Community of St Martin @ St Chad's

Anglican Parish of Sandringham and Mt Roskill

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, 26 August 2018


Primary Texts:

Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18

Ephesians 6:10-20  

John 6:56-69 

 

When the going gets tough, the tough get going,
When the going gets tough, the tough get ready

I’ve got something to tell you
I’ve got something to say
I'm gonna put this dream in motion
Let nothing stand in my way

Gonna get me across that river
The price I'm willing to pay
Gonna make you stand and deliver
And show my love every day

When the going gets tough, the tough get going

When the going gets tough, the tough get ready

Recognise these words? It’s a song from Billy Ocean… from many moons ago! Maybe, not enough moons… for some of us! Its message is simple: Let’s get ready, let’s get tough! In other words, ‘perseverance… when times get tough’! 

If you’re like me, how often have you had long talks with friends and whānau/family in philosophical or theological conversations about God? Loads of times, I’m sure… The topic of ‘God’, in some of my circles, is one that friends and whānau never seem to tire of quizzing me about… in abstract terms: issues like, “How can you believe in God when science gives us so much evidence to the contrary?” or “If God exists, why is there so much suffering in the world?” or “How can you believe God made the world in 6 days?” *Ahem*… I heard that very statement being said not that long ago amongst some friends of mine… How about, “Christianity is just a fairy tale for the weak… to prop them up when they should be dealing with what life throws at them”. Now, that’s a bit harsh! These are the sorts of conversations that many people seem to be having and, of course, no answers are ever reached… and some of us are left feeling frustrated by it all. People love engaging in philosophical and theological debates about the concept of God. 

What happens when you try changing the conversation though? Stop talking about God as a ‘concept’ and try talking about Jesus instead. You might find that all of a sudden, the atmosphere changes and maybe even moments of silence. That’s been my experience with my whānau. They suddenly realise they are in the presence of someone who doesn’t want to talk about the intangible concept of God but rather, the reality of Jesus as a living human being. It stops them in their tracks… Puzzled, lost for words, uncertain about what to say next. Can this be a true story or not? It’s one thing to keep God ‘out there’ as a concept, but a human Jesus, once a baby… gestated in a human womb! Bring Jesus ‘in’ as a personal relationship, well… they don’t know what to do with that information. The truth, for many, is Jesus as a person with whom to have a relationship with is maybe a step too far and a threat to the intelligence of many. Yup! If I don’t believe in God, how can I believe in Jesus? 

So, being a Christian proclaiming the good news is tough! Many consider giving up the faith when there is too much challenge in being a Christian or follower of the faith. This is not a 21st century challenge either! We see the same story time and time again in the Gospels. The religious people of Jesus’ day felt comfortable in their way of doing religion, but Jesus comes along and turns the tables over in the Temple and is considered a threat and a challenge. And the same was true for those in verse 60, ‘When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is too difficult; who can accept it?” Now Jesus was a drawcard, and everybody loved to hear his radical teachings, they loved his stories, they loved to see him challenge the religious authorities, and they were excited to see him perform miracles. But sometimes his teachings got a little close to the bone, when he started challenging them about their own personal lifestyles… it was at that point that some started complaining and many were tempted to give up following him. Verse 66, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” For some, Jesus is too much of a challenge…he is a threat to their lifestyles, a threat to their knowledge, a threat to their reality, comfort zones, and freedom… the freedom to live just for themselves! 

Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you want to go away too?” What a powerful question to be asked. It conjures up a plethora of excuses to go. And most importantly for us, what is the incentive for us to continue strong in the faith rather than be tempted to give up? Being a priest in the 21st century is tough. Being a female priest in a Māori context is tough! 

It’s tempting to think that the disciples who stayed understood who he was and what he was going to achieve by dying on the cross… and that they stayed because of their deep theological understanding. But that’s just not true… Time and time again in the Gospels, we are reminded that the disciples didn’t understand. They didn’t have any secret knowledge that was unavailable to others! It’s simply this: When Jesus asked if they were going to leave, Peter said, “Where would we go?” So how do we persevere as a Christian today? Maybe we accept our lack of knowledge also and be intrigued by the journey… fascinated by the adventure of following Jesus. 

But wait… there’s more… more reasons for us to give up! Our church has a long list of Do’s and Don’ts! Canons, Pouhere, Statutes! Not much fun for a Christian at all! Often, I find myself giggling at the seriousness of it all. How we have to behave doing priestly duties. Shouldn’t do this… or that! No playfulness or frivolity… There’s a part of me that fills with laughter… of the idea that God probably laughs at our seriousness! I know many who have given up following Jesus and dedicating themselves to the church family, because they felt stifled by these rules and regulations. Fed up with the restrictions of free-thinking and asking the difficult questions. Instead, too often, they are told what to believe and if they don’t believe what they are being told, then their commitment to God is questioned. 

And so, what is the tough we are hearing this morning? What’s tough, who’s tough, and why tough? How do we encourage ourselves and others to make a commitment to Jesus the person, not to abstract doctrines? From my fourteen siblings I’ve heard every excuse in the book. Oh Sis, “I need to have deeper understanding before I commit” or, “I just need to get through this problem in my life before I commit” or, “I’ll wait until the kids are grown up and settled and I have a bit more time before I commit”. But the truth is simple, isn’t it? None of us will ever have enough knowledge to make a truly informed choice. None of us will have a ‘problem free’ life. None of us will ever have ‘enough time’. 

How do we make the tough easy then? So that we can get going? I don’t know the answers… but what I do know is that I personally like a challenge and I love to make possible what was thought to be impossible. I think there’s an element of that in every one of us! I just wanna show others that my life is better off… for having Jesus in it! I just wanna show others… that I’m not a quitter. I love God and I love Jesus. I love Jesus’ parables and teachings. And Love… is what it is. No doctrines, no fanfare. God’s love finds us at any time and in any place. Love is a beautiful thing and, if we truly love, we will persevere and endure all things, no matter how tough! Next week we celebrate a 60th Wedding anniversary. Ask Frank or Dorothy how tough love can be. That it’s not just a smooth ride as it were. 

There are times in our lives when we just wanna give up. But for those who have experienced something of God in their lives, that isn’t an option. Like Peter said, “Where would we go?” Jesus said, “I have come so that you may have life in all its fullness”. That is God’s promise to us. 

When the going gets tough… the tough get going...

Jacynthia Murphy

 

 

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 19 August 2018


Primary Texts:

Proverbs 9:1-6

Ephesians 5:15-20  

John 6:51-58  

 

INTRODUCTION...SETTING JOHN APART 

In Troca de Figurinhas in Brasilia there is a most amazing Cathedral, the Metropolitania de Brasilia which overlooks the entire city, and would be a most worthy addition to a bucket list.  Suffice to say, it is on mine!  But the reason I want to visit, is to see a set of sculptures, positioned on either side of the main walkway into the church.  Three men are standing on one side of the walkway, facing a fourth man, standing on the other side.  The three are Matthew, Luke, and Mark, and they are facing John, who with upraised arm is preaching to the other three.  It is evidently an extremely impressive installation, which dictated in a sense how the main entrance to the Cathedral would be built, to best accommodate the sculpture. The church elders picked the sculpture before designing the building! I think the sculpture tells us a lot about the gospel writer John, for consider the following: His preferred vocabulary which is found in his gospel favours positive and optimistic language and is not readily found in the other three gospels.  John prefers: life, light, the world, love (as noun and verb).  Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to Jesus’ teachings which focus on God.  But in John, Jesus talks about and is quoted referring to himself, and particularly such examples as today’s reading, which is the first:  of the “I AM” sayings (which have no direct synoptic counterparts).  The first of these occurred last week with the direct statement in v35, “I am the bread of life. “John clearly owns this category and certainly makes good use of it through his seven “I AM” instances.  These explicit claims, being reported as coming from direct quotes by Jesus, are very much set apart from any reports offered up by Matthew, Luke, and Mark, which focus quite seriously on God’s activities and the Kingdom of God, as well as extended allegories, exorcisms, and such.  Perhaps there is a bit of irony that finds the three separated from John by a walkway which leads to the main entrance of this incredible cathedral!  In the early days of the Christian movement, and prior to the crucifixion, the Christian faith was known simply as “the Way,” with members striking forth and spreading the news!  Here at this Cathedral, the four gospel writers are physically separated by a very large concrete path...leading the way into the cathedral. 

