is minimised.

 

How do we achieve this?

 

There are no short-cuts here. It can only be done as Jesus demonstrated, by placing ourselves without reserve into the hands of the living God, determined to do his will completely.

 

That intention is far easier said than done. To succeed we have to work, in season and out of season, with the grace that wills us to have life and have it in its fullest.

 

Lent is a great time to start that work, to dedicate ourselves more fully to prayer, the reading of scripture, and the service of God through every act of love.

 

I end with a very old prayer, attributed to Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), directed towards this task;

 

Give us, O Lord, steadfast hearts

which no unworthy affection may drag downwards.

Give us unconquered hearts

which no tribulation can wear out.

Give us upright hearts

which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon us also, O Lord our God,

understanding to know you,

diligence to seek you,

wisdom to find you

and a faithfulness that may finally embrace you.

 

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The Sunday Before Lent, 26 February 2017

The Whole World in His Hands - Harry Anderson

Sermon for Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Rev’d Dr Tony Surman

Primary Texts:

Isaiah 49:8-16a

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

 

This morning’s scriptures offer some light relief, in a way, from the rather tough ethical teachings we have listened to from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount over the last few weeks.

 

 Jesus holds before us today a vision of a beautiful, intricate world which is full of God at every scale; who is aware, not only, of what’s going on, but who cares about what happens, and nurtures every part of the world, not least humanity, the bearers of his own image.

 

God, you might say, is akin to a diligent, resourceful tradesman, but on a cosmic scale, for whom no job is too small or too big. He’s there taking care of the birds of the air, but is just as active in staging the display of lilies in the field, so we can count on him, Jesus insists, to be looking out for us too.

 

Another way of putting this (which links in with the opening portion of the today’s Gospel) is to say that God is, in essence the kindest, most benevolent, most loving of masters or bosses, who (unlike earthly bosses) also happens to possess the quality of being able to enact his good will perfectly and completely. This provides more than enough reason for us to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God’ and choose God to be our boss, rather than money, wealth and material possessions, all of which are subordinate things, controlled as much by God as the feeding of sparrows and the decking of fields with flowers.

 

This way of thinking follows quite logically from the most basic, fundamental parts of the Christian understanding of God as a loving parent who wants the best for his children, and generously delivers.

 

Why, then, do we, as people committed to following Christ, often resist this truth (to a greater or lesser extent) and place our real trust in money, wealth or, to use the older expression, mammon? There’s probably a variety of explanations for this.

 

One of these could be called an anthropological explanation, to wit, our pursuit of material gain is something ingrained into our nature – so even though we know, on one level, as Christians that God will provide, we have an in-built urge to accumulate stuff, an urge which is not necessarily bad, but which can become all consuming. Our Protestant forefathers made quite a virtue out of this natural drive to profit from the work of our hands, seeing the creation of wealth as a divine blessing for those who put God first and foremost in their lives. This was called the Protestant work ethic and it is, as I’ve just stated it, compatible with Jesus’ teaching that if we seek first the Kingdom of God, everything else that we need will follow. That is the theory of it, but once you are engaged in business, and the business is going well, and year on year the profit is increasing, the temptation to put our faith in business itself rather than in the one who makes all things possible can become quite strong, and Mammon itself looms up as our master.

 

The urge we have to accumulate stuff and to make ‘stuff’ our God is probably as strong now as it has ever been, and is strongest, I suspect, in societies that are materially rich. Why is this that? Well, In those societies – and I think we could class NZ, as a whole, as one of them – the competitive (or imitative) strand of human nature gives birth to the phenomenon we call ‘keeping up with the Joneses and I think it is that competitive drive that lies behind much of our urge to accumulate things and generally build wealth, well beyond what we actually need to make us happy.

 

The temptation to put our faith in material things rather than God is understandable enough; God is not there to be seen in the same way that wealth usually is, and, as the old adage goes, ‘seeing is believing.’ It is also the case, however, that we see what we want to see – that our perception is affected by our preconceptions, and that our prejudices can easily be reinforced by the evidence we choose to recognise, and the data we choose to ignore – we are seeing that played out large at the moment in US Federal Politics.

 

The human capacity to believe things seems to operate on different levels. On one level we might be quite convinced that Jesus is Lord of our life, but on another – really a deeper level - our belief in God’s sovereignty is less secure. When the fine things upon which we have placed our real trust, at this level of our being, are withdrawn, it becomes very clear which master we serve. This sort of testing, which we wouldn’t really wish on anybody (‘save us from the time of trial,’ Jesus taught us), features prominently throughout the Judaeo Christian tradition, and I suspect it is a feature of many of the other religious traditions of the world.

 

The Book of Job deals specifically with testing of this sort on the main protagonist, Job, who is put to the test by Satan, losing not only his possessions but also his children and his health, all as a way of testing his faith in God. But this theme is really present throughout scripture with every character called by God discovering that to be truly in God’s service is a vulnerable place to be when the costs of discipleship mount up, and the life that was left behind begins to look very attractive - think of the Israelites fleeing from their captivity in Egypt, led in that Exodus by God himself, who began to complain about the journey Moses had talked them into and yearned for the flesh-pots of Egypt. It is at those times that the heroes and heroines of the Bible come to the fore, as people who were willing to persevere in their faith, despite the cost, because they were convinced, to the deepest level of their being, that their ultimate good was to be found in God.

 

St Paul was definitely one of those heroes, ‘a servant of Christ’ as he puts it in today’s epistle, and ‘a steward of God’s mysteries.’ These are two powerful images of what all Christians are called to be through baptism, even though the practical working out of what that means for each Christian, each member of the Body of Christ, will vary from person to person.

 

The way in which a Church leader serves Christ and manages the mysteries of God will be, like Paul, through diligent, loving, and responsible care of God’s people in a particular time and place, and will involve preaching and sacramental work – both of which are mysterious undertakings. The way in which another Christian serves Christ and becomes an effective steward of the mysteries of God may well be through business which is carried out, quite deliberately in the knowledge that everything we possess is a gift of God, a blessing to be used for the building up of ourselves and others, to the glory of God. Either pursuit, and a multitude of others, has the capacity, by God’s grace, to make us servants of Christ and stewards of his holy mysteries.’ Thanks be to God.

 

But we need to be aware that whatever position we find ourselves in as followers of Christ, there will be choices to be made, the decision on which could either draw us closer to Christ or could drive us away. 

 

Let us pray that in all our choosing in the ministries to which we have been called, Christ will speak to our hearts with clarity and authority, giving us eyes to see the path that leads to life, and that we will respond in such a way as to keep him our Lord and Master. Amen.  

The Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, 19 February 2017

The sun rising over New York city, viewed from Central Park

The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

'Being holy, being perfect'

Primary Texts:

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

 

I’d like to begin my reflection this morning with a word or two about holiness – a huge topic really, that I will just scrape the surface of. I guess holiness conjures up a plethora of images, some mysterious, others serene, stern or perhaps even comic. At its core, holiness is a phenomenon which involves a distinction or separation of the thing that is holy from other things which are not holy. That much is clear from the next chapter of Leviticus (to the one we heard this morning) which elaborates on the reason why God’s people need to be holy:

You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (Leviticus 20:26)

Holiness is a phenomenon discussed throughout the Bible, but it is found or described in human discourse, across cultures, where it is applied to persons and objects, dividing them into binary categories such as sacred (holy) and profane, tapu and noa, even ordained and lay.

After listening to the readings today – particularly the first lesson and the gospel, you will have noted that the holiness God calls his people to is not about the physical separation of people, one from another (by fences, walls or lines on a map), but it is very much about the way we behave, particularly in relation to others. That truth rings through loud and clear in this morning’s first reading. It begins with God’s call to Israel to be holy (as God is holy) and that imperative is followed immediately by an enumeration of the ways God’s people are to behave, particularly with respect to the most vulnerable people in society. It is their behaviour that will make them holy, distinguishing them from other people, even as they live and breathe at close quarters with all manner of people.

The way of life that God calls his people to in today’s passage from Leviticus is one that respects the dignity of every human being. We see that spelled out in the command to ensure that when you are harvesting your crop, you leave a portion of it behind ‘for the poor and the alien,’ and again, we see it, in the command to pay labourers at the end of every day, to treat the handicapped (the deaf and the blind) with compassion, and to treat everyone justly, regardless of their status in society. Finally, God bids his people not only to refrain from doing ill, but even from thinking ill of one another – ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Jesus continues in this tradition, linking the holiness or perfection that we are called to with a radical and demanding set of behaviours, none of which requires us to remove ourselves from human society, but all of which call us to treat other people with the forbearance, patience and mercy that God extends to each of us.

On the front page of the pewsheet I have suggested that the behaviour Jesus calls us to at this point in Matthew’s Gospel is problematic, in so far as it causes those who follow the formula to risk becoming door mats to bullies, large and small, and the target of users of every description.

If you, for instance, turn the other cheek to those you would attack you – won’t that make them walk all over you; and if you plead ‘no contest’ to every law suit brought against you, paying twice the compensation the complainant demands, won’t people think you are the guilty party; if you gain a reputation for going the extra mile for demanding people, won’t you just be put upon more by the unscrupulous, and if you give to everyone who asks from you, won’t you end up lacking the vital things you need at precisely the time their service is called upon?

I don’t really have an answer to this curly problem,  but I do have a suggestion about the way we might approach this series of teachings with profit, and that is to see them, in the first instance, as descriptive of the (seemingly) irrational, radically disproportionate love that God has for every human being. That is the direction in which our Lord points his disciples in the second part of today’s Gospel when he reminds them of God’s commitment to cause the sun to rise, and the rain to fall on people, regardless of whether they love and respect him or not. Through this commitment God inevitably runs the risk (it’s really a certainty) of allowing and even sustaining some very sub-optimal behaviour in the world. Is that because God doesn’t care? Certainly not – the writers of the New Testament all bear witness to a God who cares very much about the things that happen on earth. In the New Testament, God is presented as a merciful father, who gives every opportunity for his wayward children to return to him. A considerable amount of collateral damage can happen, of course, as this process unfolds, as people move either to an acceptance of God or not. The damage to innocent third parties that results from God’s forbearance towards the wicked, hardly seems fair but we have to trust, as people of faith, that God knows what God is doing by allowing such a process to exist, that there is something, dare I say, necessary, about it, and that in the end, the innocent will be recompensed while the wicked will bear the consequences of rejecting God and the ways of love.

If we believe that God can draw goodness out of a process like this on a cosmic scale, perhaps we should have faith as well that when we act a bit more like God in our forbearance towards others, God will be able to draw good out of that too – even if, in the short term, we suffer loss of one sort or another.

That is the direction in which I feel the Spirit is moving me to understand Jesus’ teaching this morning, but I have to admit that I still have doubts about the appropriateness of applying Jesus’ policy of ‘non-resistance’ to every area of my personal life, my work life and even my religious life. When driven to its logical conclusion, it just doesn’t appear to be a responsible position to take. It could be seen as an almighty sell out of one’s human agency, and of the duty we have as moral agents to protect ourselves, the folks assigned to our care and perhaps even humanity generally (if a world leader, for instance, adopted a policy of non-resistance to aggressive nations, some humans would suffer who might have been spared if their policy had been different).

But my ways and thoughts are not God’s ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8), so it is very likely that I am missing something in my reasoning, so before leading you astray into a short-circuited understanding of our faith, perhaps the most helpful thing to do is simply to counsel you to ‘sit a while’ with the discomfort that this teaching brings, and pray to God for the right way to respond to that uneasiness. 

The Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 12 February 2017

'Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well' by Jan Joest van Kalkar (1508). Jesus broke some social taboos that day by talking with a woman who also happened to be a Samaritan - a double taboo. He conversed with her, person to person, respecting her dignity as a child of God - even as he spoke quite frankly to her about her situation in life (John 4:5-13). His deep respect for others and their wellbeing is central to his ethical teaching.

 

 

Christian Ethics II

Primary Texts:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Matthew 5:21-37

 

This morning we continue to work our way through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – that sustained body of ethical teaching which we find in St Matthew’s gospel, stretching from chapters 5 to the end of chapter 7. Last week Jean touched on the need to read Jesus’ teaching in context, approaching them with an awareness of our Lord’s other teachings, not least his commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves.

That sort of approach to understanding and appropriating Jesus’ teaching is particularly helpful as we come to reflect on the very challenging teachings of Jesus in today’s Gospel. 

It would be worthwhile, too, reminding ourselves of what was going on in the gospel story before and after today’s Gospel text, because (as every politician dealing with the media knows) statements taken out of context can be very misleading.

The Gospel last Sunday ended on the verse immediately preceding this morning’s Gospel, at which point Jesus declares to his audience:

‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matt 5:20).

That is quite a statement. It needs some serious unpacking, and I think today’s extract from the sermon on the mount might be seen as spelling out what that sort of righteousness looks like as it deals with issues of anger, adultery, divorce and oath making. It is not particularly easy reading, and I can assure you, it does not make for the easiest preaching! 

