Thursday, May 17, 2012

Risen, Ascended, Glorified

Easter 7, Year B, 2012

Text: Acts 1: 1-11; Ephesians 1: 15-23; Luke 24: 44-53.

Let us bow our heads in prayer –

O God, you withdraw from our sight that you may be known by our love: help us to enter the cloud where you are hidden, and surrender all our certainty to the darkness of faith in Jesus Christ. Amen.

I always like the thought that each Sunday many other Churches throughout the country, and the world, are all following the same readings and the same theme for the day as we are. The various preachers, I am sure, take quite a different approach to the readings, and no doubt we all choose different hymns and pray different prayers, but we are all focussing on the same words from the Scripture, and sharing the same aspect of our shared faith.

Having said that, I am going to do a particularly Anglican thing, and instead of choosing the readings for today, I have focussed on the readings for the nearest major festival of the Church’s calendar. Which, as we all know, was the festival of the Ascension on Thursday. Had you realised it was forty days since Easter? Doesn’t time fly!

As I am sure you are aware, Luke’s Acts of the Apostles is the only New Testament Book that specifically mentions a physical ascension forty days after Easter. The longer version of the ending of Mark’s Gospel records that Jesus “was taken up into heaven and sat at the right hand of God”, at some unspecified time soon after Easter; Luke’s Gospel seems to time His being “carried up into heaven” as taking place on Easter day; Matthew only says that they met Jesus on a mountain back in Galilee, several days’ travelling from Jerusalem, where “they worshipped Him”, and in John there are only the references of Jesus to going to His Father.

What exactly happened, and when it happened is not the least bit clear. Each Gospel writer has a different account. However, the combined message of the four Gospels is clear: that after his tragic, cruel and unjustified death on the Cross, His disciples at some time, and in some way, had an overwhelming experience - of Christ risen, ascended, glorified.

And each of them, in their own styles, in their own theology, wrote to express their understanding of Christ risen, ascended, glorified, which is the theme of Ascension day in the New Zealand Anglican Prayer Book.

The three concepts involved in this theme for today don’t sit comfortably in the minds of most 21st century westerners. We don’t think of heaven as “up”. In an age when we have all flown high above the clouds and have watched televised journeys into space, and heard and seen weather reports talking about the movement of currents and cloud formations over the Tasman - for us the mystery has been taken out of the clouds and the space above the clouds. So for us, the idea of Christ ascending upwards is not always helpful because for us up and ‘the heavens” are quite a different thing than they were for the writers and first readers of the Gospels.

In the same way, “glory” is not a concept that we are either familiar with or comfortable with. It has tended in our time to be debased by experiences of politicians and other leaders, and indeed nations, making attempts at self-glorification. Ours is an age of people employing public relations firms to build them us, while ordinary people specialise in putting these same leaders down.

We bring our leaders down to size - our size. On many occasions that is not a bad thing. But I suspect that this general atmosphere of cynicism and denigration has killed off our ability to experience anything with a sense of wonder and simple, uncomplicated adoration. Sadly, we can’t even admire a beautiful natural scene without being aware of the damage to the land and the air that is evident somewhere in that scene.

Therefore, an awareness of God’s glory doesn’t come easily. We are, quite simply, out of practice at experiencing glory. We are not geared to respond to anything in that uncomplicated way.

We may know more about the nature of the atom, and the origins of this world and the universe than any people before us, but when it comes to a relationship with God, a faith in our Creator, I suspect that we are ignorant illiterates compared to, e.g., the writers of the story of Adam and Eve in the garden or the prophets Isaiah, Hosea or Ezekiel.

They had a directness and a simplicity in their experience of God and God’s glory that we have lost.

And so it is that when we try to re-express the divine experiences of those early followers of Jesus who were around to witness His death and the extraordinary experiences following his death, we end up using language that is not part of our accepted modern vocabulary.

I’m not suggesting that we turn back the clock. We are not the same sort of people as those who lived in the time of Jesus, because we have experienced life differently from them. We know things that they did not know. Many of those new bits of knowledge that we have about the world and about ourselves are good knowledge. And many of our new experiences are good experiences. But they do make us different people.

Now, maybe for you, understanding Christ as “risen, ascended, glorified” holds no problems. But that will be because you have already retranslated it into thoughts, feelings and experiences that are within your own experience; or maybe it is because you have assimilated it in total, undigested, and allowed it to become part of you despite its foreign-ness. That, I believe, is a less satisfactory way of coping.

But, if you have heard the words, and they haven’t touched you at your heart, and moved you forward in your faith, then, like me, you have some work to do! Translation work, that is.

For me, God’s glory is God’s “Godness”. My experience of that is at times a sense of wonder when I discover, for example, something of the amazing intricacies of a life form, or the immenseness and complexity of the universe, or the living inter-relatedness of the life systems of this planet. Not to mention meeting my own son at his birth! My awareness of God’s glory often touches me when I experience in one way or another God’s love of me and all creatures - that can fill me with a sense of safety and security that nothing else will give me.