JOHN’S GOSPEL AND THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS

The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke...so named as synoptic due to the occurrence of large areas of common subject-matter with often similar phrasing in more than one gospel, consistently talk about God, and the coming of the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus refers to the living bread, and tells the Jews that he is the living bread that has come down from heaven.  But the Jews, just as their ancestors did when lost in the desert, grumbled among themselves questioning Jesus’ veracity to make such statements!  And here again, history repeats itself, for the ancestors in the desert also grumbled and complained and questioned everything God said. 

Jesus promises that those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.  This is such a powerful word for him to use.  In this morning’s pew sheet, Jacynthia has offered us a detailed description of “folly,” to help us understand the reading from Proverbs.  We can borrow again from the Oxford dictionary to understand that to abide is to remain, continue, dwell, encounter, sustain, submit to!  Jesus is making some rather bold promises, that he intends to back up!  We are being handed a cast-iron promise from the Christ that he shall remain and dwell with us!  Not just for a moment, a few days, or a few hours.  But that is for always, and forever.

Jesus wanted the people to understand that their ancestors, when wandering through the desert who received the manna from heaven, still died having been fed, as it was necessary to repeat the feeding over and over again!   The current offspring assumed Jesus would feed them, which explains the large crowds who followed Jesus around.  But his message to them, far more important, and greater in its promise was that HE was the living bread, and his assurance was that they would never be thirsty or hungry.  They could not, however, understand.  And, just as their Ancestors, so many years ago grumbled and complained in the desert, now the newer generation were still grumbling and asking to be fed yet again.  And, they also had doubts, asking each other, “is not this Jesus whom we know...the son of Mary and Joseph?  How can he say these things, and how could he have come down from heaven?”  Jesus was offering them all eternal life, and that whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that Jesus will give for the life of the world is, in his own words ‘my flesh.’  Their mouths were open in arguments and complaints, but their ears simply could not hear him.  Perhaps we need to pause and ask ourselves, “are we listening?”  And do we, as Jesus invites us, ready to abide in him?  For that is his message to us all.  Listen with our ears, but believe with our hearts. 

FAREWELL TO THE QUEEN OF SOUL

Friday night, I thought I had finished this sermon.  Then I woke up Saturday morning to the sad, sad news that the lady of soul, had died over night.  It was, indeed, a sad way to start the day.  Aretha Franklin was like no other.  She could travel a four-range octave as effortlessly as someone walking across a room.  She had power, she could feel the spirit in ways the rest of us can only dream.  She was feted by three presidents, including one who described her with words much like one would use in describing John’s writing:  positive, powerful, light, a beacon, love, spiritual, and I could go on.

In the early 1980’s she recorded a gospel routine of Amazing Grace.  38 years later it still holds the record as the highest grossing gospel recording in the history of music.  And who doesn’t remember R E S P E C T...sock it to me!  One of contemporary music’s finest artists, she started in the church choir of her father’s church in Detroit Michigan and never forgot her roots. 

And Vestry members...hear this and weep!  Every time her church needed to raise funds, they would call on her, to give a concert.  They would raise a couple of hundred thousand dollars, with no problem.  Imagine having Aretha Franklin on your donation committee! 

Our world isn’t singing as well today, and is a bit duller, and possibly sings a smidge flatter.  But in heaven, oh my goodness the songs will be flowing, the angels will be rocking, and surely God will be smiling, and snapping his fingers. Thank you, Aretha, for passing our way. AMEN. 

Jean Rheinfrank

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 12 August 2018


Primary Texts:

1 Kings 19:4-8

Ephesians 4:25-5:2  

John 6:35, 41-51 

 

Have you ever been disappointed with God? If we're to be truthful... it's yes... and that's okay. So, I ask again, have you ever been disappointed with God? I know that sounds blasphemous, but c'mon... let’s be honest now... Has there ever been a time in your life when you thought that you had done everything that you were supposed to do, and things still didn’t work out well. What’s going on, Lord? I’ve lived a clean life. I didn’t do bad things, I didn’t get caught up with the wrong crowd, I didn’t do naughty things with girls, and I respected my parents... always obeying the rules of the house. I’ve followed all the commandments, I’ve gone to church, I give faithfully, and still sometimes bad things happen in my life. When are you going to give me a break?

 

We've heard for the last three weeks stories about food, hospitality, manna, and we might still ask, even after all the hospitality God has given, we might still ask, is God really with us? Especially when things aren't going well. Is God aware of my dilemmas or does God just show up in big acts of power, or in mountain top experiences?

 

Our story explores that question. Here we have our character Elijah. He has just come from a huge event that takes place on Mt. Carmel. And to be fair we need to take some time to go back to Genesis, when God calls a guy named Abraham. God promises Abraham to a blessing of making his offspring into a great nation and that through that nation he would bless all nations. Blessed to be a blessing. Then in Exodus we see that these people, the Israelites, are enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. God uses Moses to deliver them from slavery. God leads the people out of Egypt in a miraculous defeat of the Egyptian army, then takes them to this mountain. We know this mountain as Mt. Sinai. It is also known as Mt. Horeb. 

 

Our text today in 1 Kings tells the story of one of the most famous prophets. Enter Elijah. This is the prophet who predicted a drought and was fed by the ravens out in the wilderness. He was a bold man who stood up to Ahab and Jezebel. It's in Chapter 18 where Elijah challenges Jezebel and all the prophets of her gods, Baal and Asherah. He tells them to meet him here, on Mt. Carmel for a showdown. He instructs them to make an altar with an animal sacrifice on it, and he would build one, too. Whichever god was real would be the one that brings the fire himself to burn up the sacrifice. 450 prophets of Baal spend the whole day crying out to Baal. They are dancing, and chanting, and cutting themselves, and nothing happens. Elijah taunts them. Maybe your god is sleeping. Why don’t you shout louder! Nothing. Then its Elijah’s turn. He was so confident that God would deliver that Elijah doused the altar and the wood with water. Then God shows up and a great fire burns up the sacrifice, the altar, and all the water! Then Elijah takes all the prophets of Baal and destroys them and tells Ahab to look out over the horizon to see the storm cloud forming. A huge rain storm appears, and the three-year drought is broken!  At this point Elijah is feeling pretty good. The victory is his. God is avenged. Life makes sense. He’s done everything he was supposed to do. Then it happens. A messenger comes to him. “Excuse me, Elijah, sir. Um, Jezebel sends a message. Well, she’s really mad, and she has vowed to kill you, at all costs.” What?! That was not how it was supposed to go. This was the point where the nation was supposed to turn back to God and the wicked queen overthrown.

 

Here we come to our question. Have you ever been disappointed by God? Elijah did everything right, and things still went wrong. What would you do in that moment? Elijah did what most of us would do. He ran away. He ran for 40 days. 40 seems to be an important number in the Bible. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights to flood the earth. The Israelites were slaves for forty decades. Moses was on Mt. Sinai for 40 days. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days. 40 days is a long time. I can’t imagine running for 40 days without food and water. Elijah runs for forty days. Even the greatest heroes of faith have 40-day experiences of fear, loneliness, dryness, and hunger. It happens, and it prepares us for what God is doing. The interesting thing to me about this story is the place to which Elijah runs. He heads back to Mr. Horeb, to Mt. Sinai. It’s like he was thinking, when all else seemed lost, he needed to go back to where it all started, to get back to his roots, to his past. Isn’t that how we often do things? Many times, when things get confusing we want to go back to a remembered past when things made more sense to us. We want to recapture traditions and 'the good old days.' We want to go back to Mt. Horeb. Elijah gets there, and God asks him an interesting question. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah cries out, “I’ve done everything right. I’ve stood up for you, and nothing has gotten better. I’m the only one left. All is lost.” Hmmm… “Step out here and let me show you something,” God says. I can just imagine Elijah getting excited at this point. God is going to reveal himself to me on this mountain, just like he did to Moses. This is just what I need right now. But... he falls asleep...