Jesus still has a lot to say about the ethics of the Kingdom of God when we leave him in this morning’s gospel – we have the teaching on turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, being discreet in the way we give alms and pray – and many more well known teachings besides (ones that many of you here will be familiar with from your childhood). He ends his teaching with a saying about the importance of being doers of what he teaches (Matt7:24-5) rather than hearers only (Matt7:26-27). 

From the amount of space that Matthew gives to this series of ethical teachings in his gospel, it is clear that he (and the community he wrote for) attached a great deal of significance to them. And unless Matthew was wilfully misrepresenting Jesus in what he wrote, it is plain from the extent and tone of Jesus’ reported speech over these three chapters that these teachings are a crucial representation of Jesus’ message of hope for the restoration of humanity. We are thus compelled to conclude that the gospel we have just heard is not something that can be brushed aside as an irrelevance. Instead, we have to deal with it squarely, face-on. 

To do this fairly we have to have an eye for the social context in which Jesus makes his address. Specifically I think we need to be aware of his reported audience. They may be an amalgam of the crowds of people he was ministering to at the end of chapter four, who he sees again as he climbs the mountain to teach or  - and I think this is more likely – his disciples. Consider the introduction Matthew gives to the Sermon on the Mount:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying..[blessed are...blessed are, and so on] (Matt 5:1-2)

Sitting down, without the benefit of a very good sound system is not conducive to speaking effectively to a crowd of thousands! What Matthew has written then suggests that Jesus is involved in teaching those closest to him, who have seen close-hand his tremendous self-giving, passionate concern for others in action and will be in a position to interpret what he teaches in light of that love. That gives us an important clue as to how we, as the latest generation of Jesus’ disciples ought to listen to the words he has spoken this morning through his Gospel – namely, in the broad context of Christ’s mission to set people free and restore them to being daughters and sons of God. 

If it is the case that Jesus is primarily addressing his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount we can make another reasonable inference about the context in which he was speaking, namely, that it was predominantly, if not exclusively, a male one. That probability helps us understand the particular instances of sinfulness that Jesus’ highlights in this morning’s Gospel; the sins that he refers to here are the sins most likely to beset men of his day and (in the case of one or two of them) men of any time or place. That is not to exclude women from the enacting of any or all of these sins, but to make the point that what is being said in this passage is most likely directed at men in a society which is profoundly patriarchal, in which the balance of power between women and men is weighted heavily in favour of men. 

In such a society the personhood of women is often poorly developed, at least in the public arena. They are, in such circumstances, objects more often than subjects, and what value they have is derived from their relationship to a man – their father or their husband usually. 

Patriarchy has been the norm in most societies across the world. The ongoing tradition of fathers giving brides away to waiting grooms in marriage echoes the patriarchy inherent in an earlier English society; the bride being a piece of property handed over from her father’s possession to her husband, as a piece of land might be transferred from one male holder to another.  I am sure this ritual is invested with very different meaning in most marriage ceremonies conducted today (perhaps being seen as compensation to Dad for his exclusion from other parts of the wedding planning?), but the potential is there for it to model an understanding of womanhood and marriage that no one here would commend. 

Back to Jesus then, teaching his disciples how to recover the world God had intended from the beginning of creation. Let us focus on two central teachings in today’s gospel passage – the teaching concerning adultery and the one concerning divorce. Both of these teachings certainly benefit from being reflected upon with an awareness of the nature of the original audience being taught by Jesus. 

The tendency for men to gaze in an unwelcome way on women appears to transcend cultures and ages (though it wasn’t till the mid 1970s that the term, ‘the male gaze’ was first coined by the feminist film critic Laura Mulvey to describe the way in which women are portrayed in art as objects of male pleasure). The male gaze may be an understandable weakness, in a biological sense, but that hardly condones the phenomenon. 

I think that what Jesus is getting at when he tells his disciples that they should not look on any woman with lust is to say that they shouldn’t view women as objects but instead - in a very countercultural move for the time - interact and engage with them as subjects, full human beings, in the same way in which they interact with their mothers and sisters when they are in their domestic environment. The teaching on divorce is also a counter cultural move by Jesus which restores women – in a first century Palestinian context – to personhood. 

In the ancient world it was notoriously easy for men to divorce their wives. This was the case in both the Gentile and Jewish worlds. All that was required, as pointed out in the Gospel today, was a brief letter of dismissal from the dissatisfied husband. In the Jewish world there was one school of thought which limited divorce to situations where the wife had committed adultery, but the other school of thought (and this was probably a popular one) allowed divorce on the grounds of practically any dissatisfaction felt by the husband – a man might divorce his wife if she scolded him loud enough for the neighbours to hear, or disrespected him in front of his parents, spoke to another man without his permission, or cooked poorly – those sort of heinous crimes! 

These reasons for divorce diminished the personhood of married women to that of slaves; objects, in other words, whose purpose was the satisfaction of male desire/ honour/ego. Marriage, in such circumstances could not be a partnership of equals. Thus when Jesus tells his disciples that the only grounds for them to divorce their wives is infidelity he is, in that cultural context, raising the status of women to equality with men. It was a subversive, counter-cultural move for the time. 

And when he prohibits his disciples from marrying women who have been divorced, Jesus is saying implicitly to them ‘ do not collude with a system that allows women to be traded from one man to another to the detriment of their dignity as daughters of God and full heirs of the kingdom I am calling every women and man to.’ (Sorry it’s a bit wordy, but I think you get the picture!) 

In light of this, what is the Spirit saying to the Church today as we read Jesus’ teaching to his disciples almost two thousand years ago? Well, I think a key thing that the Spirit is saying is that in all our doings, in all our interactions with others – be that in the family, in the church, in business and in our most intimate relationships – our conduct must be driven by a deep, heartfelt concern for the dignity of the person or people with whom we interact. As Christians, no one - no one at all - exists for our selfish gratification. Or to put that more positively, we are bound by Christ to view everyone we encounter as persons, created by and loved by God, who have a purpose in God’s great scheme of things. 

Consequently, when we enter into relationships with one another and make promises to remain faithful to one another as partners – as we do today in Marriage in our Church – our overwhelming concern ought to be to do all in our power to make that relationship work. If, despite the very best efforts of one or both partners to the marriage, the relationship becomes destructive to the personhood of one or both partners, divorce, I would say, is not precluded by Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5. Indeed it may be encouraged. That is because the God who Jesus reveals through his life, death and resurrection is a God who wants to relate to people (subject to subject, in an ‘I and thou’ relationship – as Martin Buber put it); a God who wants people to thrive, develop and become imitators of Christ. Our prayer, of course, first and foremost ought to be for the blossoming of the relationships we have pledged ourselves to, but if the proverbial wheels do fall off our relationships we can be sure that God’s concern is to lift us out of misery, not prolong it. 

May God bless us all in our relationships, and be particularly close to those who have difficult decisions to make regarding the relationships they find themselves in. May they have our loving support, our deep concern, and, above all, the grace of God to carry them through. Amen.

The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 5 February 2017

Preacher: Jean Rheinfrank

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-9a, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

 INTRODUCTION—Matthew...A “Mediocrity-Free “ Zone!

Whilst writing from his Vicar’s desk, Tony has shared with us the reality that the present “Ordinary Time” and our readings today are anything but ordinary.  He makes such a good point, for simply put, Matthew is truly anything but ordinary.  As a Jewish-Christian author,[1] quite open to the Gentile mission and very possibly striving to present a handbook for church leaders of the time,[2] Matthew has a clear focus on ethical practices and righteousness,[3] and points to the prescribed conduct that God demands of his disciples.[4]  And Matthew presents the Gospel by not only bringing forth from the Old Testament traditions and elements underpinning his stories of Jesus, but considers those Old Testament examples (such as today’s first reading) to be of continuing validity and correct interpretation for his listening and reading audience.[5]  As we shall see, Matthew’s gospel as he wrote it probably somewhere between 70 and 100 CE provides us today with an excellent “How To” guide for 21st Century Christian living.

SALT—FROM TABLE TO THE CHURCH

The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia has stated it seeks to fulfil a Five-Fold mission.  The five points,[6] are very much contained within our Gospel reading today.  It is interesting that in Matthew’s written account of Jesus’ parable to his disciples, which incorporates the disciples being metaphors of salt, Matthew talks about “you:” “YOU are the salt of the earth.”[7]  He isn’t referring in the third person to how Jesus said to his disciples that they were the salt.  No, as we read it now, we, too, are being shoulder-tapped, if you will, to accept the responsibility also provided the disciples 2,000 years ago.  And as included amongst our church’s five-fold mission, we are required to respond to human needs by loving service, and seek to transform the unjust structures of society.  This isn’t someone else’s job...it is the collective us!

Jesus goes one step further for “us,” in his metaphor of salt.  A common element, in the 1st Century—very much as it is today--salt was a spice and a preservative.  Some suggest that Matthew’s Jesus was referring to “pure salt” which does not lose its flavour or effectiveness as a comparison with disciples wholly committed to the mission appointed by God.  And the contrast is shown that salt unable to retain its taste if it went bad, became unclean and would be thrown out (hence perhaps the imagery of divine justice?)[8]  Matthew points out that the church (and it is interesting to note that Matthew was the first within a Gospel to define a house gathering of worshippers by the noun church),[9] needs to take responsibility not just within the community, but in the world; and disciples were encouraged not to shrink from such missions.[10] And as we have read this morning, “if God has called us to this mission, we can be sure that God will provide the grace necessary for us to get the job done.”  That is good news indeed.

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

With the metaphor of light, Matthew first introduces Jesus as “the light” in the previous Chapter (4:16), in describing the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  Matthew’s prose is somewhat out of character as such symbolism of light is not as familiar in Matthew as John.[11]  The beginning of Jesus’ ministry, however, clearly compels Matthew to raise awareness within his community for the importance of Jesus’ efforts to teach, preach, and heal.  In heralding the beginning of his ministry, Matthew makes it clear what witnesses to Jesus realised, for “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”[12]

As Matthew shows, however, we are drawn into that light in the reminder not to hide our light under a basket so the light from our good works, in the name of God, can shine on, glorifying not our own efforts, but so importantly to bring glory to our Father in heaven.  When you stop to contemplate what is really being said, the enormity and the importance (what did Tony call it—“a rather daunting commandment”), does make the heart quicken to dream of such possibilities that our unselfish and modest efforts might bring about.  Oh to be such an instrument!  Or putting it another way, to quote Graham Stanton’s thoughts on Matthew, “’good works’ seems to be synonymous with ‘righteousness.’”[13]

THE UNBROKEN CIRCLE OF OLD TESTAMENT TO NEW TESTAMENT

Matthew’s last four verses (17-20) in today’s Gospel reading are of extraordinary importance, for Jesus states in v17, “I have come not to abolish (the Law and the Prophets), but to fulfil them.”  The theologians of the new Jerome Biblical Commentary declare that vv 17-20 are “the most controversial verses in Matthew.”[14]  On the one hand, Jesus is affirming the abiding validity of the Torah, and yet no church would either suggest or expect observance of all 613 precepts of Old Testament Law, ethical and ceremonial decrees.[15]  Jesus lectures that “one jot (the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet) or one tittle (a slight serif on a Hebrew letter which distinguishes it from another letter) will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”[16]  We can be forgiven for saying, “huh?”  Are we cherry picking what we will and will not do?  Can we steal a phrase from the UK railroad and say, “mind the gap?”  Is this straining credibility? 

Unpacking this contradiction could fill more than a few sermons.  In the previous 18 hours I’ve had a few emails going back and forth with our Vicar regarding this.  Former Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, Graham Stanton (who received his Bachelor in Theology from Otago University),[17]  actually sums up a worthwhile view:  “For Matthew the continuing validity of the Law is important, but even more important is its correct interpretation.”  And Stanton goes on to explain, “when Jesus was asked to quote the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus refers to the command to love God and then cites the command to love one’s neighbour as oneself.”  And Jesus concludes, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[18]            

Through Matthew’s writing, the Christian is able to understand that Jesus is neither altering nor replacing Old Testament moral content of the law.[19]  God is not talking about human interpretation—but the commandments presented by Him, and fulfilled by Jesus.  We genuinely are being presented with a blueprint we can follow, and present to others.  How wonderful to be able to rely upon such a solid promise.  And so again we are reminded that through God we are being presented with the tools to get the job done, and have with us an excellent guide to see us through the challenges of mission.

CHALLENGING & CHANGING A SENSE OF HARDHEARTEDNESS ALL TO APPARENT...NOW

As one who has always more quickly identified with the positive, and able to downplay the negative, it is amazing to admit we are living right now in a somewhat angry, and quite ugly period of time.  And it pains me to admit that the country of my birth bears a lot of responsibility for the mess we seem to have gotten ourselves in to. There are people here today to whom only months ago I stated, “that man will never be elected president.”  Well, I got that wrong.  But there are probably millions who are members of that club.  It doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

Right now, we are witnessing a true sadness—borne out of fear, fuelled by people’s hate and anger, and growing in intensity.  The issue of large scale bans on immigration to the United States, and banging shut the doors of welcome to would-be, legitimate arrivals is unprecedented, and flatly wrong.  Legal action seems to be mounting on this issue, and I pray something positive will happen.

