Pentecost Day

This is the text of the message I presented to KSSM on Sunday 9th June 2019, the Day of Pentecost.

Genesis 15:5-11, 17-18; Tobit 2:1-5; Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost.  Pentecost is one of those tricky days when a preacher could say so much that he ends up saying nothing at all.  More than once I have been in church on a Sunday when a lay person gets up to preach and he takes every opportunity to say everything he knows in that one sermon, such that three sermons were probably preached and none of them were particularly good.  I don’t say that as a slight on lay people, I’m a lay person myself and have been for over forty seven years.  No I’m speaking as someone who might easily have said so many things today, and who has had to discipline himself to keep it down to one sermon and one and a half hours.  So, if I don’t mention your pet Pentecost topic today that’s okay, come back next year.

The other thing about Pentecost, other than that there is so much to say about it, is that there is an obvious story.  Wind and fire, indeed tongues of wind and fire, and speech, and 3000 saved in one sermon.  A good preacher might just read Acts 2:1-21 and say “okay, youse all know how it goes, that’ll do” and end it there.  What a blessing it is for you that you don’t have a good preacher, you have a great preacher, so I’ll be here and you’ll be there for longer than five minutes…far longer than five minutes.

I am going to begin today by talking about Shavuot, the Jewish festival of weeks and the reason why so many people were gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. The significance of Shavuot is laid out by God in Leviticus 23:15-21 and basically it is a harvest festival, which later in Jewish history became associated with the giving of law at Sinai.  Seven Sabbaths and then the day after the first blade of the harvest was celebrated at Pesach (Passover) the Jews celebrated a festival of new grain with a wave offering. Food was prepared at home and brought to the gathering, with ritual involvement from the priest before it is consumed, and no ordinary work is done. Shavuot is one of three regalim, pilgrimage festivals (alongside Pesach and Sukkoth), hence the crowds in Jerusalem on that day, although from the language the writer of Acts uses it is likely that many of the foreign Jews listed as present in Acts 2 probably lived in Jerusalem as expats.

In the Hebrew tradition known as Jubilees Shavuot is considered to be an eternal festival, it has always been celebrated in Heaven, and Noah was first to celebrate it on earth.  The events of Genesis 15 where God promises a natural heir for Abram and the land that Abram then occupied and much more would be for his descendents, and Genesis 17 where the same promise is repeated to the renamed Abraham occur in the same Jewish month.  And it’s also in Jubilees that we read the tradition that Moses received the Law on the fifteenth day of the third month.  The story of Exodus chapters 19-24, are summed up in Jubilees 1:4 where the presence of God looks like burning fire on the top of the mountain.  As Christians we look back to the fiery bush where God’s spirit had been on Moses, and the anniversary day of the fire circling Mt Sinai, where in Acts 2:4 Ruach haKodesh was on everyone in the room and the fires burned on (but did not consume) their heads.

Shavuot has been celebrated by Jewish people throughout history: it isn’t some random Bible demand that was later forgotten.  We read in Tobit 2:1 where Tobit, an exile celebrated the festival in his home in Nineveh and where with his son Tobias, Tobit shared the plenty of his table as an act of rejoicing.  There is a direct comparison between Tobit 2:2 and Deuteronomy 16:11.  We also read in Tobit 2:4-5 and this is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:8, where love for people comes before the ritual requirements of the festival.  Tobit and Tobias go and rescue an abandoned corpse, (think about what you’ve been told about the Good Samaritan story and how the priest and Levite each avoided the dead man beside the road), and Paul delayed his departure from Ephesus until after Shavuot because an important task has been assigned to him by God.  Paul is a Pharisee and he makes the important rabbinical legal decision that it is more important to obey God’s direct instruction to stay and minister than it is for him to acknowledge the generic obligation to travel to Jerusalem for Pesach.  By making and then recording his decision Paul shows us that the festival was still happening in his day, and that he’d have gone, except that God specifically told him to stay where he was.