 

I wonder where you are on your journey right now. We will find ourselves at each of these places multiple times throughout our lives. Maybe you are experiencing your Mt. Horeb for the first time and God is doing amazing things in your life right now. That’s awesome. Maybe you are in the wrestling match with God. Maybe you have been faithful, and you are disappointed, and you are experiencing your 40 days. When does God show up? In all of it. God is here, and there, now, then, and will be. 

Two things I’ve learned from this lesson. First, you can’t go back. You can remember and honour the past, but you can’t go back. Second, God lives in the promise of renewing all things and works in new ways for every generation. His mercy is new every morning. Our job is to trust in God’s faithfulness and be willing to listen to the whisper of God. God is doing a new thing in this generation. The world is changing, and God is moving in fresh and wonderful ways as the Holy Spirit empowers and guides us to love and embrace each other. May we be encouraged that God still speaks, even in the silence, and God has an exciting future for us.

Jacynthia Murphy

 

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 5 August 2018


Primary Texts:

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Ephesians 4:1-16  

John 6:24-35 

 

Is it worth the waiting for?

If we live 'til eighty-four

All we ever get is gru... el!

Ev'ry day we say our prayer --

Will they change the bill of fare?

Still we get the same old gru... el!

There's not a crust, not a crumb can we find

Can we beg, can we borrow, or cadge

But there's nothing to stop us from getting a thrill

When we all close our eyes and imag... ine

 

Food, glorious food!

We're anxious to try it

Three banquets a day --

Our favourite diet!

 

These lyrics from Oliver Twist (the musical) sets the scene for this sermon and our relationship with food.

 

Growing up in the Hokianga, I have, up until recently had four-legged, feathered, furry, meowing, mooing, and woofing friends in my life. One thing they all shared… apart from me of course… is the rhythm of feeding times. You animal lovers will know what happens at that time of the day!! They wait at the same time every day, some start behaving in a certain way, and some simply stare at you until you hold out that familiar item… be it a bowl or a certain shaped item that simply spells… FOOD… something that is part of a long standing daily routine. From this rhythm, they feel safe, protected, and loved. They look at you in that same loving way every time!! Sometimes, I’m late! Nonetheless, they’re still excited to see me and wait expectantly for that protective moment of loving care and safety. Love it!! They love me, and sometimes it’s only about the food… but I love them too! 

  

Perhaps in the same way, the people who got into the boats to follow Jesus after he had fed them, simply felt loved and safe. What better way for these crowds following Jesus to feel protected then to stick with him. He has done something incredibly loving by feeding them all, and it all came from one boy’s packed lunch. They were excited. They followed him and came to him wanting more. I’ve known a few furry ones that do that too! 

Jesus accused them of having the wrong motivation in coming to seek him out “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Spiritual and physical hunger. Is one more significant than the other? Jesus did not neglect the physical suffering and physical hunger of the people as he shared with them the meaning of God’s love. Jesus points out that the physical food perishes and the kind of food he is talking about endures forever. To make it easier let’s look at our spiritual food as nourishing us in the same sort of way as our physical food. As our bodies are nourished by food, our souls are nourished by Jesus. We feed on Jesus by prayer, Bible reading, weekly worship and sacraments and by life in the Spirit. 

Rev. Maggie Rode of Morningside in Christchurch puts it this way: Prayer is the protein in our spiritual nourishment. Bible reading is the fibre and Church is the carbohydrate. The life-giving Spirit corresponds to the vitamins. You need regular doses of all of these for a healthy spiritual diet. So, let’s look at these one by one. Prayer is the protein, the part of our diet that develops strong bones and muscles. Regular habits of prayer help us to become spiritually strong. Sometimes, certain things are overwhelming and in using the phraseology of the hymn ‘take it to the Lord in prayer’ just spending time with God quietly… can be helpful. If you miss your prayer time one day God won’t mind, it’s only you that will suffer. Our prayers are not meant to make God feel good, they are for our sake. It doesn’t have to be a special formation of fancy words. Just a conversation with God at the beginning and end of every day. Try it, it’s very satisfying. 

The Bible is for bulk. Without regular supplies of fibre, your digestive system becomes clogged up. A fixed time for Bible reading each day helps. The Bible isn’t always easy to understand, and it can be helpful to use Bible reading notes, or a commentary. Do it with others. Together with family and friends. Next, is the carbohydrate, the Church. Worship gives us our regular supplies of energy. We all have Sundays when we are working, not feeling well, visiting relatives or on holiday. Then we have to offer up a quick prayer and offer God our apologies for our absence. Apart from that, we need regular doses of worship. Wherever you are in the world! During worship we encourage each other. We are a community all worshipping together, and hopefully the sermon helps too! Week by week we receive spiritual nourishment in the bread and the wine. And finally, we have the Spirit, the life giver. Living a life in the power of the Spirit is as essential to our spiritual life as vitamins are to physical body. With this nourishment, our spiritual life will grow and be strengthened, with what we need to carry us through the hard times. 

Without Jesus, there may be physical wellness, but that isn’t life in its fullness. Jesus alone can satisfy us spiritually. Our hungry hearts can be satisfied… food glorious food… nourished by the true bread… food glorious food… we can have fullness of life, not only in this world, but in the world to come. Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”

Jacynthia Murphy

 

 

St Mary Magdalene, 22 July 2018


Primary Texts:

Song of Solomon 3:1-4

Corinthians 5:14-17  

John 20:1-2, 11-18 

 

Jesus’ Preferred Class of Company 

       Jesus was well known for preferring the company of those on the marginal fringe of society, as opposed to those in the upper middle classes, or the self confident.  A constant thorn in the side of Pharisees and others in the Jewish hierarchy was Jesus’ constant insistence on breaking bread with tax collectors, women, being surrounded by children, those infected with leprosy—heaven forbid—and the list goes on. 

       Our Vicar in Charge—NOW, let’s pause a moment.  Did you hear that...OUR Vicar in Charge.  This isn’t someone on loan...not like checking out a library book.  This is OUR vicar, and what an amazing spirit she brings into this place.  So, anyway, Jacynthia has caught for us this morning on our pew sheet, some vital information about this pivotal woman, who was always there—from the beginning, and up to the crucifixion, and holds the spot of having seen the resurrected Christ FIRST, and then she disappears!  But look at her credentials:  she didn’t run away (as so many of the disciples did).  She didn’t betray Jesus, as first Judas did, and then Jesus’ dear friend Simon Peter.  She was there, throughout.  And she was there, first thing on that important first morning of the new week, and the third day after his death.  Fearless, asking anyone and everyone, “if you have carried him away, tell me where he is and I will take him away.”

       Those who had been associated with Jesus, were keeping very low profiles.  Look at the disciples...they were locked away behind very thick doors in the Upper Room.  The disciples were staying put, but the women were visible walking around everywhere, trying to get at the truth.  And the truth was amazing, and at the same time rather horrible—Jesus was missing!

       Here was the absolute best news these believers could hear...but they were having great difficulty comprehending it.  This small group of believers (who didn’t even have a name other than “The Way”) were entirely at loose ends.  What to do now, for their leader was gone.  The Roman hierarchy were congratulating themselves—they had rid themselves of this Jesus of Nazareth fellow—shamed him and his group, meted out a grizzly, horrible, tortuous death by crucifixion; without any dignity, or valour, or sense of pride for which this man could be remembered.  And the Romans thought, we’ve solved once and for all any sense of candour or strength or representation this group could have!  It is dead.  It is finished.  It is truly, truly over.

       It wasn’t, however, for Mary who not only saw him, also heard him speak TO HER, as well.  When she first saw him she could not recognise him.  But when he called out to her, “Mary,” like a lamb from the flock who recognises its shepherd, she knew it was Jesus, and believed!  The disciples walking the road to Emmaus knew it was Jesus.  The other disciples, locked in their room who saw Jesus appear before them, and could recognise his wounds from the cross, knew it was Jesus.  And Doubting Thomas who needed to put his hand in Jesus’ side where the spear had been inserted, wisely decided he did not need to place his fist there, but knew it was Jesus.  And 2,000+ years later we, who call ourselves Christians now, because of Him, know it is Jesus, praise God.  And because of that, we are promised life everlasting, and can pray whenever we like, and know we shall be heard.  And scripture reminds us that these things we have heard, 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.”