At the mouth of New York harbour stands a gift given to the United States in 1886 by France...the Statue of Liberty.  The torch of freedom is held aloft in one hand, and a tablet engraved 4th July, 1776 is held in the other arm.  France offered to pay for the statue, and the US agreed to fund the pedestal upon which Lady Liberty would stand.  The French enthusiastically got behind the project...and the US dragged their feet and kept their wallets shut.  But eventually the deal was done, the money raised, and the project completed.

As part of a marketing plan to help stimulate interest for contributing funds, a poet, Emma Lazarus wrote a poem, The New Colossus,[20] to entice attendance at one of the fund raisers.  Her poem included these immortal lines, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Twenty years after it was written, the poem was engraved on a plague and placed on the inside of the pedestal.  What then was seen as a grand and beautiful gesture, is today a mocking, and poorly thought out policy that brings no glory, fairness, or common sense whatsoever. 

As we pray for the grace to make us all effective instruments of God’s peace; may we further pray for God’s wisdom to speak to those making these shocking decisions; and may we speak up and be the salt and the light Jesus has intended, for “us.”

AMEN. 



[1] John Barton and John Muddiman, The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford, UK: Oxford

     University Press, 2011), 845.

[2] Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer and Roland Murphy, The New Jerome Biblical

     Commentary (London, UK: Prentice-Hall International, 1998), 631.

[3] Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, 2nd Edition (Oxford, UK: Oxford University

     Press, 2002), 67-68.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 72-73.

[6] Anglican Diocese of Auckland, An Introduction to the Diocesan Training Programme

     2017, 8.  “To proclaim the good news of the Kingdom; To teach, baptise and

     Nurture new believers To respond to human needs by loving service; To seek to

     transform the unjust structures of society; To strive to safeguard the integrity of

     creation, and to sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

[7] Brown, etc., Jerome Bible, 640.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Stanton, Gospels, 74.

[10] Brown, etc., Jerome Bible, 640.

[11]Ibid., 638

[12] Matt.4:16

[13] Stanton, Gospels, 70.

[14] Brown, etc., Jerome Bible, 641.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Stanton, Gospels, 72.

[18] Ibid.

[19] James MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, New King James Version (Nashville,

     TENN: Word Publishing, 1997), 1400. 

[20] Emma Lazarus, New Colossus, 1883 for a Fund Raiser promoting raising money for

     the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.  The quote was ultimately selected to be

     mounted on a plague which is affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty.

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Candlemas), 29 January 2017

Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Giovanni Bellini, 1493, from Museum of John Paul II Collection

Preached by The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

Primary Texts:

Malachi 3:1-5

Hebrews 2:14-18

Luke 2:22-40

 

Jesus was presented by his parents in the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth, just as any male child of devoted Jewish parents would be in the first century – if they lived close enough to Jerusalem to do so. To that extent, the procedure they go through is a normal, even routine, rite of passage and could be seen as one of many examples in the Gospels of Jesus’ full humanity, and of his similarity to us – which is a point taken up and developed in the Letter to the Hebrews which assures us this morning that ‘Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.’ Our Lord’s humanity, then, was not something that he ‘put on’ or ‘acted out;’ it was integral to who he was (and who he is).

So Jesus was absolutely human, but as his life unfolded it became abundantly clear that he was unusually full of God too. The special, divine nature of Jesus is highlighted in this morning’s gospel on two occasions. The first of these is when Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit, recognises immediately that the child Mary and Joseph are presenting is the Lord’s Messiah, the Saviour God had longed promised, who would be a beckon of hope (‘a light of revelation’) to the entire world and would fulfil Israel’s mission gloriously, though in a way that would not go unopposed. The second indication we have that Mary’s baby was salvation itself is the ecstatic praise that the prophet Anna offers God on Jesus’ behalf before going on ‘to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’

This was all quite overwhelming for Mary and Joseph. Luke tells us that they were amazed by what Simeon had to say about their child. They had presumably gone to the Temple without any grandiose expectations. They were there simply to do what was required by the Jewish law following the birth of a child.  What they offered – a pair of young pigeons - indicates that they were not a wealthy family. If they had had the wherewithal, they would have offered a lamb and a pigeon (Lev 12:6). So it is clear that the situation in which our Lord grew up and became ‘strong and filled with wisdom’ (to quote Luke) was a simple one, just as the Christmas Carol puts it, ‘with the poor and meek and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour holy.’ (Once in Royal David’s City). His holiness came from the special relationship that existed from the beginning between him and the Father, yet he was as human and real and down-to-earth as you can get, which makes him more than just a divine being to admire, but an empathetic saviour, willing and able to redeem every part of our ordinary human lives (which is the point the Letter to the Hebrews seeks to drive home).

The Temple complex that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to in Jerusalem was in the process of a massive renovation, begun by Herod the Great around 20 BC. Herod’s motivation for undertaking this building project was probably quite worldly – it was a way to bring himself glory, I suspect, rather than God. In his adulthood, Jesus would go on to be very critical of the Temple system, particularly the way money was milked from pilgrims by intermediaries who exchanged foreign money for the temple currency that pilgrims needed to purchase animals for sacrifice. Nevertheless he, like the saintly Simeon and Anna before him, was happy to be in the Temple and teach there, as were his disciples in the months following our Lord’s resurrection. All of which goes to show how God’s purposes can be served by the doings of people, like Herod, whose motivation is less than pure and holy.

Still, for all its wonder, and the opportunity the Temple in Jerusalem afforded for people to gather together, talk about their faith, offer sacrifice and worship God, there was something missing in that complex of buildings. What was missing arrived in the arms of Mary and Joseph in the form of an infant and won the immediate admiration of two elderly people blessed with eyes to see God in unexpected places.

In the second chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus is once again in the Temple in Jerusalem, this time as a grown up, evicting the money changers from its outer-most precinct. While there he refers to a ‘temple’ that will rise again, despite its destruction. His audience doesn’t know what he’s getting at with this cryptic statement, but we, who know how the story ends, recognise that the temple he refers to is his body, and that its ruin is his crucifixion  – For us then, this prediction calls to mind the chilling prophecy Simeon delivered to Mary in the same place some thirty years earlier (and which we heard this morning), that ‘this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

Mary’s son Jesus was indeed opposed in his ministry at many turns, by insiders and outsiders alike. The opposition culminated in his crucifixion, the trigger for which was very likely the incident reported in the second chapter of John’s Gospel – his turning over of the tables of the money-changers in the temple. By this action, Jesus was making a very clear point, namely, that the purpose of the Temple had been corrupted by human greed. It was a dangerous point to make. Many people, I suspect, made a living selling things at the temple, and business people of every age do not take kindly to criticism of the way they go about earning their income. Jesus would have made some wealthy, powerful enemies that day, who would be only too happy to work alongside the religious authorities who were nursing wounds to their own egos, inflicted by Jesus in his critique of them and their motives.

At the time of Jesus’ death, no-one alive (accept his Mother Mary, I suspect) really understood what was happening, that the Temple of God, Jesus of Nazareth, was being destroyed just as surely as the Temple of Solomon had been destroyed by the Babylonians five centuries earlier (and as Herod’s Temple would be destroyed only years later, in 70AD).

Jesus’ disciple’s understanding of the significance of their master’s life and death only clarified after his resurrection, when they were able to look back over what had happened and interpret it in the light of what Jesus had spoken of, so cryptically, before his crucifixion. Now they realised that they had had the good fortune to walk in the presence of a human temple, filled to the brim with the living God. And what was better still, they continued to enjoy the full presence of God with them, through the Holy Spirit that Christ sent into their hearts. From that point on they were Temples of God themselves, and they bravely and joyfully went on to bring the fullness of God to people all around the north-eastern Mediterranean, many of whom would never have visited the Temple in Jerusalem, or even known that it existed. Mary and Joseph had done the right thing by bringing Jesus to the Temple in his infancy, but they couldn’t have imagined how far their young charge who surpass the grandeur of the building they presented him in. To him be the glory, now and forever. Amen.

 

The Conversion of St Paul, 22 January 2017

Detail from 'The Conversion of St Paul' by Caravaggio, 1601

Preached by the Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

Primary Texts 

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Galatians 1:11-16a

Matthew 19:27-30

 

Today we commemorate an extraordinary event in the life of a remarkable, complex, and controversial saint of the first century; Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus. That singular event - an encounter between the risen Christ and Saul, was life-changing for Saul and pivotal for the development of Christianity as we understand it (a significant portion of our New Testament is either written by Paul, or in his name, or – as in the case of Acts, about Paul). It is right then that we should remember Paul’s conversion to Christ and reflect, through it, on our relationship with Christ; because, if the pattern of Paul’s life is anything to go by, our well-being and the well-being of those around us hinges on that primary relationship.

 

St Paul was a devout, and clearly very intelligent Jew who was brought up in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus in what is today south-eastern Turkey. Tarsus was a well-established centre and university town when Paul was born there to Jewish parents who were also Roman citizens. His father was a Pharisee and Paul naturally followed in his father’s footsteps. As a young man he went to Jerusalem to study Judaism under Rabbi Hillel who ran a school which gave its students quite a well-rounded, classical education in which dialogue and debate would have been order of the day. This training no doubt contributed to Paul’s ability to articulate complex ideas, but even more so to his ability to argue a case, to use rhetoric to persuade an audience – we see that skill put to great effect in the letter from which this morning’s epistle comes, Paul’s letter to the Galatians. 

 

The letter to the Galatians reveals a great deal to us about Paul, about his conversion to Christianity and his conviction as to what is at the core of the Christian faith. That personal revelation, though important in its own right, is secondary to the purpose Paul has in writing the letter, so it is helpful to spend a moment or two examining what occasioned Paul’s penning of the letter to the Galatians.

 

Paul had established the church in Galatia following a chance (unexpected) encounter with locals there who took care of him when he was unwell. He had a special place in his heart, then, for this community which had looked after him, and which he, in turn had committed to building up in Christ.

 

Now, sometime after Paul had moved on from Galatia, he received word that the gospel message he had shared with the Galatians was being overturned by other Christian missionaries who were insisting that the Galatians needed to not only recognise Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah or Christ, but continue to observe the Jewish law – specifically circumcision.

 

This new teaching contradicted the teaching that Paul had given the Galatians, namely, his insistence that our relationship with God is not based on outward signs and observances but on our inward disposition towards God; specifically, on our faith in Christ.

 

The insistence of the new group of missionaries that faith in Christ is not enough to make one right with God not only undermined Paul’s teaching, it also undermined his authority – and that explains the angry, exasperated tone of the letter (it is the only letter Paul wrote that does not begin with him giving thanks for the congregation to whom he writes); and it sheds light on why Paul goes to great lengths early in the letter to establish his claim to be an authority on matters of faith, on an equal standing with Christ’s first Apostles. His authority comes, he argues, from the fact that he was a direct recipient of the gospel message from Christ. He says in this morning’s epistle: ‘I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.’

 

That is quite a claim – and on the face of it, probably not the strongest argument that could be made for the validity of the gospel he was preaching; what do I mean? Well, if someone came to you in whatever field of human endeavour and said that their justification for practicing in that area was not that they had learned from those who had pioneered the field but from a revelation that made them every bit as authoritative in that field as those pioneers… would you let them operate on you (if they claimed to be an expert surgeon), or teach your children (if they claimed to be a professor), or even tune your car (if they claimed to be an A-Grade mechanic)? My guess is that you wouldn’t, so why does Paul argue in this way? I think the answer to that lies in his training and real skill as a persuasive speaker and debater.

 

Paul appears to be of the opinion that these new missionaries were deliberately discrediting his teaching on the grounds that he had never encountered Jesus during his earthly ministry.  They on the other hand had either met Jesus before his ascension or had been sent by people who had. There is, as we have just noted, a certain common-sense plausibility to such a claim against Paul’s teaching authority. It is quite likely that Paul’s opponents had attacked his authority in an oblique, subtle way, perhaps praising him for the wonderful work he had done amongst the Galatians whilst quietly assuming the right to call the shots in the community because of their – as they saw it – direct link to the original apostles and thereby Christ. They would have expected that Paul would naturally want to keep as quiet as possible about the fact that he had had no direct contact with Jesus during his earthly mission, and might have expected Paul instead to rebut them on the basis that he had learned from other apostles who shared his opinion on the matter of salvation by faith. Paul’s opponents would have felt quite confident of defeating him if he took that route, because it is quite likely that their credentials were top notch (we know from the book of Acts that the apostles in Jerusalem were much of a mind about the need for converts to Christianity to keep the Jewish law). And that is why, I believe, Paul comes out fighting with this extraordinary claim – that Christ had revealed himself and his message to him by direct revelation. What a great rhetorical move! You have to credit Paul, as a master of persuasion, for taking what is, humanly speaking, a weakness and turning it into a strength.