For me, Biblical images of clouds of glory and blazing lights are not all that helpful. I have to translate such imagery into my kind of language. But that’s OK. It’s just hard work, that’s all.

And likewise with the imagery of “up there”. Jesus “ascending” doesn’t help me as a mind picture. Jesus reflecting God’s love and goodness so closely that he is a “spitting image” of God does mean something to me. Thinking of the legacy of empowerment that He left His friends, and which has in turn been passed on to us - that sort of thought helps me to comprehend Jesus’ specialness and relevance in my life in a much more real way

If you have trouble with the imagery, I don’t suggest that you copy mine. That is a very personal thing related to my own life experiences. Rather, work on your own. Ask yourself: How do I express the Godness of God and the Godness of Jesus? And I’d love to hear your answers. Amen.

Friendship with God

Easter 6, Year B, 2012

Text: Acts 10: 44-48; 1 John 5: 1-6; John 15: 9-17.

Let us bow our heads in prayer –
God of Wisdom. Let our eyes, ears and hearts be open to your truth, that we and others may be set free to receive Your love. Amen.
Reading our Gospel passage today, the first impression you may get is the word “commandments”. That Jesus – and thus God – will only love us on the condition that we obey the commandments. That if we are bad boys and girls, and break the commandments, God will punish us by withdrawing love from us, like a controlling parent.

But if we think back through the whole Gospel story, and even if we read this short passage again, we realise that Jesus was interested in only one commandment – the commandment of love. Remember what He said elsewhere:

‘The scribe asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12: 28)

So, when Jesus talks about obeying commandments, he’s not talking about following a lot of irksome rules and regulations, to earn the grudging approval of the great Schoolteacher in the Sky. No, He’s calling us to live out lives of love, and through doing this we discover God in all we do.

Because, if you read this short passage carefully, the key words are not ‘obey’ and ‘commandment’, but ‘friend’ and ‘joy’.

Let’s look at what it might entail being a friend of Jesus.

Jesus says: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” This does not mean that we can only be His friend as a reward for doing as he does tell us to. Rather, it’s a fact of life. Jesus’ one and only ‘command’ is to love God completely, and to love those we come into contact with – to live a life of friendship. Jesus is saying that we discover the joys of friendship with God by living a life of love.

Let’s look at the nature of friendship. Mary, a troubled youngster, was having difficulty settling into her new school. The school counselor called her into the office for a chat. “Mary”, she said, “I want to be your friend. I will never tell your parents or your teachers anything we talk about, if you don’t want me to. I want you to know that you can trust me, and I’ll always be there if you need me.”

With tearful eyes, Mary looked up at the counselor: “Gee, Miss Edwards,” she said with emotion in her voice, “you’re just like my dog.” You don’t have to be terribly clever or articulate to be a good friend.

Jo said to me recently: “I watch you sometimes when you get back home after being out somewhere that’s been a bit tiring. When Oscar (that’s our dog) sees you he rushes out to greet you and jumps up at you and dances around you deleted “and” trying to coat you in saliva. But it makes you perk up and come back to life.”

If that’s what a dog can do to you, with its rather mindless devotion, imagine the power of human friendship to bring new life, new vitality and new hope to people who need it.

Human friendship can literally save lives. The group the Samaritans followed up a number of desperate people who rang their services who were on the point of suicide. One group only made one contact with the Samaritans. They were the group who were most likely to commit suicide at a later date. Another group was befriended by one of the Samaritan volunteers i.e. one of the volunteers would keep in touch with the person over a number of months, visiting them, phoning them, and just acting as a friend through their crisis. That was the group that was least likely to commit suicide.

There was a third group. A Samaritan volunteer wasn’t able to visit or keep in personal contact with members of this group, because of where they lived, or some other reason. However, someone from the Samaritans sent these people a letter every month or so. Even members of this group were less likely to commit suicide later. So even the slight friendship of a stranger writing the occasional letter has life-giving power. What then does the steady increase in youth suicide tell us about modern life?

If this is the life-giving power of canine and human friendship, what is the power of divine friendship?

I don’t think there is any other religion in the world that talks about divine friendship. Others worship, respect, stand in awe of, fear, beseech, adore, even love their God. But not to the level of friendship. I’m not saying this to put down other religions, as some of you will be aware I have a great respect for other world religions, I’m just pointing out a major difference.

Friendship suggests a mutual respect, even a mutual need. Friendship suggests that either party can be both supported by or hurt by the other.

This is unique to Christianity, the faith of the baby in the manger and the Christ on the Cross. Ours is a faith based on a vulnerable God, who risks all to not only love us, but to show us that love.