       We are Christians.  We face the cross without apology, or shame, or sadness.  We need not be asked, “Woman or Man, why are you weeping?”  Because we are proud and joyful, without fear, and steadfast in our purpose and our belief.

       And that is amazingly good news, that frankly can leave you almost speechless with joy. AMEN.

Jean Rheinfrank

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 15 July 2018


Primary Texts:

Amos 7:7-15

Ephesians 1:3-14  

Mark 6:14-29 

 

Let’s look at these two definitions more closely. The definition of a prophet according to the Cambridge Dictionary: a person who is believed to have a special power that allows them to say what a god wishes to tell people, especially about things that will happen in the future: a person who supports a new system of beliefs and principles. The Collins says: a person who is believed to be chosen by God to say the things that God wants to tell people. Someone who predicts that something will happen. The Merriam Webster says: one who utters divinely inspired revelations. The writer of one of the prophetic books of the bible. One regarded by a group of followers as the final authoritative ‘revealer’ of God’s will. One gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insights. One who fortells future events, An effective or leading spokesperson for a cause, doctrine, or group. And finally, the disappearance of material sense before the conscious facts of spiritual truth! 

Plumb lines, according to various dictionaries is a line from which a weight is suspended to determine verticality or depth! It is used to check that something such as a wall is vertical or that it slopes at the correct angle. They are used to determine perpendicularity. In the medical field the examiner drops an imaginary plumb line perpendicular to the long axis of the tibia from the fifth MTP joint to the plantar-most spot on the heel and takes a reading by visualizing the distance between that spot on the heel and the plumb line. Used to measure simple techniques for quantifying choreographically essential foot and ankle extents of motion. Human Kinetics describes it this way: The more posture deviates from the correct position, the greater the stress placed on the structures that work to maintain it. 

With those explanatories all said and done… let me start with…

Prophets are such a pain![1] They downright refuse to get with the program or play the game. Just when things are going smoothly, they start making waves. Tsunamis in some instances!! Others might be happy to go with the flow… but prophets… Noooo… they wanna swim upstream, go against the tide, they wanna row their waka (canoe) the other way. They don’t run with the herd… they choose to turn back, go against the flow of traffic… and get battered in the process! 

Today we hear from Amos and what a pain he is. He lives in the good times, of Israel. Jeroboam the Second is a powerful king and Israel is at peace with her neighbours. The economy is good. People are working. Life is idyllically humming along. Things are looking good. And along comes Amos. What is his problem? Why can't he just go with the consensus and be like everybody else? Amos's problem is that God has given him a vision, and he cannot get that vision out of his head. Even if Amos wanted to go along with everything and return to his sheep and sycamore trees, he can't. He can't because he no longer sees the world in the way that he used to. He’s a changed man. God has shown him how Israel has lost its way. 

Now, for all you builders out there… “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel…” A plumb line, reference point… I’m no builder or plumber, I might fix a microphone or two, replace a lock, and affix crocodile clips to sound equipment, but I don’t need to be a builder to know what a straight-line reference point is! We do it all the time! We do it on Mondays, doing Mosaics. Try dressing the altar with its vestments each Sunday! Jean would tell you, if she were here. Try parking your car straight… in an angled car space! Now that’s a sight… If you didn’t park properly in those angled spaces it is likely to cause some commotion, I’d guess. We have reference points in carparks too… all we must do, is park within them! Plumb lines are a way of seeing how our ways are different to God's. Prophets give us a way of standing back and appraising our condition. They’re such a pain! They give us numerous… reference points and indicators for reviewing our decisions… and to recondition our plumb lines with God. We only need to take their advice on board. Prophets are such a pain! 

Now, moving to Mark’s gospel… Herod is caught up in a web of complexity in his personal and social relationships. There is some degree of understanding between Herod and John. Mark tells us that Herod feared John and that he knew John was a righteous and holy man. Therefore, Herod protected him. Mark tells us that Herod heard John speak… often… more than a oncer… and enjoyed it… even though John’s words… perplexed him. This information about Herod and John’s connection paints us a fuller picture. The scene is less black and white than it originally seemed. Herod in some ways… liked John the Baptist… and wanted to keep him safe. But… prophets are such a pain! At least to Herod’s wife and daughter. They had an axe to grind with this truthteller and big mouth! They had reason to shut him up! So, in Herod’s efforts to please his spouse and to honour what he had promised to give Herodias his daughter… ‘ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her in front of everyone at the birthday bash, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you’. Essentially, Herod had made his decision. Even though he is taken aback by Herodias’ grotesque request, he keeps his word. He knew that he couldn’t decline her wish and would have to kill this righteous and holy man. He’s torn between trying to please many different people and maintain his own integrity. 

We are all faced with plumb lines every day. We constantly need a level that will help us to gauge our alignment with God. And sometimes, that needs to come from an outside authority. If we only looked in our own environment, things would always look right, even when they’re not. We have to make decisions that are hard… challenging… going against the grain… Even when we know that it would be easier just to hush… to keep our mouths closed… to go with what everyone else is doing… but more importantly, when we know it’s the right thing to do… do we? Do we have to listen… do we have to review one’s plumb lines? Prophets are such a pain! When reflecting on times when I did not follow my own moral compass, I think about the things I’ve done, even when I knew it was not the right thing to do. That's why Amos, like all prophets, is a pain. Because they call us to account. Amos points us deeper… he points us to assumptions we can make, and often without even knowing it. G. Porter Taylor offers us this story, “once a woman went into a café. She sat at a table for two, ordered coffee, and prepared to eat some biscuits she had in her handbag. The café was crowded, so a man took the other chair and also ordered coffee. The woman began reading her newspaper, and then she reached over and took a biscuit out of the package. She noticed the man took one as well. This upset her, but she kept on reading. After a while she took another one. She became angry and glared at the man as he reached over and took the last biscuit in the packet, smiled, and offered her half of it. The woman was indignant and left in a huff. As she was paying for her coffee, she noticed that in her handbag was her packet of unopened biscuits!” 

Back to where we started, prophets are a pain and plumb lines are too! Let’s not be like the woman in the café and let us share bread together. Let’s remember that Jesus Christ is our plumb line. And like the man in the café, let’s ask to discern God’s will in our lives and the world. By His grace, we are to tell others. Prophets and plumb lines… are welcome here!

Jacynthia Murphy

 


[1] https://wwwministrymatters.com, July 2018.

 

 

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 8 July 2018


 

Primary Texts:

Ezekiel 2:1-5

Corinthians 12:2-10  

Mark 6:1-13 

 

Jesus took his disciples up the mountain, and gathering them around him he taught them: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are they that mourn; blessed are they that thirst for justice; blessed are you when you are persecuted. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven... Then Simon Peter asked: "Are we supposed to know all of this stuff?" Andrew asked: "Do we have to write this down?" And Phillip said: "I don't have any paper!" And Bartholomew asked: "Do we have to give hand this in as an essay?" John said: "The other disciples didn't have to learn this." And Matthew asked: "May I go to the toilet?" Then one of the Pharisees who was present asked to see Jesus' lesson plan, and inquired of Jesus: "Where are your set of objectives and how do they fit with the long standing qualifications in the cognitive domain?" And Jesus wept…

Hahaha… I wonder if this sounds more like us… rather than those disciples who followed Jesus. What’s about to change for these followers being taught on that mountain is now they are being told that they have to go out and do rather than watching Jesus do the doing… and they simply just tag along… pen, papers, in hand or not! So far, it’s been the easy road for them up until this lesson, I’d say! Last week we heard that Jesus had been moving around doing his ministry, and healing people. We heard that Faith was the key. We heard that that the miracles of healing the sick and raising the dead does not generate faith. It’s the wrong way around! It is faith that comes first, and the miracles will follow! Faith first!