 

Of course the reason Paul was able to pull off this line of argument so well was because he had indeed been the recipient of a very real, life-changing encounter with the risen Christ – the sort of encounter that many others have had since - which completely re-orientated his life, turning him from being a man of hate to one who, in later years, would write some of the most sublime words about the nature of love that have been penned (see 1 Corinthians 13) and making him profoundly useful in the extension of Christ’s mission.

 

The conversion experience that Paul had is only hinted at in today’s epistle reading. A fuller account of Paul’s conversion is contained in the book of Acts (recorded in 3 places (Act 9:1-19; Acts 22:6-21; Acts 26:19) which recall Paul’s journey north from Jerusalem to arrest Christians in Damascus. The recollections differ slightly, but in each of them Paul is suddenly interrupted by the Risen Christ. The vision he has is overwhelming, literally knocking him off his feet. He realises he is in the presence of something Divine and learns that it is Jesus himself who is addressing him.

 

In one of the accounts Jesus says to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26: 14b)  - a goad being a sharp stick used by a ploughman to keep the donkey or oxen moving the way s/he wants it to go, all of which suggests that Paul has long been resisting the pointers or nudges that Christ has been sending his way.

 

Paul’s conversion continued for a further three days, during which time he was brought to Damascus, still blinded from his encounter, and unable to eat or drink; he had really been shaken up! It is only through the intervention of the brave disciple Ananias in Damascus, who came to him and laid hands on him that his sight was restored and he was in a condition to be baptised and have some sustenance again. 

 

Saul’s experience is one, as I’ve mentioned, that has been repeated down the ages. God seems to delight in turning to his own purpose individuals who are diametrically opposed to his programme. He seems to be motivated by a good challenge! That should give us hope (in at least two ways); hope when facing a world where the enemies of Christ’s gospel, in all their different guises, continue to be strong, and hope when looking inward at the resistance within our own lives to the reign of God. Because if Jesus is able to turn a vehement persecutor of the church into its strongest advocate, he could, conceivably, at this very minute even, be working away at the critics of Christianity and persecutors of the Church, interrupting their assuredness in a lesser kingdom and redirecting them towards God’s Kingdom. Similarly, the persistence of God in pursuing us as individuals, nudging us along, irritating us at those points in our lives that are at odds with real love, should lead us to new levels of conversion and peace and effectiveness.

 

 

So here’s to St Paul, as controversial and charismatic after almost two millennia as he was in the flesh, all because of his inability to resist Christ’s pursuit of him. May Christ’s pursuit of us be just as intense and productive. Amen

The Second Sunday of Epiphany - The Lamb of God, 15 January 2017

Preached by The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

Texts

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

 

 

The local paper - the Central Leader – arrived on Tuesday or Wednesday last week, announcing on the front page that grazing would be coming to an end on Auckland’s volcanic cones – its maunga. A local resident was asked what she thought about this policy – which appears to driven by a desire to restore biodiversity to these sites and protect archaeological features – and her comment was that ‘it would be a pity if sheep were to be removed from One Tree Hill. Our kids love to go there, it’s [sic] an annual event in spring to see the lambs in an iconic Auckland space.’ I share her sentiments. In the week prior to the article coming out I’d driven by Cornwall Park and seen the sheep grazing and thought how lucky we are to live in a city with a farm in the middle of it – keeping things real, as it were, in 21st century Auckland.

The presence of sheep and lambs in our city not only keeps us grounded in the reality that our economy still depends on farming; it also gives us access to living metaphors, referred to frequently in the Bible. Both Jews and Christians proclaim that the Lord is our Shepherd (Psalm 23) and that we are the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100:3), and we both have a very special place indeed for lambs when it comes to describing and understanding what it takes to restore the relationship between humans and God.

There are some 200 references to lambs in the Bible (NRSV). These references occur most frequently in the Old Testament (OT) – with highest frequency in Numbers (20 verses), followed by Leviticus (10 verses) – both setting out in particular the requirements for sacrificial lambs, and Exodus (9 verses) – where the focus is on the occasion of Passover, where the Hebrews distinguished their houses from those of the Egyptians by smearing the blood of lambs on the lintels of the doorways and on the doorposts in obedience to God’s command (Exodus 12).

Moving to the New Testament (NT), in the Gospels, lamb is referred to in relation to the Feast of Passover in Mark (14:12) and Luke (22:7), the time during which Jesus was put to death in Jerusalem, implicitly connecting Jesus’ death to the sacrifice of lambs that occurs at Passover. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to explicitly as a lamb – specifically, the Lamb of God, on two occasions, both of which we have heard this morning (John 1:29; 1:36). In Acts 8, Jesus is set forth as a ‘lamb silent before its shearer,’ whose ‘life is taken away from the earth.’ (Acts 8: 32, 34). In the fifth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul refers to Jesus as our Paschal Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The association between our Lord and the Passover Sacrifice is echoed in 1 Peter where Jesus’ blood is described as precious, ‘like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.’ (1 Peter 1:19) But it is in the Book of Revelation that the term appears with greatest frequency, being used there some 30 times as a synonym for Jesus – the Lamb. Clearly, the lamb metaphor is an important one to reflect on if we hope to understand how the earliest generations of Christians understood the significance of our Lord.

What I would like to do specifically this morning is tease out what John the Baptist might be getting at when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God, and how that connects with the claim also made by John that Jesus takes away the sin of the world. I am going to attempt this feat in no more than 15 minutes (or so), by reviewing the way the OT describes lambs, and particularly the way they function in the process of reconciling a world that is less than perfect with the God of perfect goodness. The clock is ticking, so let’s cracking.

Possibly the earliest reference to lambs in the Bible occurs in Gen 21:28 where ‘seven ewe lambs’ are given by Abraham to Abimelech to seal a covenant between them regarding ownership of a well at Beersheba. This exchange indicates that lambs have value – and probably quite significant value given that the purchase of a water well in an arid country required only seven female lambs. Then in Genesis 22 there is the memorable (and let’s be honest, problematic) story of Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God, instead of a lamb. Here we see the connection between lambs and sacrifice very clearly: “Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ [Isaac] said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together,” (Gen 22:7-8) with a degree of apprehension in both parties I suspect.

In Exodus there is the very important reference to the lambs of Passover which I mentioned earlier (Exodus 12). These lambs were to be without blemish (Exodus 12:5), prepared and eaten in a specially prescribed way. And, as I mentioned, their blood was to be smeared around the doorways of the Israelite houses, to indicate to God, as he passed over Egypt, which houses to spare. The saving power of the blood of these lambs provided a metaphor, centuries later, for the writers of the New Testament to understand Jesus’ work. 

I’ve noted already the frequency with which references to lambs occur in Numbers and Leviticus. The need for lambs (and all other animals) offered to God to be perfect or without blemish is made repeatedly there (see for example, Lev 14:10; 23:18; Number 28:3). Some of the ceremonies are more colourful than others. Leviticus 14:25 sets forth, for example, a ceremony for cleansing a person of a skin disease: “The priest shall slaughter the lamb of the guilt-offering and shall take some of the blood of the guilt-offering, and put it on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed, and on the thumb of the right hand, and on the big toe of the right foot.”

After looking at these examples we might be tempted to think that concern about lambs, perfection and sacrifice was something peculiar to a priestly, legalistic – maybe obsessive compulsive - caste in Hebrew religion. Well, we should resist this temptation because the prophet Samuel was not in the least averse to sacrificing a lamb. In 1 Samuel 7:9 we read that: “Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it as a whole burnt-offering to the Lord; Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him.” A sense that the killing of lambs in itself was not central to what God was trying to achieve through the sacrificial system, certainly develops in the prophetic books. We see this very well in Isaiah. In the first chapter of that book God asks: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ and answers, ‘I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” (Isaiah 1:11)

Instead, what is of primary concern to God is the quality of life of the one who would offer sacrifice (Isaiah 1:16-17): “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

We also pick up in Isaiah another dimension of the lamb metaphor, that depends on the vulnerability of these creatures; in the world as-it-is lambs are easy prey to more wily animals, but in the fullness of time, Isaiah assures us, “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together” (Isaiah 65:25). Isaiah appears to be referring at this point to a time when the whole natural order will be reconfigured by God, for the better, so that the categories of predator and prey will be no more, but it is valid to see Isaiah’s statements here referring to the relationship God desires between his people (the lamb) and their natural enemies (the wolf). The lamb-like vulnerability of God’s people, and their need for shepherding is clearly apparent in the Old Testament.  I’ve referred to Psalm 23 – ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ which is probably the most well-known text demonstrating the lamb-like dependency of God’s people on their God. As an aside; it is equally apparent in the NT, where Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 10:3, “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” and is seen again when Jesus tells Peter at the end of John’s Gospel to “feed his lambs/tend his sheep/feed his sheep.” (John 21:15-17)

So what conclusions may be drawn from the way lamb is used in the Old Testament, particularly as that touches on healing the rift between human frailty and divine perfection? Well, firstly we see that a lamb is something of value. It is valuable on the human level of trade and exchange (witness Abraham’s use of seven female lambs to make a covenant with Abimelech) but it is so, too, on the level of divine/human interaction; it has value when it comes to saying ‘thank you’ to God, and for saying ‘sorry’ to God (sin offering). Secondly, we can say that its value relates to its perfection (‘a lamb without blemish’ is repeatedly called for in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers).

Why does perfection matter (how does it confer value) we might ask, and what does this say about God? Does it suggest that God has a chauvinistic eye towards creation? I don’t think so. God created lambs of every sort, and presumably loves each one of them but the sort of lamb God demands as a true sign of thanks or contrition is a perfect one. The reason for this is that it places a real cost on the one who makes the offering; and it is the one who makes the offering that God wants to forge a relationship with. That relationship can only develop if the offering made is heart-felt and genuine. A sacrifice that costs an individual dearly, is plainly genuine, and in the ancient world, the offering of a choice lamb was such a sacrifice.

So, how does all this help us understand John the Baptist’s proclamation that Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?’ I think it helps us say a few things which deepen our appreciation of what John said even though they don’t exhaust the meaning of it.

Firstly, we can say that Jesus is something of value simply by being referred to as a lamb (lamb was a strong currency in the ancient Near East). To be referred to as the Lamb of God, however, raises his value to a whole different level.  God is boundless, the creator of worlds. God is value itself. So to call Jesus the Lamb of God is to proclaim; here is the pearl beyond price; the One (and Only).

Secondly, for Jesus to be the Lamb of God he must be perfect, without blemish. In what did Jesus’ perfection lie; or, how was he perfect? There may be a multitude of ways in which this question could be answered quite validly. One important one, I believe, relates to Jesus’ disposition towards God. Jesus was more serious than any human being who has ever existed in maintaining a genuine relationship with God, the source of all goodness. We are shown in the Gospels a man who did not take his eye off God, and through whom the majesty of God was seen more perfectly than it had ever been seen before or since. The offering that he gave of his life (every bit of it; not only his crucifixion and death) for the world was the most perfect offering to God that has been made before or since.

His perfection probably didn’t reside in his appearance or other physical attributes. Some of the images of Jesus that have come out over the last century show a very athletic Jesus [slide 18], blond haired and blue-eyed, but I think this image needs to be tempered by what Isaiah said about the Suffering Servant, “[who] grew up before [God] like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering - and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces - he was despised, and we held him of no account.”(Isaiah 53:2-3) 

This ties in with something else we can say about Jesus being the Lamb of God from our survey of the Old Testament, namely, that Jesus is vulnerable – that he is aware of this and willing to place himself in God’s care. Indeed, when we look at the Gospels we see a man who recognises his dependency on God more profoundly than any other human being, and as a consequence we find him constantly resorting to the Father in prayer.

 

When John the Baptist declares that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world he is effectively saying: here is the individual whose life is so profoundly oriented towards God that wherever he steps the pain, alienation, dehumanisation that results from sin, flees/cannot stand/shields its eyes. The Good News for us is that Jesus continues to be that person, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, big and small. When Christ’s Spirit moves into a place, or is welcomed into a human heart, the damage done by human weakness and dysfunction is made good, healed.

We are, each of us here, recipients of that reconciling action. And we are, each of us, still being worked on by Christ so that we too might be able to offer ourselves fully to God. That’s the long journey of sanctification that begins when we open the door of our heart to Christ, the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice who sits at God’s right hand and has revealed the limitless capacity of God to redeem and restore. My suspicion is that 2017, as much as any year before it, will need that boundless grace of God. May we each take hold of what God is offering us through Christ, the Lamb of God, so that our lives and the lives of those around us might be built up, enriched and fulfilled. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Feast of the Epiphany, 8 January 2017

Abraham Bloemaert - The adoration of the Magi (1624)

Preached by The Rev’d Dr Tony Surman

 

Principle texts:            Isaiah 60: 1-6

                                      Ephesians 3: 1-12

                                      Matthew 2: 1-12

 

Well, here we are at Epiphany Sunday, the time at which we remember the visit of the Magi or Wise Men to the infant Jesus and reflect on what that visit says about Jesus, God’s plan for the world, and our place in that scheme. We might begin that work by asking just what an epiphany is.