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that there is a positive side to the traditional emphasis on the image of God as a loving father. Often, understandably, people have reacted against the image of God as father, especially those who have never had a positive experience of a father.

Because, sadly, in our society there are many men who have been failures as parents.

An Australian psychologist was promoting a book ‘Manhood’ some years ago which I read. He wrote about the unsatisfactory relationship between most Australian men and their fathers, and of course we know the same is true here. Most men, in the past at least, have not known how to express their love for their children. Some have not even known how to feel love for their children.

And perhaps the same could be said of the God or gods of other religions. Like Kiwi fathers, they either have not known how to love their children, or have not been very good at expressing that love. Of course our impression of God is really a true reflection of how we ourselves feel inside.

But with the faith based on Jesus, the Christ born in a stable and dying on a cross, for the first time we experience God not as a strong but inadequate, inarticulate and remote heavenly father, but as a loving, close father.

To those fathers in the congregation who have perhaps not had the best relationship with their children remember it’s still not too late.

To talk of God as motherly, as a mother hen protecting her chicks under her wings, for example, is a wonderful metaphor of loving tenderness, and a very appropriate one to reflect on on Mother’s Day. But to talk of God as a loving father tells us not only about tenderness, but also about the unique ability or our God to show us that love, that friendship that only some, very special, fathers have learnt.

To confirm your suspicions of my unbalanced attitudes to dogs, I will end with a story about a member of the Auckland Warriors. As you may remember the Warriors were having a terrible season a few years back and were at the bottom then of the Super League. One of them found the pressure even affecting his family relationships; to the extent that he felt that the only one who was offering him any affection at home was his faithful dog.

“In tough times like these,” he said plaintively to his family, scratching the ear of his faithful pet, “a man needs more than just one friend.”

So his wife went out and bought him a second dog.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What is a Saint?

Pentecost 20, Year A, 2011
All Saints’ & All Souls’

Text: Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1: 11-23; Luke 6: 20-31.

Let us bow our heads in prayer –
Loving God, by your example you surround us by a great cloud of witnesses. May we, encouraged by their example serve you through our lives. Amen.
What is a saint? The Church has not always been particularly clever over the centuries at choosing saints. For example, the great clean-out that the Roman Catholic Church undertook a few years ago revealed that some saints, including favourites like St. George, had probably never actually existed.

And some real ones reveal a spirituality that can lack balance. Rose of Lima, for example was the first South American saint. She was born in 1586 in Peru, and from childhood practiced the severest of austerities. A vow of virginity and her strictness of life meant she was persecuted by friends and family, and suffered from a severe sense of desolation. She died at the age of 30 and was make a saint 50 years latter.

If I had been Rose’s parish Priest, I think I would have been happier to have seen her out playing net ball and going to the movies with the gang than that sort of unworldly and painful spirituality.

In an important sense, as St. Paul teaches, we are all saints, we have all been made hold, sanctified, by God, because God blesses and saves all those who turn to him or her. But there is another way we can understand saintliness: the saint is the one who lives as God would want us all to live.

Our best guide as to how to do that are a few pages in the New Testament, pages 880 to 883 of the Bibles in your pews: the Sermon on the Mount. It is in these three chapters, beginning with the Beatitudes that we have just heard, that Jesus tells us all we need to know about being a saint.

It is in the Sermon on the Mount that we are told to turn the other cheek if we are struck; to love our enemies; to give alms quietly and privately, without public show. It is in these pages that Jesus tells us that it is not enough to refrain from actual adultery; if we even think about it we are half way there. We are told that we cannot serve both God and money at the same time, that we are not to judge others if we wish not to be judged ourselves, and we are to do unto others as we would have them do to us.

But the Sermon on the Mount is not only about how to treat each other. It’s also about God. In those four short pages Jesus also gives us the Lord’s Prayer, and tells us that there is no need to worry about tomorrow – for if God looks after the sparrows, how much more will he look after us. He also tells us that if we have a need, then we are to ask God. If we, as human parents, give to our children when they ask, then surely how much more will God give to God’s children when they ask.

It is not surprising that these three chapters are the best known passages in the Bible; because in them we have the very heart of Jesus’ teaching.

In these four pages we discover how different Jesus was from the ordinary world: of everyone for him / herself, of power politics, of rule by the almighty dollar, of level playing fields; of worldly common sense. Jesus taught that there were two fundamental principles to follow to lead a saintly life:

First we are to trust and obey God absolutely, above all other loyalties. God is certainly to be put before anything like possessions: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heave… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

But God is even to be put ahead of one’s family. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Jesus asks. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3; 35

The other principle that Jesus taught as necessary for a saintly life was, of course, that we must stop putting our own concerns first, as most of us do most of the time, and instead be foolishly loving in the way we treat others.