Today we have the twelve. Chosen by Jesus to go… We’re asked to do the same thing… it’s in the first Mark of Mission of the Anglican Worldwide Communion, of which we belong, to proclaim the Good News of Kingdom! We have to go on from that place of being… faith… to that place of doing… miracles! God has selected each of us to be those instruments that go out to tell others also. Bishop Gabrielle Sharma, of Fiji, shared this at the recent Decade of Mission Conference, “those of us who know… go out and tell those who don’t”! That was a sermon in it’s entirety! Those of us who know… that’s us… tell those who don’t know… I want to share with you the Mission strategy of tikanga Māori… based on Luke’s gospel, chapter 10, “the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Go on your way. I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house”. When Māori were strategising about this, one of the things that jumped out was… remain in the same house, eating and drinking, do not move from house to house. This seemed to defy the instruction to go out from house to house. Māori thought, okay we’re not going to go out in twos like that… knocking on some stranger’s doors. That’s not my cup of tea! That meant that Māori were prepared to do nothing! Then it occurred to us that we actually had strangers in our own houses. On our own marae. Some were our own children and family members… stuck behind their bedroom doors being strangers in our own homes. Why should we go out when the stranger is right in our midst…?

So, maybe we do need our pens and papers… and bluetak too… to pop a reminder on our walls at home remembering what Jesus has taught. To remember what we are to do… wear sandals and do not put on two tunics… We don’t have to be preached to by bishops and priests alone. By people who wear tunics, chasubles, stoles… They don’t live with you! Now, don’t get me wrong. I have heard Mark’s gospel declare, “Jesus said, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ I’ve heard that… and believe me, I know first-hand what it’s like to experience the jibes of those in my home town, “where does she get the authority? What is this wisdom that has been given to her? What deeds of power are being done by her hands?! And they take offence...” I know what it’s like.

To sit back and do nothing is not what Jesus has taught us. To let others do it, like the disciples were leaving it all for Jesus to do, is not what Jesus is teaching us either. Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are they that thirst for justice. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven... Remember, Jesus’ love is boundless and works through each one of us in our words and deeds. Not by words alone. Proclaim it in music, in art, in fellowship with others, and most importantly, know that Jesus loves us and through that love we carry his ministry in ours… and out to bless others!

Let us pray: Help me, Jesus, not to be alone in my efforts to serve you. May I consistently share your work with those who encourage me, support me, guide me, and hold me accountable. Most of all, may I never forget that this is your work, which you have graciously chosen to share with me. Even when I am alone, I am always one of two with you. Amen.

Jacynthia Murphy

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 1 July 2018


Primary Texts:

Lamentations 3:22-33

Corinthians 8:7-15  

Mark 5:21-43   

THE MARKAN SANDWICH[1]

This particular passage of Gospel penned by Mark is a good example of one of his favourite writing styles:  the Markan Sandwich.[2]  Throughout the Gospel are passages where Mark uses one story as an interlude into another.  You could view each story as a piece of bread, with a theme between the bread.  And the theme here is quite obvious, for we are dealing with people's faith in the hopes for healing to be achieved--the desperate father of a young, 12-year-old dying (or already deceased) daughter, and a desperate woman who has been bleeding for a very long time (twelve years).  Of course, we are attracted to the idea that both cases share a similarity in the number twelve...but other, quite more important things are happening here to capture our attention.  And one of those important things is, specifically, FAITH.  And the Gospel reading takes us on the quest to see that faith fulfilled for each of the people who have confronted Jesus for help.  In other words, this whole reading is designed to see a happy ending achieved.

Mark is the gospel writer who owns a great pair of running shoes.  He is the one forever in a hurry to get us to the cross...and do it the quickest way possible.[3]  For Mark, it was all about that!  He believed that the resurrection WAS the story, and all Christ’s experiences whilst on that journey to the cross were just that...experiences.  We, the readers, were the eye witnesses, and we were allowed the privilege of being given the truth about what was happening.  Unlike the Disciples who were kept mostly in the dark until Jesus appeared to them in the locked room after his crucifixion, we have known all along where this story would lead. 

HAVING THE FAITH TO BELIEVE

And the facts are these: Jesus is confronted by two, separate people...they do not know one another, they are not members of “The Way,” which is what believers were called before the Crucifixion turned everything—including vocabulary—on its head; they are linked by two facts:  both are desperate and prepared to do just about anything to get Jesus’ help.  And both are linked by a number...”12,” for what that might be worth.

And what really amazes me and in fact gives me a sense of excitement and hope right here and right now—some 2,000 years later is that Jesus is quite prepared and able to help them both.  Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, actually an enemy of “The Way!”  This was an extremely influential person, throwing himself at the feet of Jesus—IN FRONT OF THE CROWD!  Begging for help, so his daughter “may be made well, and live.”  And I love how Mark describes Jesus’ decision by simply saying, “So he (Jesus) went with him (Jairus).  This he does for a stranger.  How much more will he do for us—the members of Christ body.  Have you asked or prayed for anything of late?  Do you doubt the power to get an answer?  We are in the midst of some very good news with this story. 

And then what about the outcast woman who has suffered a horrendous bleeding ailment for 12, continuous years.  The nature of her complaint has defiled her.  She is unclean, quite untouchable, very much outside the social fabric of this society.  She is not allowed to participate in any religious ceremonies, and cannot even live with her husband.   She knows Jesus will be in the town, and she decides she must seek him out.  And in that crowd, she did just that.  And her faith was so strong, and she was so determined, and was prepared to go into that forbidden and uninviting crowd just so she could touch Jesus.  And if not touch him, at least touch his clothes, “if I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  And against all odds and ignoring the high probability she could truly be judged guilty or thrown out...she did just that.  And Mark reports back to us that Jesus IMMEDIATELY aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 

Now, Mark never really admits that the disciples are a bunch of clued up guys.  Certainly, if you spend any time reading Mark, that fact becomes pretty clear, and does so rather quickly.  For in their ignorance and lack of comprehension, they are quite astounded by Jesus’ question!  They respond in frustration, “how can you say that?”  Unswayed, he surveys the crowd and finds the woman who immediately falls down—again—to his feet.  He assures her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 

MEANWHILE, WHILST ON THE WAY TO SEE THE DAUGHTER

Sorry to move our focus from the desperate woman...but remember we were on the way to the home of Jairus, and his critically ill daughter.  As Jesus, Jairus, and the small number of Disciples headed for the house, a group of people from the house (actually professional mourners who were paid by the family to mourn...and do so loudly) rushed toward Jairus and Jesus, and wailing the daughter has died.  Jesus, however, would have none of this and exclaimed she was only sleeping.  This of course incited the crowd, got the professional mourners a bit upset and the group laughed at Jesus.  And Jesus, ushered everyone, except the child’s parents, and his disciples: Peter, James, and John—brother of James, and commanded the child (and it is interesting to mention that this account written in Koine Greek quoted what Jesus said in Aramaic: TALITHA CUM,” which when translated means, “Little girl, get up,” and the language used is linguistically an imperative which means Jesus meant it as a command!  And just like that, you have miracle number two!  All in one day, in fact within an afternoon. 

CAPTURING THE SENSE OF MARK’s PROSE AND UNDERSTANDING HIS TIMING

WHAT’S THE RUSH??

If you look again at this Gospel passage, one particular word keeps popping up...” immediately.”  Mark uses the word three times in this passage, and over 40 times throughout the gospel.  In fact, he alone of the four gospel writers uses the word more often that the other three combined.  Miracles happen immediately!  People are cured immediately!  People go from one place to another, immediately.  Perhaps timing does have a true purpose for Mark.  The writing of this gospel seems to have penned between 50 and 70 CE.  Almost 50 years since Jesus’ crucifixion, many of the eyewitnesses and many of his disciples have died.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit was putting a bit of pressure on Mark to write the account to help get the Good News out to others.  It is clear that Mark’s interest was in documenting what Jesus did, and not particularly on what Jesus said!  And Mark held Jesus’ miracles in high regard and wanted to describe them as true accounts.  And we are the benefactors of that effort, and very grateful for the effort.