So, with the history of Shavuot in mind, and remembering that everything we read from Acts this morning occurs on the day of anniversary of all of that, let’s earwig in as Peter preaches Joel. The traditions of the rabbis and their commentaries on history and interpretation of scripture suggest that Galileans are ignorant: hence the comments in Acts 2:7.  Think of that also with the point made by Peter in Acts 2:18 that in the world to come (The Messianic Kingdom of God which is what Joel was prophesying), the Spirit will be poured out even on female slaves.  God has no favourites and there is no hierarchical list with the undeserving missing the cut: no, instead of that every person gets all that God offers.  And, get this, this news is proclaimed to every nation under Heaven, since all are present (metaphorically speaking), and not only does every nation hear the gospel, every nation hears the gospel in its own dialect.  Whether you say pater or whether you say abba everybody says “Father”: that’s the point.

Pentecost is a story of wind and fire, of what the Spirit brought and did.  God came close and the city was impacted, impacted by preaching and language yes, but that’s just the evidence.  The true impact was Presence and that is what the Church needs more than human activity.  The life-giving Breath of God, which blew across the shapeless void before Creation, is now present in sound and fire in a room filled with scared little weird guys.  And like Adam the spirit is breathed into the disciples of Jesus, who filled with life (just as the pile of dust was in making a man), come to life and declare the glory of God through testimony.  When Jesus said to Nicodemus you must be born again in John 3:5 he also speaks of the breath of God (ruach) breathing where it does, the wind is blowing where the wind blows. It is not we who breathe the Spirit but the Spirit who breathes us, as if we are bellows and God is the one pumping.  We breathe to live when it comes to air, but we live to breathe when it comes to Spirit, we live when we are being breathed, our purpose in God is to bellow the Spirit.

Pentecost is a new act of creation; not the act of another Creation, but another act of Creation in that the second one is like the first one, not a new one to replace the old.  Got that?  Pentecost is God again being God, because God is always God.  The point of telling the Adam and Nicodemus stories today is because we are not spiritually alive without the breath of God any more than we can be alive physically without continuously breathing air.  The activity of the Spirit’s breathing us is an eternal activity: God does it and God is always doing it.  This is why “you must be born again”, not because if you aren’t born again you’ll go to Hell, but because if you aren’t further born you won’t be further created: you won’t actually exist in spirit, only in body.  So, again, this is what it means to be born again: it does not and never did mean for Jesus that you convert to Christianity through some verbal formula beginning with “repeat after me, ‘Dear Lord Jesus…’”.  It does mean and always did mean for Jesus that you are regenerated by the filling of God, which comes through Baptism in the Spirit (complete immersion in fluid, in this case the fluid is wind and fire).  Again, it’s not about praying a “Sinner’s Prayer” on the way in, nor is it about “Speaking in Tongues” on the way out of some specific and mystical experience designated as “altar call”.  Of course it can happen in church, and the front of the hall is just as good as the back, my point is that that’s not the formula that Jesus told Nicodemus, so we don’t have to use that formula to be effective.  There is no matching formula for baptism in the Spirit like the one for baptism in water because it is God’s Spirit who does it, and God’s Spirit does what God’s Spirit does.

You all know that sometimes I like to speak about what the Bible doesn’t say, or what God doesn’t require: but why don’t I just focus on what God does say?  Fair question; but sometimes as pastor I need to speak on God’s behalf to correct error, I need to expose the lie, or the half-truth, so that the truth is made plain.  So here it is more plainly: the altar call style of conversion is effective, it works, God honours it, and if you were saved like that then you are saved.  But it’s not the only way.  To say that someone else’s conversion is not effective because it didn’t look like yours is not right.  In fact it’s wrong.  In fact it’s rude, and it may even be blasphemy, but we’ll stop at rude at this point.  The Bible says that the Spirit moves; so whether you believe in The Bible, or whether you believe in The Spirit, you must accept that ultimately God does whatever God does, and God cannot (and indeed will not) be predicted.  I don’t need to add “whether you believe in the Bible and the Spirit” because if you do believe in both then you already know that God is sovereign and resists all boxes.