An epiphany is a moment in someone’s life when they are brought to a new awareness of things, to startling new insights which affect the way they see things and respond to things in the future.

Epiphanies happen to individuals, typically, but it is not uncommon for individuals to share very similar epiphanies if they have lived through similar circumstances (indeed, simply being human and growing up subjects us to one epiphany after another). The effect that such changes of view or perspective have on a person can be quite profound and, in certain circumstances, can cause entire communities, nations - even the world, to look at things very differently than they have looked at them in the past.

In the sciences, for example, the personal epiphanies of creative individuals can alter the entire way in which one understands a field of knowledge, the assumptions one makes in that area, and the questions one asks in relation to it.

A prime example of this phenomenon would be the way Nicholas Copernicus’ creativity and observation back in the 15th century moved the science of astronomy from thinking that the earth was at the centre of the universe, to a new model that placed the sun at the centre of what came to be called the solar system. His insight broke new ground. It was an epiphany for him, for the scientific community of early modern Europe, and eventually came to be accepted generally as fact.             

So, too, in the field of theology - in our attempt to understand God - there are moments when God breaks through ‘the glass we look through dimly,’ as St Paul put it (1 Corinthians 13: 12) and shifts our way of thinking about things, and doing things, in a dramatic fashion.

There are a number of epiphanies referenced, either explicitly or implicitly, in today’s Gospel and the readings which preceded it. Let’s look at some of them now.

Firstly, there are the epiphanies that the Magi, or Wise men, had, and I would suggest that there are at least three of these apparent in the gospel passage.

The first is associated with their observation of a new star (probably a planet) that they saw rising in the sky. In their profession as advisors to the rich and powerful, the Magi would have spent a lot of time looking into the night sky in a bid to understand the present and predict the future. In that pre-scientific age, it made perfect sense to expect that events in the heavens would reflect events at the terrestrial scale. God, it would appear, was happy to use their ‘celestial language,’ as it were, to make known to them Jesus’ birth. The message was so loud and clear to those Magi that it moved them to travel hundreds of kilometres across barren, dangerous land in search of a king without equal.

The second epiphany the Magi had occurred when they saw the star stop over the place where the Christ Child was. Up until that point they hadn’t known precisely how they would find the location of the King of the Jews. They only knew from their meeting with Herod that he would be in Bethlehem, and the star they were following confirmed that was the general direction to be going in. They probably thought they would have to go door to door looking for the Christ Child, but then the star did something completely unexpected that made it clear to them where they were to go. Matthew tells us that “they were overwhelmed with joy” at that point and that when they entered the house where Mary and Jesus were “they knelt down and paid [the child] homage.” Obviously this was a life-changing moment for each of the Magi, and the change in them must have been recognised by everyone who encountered them subsequently.

The third epiphany that the Magi had, came through a dream warning them not to return to Herod. Up until that point the Magi may have thought that Herod’s interest in their quest for a new-born king of the Jews was benign and genuine. Now, by the grace of God, they knew otherwise, and their planning of their return journey altered accordingly.

The Magi, however, weren’t the only characters in this story to receive an epiphany. Herod himself was in receipt of one, courtesy of the strange visitors from the east who stirred up gossip in the Capital about a royal birth. Herod the Great was a very paranoid ruler who was prepared to kill even his own children if they appeared to be a threat to his supremacy. When he became aware that foreign experts in reading the ‘signs of the times’ were hailing the arrival of a new Jewish king, and it wasn’t him, he switched into survival mode; he would eliminate his rival. That was not, of course, the godly response to this epiphany; but it was a response to be expected from a person who had long turned his back on God and righteousness.

On a much more positive note, we can assume, I think with a great deal of justification, that Mary had a major epiphany when, out of the blue, a band of Persian astrologers turned up on the doorstep with gold, frankincense and myrrh to pay homage to her young son. She already had a strong sense that her child’s birth would be good news for her own people but now she realised just how universal her son’s redemptive work would be.

When we step back from the gospel passage and examine the two readings that preceded it this morning, again, epiphanies come to the fore. In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah writes of a time when his people will be over-joyed and over-awed by their restoration at God’s hand; Isaiah tells his audience - “you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” All of Israel’s misfortune would be set right and they would become what they had always been intended to be, a light to the nations. You get the sense though, in this epiphany, that the other peoples coming to Israel will be doing so as servants of God’s people, rather than as equals.

In the second reading this morning, however, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, the nations beyond Israel, the Gentiles, are not described as servants of Israel but as ‘fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This significantly different way of casting the relationship between Jew and Gentile owes itself, in Paul’s case, to the epiphany he had on the road to Damascus where the Risen Christ stopped him, the defender of Jewish tradition, in his righteous tracks, and forced him to see that God was doing something more radical through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus than Isaiah and the other prophets could imagine; God was now offering the kingdom to all who would come, on an equal basis. That is an epiphany that had immediate implications for the shape that the early church took. There would no longer be, as St Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians, ‘Gentile or Jew, slave or free, man or woman, for you are all one in Christ,’ Gal 3:28. That epiphany continues to call the church to reform and renewal where and when we deviate from that norm.

One way in which we deviated from the Gospel call to equality, as a church, was not recognised until forty or fifty years ago when people in the Anglican Church became increasingly aware of the injustice that was being done to women because they were barred from leadership of the church as priests and bishops. The move to further gender equality in the church over the latter part of the twentieth Century began – I think it is fair to say - as an epiphany to a few, that was resisted at first by many, but through persistence and faith has brought about a sea change in the way we treat people in every area of church life. Now, in our province, every office in the church is open to women and men.

I think St Paul would recognise the shape and pattern of that change and view it as progress, not because the end result agrees with everything he is purported to have said about church leadership two millennia ago [because it certainly doesn’t], but because he understood how God can break into our lives when we least expect it and jolt us into recognising new truths (or perhaps I should say, to perceive deeper truths) that modify our thinking, sometimes radically and even painfully, but always for the better – for our personal good and the good of all his church.

Of course, we can respond like Herod when God reveals something new to us – we can react against it, deny it, kill it; that response is not of God, but it is an option open to us, as creatures with free-will. Such a reaction is no way to peace, for ourselves or for others. So, let us pray that when God comes knocking at the door of our hearts – however God chooses to do that, be that through our area of specialisation (like the Magi), our vocation (look how Mary’s vocation of motherhood exposed her to one epiphany after another), or the dramatic action of God - that we will respond like Isaiah, the Magi, St Paul, and the reformers of our church throughout the ages; positively, resolutely and humbly, acknowledging that the change we feel called to advance is a step towards the establishment of God’s kingdom, and not an end in itself. In time, it too will likely be surpassed by other insights, just as Paul’s epiphany of equality in Christ was an advance on Isaiah’s vision of an Israel waited on ‘hand and foot’ by the other nations of the world.

Have a wonderful 2017, full of new insights, sharper vision and intuition. By God’s grace, may the hazy glass we look at life through become that much thinner and clearer this year. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

The Holy Family, 1 January 2017

The Youth of Our Lord, John Rogers Herbert (1847)

Preached by The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

Texts:           Isaiah 9:2-7

                      Hebrews 2:10-18

Matthew 2:13-23

 

You may be forgiven for thinking that we have got our scripture a bit muddled this Sunday – from the way the Wise Men leave at the beginning of the Gospel before we have heard of their arrival in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant King of Jews, but I can assure you there is a reason for the scripture before us this morning, and no need to be concerned that we won’t hear about the Magi this Christmas Season because they have their special day next Sunday when we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany.

 

The reason we have the readings we had today is because they cause us to focus our attention on the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and God’s presence with them, before turning our attention next Sunday to God’s presence with the whole of humanity. This is a helpful way to proceed because the commemoration today is a sort of a bridge between the ‘spotlight’ that is quite rightly placed on Jesus on Christmas Day – Jesus being God’s presence in a uniquely concentrated form’ – and Epiphany, where God’s presence is shown to reach out to all people.

 

So, what can we say about the Holy Family and how God was present with and through them?

 

Well, in the first instance we can say that Mary and Joseph’s lived-relationship with Jesus was of the same type as exists between any set of parents and a child; that is to say, they nurtured him, taught him, protected him, loved, adored and – I dare say disciplined him - as any good parent would their own child. The fact that God chose to have his only Son raised in those conditions is very affirming of the importance of family, of the commitment that parents make to support each other in the raising of their children.

 

The New Testament record of Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Joseph serves to drive home the point made most emphatically on Christmas Day, that God did indeed become fully human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth; he didn’t just appear to be human (as one of the heresies of early Christianity would go on to claim), but he was human in every sense of the word, the same as us in everything except sin. With that being the case, he knew what it was like feel hunger, confusion, frustration, and every other human emotion; he experienced what it is like to be a finite being in an enormous universe, full of mind boggling complexity and possibility, and though he was clearly very bright and gifted with remarkable insight and ability, he didn’t know everything in the sense that the one who sent him knows everything. Instead, he stood in relation to that Person as a child to a Father and he bid his disciples to see their relationship to God in the same way – when his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus taught them to address God as “Our Father” thereby identifying himself very firmly with his disciples as children of the same loving parent. That relationship is reflected upon in this morning’s second reading which is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, and the important point is made that Jesus’ commonality with us allows him to “be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” He was, as Hebrew’s puts it, “flesh and blood” with us, and he experienced the one thing that we creatures dread – death – “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.”

 

The willingness of God to reach into time and space to be with his people is seen in a very special way in the life of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem in first century Palestine. That same willingness, however, is not absent from other times and places both before and after the first century. It is seen, for instance, in the creation of the world itself, where God makes a good creation in time and space and forms Adam and Eve to be its stewards. We see it in the relationship that God has with Noah, the last God-fearing man on earth who God uses to save life on the planet from the flood, and we see it particularly clearly in the relationship that God has with Abraham and his descendants, who he redeemed and saved from oppression in Egypt and from a host of other evils, through his “presence” with them, as the passage from Isaiah puts it this morning. Isaiah recognises that it is not angels or messengers that saved the People of God, but God himself, directly – working – you might say, in them and through them. In the life of Jesus Christ, that presence came to perfection and through the power of the Holy Spirit grace has continued to be poured out on God’s people – which is an assembly now much broader than the physical house of Israel (more about that next week when we focus our attention on the revelation of God to the Gentiles, symbolised by the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus). But it’s time now to reflect a little on Mary and Joseph and how God’s presence with them was made visible.

 

It is probably easiest to start with Mary because one Gospel writer in particular, St Luke, devotes a good chunk of the first chapters of his Gospel to Mary, to her Annunciation, her Visit of Elizabeth, her proclamation of the Magnificat, her giving birth to Jesus in the stable in Bethlehem and her presentation (with Joseph) of the infant Jesus in the Temple where she heard the ecstatic but ominous prophecy of Simeon that her child would be for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and that a sword would pass through her own soul too (Luke 2:34,35). And, in the only incident we have in the New Testament of Jesus’ childhood, we encounter Mary and Joseph looking for Jesus in Jerusalem, and finding him, when they are at their wits end, in the Temple, talking about God with the Rabbis. In John’s Gospel, Mary has the honour of being the person who initiates his first miracle when she asks him to help remedy a lack of wine at a wedding reception they are attending in Cana. For the rest of Jesus’ public ministry, Mary fades into the background, but she is there at the cross, at the resurrection and, on the day of Pentecost, she is with the other disciples in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit is poured out and the Church is born.

 

Through all of this, God’s presence is clearly with Mary, and through her conception of Jesus, God is present with her and through her in a way that it has never been before or since. As Jesus’ mother, she shared in his joys and in his suffering, in a very personal way. From the time she heard Simeon’s prophecy, she would have been concerned about what lay ahead for her son. In the months that followed her concerns probably receded as she cared for her baby boy and came to know other mothers and their children in Bethlehem. The sword about which Simeon spoke would first pierce her heart, I suspect, when she learned of the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem which she and Jesus had escaped with Joseph. She knew that the blows those children had endured were meant for her son and she may have had a sense of guilt, and wondered at the damage that saying ‘yes’ to God can bring.

 

Mary continued to be concerned for her son as he grew and as she began to see that he was focussed completely on pleasing God, on doing the will of his Father. She knew that would put him in harm’s way with the religious authorities, and I suspect that well before any of his disciples realised that Jesus’ ministry was leading to the Cross, Mary knew it was inevitable, and suffered with him through that realisation.