CONCLUSION...HOW DO WE INTERPRET THIS IN THE 21st CENTURY

Unlike one of Jesus’ parables, this story is easily defined, and to explain.  FAITH is the key.  But it is important to keep it in the right context:  the performance of the miracle of healing the sick woman, or raising the deceased daughter does not generate faith. NO! That would be placing the cart before the horse.  Faith comes first, and leads to the miracle! And we, as members of the body of Christ, live with that reality at all times. And that is our good news, which keeps on happening from generation to generation. AMEN

Jean Rheinfrank

 



[1] Lindsell & Verbrugge, NRSV Study Bible, 1468.

[2] John Barton & John Muddiman, The Oxford BIBLE Commentary (Oxford, UK: Oxford Press, 2011), 897.

[3] Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, (Oxford, UK:Oxford University Press, 2012), 54.

St John the Baptist Sunday, 24 June 2018


Primary Texts:

Isaiah 40:1-11

Galatians 3:23-29 

Luke 1:57-66, 80  

 

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Amen. 

Today on the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time we are commemorating the life of St John the Baptist. The book, For All the Saints, a resource for the commemorations of the church calendar in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia says that, “John was from a priestly family and advocated a return to the strict observance of the laws of Moses in ethical and religious standards, and baptised people as a token of their acceptance of this. John’s message was popular with many, but it brought him into conflict with Herod and the rulers of Israel, many of whom followed Gentile customs. John was executed on Herod’s orders. Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism by John, and many of his followers were former disciples of John.” 

With that in mind let us now look at the gospel reading where Luke vividly described the birth of John the Baptist:  

     ~ An old couple - expecting the joy of giving birth 

     ~ A very familiar story that runs throughout the scripture 

     ~ Miracles of birth - Mothers and sons - sons and their callings 

Let us recall some mothers, the child they bore, and their callings:

     ~ Sarah giving birth to Isaac (seed of all nations) 

     ~ Jochebed- Mother of Moses (saved the Israel from exile) 

     ~ Hannah- Mother of Samuel (who became a prophet) 

     ~ Elizabeth- Mother of John (who prepared the way of the Lord) 

     ~ Mary- Mother of Jesus (who saved us from our sins) 

Each of these mothers and sons were chosen and called by God. Each have purposes and callings. This tells me that each of us are born with a purpose. You know what’s the amazing thing about these mothers? It’s the faith they have in God. Some of them were quite old (barren) while some were quite young. They might have doubted themselves, yet God always come through for them. 

The story of John’s birth is a story of faith, nurturing and calling. Luke chapter 1 involves the life of Elizabeth and Zachariah, Mary and Joseph and the birth of both John and Jesus. They seem to complement each other. An old and young couple, both husbands were in doubt, both women were overjoyed and filled with the Holy Spirit, and each of them served their purpose or calling. 

Zachariah’s and Joseph’s calling were to show us that even in doubt God can still work through us. Their purpose was to nurture their sons into the men they would become. The mother’s calling was to bear their sons manifesting the work of the Holy Spirit in each. When in faith and in doubt God will always find a way to make himself known. 

Interestingly, like Jesus, Johns life is recorded in all the four gospels. Each of them slightly tells a different period of his life but if you put them together we can see why John was important. He was to prepare the way of the Lord. Who is this Lord? No one else but our Lord Jesus Christ.  Which is why we heard from Isaiah of the voice crying, originally to exiles separated from their home by a vast wilderness, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’ 

John spent his life in the desert eating locust and wild honey as Matthew recorded. The desert or the wilderness environment was harsh, but it formed John into the man he became, who could endure what was coming to him, even upon his death. That was John’s purpose and calling. To prepare the people, and ways for Jesus. Jesus’ ministry and calling begins with John baptising Him. Faith, Purpose and callings. It is the same for us, the circumstances of our life may be harsh at times, but even there, our Christian character can be groomed and formed, and we can grow and become strong in spirit like John. 

At the beginning of my sermon, I said that each of us was born for a purpose. Our purposes are our callings from God. We may not know it right away. Some will become teachers, doctors and nurses, cleaners and businessman. Parents with children. Priests and deacons. Bishops and laity. Each of our callings have purpose. Our purpose is to be the hand, the mouth, the ears, and the body of Christ, here on earth. The little kindness, the show of faith, the touch of love we give to students, to patients, to creation, to family, to church members serves our purpose. The purpose of making God known. 

My dream as a child was either to become a teacher or a lawyer. I thought that was going to be my calling and purpose. I never dreamt about becoming a priest until that dramatic teenage period of my life changed me. Being away from my parents and stuck in boarding school with lots of peer pressure and temptations. One can say that was my wilderness. I fell so many times from hunger that made me join some naughty friends in breaking into our store rooms and canteens to get food for ourselves. Wrong purpose of being a student and a child. We got caught and the punishment was harsh, but it was also a learning experience. An experience that made me who I am today. Each of us may have faced situations like this in our life that made us see our purpose and our calling of today. 

Zachariah and Elizabeth struggled with their situation with John the Baptist but when the child was born, they were filled with excitement and joy, filled with the Holy Spirit they proclaimed and prophesied his purpose and callings.Now, that purpose and calling will become a reality if we have faith and hope always. Our Faith in that, God will always come through in every situation of our life, in our struggles, in our good and bad times as described in our lesson from Isaiah 40:10-11. 

Our God is the God of power and comfort. How greatly we need Him today, as anyone who works with children can appreciate. Mothers, fathers, school bus drivers, day care workers, teachers, street crossing guards, child welfare workers - anyone whose job it is to nurture, protect, and advocate for children can look to the Lord with faith that he will always be there to guide us. Let us then, continue to grow and become strong in spirit and manifest God through our words and actions for we are children of God by Faith.

Litimai Sanegar

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, 17 June 2018


Primary Texts:

Ezekiel 17:22-24

2 Corinthians 5:6-10 

Mark 4:26-34 

 

 

Matariki – means the eyes of God. Matariki – a time to look to the eyes of God gathered in a constellation of stars. Matariki – assured in the knowledge that God sees us. Matariki – emitting light into our Eucharistic liturgies, “Therefore, with all your witnesses who surround us on every side, countless as heaven’s stars, we praise you for our creation and our calling, with loving and with joyful hearts”. What a blessing!   

Matariki is a time to plant and plan for a harvest. It’s a time to give thanks for God’s goodness. It’s a time “to offer our thanks for the beauty of these islands; for the wild places and the bush, for the mountains, the coast and the sea. To offer thanks and praise to God for this good land; for its trees and pastures, for its plentiful crops and the skills we have learned to grow them”. And each time we look to the heavens, consider the splendour of Matariki - the eyes of God. 

And now we offer our thanks to God for the mustard seed. How often have you heard sermons on the mustard seed?  On mustard-seed faith. Pastors, and preachers, and teachers of the faith, will be talking about the little insignificant mustard seed!” So insignificant that we feel compelled to tell of it, throughout Christianity! In the thousands of churches in the world. So, how many seeds is that then? Who’s counting? Countless as heaven’s stars. That’s how many seeds we witness in our lives? Let’s face it, I love this parable. I love that every time I hear a sermon preached on the mighty mustard seed, I get excited all over again. The thing about our faith is that, with God’s help, a very little bit of human effort goes a long way. A very little seed of faith can sprout into a fruitful vine of love, compassion, action, justice, and wonder. You gardeners out there are probably already thinking about the garden, aren’t you? That time in our annual calendars when we’re checking the seedlings in those little paper bags in the garden shed. Each one not yet revealing its splendour. Each one, we all know, will eventually light up our garden beds with glorious colour and delectable tasty nourishment.

We here in Aotearoa can enjoy the fertile soils we use to grow crops. We have the Matariki constellation to prompt us each year, to prepare that soil for the harvest. We will never really know what it’s like to be without good fertile soil. It’s what we do with it that counts! 

Take Jesus. He was from a dry place in the Middle East. He knew what it was to be grateful for a few patches of plant life in a hot, arid world. Close to the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus spent a lot of time, it’s green and fertile . But we remember he and his followers also spent a lot of time in the wilderness. The rocks and hills and sandy desert were hard places to find food of any kind. Of course, that never stopped Jesus from feeding the five thousand. One of the last things Jesus did with his disciples was to sit down and eat a meal with them. We know from the Gospels that Jesus liked nothing better than the fellowship of a dinner table. Some of the most memorable incidents in the Gospels take place around meal tables. Meals made from the fruitful harvests of seeds. 