One my commentators (Boice) observed that it wasn’t just fire that was seen on Pentecost Day, but tongues of fire.  Why tongues: because your tongue (along with your larynx) is the hardware for speech.  To speak is to exhale (breathe) and to use your tongue; and when there is a tongue of fire then the glory and witness of God is what you speak.  Fire is a specific symbol and sign of God’s presence in the Hebrew Traditions, think of the fire pot moving between the slain animals in Genesis 15:17 marking God’s activity (by God’s presence) in declaring a unilateral covenant with Abram.  Think of the pillar of fire ahead of the Hebrews in the wilderness, and then enveloping the sacred mountain where only Moses (and only by invitation) was allowed to approach the presence of God.

This is what I long for and what I desire for you: the presence of God is what Pentecost is about.  It’s not about whether you speak in tongues; it is about is whether God breathes you into life and breathes life into you, and whether your tongue speaks of God’s flame of warmth and light.  Are you close to God?  That’s the point of Pentecost.  Are you close enough to God that when God moves you are disturbed and made to move too?  That’s the point of Pentecost.  Are you moving toward and alongside The Father, (abba, pater, bapa, otosan, alab, vader, otec, dad) and looking forward to the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God where everyone lives secure and happy in God’s household?  That’s the point of Pentecost: so let’s do that.

Amen.

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Ascension (WWHS)

This is the text of the reflection I perpared for the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) Day Centre service of worship on 4th June 2019.  I didn’t present it as I was called away that morning for a pastoral need.

Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11

 Have you ever been told a story that has left you wanting more?  You know, the broad brush-strokes are there, and maybe the point of the story has actually been shared, so you do know what’s going on; but somehow you’re still left wanting more?  Is that a familiar experience for you, do you know what I’m talking about?

Thursday last week was the feast of the Ascension in the calendars of those churches which celebrate such things.  It’s not a big deal in the Uniting Church, and it’s no deal whatsoever in the Churches of Christ, but the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and the various national forms of Eastern Orthodoxy tend to get excited about such things.  If you don’t know what ascension is then let me tell you, it’s the anniversary of the day when Jesus returned to Heaven for the final time after his resurrection.  Ascension is forty days after Easter, and ten days before Pentecost, and since both of those vents are always on a Sunday Ascension is always on a Thursday.  So it’s easy to overlook if you’re not looking for it especially, it’s never a Sunday thing so it can be left alone.  But I think that’s a shame, because I like ascension.

It seems that Theophilus, the addressed recipient of the gospel according to Luke also liked ascension, because the accounts of it appear in both Luke and Acts.  It’s as if there was a reply to the first book where old mate Theo said “ta for the Jesus story, but I’m a bit confused about the end part: what happened when he went back to Heaven the last time?”  Then the author, maybe Luke, wrote a bit more detail in the first chapter of Acts before going on to describe the coming of the Spirit on the Church at Pentecost in Acts 2, and then on with the rest of the book as a rundown on the activities of some of the apostles.

In the first story, recorded in Luke 24:50-53 and describing an event that takes place in the evening of Easter Day, Jesus simply steps away from the group and then goes up.  Previously on that day Jesus had walked out of the tomb and bypassed the garden, (it’s actually angels who speak to the women), and appeared on the Emmaus road.  After walking to Emmaus he vanishes, only to reappear in Jerusalem where he eats some fish, leads a Bible study, and then takes the group out to Bethany where he speaks a blessing over the disciples and then steps out of view. It’s no wonder that Theophilus needs a bit more information.

In the second story, recorded in Acts 1:1-11, there’s a brief recap of the whole of Luke in Acts 1:1-2, and then we get a bit more info about that final few hours.  The first thing we are told, in Acts 1:3, is that the ascension takes place forty days after the resurrection and does not occur on Easter Day evening at all.  This isn’t necessarily a contradiction, the two books have different points to make and the emphasis on events is different.  Jesus commands the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes with baptism, and they ask when the Kingdom will come, and he says that that’s not their concern but that they will be involved in its arrival.  Then, as in the first story, Jesus goes up, and again like the Easter story angels appear and ask why the disciples are looking for someone who obviously isn’t there: Acts 1:11 and Luke 24:5b.