Imagine arriving at the Pearly Gates, and, blow me down, who should be standing there but Jesus himself. You pass the time of day pleasantly enough with him for a while, if one can pass the time of day when one is in eternity. Then Jesus, never being one to beat about the bush, pulls out his clip board and says: “Right, let’s check you out on the saintliness scale and see if you pass.”

You feel quietly confident, and say: “Oh, I did all right. I was reasonably generous – gave 5% of my income to Church and charity. I never cheated anyone or did anyone any harm. If someone asked for help, I was quite helpful and gave what I could afford at the time. And I gave a fair share of my time to working bees on a Saturday.”

To your dismay, Jesus frowns and put some heavy crosses on the paper on his clip board. “What’s this “reasonably generous, “quite helpful, and “fair share”? When I said “turn the other cheek”, I wasn’t asking you to be reasonable. When I said go the second mile, I wasn’t asking you to be quite helpful. When I told you to love your enemies, I wasn’t asking you to be fair.

“No,” he goes on, warming to his subject, and you get the feeling that he’s been through this once or twice before. “No, who cares about reasonable, quite and fair? I don’t. God doesn’t. “We’re up to here with sensible people doing safe, sensible things. We want loving people, who do silly things – people who give away what they can’t afford to give away, people who spend time with lonely people when they haven’t got the time to do it. People who put energy into good causes after they have run out of energy, people who care about others as much as… as… well, as much as God cares about you.”

With sinking heart, you turn around and start walking away.

“Oi!” Jesus says, “where do you think you’re going?”

“Downstairs. I obviously don’t pass the test for up here.”
Jesus looks upwards in exasperation. “Strike me dead,” he says. “What are you talking about?”

“Well,” you say, “on every count I fail. You don’t want me up here. I didn’t live up to what you wanted me to, so I guess you don’t want me around.”

“Can’t you see, you numb skull,” he says, “that that’s the very point I’m making. We don’t work like that up here. God has got this thing about being foolishly loving, and we’ve spent the last couple of thousand years trying to get that lot on earth to get on the same wavelength.

“Look”, he goes on, speaking slowly, “love is about accepting people whoever they are, however smelly, shifty or shirty, and bringing the best out of them. Love is not about saying: Go to hell, and come back when you’re easy to love. If God worked like that, he and I would be ratting around in here like Darby and Joan in a castle. Don’t the Churches do any teaching these days?”

“Hurry up and come inside before you catch a cold standing in that draught.”


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Total Control

Pentecost 15, Year A, 2011, Patronal Festival

Text: Isaiah 26: 1-4; Colossians 1: 9-14; John 12: 20-26.

Let us bow our heads in prayer –
Loving God, you have called us to drink of your cup and undergo your baptism. May we lose our lives for your sake. Amen.
Believe it or not but this is the first time that I have actually preached on our Patronal Festival in the eight years that I have been here. We have generally always had the Melanesian Students leading this service and have always had visiting preachers.

I have to admit that handing over control of services as a Priest can sometimes be a harrowing experience – especially when you’re a perfectionist and something goes wrong and it’s totally out of your control.

What about you, do you like being in control?

When I was at University I had to study an experiment which has always stuck in my mind, even all these years latter, because of it’s meanness, and because I can’t stand unnecessary cruelty to animals.

The experiment consisted of two sets of monkeys being placed on electric chairs. Both sets were given random mild electric shocks. The difference between the two groups was that one had the power to partly control the shocks. If they learnt a complex routine of pushing buttons, they could reduce the number of shocks. However, the pattern of button pressing was too complicated to completely master, so that, no matter how hard they tried, they could never completely prevent the shocks.

The other group however, had no control at all over the number of shocks they received. They had a button to press, but it made no difference.

The monkeys who could sweat and struggle to have partial control over their world tended to develop ulcers and other signs of stress at a great rate, whereas the monkeys who got lots more unpleasant shocks, but had no control at all, showed no signs of ulcers, no signs of stress.

The moral of the story: For a comfortable life, if you are going to be in control of anything make sure you are in total control!

We can see the similar raising of the stress levels in M.Ps as they begin to debate and face again the possibility of a change from the lower level of control with M.M.P back to the more powerful control system of first past the post with the up coming election and referendum on this matter. Not that I’m suggesting that politicians are monkeys even though they sometimes behave like them.

All of which suggests that God probably suffers from chronic ulceration of the stomach lining, because that is the way God works – having ultimate responsibility, but not having control of the situation from day to day.

Not only has God handed over control to others, but, in our case, has handed most control over to a bunch of squabbling incompetents.

And Jesus was equally foolish. For three years he taught his world-changing message, and at the end, instead of writing a divine constitution, publishing a spiritual “Mein Kampf” and setting up an international university to train his disciples, with himself as the controlling head of a powerful world wide corporation; instead he let himself be killed in a most untimely manner, leaving it up to a rag tag bag of peasants and other illiterates, who thought he was a great personality but who hadn’t even grasped the fundamentals of what he was on about.