 

Joseph too was with Mary when Simeon prophesied, and we can be quite sure that he would have been equally concerned about what lay ahead for Jesus. We hear nothing spoken by Joseph in the New Testament but we do hear, in Matthew’s Gospel, of a series of dreams that Joseph has, that are sent to him by God and which he responds to faithfully every time. Three of these dreams we heard this morning, namely, the dream to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod, the dream to return to Israel following Herod’s death, and finally the dream to continue moving north to settle in Nazareth so as to avoid being under the jurisdiction of Herod’s son Archelaus. It is very apparent, in all of this, that Joseph was receptive to, and filled with, the presence of God. His faithfulness to God’s direction kept Jesus’ alive so that, in time, Jesus would be in a position to have a ministry that would transform the world. Unlike Mary, Joseph disappears from the New Testament story after the incident where Joseph and Mary find their son doing theology with the grownups in Jerusalem. In all likelihood, Joseph probably died by the time Jesus’ public ministry got underway. We can be sure though, from what we do know about him in Matthew’s Gospel, that Joseph would have had a very positive influence on Jesus’ development as a human being. When our Lord, as a boy, looked at his father – the way he lived, the faithfulness of him to his family and his God – he saw the sort of person that his heavenly Father wanted him to be, and that positioned Jesus very well for the unique public ministry that the Father was calling him too.

 

God was at work in a special way in the special trio we call the Holy Family. His presence was with them, and because they allowed his power to work through them, a new era was about to dawn for all humankind, a new covenant inaugurated by a Son who was so filled with the Father’s presence that he was willing to go to death to redeem all God’s children. We should never underestimate the power of good parenting, of godly parenting, carried out by parents who are faithful and loving to each other, to their children and not least to God. The Holy Family shows us the potential there is in this most fundamental unit of human society. May we gain inspiration from Mary and Joseph, and allow our hearts and homes to be guided by their child, our Lord Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.

 

George Hitchcock, 'The Flight into Egypt (Detail), 1892

Christmas Sermon, 2016

The Arrival At Bethlehem (1897)
, Luc-Olivier Merson

Preached by The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

Texts:          

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 3:4-7

Luke 2:1-20

 

 

St Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth will be very familiar to many of you here. Together with the nativity story in St Matthew’s gospel – which has the Star (of Bethlehem) and the Magi (the Wise men) in it – it provides the basic ingredients for nativity plays which are often charming and endearing, but sometimes gloss-over the rawness and reality of Jesus’ arrival in the world. Luke does not shy away from the gritty reality of Jesus’ birth. Instead he underlines it when he locates this event in its historical context, moving as he does, rather rapidly, from the broadest, most general historical marker (the reign of Augustus Caesar), to a very specific one, a stable – or some sort of animal shelter - in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born to Mary and laid in a manger – a trough for animal fodder, ‘because there was no place for them in the inn.’

 

‘No place for them in the inn’ - nothing romantic to see here…Jesus was born into a situation of deprivation and exclusion, and was fortunate to have resourceful parents who could improvise with what little they had in trying circumstances.

 

They found themselves in this undesirable state for no real fault of their own. The powers that be had decreed that everyone ought to be registered – presumably for tax purposes. I suspect that the reason why people all went to their ‘own towns’ for this registration had something to do with their concern to secure rights of inheritance; you see, if an official register was made of your home town - even if it was made by the hated Romans - and your name wasn’t on that list, your hope of making a successful claim on ancestral land in the future would be slim to none. And in a world in which the majority of people were dirt poor and lived ‘hand to mouth’, you needed all the hope you could get. I think that is why so many people were on the move at that time, responding rationally to processes that were beyond their control.

 

I imagine many people struggled to find decent lodging in the ‘home towns’ they went back to for registration. They may have been away for years or even generations. To the local inhabitants, they were strangers, and, more so than the average stranger, a threat to local ideas of entitlement; Yes, those new arrivals would have been kept at arm’s length by the locals; there would have been no place for most of them at the local inn.

 

The undesirable situation that Joseph, Mary, the infant Jesus, and thousands of other families found themselves in because of a political decision made hundreds of miles away, and to which their opinion would make not a jot of difference, has obvious current parallels. Over recent years we have witnessed on our televisions the movement of thousands upon thousands of people from Syria, Afghanistan and Northern Iraq from their homes – some internally displaced, others migrating to neighbouring countries and, in the last two years, hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in Europe. It is a migration or exodus of biblical proportions, which has caused governments in the path of it a good deal of consternation, but at the heart of it are families and individuals on the move, battling to stay alive, to find safe lodging and to keep their dignity intact, just like Mary and Joseph two thousand years ago.

 

In our own country too, this last year, the problem of homelessness has been centre stage in our media, as we have watched the price of houses -  particularly in Auckland – rise to levels which far outstrip increases in the income of ordinary people. Families have been living in overcrowded conditions, in garages and even cars because they can’t afford market rents and they can’t access a state house; for them, there is no room in the inn this Christmas, and they have to make do with whatever the suburban equivalent of a first century stable is – a skyline garage maybe or a Hi-ace van.

 

St Luke’s Gospel, again and again, demonstrates the special concern God has for people who are ‘doing it tough;’ for the downtrodden, the lost, the heartbroken and rejected.  We see this concern in the song that Mary sings in Luke’s Gospel when, pregnant with Jesus, she visits her cousin Elizabeth and declares that God has ‘lifted up the lowly;’ [and] ‘filled the hungry with good things.’  It is evident again in the prophecy that John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, makes at his son’s dedication, declaring that God had remembered his promise to save his people - conquered and beleaguered as they were - from their enemies, ‘from the hand of all who hate us,’ as he puts it; and we see it in this morning’s gospel where God chooses a group of shepherds to be the first official group to visit our Lord.

 

Shepherding, as a profession, was not highly esteemed in first-century, Palestinian Jewish society. Shepherds lived on the margins of society, and moved around a lot, to find pasture for their flocks. They were almost certainly viewed with suspicion by people who led a sedentary life, farming the land in one spot (If you had planted out your farm in chickpeas, for instance, you didn’t want an unscrupulous shepherd driving his flock through your land on  the sly), and from a religious point of view they were probably kept at arm’s length (or further) by very devout folk  who were concerned about being made ceremonially unclean by touching anyone who might be in a state of ritual uncleanness – which is the state that shepherds were probably in quite frequently as they buried sheep that had been killed by wild animals, died of disease, or in birth.

 

In a typically counter-cultural move, however, the God who ‘lifts up the lowly’ and rescues the downtrodden ‘from the hands of those who hate them’ chooses shepherds to witness to the Messiah’s birth, using them as his ambassadors to spread the joyful news that the nation’s saviour has been born.

 

This loving God has the same strong desire to restore the displaced and despised people of our world to their full human dignity, as he had to honour the shepherds of Bethlehem at Jesus’ birth, as he had to bless humble Mary with the maternity of the Saviour of the world. And he is reaching out to us, I sense, through the gospel today, bidding us to align ourselves with that enormous project of restoration. Precisely how we align ourselves with that project will depend on our gifts, talents and personal circumstances, but it will involve each one of us adopting, by God’s grace, hearts that are caring, down-to-earth, kind and courageous. Only those hearts will have the eyes to see the angels God sends, and the resolve to carry out the mission that that God sends them on.

 

May God bless us, this Christmas, with hearts like his own and enable us to discover and take up our part in his joyful project of human restoration.

 

 

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, 11 December 2016

Juan Fernández de Navarrete - St John the Baptist in Prison

Gaudete Sunday

The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

Texts:    Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

 

One of the names for this Sunday in the Church calendar is Gaudete SundayGaudete being the Latin word we translate in English as Rejoice (hence the lighting of a rose coloured candle this morning on the Advent Wreath to symbolise joy). That command, to be joyful, is associated with this day because for hundreds of years the first sentence that Western Christians heard at church on the Third Sunday of Advent (the Introit chant) came from the fourth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:  

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice (Philippians 4:4)

Gaudete Sunday has a more upbeat feel to it than the other Sundays in Advent, being less focused on judgement and more on the joy of God coming to and being with his people. It is not as if all things are different about today’s readings though, when compared with what else has been heard over Advent so far. Once again, in the Gospel, John the Baptist is present, and he is in the less than joyous situation, both of being in prison, and feeling uncertain as to the nature of our Lord’s ministry and person.

We learn, earlier on in Matthew’s Gospel, that John was arrested about the time that Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness ended (Matt 4:12), and that it was knowledge of John’s arrest that caused Jesus to withdraw to Galilee, making his home in Capernaum by the Lake of Galilee (Matt 4:13), rather than in Nazareth where he had grown up. Later on in Matthew’s Gospel we discover why John the Baptist was arrested – it was because he had denounced Herod’s marriage to Herodias (Herod’s widowed sister-in-law) as unlawful (Matt 14:3). As we saw last week, John the Baptist never minced his words, and dared to speak the truth to power regardless of the consequences. His arrest and imprisonment were really inevitable, but as he sat through long, uncomfortable, hungry days in custody he held on to the hope that somehow God would redeem him and his people.

Isolation and deprivation do strange things to people though, even to people as strong willed as John the Baptist. Months (maybe years) before he was arrested he had known with certainty that there was something very special about Jesus when our Lord had come to him for baptism. At that time he was reluctant to baptise Jesus because he immediately recognised Jesus to be a more special emissary of God than he (‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ (Matt 3:14b). Now, however, physically diminished and psychologically battered, John appears less certain that Jesus is God’s special agent, God’s Messiah, who will put to right the many wrongs his people have endured. You can hardly blame him for his misgivings. He was reminded constantly whilst in prison of the scale of state power, of how entrenched wickedness was in it. And when he heard the accounts of our Lord wandering around the countryside of Galilee, teaching, healing, and dining with sinners, he must have begun to question whether Jesus was really up to the task traditionally assigned to the Messiah – the winnowing fork (Matt 3:12) did not appear to be in Jesus’ hands, so much as kindness of speech, deep concern for the down-trodden, and compassion for the lost. That was fine as far it went, he must have thought, but surely the Messiah would be recruiting an army of liberation, not a movement of waifs and strays?

I think it is with those thought-processes churning over internally that John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him plainly if he was indeed the Messiah. The answer they receive from Jesus is less direct than they might have hoped for, but it is an implicit ‘yes’, the affirmation resting on the acts that Jesus is performing - giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, cleansing the lepers, allowing the deaf to hear, causing the dead to rise, and bringing good news to the poor (Matt 11:5).

This is a claim to Messiahship, but not quite the Messiahship that John or his contemporaries were likely to have been expecting. To be sure, the restorative work Jesus was doing was absolutely consistent with what it was hoped a Messiah would bring (consider the first lesson today – ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy (Isaiah 35:5-6a)) - but John would probably have been surprised that the healings and the restoration of individuals preceded a wholesale political revolution, meted out by a Son of God who will come (in Isaiah’s words, ‘with vengeance, with terrible recompense’ (Isaiah 35:4b).

Jesus just didn’t fit that mould, and I think it is because Jesus was aware himself of just how paradoxical his Messiahship was, that his estimation of John was not diminished in the least by the fact that his cousin John had doubts about Jesus’ Messiahship.

The high esteem that Jesus had for John the Baptist is revealed in a series of rhetorical questions that Jesus puts to the crowd when John’s disciples depart, questions that revolve around John’s identity this time, who, it would appear, most people in the crowd had once followed. Jesus asks them, essentially, about what motivated them to go and see John in the wilderness. Did they go to listen to a reed shaken by the wind – that is to say, were they driven to go to an inhospitable place to listen to a hollow man espouse the most fashionable ideas, which are ‘here one day and gone the next’ depending on the fickleness of popular opinion? The rhetorical answer is a resounding ‘no’ – John spoke from the hip in the same guileless way that the prophets before him had done. Did they, then, go out to see ‘someone dressed in soft clothes?’ asks Jesus impishly before ruling out the possibility entirely by noting that such luxurious attire is only to be found in royal palaces. With the crowd now fully engaged and eager to hear what he will say next, Jesus declares to them that John was not only a prophet who had drawn them away from home comforts, but a prophet without equal, because he was the messenger who would prepare the way, implicitly, for the Messiah. 

Having built John up to this very exalted state, Jesus ends his reflection on John with what appears, at first sight anyway, to be John’s demolition. ‘Truly I tell you,’ says Jesus, ‘among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’ Does this mean that John, for all his faithfulness, courage, suffering and fervour is to be denied a place in the Kingdom that Jesus is ushering in? That possibility would seem to follow from a straightforward reading of Jesus’ statement – given that the least is (by definition) the one below which one could not hope to get in to heaven.

A more positive way of reading this statement (for John especially) depends on the understanding (implicit in Jesus’ ministry and teaching and developed explicitly in Paul’s works) that we are saved by faith in Christ rather than works. In that case, many of the people in the Kingdom of Heaven will be a lot less merit-worthy than John (less accomplished than him in terms of their sanctification), but, through faith, they will, nevertheless, be heirs of the kingdom. All that John’s inclusion in the Kingdom of Heaven requires is his faith in Jesus as Messiah, as Christ. You will recall that at the time Jesus makes his statement, John’s disciples are still on their way to give him the news that Jesus’ has declared himself to be the Messiah. Presumably when John heard that good news, he accepted it with all his heart, so that he is now not only an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven, but - as a person of great sanctity, having done the ‘hard yards’ on earth – rather highly placed in that realm.