Christians are called to plant, to cultivate, and to appreciate the humble mustard seed that grows as tall as maybe 5 or 10 feet, and yet, it gives shelter to the smallest songbirds of the garden. The random acts of kindness ordinary Christians do every day are seeds planted for the reign of God’s Love. And yet, when we think of the mustard seed, we have to think, dandelions. It’s a weed.  Mustard did not begin to be cultivated as a food crop until many years after Jesus… in India.  And yet mustard is a good weed – it was always used as a spice, for food or medicine, and stalks were used to thatch rooves – because it grew everywhere.  Even today, you can see raggedy patches of mustard growing tall along the highways of Israel.  And as a ground cover, mustard helps return nutrients to the soil, deter insects, and shelter little birds that eat bugs.  Even wineries have learned to plant it between the rows in their vineyards. It’s abundant, and useful… and it’s still a weed. That’s not a bad thing!  

What, you might ask, has this to do with Matariki? We are God’s light here and now. Today, God wants to remind us of the words of his Son: You are the light of the world. God is telling us, “You are my shining stars!” So, what is it that prevents our church neighbours from seeing this light? I can assure you, my dear brothers and sisters, it is not our lack of love. It is not our lack of sympathy for the needy among us. It is not our lack of care for one another. God has placed us here to shine the light of Christ through our gentle and caring attitude in everything we do. We too, delight in sharing our meal tables with others. We too, love sharing the fruits of our labour with friends and whānau, (families). In fact, the greatest obstacle that prevents the world from seeing our light shining is our disregard of Jesus’ warning concerning the very purpose of light. Jesus said lamps are not supposed to be put under the bushel, but up somewhere so everyone can see them. If not in Matariki then perhaps, in those lofty branches of the cedar, where our feathered friends rest and play.  

The reason we have not impacted more on our community with the light of Christ is because we often keep it hidden inside the box of these four walls. We need to let this light shine… shine outside of the box. We need to be the seeds of light we know exists in Matariki – the eyes of God. We need to realise that that light and warmth will help the seed to grow. To burst forth into the world to shine life into others. Let the lights shine… to make a difference in the world. Sow the seed of life so that the others may rest in the branches of its fruit. Be the weed seed, resilient and enduring. Like the stars that shine on in our darkness, let’s be the light to the world! We are created this way, because God loves us. And as I say these words I think of that little song: My God loves me, and all the wonders I see. The rainbow shines through my window, my God loves me.   

From the Psalmist we sing, “Praise him, all his angels; praise him! Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him! 

This week, pray that God might give you one or two opportunities to shine the light of God to someone. Pray that God might give us the seeds of wisdom. Be thankful that by the grace of God we have the determination to shine his light on into the world where darkness is not welcome and can live no longer. Remember, you are God’s shining star. Amen.

Jacynthia Murphy

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sunday 10 June


Primary Texts:

Genesis 3:8-15

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 

Mark 3:20-35 

 

Today on the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, our readings are extraordinary, especially our gospel reading. When I first read Mark 3:20-35 I asked myself, what is going on here? People were saying Jesus has gone out of his mind. In other words, they are saying yep Jesus is going crazy. And when his family came to get him, Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” What is really happening here?

To understand this passage, we need to look at the context and the background of what, when and why this was happening.

Jesus had just started his ministry. He had gathered to him twelve disciples and was journeying through Galilee bringing healing into people’s live. His mission has spread, and he has gained popularity. Wherever he went there was a crowd gathered around him and pondering, ‘Who Is this man? While many people were amazed and willingly followed Jesus, there were others who were just anxious and even fearful of what Jesus might bring.

On this day, Jesus had entered a house with his disciples, and of course followed by the crowd. On hearing this, Jesus’ family have had enough and left their house to bring Him home thinking, ‘he is out of his mind’. Also listening are those in authority, the teachers of the law, the church leaders, who also left their house and came down to deal with Jesus in their own way, accusing him of being Satan because of the unfamiliar activities that he was doing.

So, what does this scenario mean to us? Looking closely, Mark presents to us four groups. The first group is Jesus in the house probably surrounded by his disciples; a picture of unity. The second group being the crowd; a picture of being a follower. The other two groups consisting of the family of Jesus and the church leaders who left their homes to deal with Jesus; a picture of fear.

Knitted within our readings are overwhelming emotions. There is love and fear. Jesus' response reflects his love and passion for His ministry. He did not use violence instead he brings the message across through parables. The response from his family and the leaders reflects their fear. What were they afraid of we may ask?

Jesus’ family may be afraid of the social ridicule they might get or being banished from the Temple, or they feared for the safety and well being of Jesus. Whatever they thought, it was through their fear that they wanted to bring Jesus home and stop him from doing whatever he was doing, even if it meant giving life to other people. On the other hand, the scribes or the leaders fear they might lose their powers, their positions, their people completely seeing Jesus as a threat. The only way to get rid of Him is making false accusations. Jesus. however. sees through them and responds with love.

Today, each of these groups are often reflected in the life of our church, as individuals and as a community. There are those who seek for unity and those who will continue to oppose because of the fear of losing something. There is a fear of change, of getting out of that comfortable place, of experiencing something new, of facing challenges.

Fear is something that keeps us from becoming what God intends for us to be. In reflections to our Genesis readings, it was through fear that Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden. It was fear that hid them from forgiveness. It was fear that hid them from receiving life. God came looking for Adam and Eve for the purpose of forgiving them and to restore them to life in a changed world that they had created. And God will continue to look for us gathering us to him.

Today’s readings allowed us to see that we can move against this fear with the weapons of faith and love.

I remember the first time I stood up to preach. It was Easter and I had just turned 16. When I was first asked to preach I said to myself, I can’t do it. That was fear talking to me. However, gathering up that little faith I have, I stood in front of those older than me, with years of experience, and spoke about God. Terrifying as it was, it was my first taste of sharing God’s word and I loved it, inspiring me to become a servant of God. 

There are times in life that we will be ridiculed, falsely accused and persecuted because of our faith, because of doing the right thing, because of being true to ourselves. How we respond to that will reflect on what kind of person we are and yes as Christians we are to respond with love and with passion.

I have learned that ministry is not an easy journey. Like mother nature, there will be mountains and fields, rain and sunshine, rough seas and calm seas, happiness and sadness, tears and laughter which are all part of life’s journeys. And when fear overtakes us we mustn’t lose heart because love will conquer it. Paul encourages us in 2 Corinthians, that we have the same spirit of faith and we must not lose heart because even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. Through acts of love, Jesus has delivered us from our fears and gave us life through the Holy Spirit.

Finally, its ok to go crazy and be gone out of our mind but we must do it for Jesus in sharing his love all around, beginning with our family, and to you and me.

Litimai Sanegar

Te Pouhere Sunday, 3 June 2018


Primary Texts:

Isaiah 42:10-20

Acts 10:34-43 

Luke 6:46-49 

 

Greetings to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! First of all, my name is Jeke Maikali and I am a second-year student at St John Theological College and have my fellow colleague who accompany me to worship with you this morning. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the parish priest (Rev. Jacynthia) and to you all for allowing me to worship here today and to celebrate with you the life that God has given to us.

 In our church calendar, today is the very important Sunday for the Anglican church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia. As we celebrate ‘Te Pouhere Sunday’ and my reflection this morning is based on Te Pouhere and I hope you will bear with me.

Te Pouhere is the constitution of Anglican here, the Anglican church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. The 1992 Constitution, which we think about today, revised the constitution agreed on in 1857 by a general conference held in Auckland. It was back then that the Anglican church here became a self-governing province. The 1992 Constitution of this church provides for three partners to order their affairs within their own cultural context.

Who are these three Partners?

The partners to the Constitution are the three Tikanga which make up our church: Tikanga Pakeha, Tikanga Maori, and Tikanga Pasefika.

What’s a Tikanga?