And these were the people that Jesus relied on to carry out his work, which was God’s work. No proper quality control. Like Father, like Son.

It’s uncomfortable, it may cause ulcers, or even worse; but it is the only Christian way. In every aspect of our lives, our power as Christians comes from giving away power and control. The Cross taught us this so clearly, that we took this potent symbol of power through – the – giving – away – of power as our very symbol.

If God has taught us the need to hand over control to others, even to apparently inadequate others, then we need to heed that lesson.

Today we celebrate the Martyr’s of Melanesia to whom our church is dedicated. Both the original Martyr’s of the nineteenth century being, John Coleridge Patterson and his companion Martyrs’ and the more recent seven Martyrs of the Melanesian Brotherhood who are featured on the front page of this week’s newsletter in an icon dedicated to them. All of these men were people who went to seek peace knowing full well the dangers to their lives. Through their faith in God they were prepared to hand over control of their lives to others, even inadequate others.

So who is a Martyr? To me a martyr is someone who has been able to relinquish their ego to the extent that their true self, the part of us that is Spirit and God like, shines through. That person, walking in the steps of Christ and therefore in truth, has come to the realization that even death is an illusion and is ultimately not to be feared. That is not to say, of course, that they don’t experience physical pain and fear on their journey to martyrdom. And I’m sure that Jesus experienced these same human emotions as he journeyed to the Cross. In a very real way a Martyr challenges our views of our physical existence and calls us to see beyond this world of fear to a world of hope, love and eternity.

We may not be called to give up our lives physically like a Martyr, but like Martyrs each of us is call to relinquish our egos, live in God’s Spirit, and walk in the steps of Christ.

So what are the things in your own life that you need to relinquish, what are the things that you need to cast off to find your true self? The part of you that is God centered and eternal.

And on this our Patronal Festival as we remember the Martyrs that we honor as a congregation what are the things we need to relinquish to reveal to our wider community the love of God more fully in our lives, so that God’s love might be more fully known? Amen.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Pentecost 12, Year A, 2011

Text: Ezekiel 33; 7-11; Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20.

Let us bow our heads in prayer –
Reconciling God, may we who confess your faith prove it in our lives together, with abundant joy, outrageous hope and dependence on nothing but your word alone, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Has listening to today’s Gospel passage confronted you about an issue you have with someone in the church, and how you should handle it?

I have to admit that I found there was a certain irony in our Diocesan Synod falling on the same week as this Sunday’s Gospel reading. I can’t say that my experience of Synods, or Episcopal Elections for that matter, have always been the greatest examples of a loving Church in action!

One of my greatest disappointment since becoming a Priest, as a young man in my twenties, has been my witness of the politics within the church and to find that the church in its treatment of individuals is often no better than the rest of society.

Living together as a Christian community is not always easy. Some of us know that first hand within our own congregation. We are human after all, and while we may have God as our guide and source of never-ending love, for Whom nothing is impossible, we forget and fail and fall out our love with God and each other.

Our Gospel lesson today is all about how to deal with the fact that we fail. What should we do, what would Christ have us do, when someone in our community sins? When someone does something harmful to themselves, or to another person, or puts distance between themselves and God, or between themselves and the community, or even between themselves and us specifically?

Well, the first step Jesus says is to go to them face to face. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” We need to be careful here because this is not about us pointing out another person’s sin for the sake of point out sin. It’s not about making us feel better or proving a point. In other words, it not about our own ego’s. It is about regaining a relationship with another person. It’s about oneness and love.

If the person you have gone to accepts what you have to say, says Jesus, that’s great. But if they don’t he says step two is to take other people along the next time you go to see the person, and if that doesn’t work step three is to go back again! In other words Jesus is saying we have to do everything in our power to get back into right relationship with our brother or sister.

If the person doesn’t listen over and over again, then we are not to pretend that nothing has happened. We are to notice and lament the fact that our brother or sister is missing from our table, from our faith community. There is a distance between us and we should admit it, rather than pretend not to notice or let the situation fester in our midst like an unattended wound.

I don’t know about you but I find this a very hard teaching of Jesus. Often we prefer a love that is out of focus and fuzzy to the sort of holy love that Jesus is talking about here which involves risk, the action of confrontation and communication. Let’s face it to confront and communicate with someone in love is sometimes a scary thing!

John Wesley realised this risk when he preached on today’s text during a time when some members of his parish were going behind each others backs gossiping and complaining about one another, and him! He said this of the first step of going privately to speak directly to someone, to confront them about their behaviour: “Do not avoid it so as to ‘shun the Cross’”.