 

It is hard to imagine that John did not make that leap of faith. I envisage him receiving the news from his disciples with great joy, and that it gave him the hope and peace (symbolised by the other two candles on the Advent Wreath) that come with the knowledge that God was and is and ever shall be at work in Jesus Christ, reconciling all things to himself, redeeming and sanctifying. That realisation would have filled John’s dreary cell in Herod’s dungeon with light and would have enabled him to pass through his cruel execution in the comforting knowledge that, through Jesus, a highway was being opened up in the desert, which would, as Isaiah foresaw, ‘be called the Holy Way’ (Isaiah 35:8a), on which ‘no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray’ (Isaiah 35:8b). 

 

Thanks be to God, we are here today, joyfully (if ever so imperfectly) putting our feet upon the way laid down by Christ, trusting in him who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. 

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, 4 December 2016

José Leonardo (Spain, 1601-before 1653) - John the Baptist in the Wilderness.

‘Those who prepare the way of the Lord’

Preached by The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

Texts:  Isaiah 11:1-10

Romans 15:4-13

Matthew 3:1-12

 

The readings of the Advent season are designed to prepare us for properly remembering the miracle of the first Christmas when the Word became flesh in a very special way. They achieve this, not by focusing on stories of births from throughout the Bible – which in a way would be a nice way to do it – but by presenting us with readings from both Testaments that focus on God’s purposes for humanity and the world. The effect is that we hear a good deal of prophecy from the Old Testament, that we (as Christians) understand as relating to Jesus, and we hear readings from both Testaments that refer to the end of time. Either way, the purposefulness of God is highlighted throughout this preparatory season and that, for us - removed by two millennia from the Christmas event - is a wise move; it keeps each Christmas relevant to us and prepares us, as individuals and communities, for our specific encounter(s) with the Word made flesh, in our historical setting. It sensitizes us, if you will, to the action of God around us so that we might be drawn more deeply into the Divine life.

 

In first century Palestine, John the Baptist was one effective means that God used to prepare people for the Gospel that Jesus was about proclaim and to be through his life, death and resurrection. The message of John the Baptist, to repent and make a flesh start in our relationship with God, has timeless value. It is only when we turn our thoughts from our selfishness, or ingratitude, and all the other vices we might ‘major or minor in’ that we are in a position to recognise the Divine become human – whether that be in the unique way that that occurred in Bethlehem two millennia ago, or in the multitude of related ways that it keeps occurring.

 

Important as John the Baptist’s message is though, there is something about the delivery of it that would not ‘work’ for all people on all occasions. John’s ‘in-your-face’ style of preaching might turn some people off - and not just those who were fundamentally opposed to the thrust of his argument – if it were used with no regard to context, to the nature of the audience.

 

I don’t think a person, preaching in the style of John, would be the right person to prepare a classroom of five-year-olds to encounter the Christ-child at Christmas [‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come’!]; in that case, the use of John’s style of delivery would strike me as an abuse of power. Out in the Judean wilderness though, without a captive audience, it was John who was the vulnerable party as he dared to speak truth to some very powerful people.

 

It’s striking that ‘many Pharisees and Sadducees’ came out to be baptised by John. John’s appeal, his charisma, obviously cut across Jewish society. A lesser man might have been flattered by having the establishment condescend to partake of his services; rather than thank his distinguished guests for joining him though, he upbraids them as a snakes whose motivation is self-preservation, and whose besetting sin is a sense of entitlement.

 

John’s message is powerful and confronting, and his ministry clearly did prepare the way of the Lord – the legitimisation of Jesus’ ministry amongst the people, early on, probably depended a great deal on Jesus’ connection with John, who had been out in the wilderness, ‘socking it’ to the powers that be as a public figure while Jesus was, presumably, quietly, and privately working as a builder in Nazareth.

 

John, however, was not the only person who prepared the way of our Lord. There are other figures in the New Testament who were instrumental in working out God’s purposes in this regard, and I’d like to comment on them, briefly, because they offer us a variety of ways of preparing for the arrival of Christ in all the different contexts we find ourselves in, in the 21st century.

 

Mary, the mother of Jesus, very literally prepared the way for God by accepting a pregnancy that would have scandalous consequences. Her hope and her courage made the incarnation possible.  As far as we know, she didn’t preach to crowds of people as John had done, but her gutsy choice has inspired Christians over the centuries to let God be God in their lives, and thereby to become vehicles of the Divine reality to others.

 

Mary’s partner Joseph is known as the silent saint because there are no words in scripture attributed to him at all. His uncanny perception – his receptiveness to the command of God, though, makes him anything but a passive actor in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and early childhood. In that account the Holy family is preserved, against the odds, through Joseph’s godly response to four dreams. As a consequence he risks embroilment in scandal; he becomes a refugee and eventually a displaced person in his own land. Of course Joseph’s ‘receptivity’ to these dreams may have been due to Divine action despite the sort of person Joseph was. All indications are, however, that Joseph was a person of sincere and simple piety. Joseph’s quiet walk with God throughout his life prepared him to prepare the way of the Lord.

 

 

So, if we are ever tempted to feel that our religious observances aren’t worth much in the scheme of things, we might remember Joseph and just how surprisingly instrumental a person conditioned by prayer can be in ‘realising God’ for others.

 

A bit later in the story of Jesus’ infancy, we encounter the figures of Simeon and Anna, two elderly people who prophesy over Jesus when he is presented at the temple. The words of Simeon express gratitude for what God has done, joy about what lies ahead, and offer a sobering dose of reality about what the future holds in store for Mary and Jesus.

 

In a similar manner to St Joseph, these two elderly people demonstrated that a life lived-simply to God, serves to reveal God. In the twilight of our lives, the revelations of God we have to offer others may not be as dramatic as Simeon and Anna’s, but be there they will by God’s grace.

I once heard the idea expressed by a preacher that we should never under-estimate the effect that the example of our lives has on those around us. I am certainly grateful for the example of many people who have gone before me, and a regret I have in these cases is that it is often too late, by the time the ‘penny has dropped’ [so to speak] to thank them for opening my eyes to the wonder of life and the mystery of God.

 

It can be a helpful exercise to think over, or reflect on the people who have drawn one to Christ – parents, teachers, ministers will probably be on the list, but there may also be some entries that are more surprising – some people who have prepared the way of the Lord for you, who you may not even have a name for, or never met in person. You may have only known these people briefly, but something they have said to you, or some kind act they have done has caused you to understand yourself better, or to look at life in a different way, and consequently to allow God to be more real to you, closer to you, and helped incarnate the Word for you in the place where you stand as a finite human being.

 

We need to thank God for these people – for the Mary’s, Joseph’s, Simeon’s and Anna’s we encounter on our journey into God.  Just as John the Baptist brought his compatriots to Jesus in the first century, so these countless others, through word and example, have brought us to a deeper understanding of God ‘with us’. And let us [with all appropriate humility of course!] be confident that God is using us to effect God’s purposes in the lives of others; to him be the glory, now and forever. Amen. 

Sermon for The First Sunday of Advent, 27 November 2016

An Icelandic Church, with wooden frame and sheet metal siding. Simple, but tough. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hellnar_church.jpg

'Staying Housed in Jesus Christ'

Preached by The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

  

Texts:              Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

 

 

The earthquake that jolted the people of Kaikoura (and much further afield) two weeks ago is an example of something that we, and the residents of Kaikoura knew was bound to happen at some time – when your country sits on a major fault system it is unavoidable really, and it is not for nothing that our Australian cousins refer to our land as the Shaky Isles.

 

When the earthquake came to Kaikoura just after midnight on 14 November, nevertheless, it was like a bolt out of the blue for the residents of that town who had been looking forward to a lucrative Summer, with tourists from around the world booked up for months to go whale watching and exploring the region. After a minute or so of severe shaking, that prospect evaporated. The land not only shook, but it lifted in some places – up to 2 metres in some parts of the coast, I believe – causing shipping to be landlocked, and paua and other shell fish to be left high and dry. There were injuries and fatalities (2), but they were, thankfully, low in number.

 

One of the factors that contributed to the low casualty rate was the kiwi propensity to build relatively light-weight, timber framed houses, which always were tough in a shake, but have become increasingly well engineered over recent decades to resist catastrophic failure in an earthquake.

 

Building with light-weight timber frames was looked down on by the first few generations of European settlers to NZ. To them, timber construction lacked the permanence of solid brick, and the ultimate material for constructing something of value was stone (we see this prejudice expressed in church building – if you had ‘made the grade,’ you had a stone church, like the ones at ‘home’ in Britain).

 

The Napier Earthquake of 1931 revealed the fatal flaw in that reasoning. 256 were killed and thousands injured in that violent earthquake (7.8 or so, for 2.5 minutes). It remains the most deadly natural disaster in New Zealand history. As a consequence of the carnage, building codes were modified, building practices improved, and the people of Kaikoura (and all the way through to Wellington) have, consequently, been spared the carnage that would inevitably have occurred if all the houses had been built of unreinforced solid brick or stone.

 

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus warns his disciples about a coming event that he knows is inevitable but doesn’t know when will happen, in much the same way as an earthquake scientist might warn a government commission (say) about the inevitability of a major earthquake striking a New Zealand city, but not be able to put an accurate date on its occurrence.  The event Jesus is warning his disciples about involves judgement of some sort, that results in different outcomes for people working side-by-side (‘…two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.’) which is akin to our proverbial earthquake scientist noting in her briefing that an earthquake will discriminate (judge) between neighbouring buildings. The reason for that, she will probably say, is governed, nine times out of ten, by the way the buildings were constructed. Jesus doesn’t offer an explicit reason why ‘one person is taken and another left’ but it would be reasonable to infer from all of Jesus’ other teaching, that it has a lot to do with the way they constructed their lives in response to God’s grace, and their faithfulness to that pattern of living.  

 

Jesus warns his disciples about what they are to do – they are to keep awake, stay alert, be ready for action. Our earthquake scientist would, undoubtedly, say something very similar to her audience and recommend that they remain vigilant when it comes to the design and construction of our houses and other buildings, so that when the inevitable arrives, injury and death will be minimised, if not eliminated altogether. Paul argues along a similar vein in the Epistle this morning, telling his readers to be prepared because ‘salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near,’ that day being, of course, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgement, the Day of Reckoning – it is called by many names - when God will judge the world.

 

For both Jesus and Paul, this event would appear to be close at hand – within the lifetime of some of their listeners even - and something that everyone will encounter at the same time. Well, almost 2000 years have passed since they made these predictions, and something like 80-100 generations of humans have lived and died since they exhorted their audiences to stay awake, and – on the face of it, those facts are rather discomforting – raising as they do concerns about the validity of their exhortations to urgency, and, in turn, concerns about their authenticity as bearers of God’s word – which is pretty serious, but do not fear because there is a way to resolve Jesus’ and Paul’s message about judgement occurring within the life-span of their hearers, and that resolution is to be found in the idea  - that I believe to be quite orthodox - that at our deaths (that is, when the span of our earthly life is over) we enter a realm that is beyond time where we will be subject to ‘God’s judgement and mercy, to God’s forgiveness and love,' as the Commendation prayer in our Prayer Book puts it. In that world, where time is no longer relevant, ‘the Day of the Lord’ for a first century Christian and a twenty-first century one, might as well be thought to occur both in unison and within the life span of each individual. 

 

The take home message, of course, is that none of us knows when, precisely, God is going to call us home, so we do well to remember our Lord’s teaching to stay awake and be ready for that unpredictable but inevitable time. How can we be ready?

 

The first lesson seems to suggest that our readiness will depend on our choice of a house, specifically, ‘the house of the God of Jacob,’ to which we would ‘go up…that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ That ‘house’ is, for us, Jesus Christ, who St Paul urges his readers to ‘put on’ so that they are ready for the day of the Lord. Just as recent generations of New Zealanders did well to choose timber-framed houses over solid brick ones in the face of inevitable earthquakes, so we do well to dwell in Christ and to allow ourselves to be transformed more fully into his likeness. Then we will be in a position to see God face to face, not because we have earned that right, but because we have made a choice to follow Jesus and to allow his grace to remodel our lives, preparing them for heaven. May it be so, for us, and for all people. Amen. 

 

Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, 20 November 2016

Stained Glass Image of Christ as King, St Johns Ashfield, NSW, Australia

Preached by The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

 

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Colossians 1: 11-20

Luke 23: 33-43

 

Compared to many of the festivals we celebrate as a Church (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension, for example), the Feast of Christ the King (also called the Reign of Christ in All Creation) is of very recent origin. It was established as a feast in only 1925 by Pope Pius XI and has been taken on board by many churches, including the Anglican Church – which is why we are celebrating it today – on a day which Anglicans traditionally call ‘Stir-up Sunday’ after the first two words of the collect prayer for this Sunday (‘the Sunday next before Advent) in the Book of Common Prayer:

 

‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen’

 

This is a lovely collect, but let’s get back to the celebration at hand – Christ the King, and let’s attempt to do so, firstly, by asking why this feast came about at the time it did.