So, two stories with basically the same plot, told by the same teller to the same hearer: the second story filling in some of the gaps left by the first, but making the same point.  And what is that point?  The point is that Jesus is bodily removed from Earth now, he’s no longer here like he was before the crucifixion, and he’s no longer here in his risen form which can eat fish and appear in locked rooms or alongside open highways at will.  But God is still with us, in the form of the Holy Spirit who came and filled these same men ten days after and who has never returned to Heaven without returning again to Earth.  The ascending Christ, risen and glorified, is seen in the descending Spirit, powerful and glorious, and that experience, that vision, that presence and comfort will never be taken from the Earth until the fullness of the Kingdom comes to complete the work of Christ.

The message is lift up your heads, not to look at the empty sky, but to look away from the sorrowful ground.  There is no need to fear, there is no need to despair, there is no need to feel alone or abandoned.  The risen one now sits enthroned in Heaven it is true, but the king on his throne is a good thing; and the blessing of Father, Son, and Spirit almighty which Jesus prayed over his friends in his final human words on earth remains upon us always.

Amen.

Wait (Easter 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 26th May 2019.

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67:2; John 14:23-29

In our story from the Christian Traditions this morning we read how Paul heard God speak in the visionary voice of a man of Macedonia, leading Paul to change his direction and go there instead of elsewhere to proclaim the gospel.  Paul headed straight for the capital city, Philippi, by as direct a route as he could find:  Samothrace is a mountainous island and so a bit of a navigational landmark, and Neapolis is the coastal part and maybe the port town for Philippi.  So it looks like he’s in a hurry (and wouldn’t you be if God had called you with such a demonstration) and he has no interest in side-tracks or delays.  And once Paul and his crew get to Philippi they do nothing until Shabbat when they leave town and find a quiet place to pray, probably to ask something like “righto God, we’re, now what?”

So, Paul is not necessarily shunning the synagogue, there probably isn’t one in Philippi so he goes where the Jews go, which is beside the river, and it is there that the crew meets Lydia of Thyatira.  So, who is Lydia?  Well, she is Greek, (her name tells us that), and she’s from Thyatira in the district of Lydia which is later named as host town for one of the seven churches of Revelation.  We know therefore that Lydia is neither Jewish nor Judean, but we are told that she honours God as revealed within Judaism, and one of the Greek words used to describe her is used elsewhere in Acts to describe people who are “devout”, so we can join the dots there, maybe.  Anyway, Lydia receives the missionary’s baptism and she invites Paul’s group into her home.

This is a sort of Paul-version of the conversion of Cornelius under Peter’s  tutelage from Acts 10 which we foreshadowed a few weeks ago when we heard about Tabitha of Joppa.  Where Cornelius was on active duty at Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea and where Pilate and his mates lived most of the time: Philippi is also a military town but is a veterans’ colony, so a soldier settler place.  Lydia is a trader who sells upmarket clothing, probably just the thing for Mrs Centurion in her husband’s retirement, so she’s a great social contact for Paul in Philippi.  But, but, even more important than her entre to “farshion” and society, the fact that Paul does take up her offer of hospitality demonstrates that he accepts her as a sister-in-Christ.  She’s a Christian, and many would say she’s the first European convert.

So that’s all pretty good then.  Lydia accepts Christ, Paul accepts Lydia, and the gospel and its missionaries have an opened door to European soil via a respectable city of good, middle class retirees with disposable income.  But none of that would have been the situation if Paul had hushed the Spirit and pushed into Roman Asia or Bithynia.  So I wonder, has God ever closed a door on you like that?  Has God closed several in a row like that?   Twice the Spirit resisted Paul’s attempts to change state, until God spoke to Paul in this vision and gave him the direction God wanted Paul to go.  Sometimes we hear no (and need to hear no) before we hear yes/go.  So, do you know how to “Praise God in the Hallway” as some would have it; can you walk forward until God opens an eventual door?  How far, or for how long, can you walk that dark corridor of locked doors until you tell God you’ve had enough and you decide to kick one in just to reach the sunlight?