Shunning the cross is how hard it might feel to speak directly to someone you might have an issue with rather than taking one of the easier and more usual ways of dealing with conflict. I’m sure we are all familiar with those ways. Like pretending it didn’t happen and just trying to let it go, meanwhile, being awkward around the person. Or, giving a person the cold shoulder treatment. Not saying anything to the person and crossing the street to avoid having to meet them. Or, perhaps taking ‘revenge.’ Never talking about what really happened, but making sure everyone knows somehow that person X is not to be trusted. Not talking directly with the person, but letting your hurt and anger seep into everything you do and say, poisoning the air around you, and putting more and more distance between you and the person who did you wrong.

Distance. That’s the key word here, isn’t it? Community is about togetherness, realising that we are all connected. Heaven is about oneness. Hell is about distance. In his book The Great Divorce, C.S Lewis imagines Hell as a gray and vast city. The strange thing about this city is that its inhabitancies only live on its outer edges. In the middle of the city there are rows of empty houses because the people who once lived in them quarrelled among themselves so much that they moved and then fought with their new neighbours and moved again until there was no place left to go except the outer edges. Everyone in Hell chooses distance instead of confrontation and positive communication as the solution to wrongs done against one another.

But what if a person refuses to acknowledge their sin and change their ways. What if after trying to communicate with them positively their continued presence is harmful? Well, says Jesus, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” They should be recognised as someone who is not willing to be in oneness, says Jesus. But here is the twist. Straight after this Jesus says “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind of earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The same words that Jesus said to Peter when he made his confession of faith back in chapter sixteen. Jesus is addressing our function here as the church and as individuals which is to be an instrument of forgiveness. Gentiles and tax collectors were the very people Jesus made a special focus of his ministry. He reached out to them with the message that they could turn away from sin, they could come home. Indeed, Jesus was known as a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus’ very ministry showed us that God accepts people unconditionally. People who are always telling us what’s wrong with us don’t help us much as they paralyze us with shame and guilt. People on the other hand who accept us help us to feel good about ourselves, to relax, to find our way. Accepting another person however doesn’t mean we can never share constructive suggestions. But like everything else, our behaviour is not so much the issue as the energy that it carries. If I’m criticising someone in order to change them, that’s my ego talking. If I’ve prayed and asked God to heal me of my judgement, however, and then I’m still led to communicate something, the style of my sharing will be one of love instead of fear. It won’t carry the energy of attack, but rather support. Behavioural change is not enough. Covering an attack with sugary icing, with a sweet tone of voice or therapeutic jargon is not helpful. When we speak from the ego, we call up the ego in others. When we speak from the Holy Spirit, we call up that same love within them. A person who is in error calls for teaching not attack. So when we do speak, the key to confrontation and communication is not what we say, but rather the attitude that lies behind what we say. Amen.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Rocky 5 Billion

Pentecost 10, Year A, 2011

Text: Isaiah 51: 1-6; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20.

Let us bow our heads in prayer –
Living God, help us as the Church to unlock our doors with the keys that you give us, so that others may be welcomed in. Amen.
Today’s Gospel passage is among the most studied and debated in the New Testament. Historically, of course this passage has been central to issues surrounding authority in the church, especially the authority of the episcopacy of the Bishop of Rome, or the Pope. However, I think this is a misunderstanding of what this passage is actually truly about and I want to suggest today that it is in fact suggesting something much deeper.

Our Gospel passage begins with Jesus and the disciples reaching Caesarea Philippi where he asks his disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”, which is followed by quite a debate among the disciples as to the ‘Son of Man’s’ identity. I don’t want to get into discussing the meaning of the term ‘Son of Man,’ suffice to say that this was an apocryphal figure who Jesus seemed to identify himself with.

Turning the attention to himself Jesus then asks them “But who do you say that I am?” Perhaps there is a bit of a clue here as to what Jesus is trying to suggest in asking the question about the ‘Son of Man’ first, and then in the words ‘I am’, which are words used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to God. In other words maybe Jesus is suggesting here ‘I am God’.

It’s important to realise that Caesarea Philippi was in the far north western part of the Holy Land. This was an area in which Jews mixed with Gentiles and where Roman rule was immediate and not exercised through local Herodian kings. And so when Peter says to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ in response to Jesus’ question, Peter’s statement could in fact be interpreted in a very revolutionary way and could be interpreted not only as a challenge to the religious establishment but also the power of Ceasar himself.

Of course it is impossible to separate the scripture from its historical context and Peter may well have understood this implication in what he was saying, but I don’t think Peter’s prime motivation in making this statement was political – but was rather spiritual. And this is acknowledged in Jesus answer when he says “Blessed are you, Simon son of Johan! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Jesus is saying that Peter has finally got it. Peter finally understands his true identity. Of course this does not mean that Peter totally understood Jesus’ identity and all it’s implication for his own life, as we are to later witness in his denial of Jesus before his crucifixion, but Peter has at least got started!