 

One reason has to do with the fact that 1925 marked the 1600thanniversary of the First Council of Nicea (325AD) at which the unity of Christ – the Son - with the Father was defined, the implication being that the Son, like the Father, is sovereign over space and time (all creation), and beyond. That made 1925 a fitting date to celebrate Christ’s Reign throughout the universe and to inaugurate an annual feast in its honour. But that can hardly be the major reason why this feast was established because there were many significant anniversaries over this 1600 year period during which a feast might have been inaugurated. What, then, is the explanation for the feast’s establishment in 1925?

 

The real driving force for the Feast’s establishment was the changing nature of society in the developed world. In a world that was, quite literally, shell-shocked after the first world war, all sorts of ‘isms’ were vying for people’s attention and allegiance – communism, atheism, fascism and quite pessimistic nihilism. Setting up this feast was a counter-cultural move on the church’s part to resist this disintegration of faith in the West. This celebration asserts unashamedly, as Christians from the earliest times have insisted, that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, and that he alone has the ultimate claim on our allegiance.

 

The kingly language used in this feast is not without its issues. Over the past two millennia the way in which Kingship has functioned in the Western world has often failed to live up to the pattern of Christ’s life and teaching. Unfortunately, the very close connection that has existed between the church and state over much of Christian history has caused quite worldly understandings of sovereignty or Kingship to be read back into the New Testament. The prevalent idea of sovereignty as absolute domination of one person or an elite over the masses, for instance, sought legitimacy from scripture; it found the texts that supported it, but neglected the broader sweep of scripture which is often deeply suspicious of earthly kings and their ways.

 

The suspicion that scripture has of earthly kingship is apparent in both Testaments. When the prophet Samuel (c.1000BC) was approaching the end of his life, for instance, we learn (in 1 Sam 8), that “all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but [and here is the really important bit] they have rejected me from being king over them.” (NRSV). God wanted Israel’s undivided attention. In the time of the Judges, when the nation’s leadership was spontaneous and charismatic, God’s sovereignty was not in jeopardy; now it most certainly was.

 

We see this suspicion of earthly kingship even more clearly in Jesus’ life and teaching. When crowds reacted to his miracles by wishing to make him King in an earthly sense, Jesus would slip through the crowd. He was insistent that his disciples were not to Lord it over one another as the gentiles do (echoing the concerns of Samuel) but they were to serve one another. And when Pilate asked him about his Kingship – ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ (Matt 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3), Jesus replied that his ‘kingdom was not of this world,’ implying a real difference between the kingship Pilate represented and the one that Jesus was inaugurating.

 

It is in the passion narratives, the stories of Jesus’ trial and death, that we see Christ’s approach to kingship most vividly depicted. This morning we have heard St Luke’s poignant account of Jesus’ Crucifixion. St Luke presents us with Christ’s authentic Kingship, contrasting it with the counterfeit kingship of the world.

 

Christ’s reign is a sovereignty based on love; a love that is willing to go to death so that people might be reconciled to each other and the God who made them. It is a form of kingship that is largely hidden from the world, and a reign that is recognised most fully by the powerless and the humble.

 

Take note of the people present at the crucifixion. There are the religious leaders who pour nothing but scorn on Jesus. They are the ones most threatened by the reign of love that Jesus represents. They have carved out a comfortable niche for themselves through their collaboration with Roman kingship and they recognise the threat that the Gospel poses to that cosy arrangement. Then there are the Roman soldiers. They also have little time for Jesus, but their hatred is of a different sort than the religious leaders. To them, Jesus is just another upstart in a province of upstarts who ought to have learned long ago that they were beaten.

 

And there are the nameless people who stood by, as Luke puts it, ‘watching.’ That largely powerless mass of people voice no derision of Jesus. They may have been there simply for the spectacle, but the fact that no scorn is ascribed to them, suggests that they are already tuned in to the fact that a travesty of justice was unfolding before them.  

 

The criminals crucified beside Jesus have very different ‘eyes’ for the horror that is unfolding before them. For one, the ordeal is nothing more than confirmation that brute force beats idealism every time. For the other, Jesus’ execution is seen for what it is. He speaks, I suspect for a large number of people silenced in the crowd when he says ‘this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he says those word that are so familiar to us in liturgy and church music: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

 

By the time Jesus uttered his last breath, most, if not all the people around the cross were appalled by what had happened. The people went home, Luke says “beating their breasts’ and one of the soldiers ‘praised God and said, certainly this man was innocent.’ Through his willingness to trust his Father’s ability to redeem any situation, even death itself, Jesus converted people to God. He could have taken on the Roman’s in pitched battle, but that would only have escalated the cycle of violence in an already violent part of the world. He exercised, instead, a kingship of peace, and opened people’s eyes to an alternative form of leadership, one that was willing to go to death so that love might rule supreme.

 

And as if this were not enough, there was more to come. The forgiveness and forbearance he demonstrated in his death continued in his resurrection, and has proved decisive in converting millions of people to the Way of Christ. When he appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday, his words were repeatedly ‘Peace be with you’ not – ‘let’s get revenge on my executers.’ He remained - and remains – true to himself, a man of forgiveness, looking forward, speaking hope.

 

Jesus’ approach to kingship is so disarming that it can’t help but convert people. Consider St Paul, the persecutor of the church, so notorious in Christian circles that most early Christians wanted nothing to do with him after his conversion. The magnanimity that the risen Christ demonstrated towards him on the road to Damascus turned Paul’s priorities around completely. He became one of the greatest advocates for Christianity that the world has witnessed.

 

In the second reading this morning (Colossians 1: 11-20) Paul paints a spectacular portrait of Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” in whom ‘all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

That is the King we worship today.

His reign is authentic and effective, paradoxical and counter-cultural.

It wins people, as one hymn puts it, ‘soul by soul and silently’ in gentleness and peace. 

 

May the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, this and every day. Amen

 

 

Sermon for the Patronal Festival - St Martins @ St Chads

István Dorffmaister - St Martin in Glory

Sunday, 13 November 2016, 10.30am

 

Texts

Isaiah 65: 17-25

2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

Luke 21: 5-19

 

The Reverend Dr Tony Surman

 

The readings set for today, particularly the Old Testament lesson and Gospel, have a future orientation to them -  that is to say, they look forward to a world where things will be radically different than they are now (or when the texts were written). Even this morning’s Epistle, in which some members of the church of Thessalonica are told off for not working (‘living in idleness, mere busybodies’), is implicitly concerned about the future, because the likely reason why those individuals gave up their jobs was their conviction that the end of all things was just around the corner.

The first reading, from the Book of Isaiah, looks forward to a time when all the pain, suffering and injustice endured by the people of God will be put to rights in an unprecedented divine move. Indeed, so thorough will the transformation be that the heavens as well as the earth will be recreated. In that new world, Jerusalem itself will be restored, not just to its former glory under David and Solomon, but to a state of peace, justice and prosperity for all its inhabitants.

For people in the developed world, particularly those who are relatively well-off, Isaiah’s description of the numerous blessings that will accrue to God’s people in the New Jerusalem may seem very nice but not all that different from the blessings that they already have. If you are fortunate enough to live in the middle-classes of the developed world, you can expect to live a long life – maybe not to 100, but not far from it – and it is reasonable to expect that you will reap the benefit of your labours in life – with a reasonable pension from work to live on, a home to live in, a garden from which you may gather your own fruit and vegetables even. In that case, you might suppose that Isaiah’s prediction has, in a sense, already come to pass, or is at least getting close to its fulfilment.

The majority of the world’s population – including a large proportion of New Zealand’s population – however, would draw a very different conclusion from their reading of this passage than their more wealthy sisters and brothers might. These are the people who never have a home to call their own, let alone the time to plant a vineyard and enjoy the fruits of it. They make just enough money to survive – in good years – but not enough to get ahead in life, to build a more promising future for themselves or their families. Or they may have wealth but because the country they live in lacks political stability, they are never sure that their property won’t be confiscated or otherwise plundered in the next coup, annexation or occupation. When those people read this text from Isaiah, they see immediately, I suspect, the stark contrast there is between the world as it now is, and the world to come that Isaiah describes. And if their experience in this world has not driven them to cynicism or despair, they might read the words of the Prophet and feel hope, feel encouraged, feel a renewed purpose for their lives.

That is the way the vast majority of Isaiah’s original audience would have heard and received his prophecy, I believe, because most of them were living in a situation that was very different from the one Isaiah described. These people were a bedraggled remnant of Jews who had returned to Judah and its capital Jerusalem after two or three generations of exile in Babylon, to find their beloved city little more than a pile of ruins, and surrounded by other groups which resented their return. In the face of intimidation and threats they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple, but to nothing like their former grandeur. They just didn’t have the resources for that sort of building work. Any of the fine stone work of Solomon’s Temple and Palace remaining would have served to remind them, by contrast, of the extent to which the Babylonians had reduced their once mighty nation.

When they heard Isaiah proclaim, on God’s behalf, that ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ were on their way, complete with a new Jerusalem’ they would have been impressed to hear that the new state of affairs would be beyond comparison with anything that had gone before (‘the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,’ says the Lord, in Isaiah’s prophecy).

Isaiah’s prediction of the blessed time to come for God’s people did not come to pass in the prophet’s life-time, nor in the centuries that followed. The United Kingdom of Israel and Judah which King David established and handed on to his son Solomon remained the political high-water mark of the people of God as a nation. The land to which God had called Abraham centuries ago continued to be dominated by one regional superpower after another; Persians, Greeks, Romans – with only a brief period of political independence (110-63BC) under the Hasmonean Dynasty (and that was possible only because one regional superpower was in the process of yielding to another at the time). The land into which our Lord was born was effectively a vassal state of Rome, a nation within which the majority of people had little prospect of building houses in which they would be secure, or planting vineyards from which they could enjoy the fruit,  or living to a ripe old age.

Not surprisingly, these people were attracted to Jesus as he went about the countryside and towns of Roman Palestine, preaching about the coming of God’s Kingdom, of God’s reign of Justice and Peace, in which Isaiah’s hopeful vision would be made real. And one of the things that made his message particularly attractive to them was his message that the Kingdom of God was near or close at hand (Mark 1:15, Matt 3:2, 10:7, Luke 10:9); among them or within them even (Luke 17:21).

It would be natural for people to understand these statements to mean that everything in the world was about to change for better, very soon – if not tomorrow, then by the end of the month, or at most the end of the year. The fact that St Paul, years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, has to admonish the Thessalonians for giving up their jobs indicates that Jesus’ message was still being interpreted by many as an event that would happen very soon. And various sects have repeated this error from generation to generation.

The words that Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel today ought to have caused the Thessalonians to be more cautious about resigning from their day jobs. Before God’s reign comes in its fullness, Jesus asserts, ‘wars and insurrections’ must occur, and even then, ‘the end will not follow immediately.’ Instead, the pathway to the Kingdom of God will be tortuous, marked by opposition if not outright persecution.

The two Saints we call to mind today on our Patronal Festival, St Martin of Tours and St Chad of Mercia, walked that path, in their day and age, with unusual dedication and faithfulness. They were born and died centuries apart – Martin being a saint of the fourth century, when Christianity was in the process of becoming the established religion of the Roman Empire, and Chad being an exemplar of holiness in seventh century Britain among the Anglo-Saxons of the enormous Diocese of Mercia, centred on Lichfield (to which the first and only Anglican Bishop of New Zealand, George Selwyn was appointed, 1868 till his death in 1878). Though separated by centuries and hundreds of kilometres (Martin was born in what is now Hungary and did most of his work in France), Martin and Chad shared some very similar qualities of character (and indeed St Chad’s spirituality was modelled quite intentionally on St Martin’s).

Both of them were hard workers – St Paul would have been impressed by their dedication to furthering the Gospel amongst the people to whom they had been sent. Martin took the gospel out from the towns and cities of (France) and into the countryside by establishing the first monastery there, bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to people who had never heard it before, and beginning a self-perpetuating system of evangelisation (monks trained in one monastery would move to a new location and establish a new monastery which would itself become vital to the lives of those around it). Chad walked, and then rode a horse, around his enormous Diocese as its Bishop, urging his people on, and died less than three years into his episcopate from plague. They were then, both pioneers and missionaries, at work on the frontier of Christendom (and beyond) – a place that many churches now are finding themselves in all over again.

Both were noted for their humility, their simplicity of life, their down-to-earth nature and resilience in the face of opposition (often coming from within the church). What inspired them in their struggles was Christ’s promise of a Kingdom that was already among them, but yet to be fulfilled.

We here, in the Church named after these two great Saints, can draw inspiration from their example of effective Christian living at the margins of Christendom. They took the leaven of the Gospel out into a world that had barely, if at all, heard about the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, and they made that message stick. If we imitate their approach to ministry in the communities into which God has placed us, we too will build something that lasts, that builds people up, and prepares people for the New Jerusalem that God will inaugurate in God’s own good time; to him be the glory, now and forever. Amen.