The word tikanga with a small t means custom, way, style, but when it’s used in a specifically Anglican context it’s written with a capital T and means one of the three strands that together make up the Anglican church in this part of the world. Here, Tikanga Pakeha is made up of seven Diocese, Tikanga Maori comprises five Hui Amorangi (regional bishoprics, the boundaries of which differ from those of the dioceses). Tikanga Pasefika encompass (surround) Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the Cook Islands, and is known as the Diocese of Polynesia.

So, is it three churches, or one church?

That sounds a little like the question that’s often asked about the Trinity – do we worship one God or three? And the answer is kind of the same: it’s about community which encompasses the distinctive character of its members. The Anglican Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia is one church, in which each Tikanga is an equal partner in the decision-making process of the General Synod, and where each can exercise mission and ministry to God’s people within the culture of each partner.

And don’t we have three Archbishops?

In the Anglican communion the province of the Anglican church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia are different from all the province because we have three Archbishop within one province for other province in the Anglican church in other parts of the world they only have one Archbishop in one province. May I said it again we have three Archbishop, Philip Richardson for Tikanga Pakeha, Don Tamihere for Tikanga Maori and Winston Halapua for Tikanga Pasefika. They work very closely together and have a real leadership role in this Province.

Well in New Zealand, the Anglican church was Maori first. It began in 1814 when the Maori chief Ruatara agreed with Reverend Samuel Marsden to give protection to three missionaries and their families at Oihi in the Bay of Islands.  When organized European settlement began after 1840, mainly from England and Scotland, a new focus of the church emerged; the formation of the church in the new colonial settlements. George Augustus Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand, arrived in 1842 as a bishop of the united Church of England and Ireland. So, the history of the Anglican church here has been the history of the Maori Church of the missionaries and the settler church.  Since European settlement, there have always been these two strands – but for a while there was only the Maori strand. The earliest synods of the diocese of Waiapu (the eastern part of the North Island) were conducted in Maori, under Bishop William Williams.

And the church in the pacific – how did that happen?

From the time of Bishop Selwyn, the Islands of the South Pacific had been included in the Church of the Province of New Zealand. The Anglican church in Melanesia became separate province in 1975. The Anglican church in the Islands of Polynesia (mainly Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa) was established as an associated missionary diocese in 1925. In 1990 the Diocese of Polynesia became a diocese and It has archdeaconries. Everyone celebrating this constitution Sunday today. General synod set down Te Pouhere Sunday in the Lectionary and the church calendar for the second Sunday after Pentecost. It’s one of a special Sundays that the Calendar offers us.

The Anglican communion is a world – wide family of Christians who affirm an expression of the Christian faith in the local circumstances of the nations in which they live. Allowing for local differences is one of the key Anglican principles, one that goes all the way back to the very beginnings of the Anglican church. and our three Tikanga constitution allows us to say something about community. Real community is about relationship, it’s about talking together and getting to know each other. It’s about trust and mutual.

We thank God for those who are gone before us, their dedicated, committed and devoted service to each tikanga and our province and for the builder of the church left their legacy behind for us to continue the mission of God. In our gospel reading for today, Jesus teaches about building on a solid foundation. We belong to the province of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia, our life should be like a man who building his house, dug deep and laid the foundation on rock. The river overflowed and hit that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.  To build on the rock means to be a hearing, responding disciple, practicing obedience becomes the solid foundation to weather the storms of life.

Jesus teaching must not only be heard but lived. Human life has a similar architecture. It requires a firm foundation. Living according to the structures of God’s real word require repentance and forgiveness of sins, a new and good heart, and the gift of God’s spirit. Those who come to Jesus and truly hear his words will receive, according to this gospel, all those gifts and will be able to put Jesus’ teaching into practice.

Today as we celebrate the Te Pouhere Sunday, it’s 25 years of celebrating our tikanga in the church. It’s about time now, to double check, to re-discover ourselves as a Tikanga to strengthen our relationship with one another, we should work together as one not three, most of the time we do things on our own. What can we do in the future?  My prayers that God will bind us together with His chords that cannot be broken. Our Three Tikanga need to be built in the solid rock foundation that is Jesus Christ. I believe Te Pouhere should not be taken lightly and we need to honor it and it’s wake call for us to strongly built our relationship better. 

Jeke Maikali 

Trinity Sunday, 27 May 2018, 9.30am


Primary Texts:

Isaiah 6:1-8

Romans 8:12-17

John 3:1-17

 

Three in One

 

Today is Trinity Sunday, a Sunday in which most priests and preachers struggle to gather their thoughts trying to explain the Trinity. To be honest, preparing this sermon wasn’t easy either. Teachings, doctrines, theology and more theology, all seems to lead to nerve wrecking. They tug on my thoughts, from left to right, round and round and still more confusion. It’s true that the doctrine of the trinity is one of the most difficult aspects of Christian theology, yet, when we think about it, trinity really is all about God in unity. God in communion. God the Father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. One God- One Love. 

In the last couples of weeks, we have been focusing on unity. We saw unity through the commandment of Christ that in love we are bonded to one another. In John 17 :23-26 Jesus had been praying on our behalf. ‘I in them and you in me, so that they may be brought to complete unity.’ We as the body of Christ are many, made one in the eyes of God. One God-One Love-One people. We as humans strive for Christian unity which at times is not perfect. The Trinity, however, is a divine unity, the one and only perfect unity, of how three distinctive persons are together as One. Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. 

Trinity Sunday is set aside for us to celebrate the ways in which God has revealed himself to us through time, since creation, through the life of the people of Israel, through the coming of the Saviour Jesus and his life and purpose, and through the coming of the Holy Spirit and the special role the Holy Spirt plays in the inspiration and the continuation of the Church.  

Our readings for today from Isaiah, John, and Romans gives a window to look at the Trinity, the three in one, united in communion with one another portrayed to us through love. Isaiah the prophet sees the power of God, feels his unworthiness but then encounters the love of God, gives him courage to go on behalf of the Lord. In Romans, Paul reminds us of God’s love and the assurance we can have of God’s love. In the gospel from John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus about Gods love, a love that is so great God chose to come into the world through Christ, die for our sins to give us our salvation. Yes! One God, One People, One Love. That is who our Trinity God is. In greater detail, The Trinity - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit - reflects the love of God. A community made of mutual love and respect and we are made to be part of it. Perfect in power, in love and purity.  

God is the creating Father. God shows us His love in creating us, establishing a relationship with us, and inviting us into relationship with Him and with all of creation. God is the Redeeming Son. God shows us God’s love in coming into the world and dying for our sins, then rising again so that we may have eternal life, which is an eternal relationship with Him. God is the sustaining Spirit. God strengthens us so that we might have a loving relationship with Him and others and do His work and will in the world. 

One God, One people, One Love. 

Looking closely, this love that the Holy Trinity portrayed is rich in relationship, communication and affection. A dynamic community life very simple and yet inexpressible for us. It shows how love creates unity out of diversity, unity of intentions, of thoughts, of will. Oh, the mystery of the Holy Trinity. 

In summarizing my 2000-word essay last year about Trinity, I wrote, Trinity is describing God in the light of the event of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of God’s transforming spirit. Trinity is about a loving relationship, it is about trust, it is about commitment, it is about community, it is about fellowship and togetherness. It is how far our human language can define God. 

The Holy Trinity has modelled for us the way we should live as a community. As Christians, we are to build relationships and help to support and care for each other. A model we can use within our three tikanga church which is already knitted in our theology of worship in the forms of prayers, liturgy, and sacraments, which we recite every Sunday.  

As a three tikanga church, Tikanga Māori, Tikanga Pākehā and Tikanga Pasefika, we need to clothe ourselves in love, and model out the life of the blessed Trinity. We are to build relationships, communicate effectively, and love one another within our diverse culture of worship and mission. We each have our unique differences that makes up our one church. One God, One people, One love. 

God comes to us in love and so we also must go out in love. From the words of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding, “We were made by a power of love and our lives were-and are meant to live in that love.” 

Holy, Holy, Holy. Merciful Almighty. God in Three persons. Blessed Trinity. Amen.   

Litimai Sanegar

Seventh Sunday of Easter, 13 May 2018, 9.30am


Primary Texts:

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

1 John 5:9-13

John 17:6-19   

 

Mother's Day

 

“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.