Peter becomes the very first person to make the great Christian Confession of faith. He names Jesus as the Messiah, the hope of Israel, the Son of the God who created heaven and earth. Prior to Peter the Gospels say that only the demons knew who Jesus was. Now Jesus is beginning to be known by people as well – something new is happing, something new is being built.

In response to Peter’s confession Jesus gives him a new name – ‘Peter’. And this truly is a new name. There is absolutely no record of anyone using ‘Peter’ or ‘Petros’ in Greek meaning rock, or ‘Cephas’ the same word in Aramaic, as a proper name before this event. And so in spite of moves to the contrary, Peter really was ‘Rocky 1’!

In the Hebrew mind a name was a summary of the existence of the thing named. To change a person’s name, like God changing Abram’s name to Abraham or Jacob’s name to Israel, was to alter fundamentally that person’s identity, relationships and mission. It still works that way today. To confess Jesus as the Christ is to be changed, it is to be given, by him a new name, a new identity and mission. At our Baptism our new identity is recognised in the giving of our first name, which is why our first name is also called our ‘Christian name’.

Part of our name, part of our identity that we receive from God is the same as Peter’s. He is Rocky 1, the first rock of the edifice of God’s building the Church, that’s Church with a capital ‘C’ by the way, and we are in effect the movie sequels. Have you ever thought of yourself as a movie sequel before? You are Rocky 5 billion, or whatever. The same director, same plot, just a larger cast. Through us and by us, Christ continues to build God’s church. Though us Christ continues to be present to the world.

Jesus then says something very interesting to Peter ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

This famous verse has been used in many ways. It is a pity that all too often it has served as a “proof text” by the church, with a small ‘c’, to justify exactly the sort of power Jesus opposed. The power Jesus claims and gives to his followers, the true Church, has nothing to do with force, coercion, dominance, or “control,” which are the attributes the church with a small ‘c’ have lorded over society for so long.

Rather Jesus is addressing our very function here as his Church. To be keys of forgiveness to the world. Remember Jesus was teaching within a political context and there were those who would have liked him to lead a political uprising against the Roman authorities, and who thought he was going to do just that. Jesus here is saying, however, that freedom is not found in doing things in an earthly way but rather in a heavenly way through forgiveness. And it is for this reason that he then sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. He doesn’t want Peter’s recognition of him as the Messiah, and his mission or love and forgiveness to be confused with the political context in which he finds himself at that point in time. That’s is not what he is on about.

So as individual and corporate members of the church, as many parts of one body, while our gifts may be different, as recognised in our Romans reading, our function is the same. We are each individually, and as a corporate body, called to see forgiveness as our function and it is only then that the world will be brought out of darkness into the light. Forgiveness is the demonstration that you are the light of the world and it’s through your forgiveness that you will find God. Therefore, it is through your forgiveness that your salvation lies.

Stop and think for a moment about what you need to forgive in your life. Illusions about yourself and the world are one. That is why all forgiveness is a gift to yourself. Every time we attack someone else or ourselves we call upon our own weakness, while each time we forgive we call upon the strength of Christ. Only forgiveness removes our sense of weakness, fear, guilt and pain. Only forgiveness can bring us to the place that God wants us to be. Jesus has given us the keys of the kingdom as descendents of Peter. It is up to us to unlock the forgiveness within ourselves and help the world proclaim of Jesus “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Amen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

“It is I, Have No Fear”

Peace Sunday, Pentecost 8, Year A, 2011

Text: 1 Kings 19: 9-18; Romans 10: 5-15; Matthew 14: 22-33

Let us bow our heads in prayer –
God of peace, in the midst of the pain of this world and the church, help us to step out and walk in faith with You. Amen.
It’s important to realise that just prior to our Gospel lesson for today Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist is murdered by Herod, an immoral and weak king and his family. Both John and Jesus had started their brief ministries together as courageous prophets, proclaiming God’s justices, calling people to repentance and inviting them to find their way to God. After hearing the terrible news brought to him by John’s disciples, Jesus withdraws to be alone, to grieve and to pray only to be confronted by a large crowd in the story of the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’ which proceeds today’s passage. After feeding them Jesus once again attempts to have some time alone, and so we come to today’s Gospel where Jesus literally forces the disciples get into a boat and to go on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee before he dismisses the crowds and goes off to spend some quality time by himself on a mountain in prayer.

I’m sure through our human empathy we can begin to imagine what Jesus might have felt after the death of John, but, as I said last week when it comes to fear, we have to do a rethink. We are confronted here by the one who always greeted his friends with the words, “Do not be afraid.” We can recognise in Jesus emotions what we, ourselves, have experienced; but fear is not one of them. What is very evident in Jesus after the death of John is Jesus’ sense of urgency – the realisation that the end will come very soon, that when he sets his face towards Jerusalem he sets his face towards his own death.

While Jesus is praying the disciples are sailing to the other side of The Sea of Galilee heading for the “other side,” which our text doesn’t point out until later means “enemy territory – the land of unclean gentiles,” or non Jews. As morning dawns the disciples are against the wind and are battered by the waves. It’s important to note that there is no indication at all from Matthew that they are afraid about being on the boat. Many of them were fishermen after all. They had however shown a lot of fear within themselves in the story of the ‘Feeding of the Five Thousand’, just prior to getting onto the boat. Being disciples of Jesus they were now scared for their own lives after what had happened to John, and mixed in with that when confronted by the needs of a large crowd they did not now how to react. They felt under attack from all direction and as a result felt very fearful. No doubt they still felt this way as they sailed on ‘to the other side’, a place of uncertaincy and fear.

For reasons not explained Jesus seemingly comes out of nowhere – “walking towards them on the Sea.” It’s only when they see Jesus walking on the water that we are told they become terrified. Not that they actually recognise him – thinking that he was a ghost!

The disciples are now truly terrified. The same word in Greek is used to express Herod’s fear at getting the news from the magi about the child to be born king; the same fear that rendered Zechariah mute when an angel of God appeared to him in the Temple; and the same fear the disciples experienced in the upper room after Jesus is crucified when they though he was once again a ghost.

So it was not the storm that tested the disciples, but rather the presence of Jesus in the storm. And it was not simply Jesus’ presence, but what he had to say that would truly test them “Take heart; do not be afraid; it is I”. Words that take us back to the burning bush, the “I am who I am” statements throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the “I am” statement of Jesus in John’s Gospel. In other words “I am God”. Jesus’ unrecognised presence on the sea was a threat to the disciples, but the real test where these words “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Can they trust what he says? Can they trust in God? Can we?

Isn’t it true in our own lives that when we are confronted by God in the storms of our own lives it is often God we are more fearful of than the storm itself. What do I mean by that? I mean we really don’t believe that only God’s plan for our salvation will work. Our ego’s plan for salvation centres around holding on to our fears, onto our grievances. Our egos tell us that if only someone else spoke or acted differently or if some external circumstance or event were changed we would be saved. Maybe you can think of an example in your own life at the moment. Each grievance we hold onto is a declaration and an assertion that says, ‘If this were different, I would be saved.” The change of mind necessary for salvation then is demanded of everyone and everything expect ourselves.

It’s Peter who steps forward and bravely answers Jesus. Interestingly Peter prefers to take of the role of being the tester rather than the tested. His words echo the words of Satan testing Jesus in the wilderness, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!”… “If you are the Son of God….”

But Jesus simply tells him to “Come”. Peter has no choice. He jumps out of the boat in faith and walks towards Jesus. Peter does quite well making is way over the waves until he “notices” the wind, and fright takes over, he loses his focus and he begins to sink. “Save me” he calls to Jesus, who immediately takes him by the hand.

God’s plan for our salvation works simply because, by following God’s direction, you seek for salvation where it is. But if you are to succeed, as God promises you will, you must be willing to seek there only. Otherwise, your purpose is divided and you will attempt to follow two plans for salvation that are diametrically opposed in all ways. The result can only bring confusion, misery and a deep sense of failure and despair. Like Peter if we focus on the wrong thing we sink in fear.

As I said last week, fear is always generated from a sense of attack. Think of something you are fearful of in your own life at the moment. What’s causing that sense of fear? Maybe you have a grievance against somebody. Whatever it is I guarantee it is caused by a sense of attack. Fear always produces guilt, guilt that we place upon other people because of the situation that we believe they have put us in. Or we turn fear in on ourselves and feel guilty because of the situation we have put ourselves in and are fearful of the consequences. Either way we always feel guilt within ourselves. The only way we can overcome attack and fear is to forgive the guilt we put on others and the guilt that we put on ourselves. Something which of course is more easily said than done. And as I said last week it is easier to understand the idea of forgiving our neighbour than it is to forgive ourselves. Forgiveness of ourselves is something we often don’t want to face up to.

When we trust Jesus words, “Take heart, do not be afraid, it is I,” when we jump out of our boats, his outstretched hands are there to save us if we begin to sink. Our baptism and the gifts of faith that it signifies does not by any means guarantee a lifetime of smooth sailing ahead. The Sea of Galilee, still is subject to storms today. And like Peter, and the other disciples, we still find ourselves afraid and terrified and calling out to God. But only Christ overcomes our dread and terror of what the waters deep beneath – and within us – may contain. Once again Jesus shows us that the only way to overcome our own fears and pain is to surrender. To hand things over to God in faith. “Take heart”, he says to us again, “It is I; have no fear.” It is only when we truly hear this that the wind will cease and we will be able to proclaim “Truly you are the Son of God”. Amen.