The compositor suggests in Psalm 67:2 that one of the observable signs of God’s blessing is when God’s way is made known; in other words you know God loves you when God actively directs you.  This is good to remember, especially when all God seems to be saying to you is “no, not there,” or “no, not yet,” and it’s never “yes” or “here”.  Sometimes, from experience, I wonder what is worse; is it when God is always saying “no”, or is it when God isn’t saying anything at all?  Experience, again, prefers silence, because at least when God is silent you can sit down in good conscience and wait for instruction.  When God is saying “no” and you’re not even allowed to sit down, so you’re bobbing up and down like a child anticipating the paused soundtrack in a game musical chairs you look and feel like an idiot.  As a preacher I’m supposed to tell you that the clear voice of God is always preferable to the complete silence of God, as a Christian of some life experience I will tell you that that is not true.  But yes, the psalmist is right, if God is talking to you and showing an interest in your way then you know that God is interested in you for you, and that is good: it worked out well for Paul, and for Lydia because Paul was faithful.  It has and always did work out well for me too, but theological hindsight can be a bit arrogant too; waiting is hard, but it’s worth it.

In today’s story from the Jesus Traditions, drawn from John 14:23-29 and Jesus’ last meal with his mates we get to earwig in on Jesus saying much the same thing.  If you love me, he says, then you’ll do what I ask: not because I’m a diva but because I’m speaking the words The Father has given me, and God’s words are good stuff.  This is how Jesus reveals God to the Church and not to the world at large, so to this degree the message is hidden.  Jesus is speaking in this situation to his mates, the twelve around the table, and through the gospel as a book to the Church, the ones who love Jesus and only to them.  The world will not do as Jesus commands, they don’t love him and they don’t know him; so why should we expect them to obey someone they don’t know or love?  Who is God to tell them what to do, God is a stranger to them.  But God is not a stranger to us, just as God was not a stranger to Paul, or Lydia for that matter, and just as Jesus was not a stranger to any of the twelve.  Jesus is lord to us and friend, and how does Jesus know this, well just as the psalmist said, because we listen to the One who speaks to us and we do what God tell us.  And when we do that, and don’t do what God tells us not to do (or do what God has not told us to do), when we do what God tells us to do then God acts through our doing and great stuff, God stuff, gets done.

Well that sounds good doesn’t it?  Do what God tells you to do, because if you know you’re being directed by someone whose love for you is wider than the cross, then you are confident that won’t be told to do something dangerous or stupid.  And God will work in your doing, and great things happen like the coming of the gospel to the continent of Europe: glory to God, kudos to Paul.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of what God is doing in the world; does anyone here not want to be involved when God starts doing stuff in Kaniva and Serviceton?  When I’m calling for volunteers on God’s behalf is there anyone who’d rather keep his or her hand down?  Yeah, didn’t think so, so we’re all agreed: God, come and tell us what to do.

And what if God did, and God said…“wait, just sit.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not now.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not there.”

And what if God did, and God said…“no, not there either…or there.”

Last week we spoke a bit about places where it can be hard to be a Christian, but where the hardest of Christians live as a response.  Not the sooky flabby Christians of Australia, people like you and me who need to HTFU, harden the faith up; but proper Christians who deal with persecution and violence and may face a choice between Christ and murder, or denial and release.  Inspiring stuff, and I pray that you are continuing and contending in prayer.  It’s still Ramadan until sundown on 2nd June, and it will still be the twenty-first century in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East well after that.  That kind of horror does hold some fantasy about it, that God might call you not to Macedonia but to The Maldives, or Medina, or…someplace in North Korea that starts with “M”.  Martyrdom and heroism, what a calling!  But to be honest, all of us in this room will probably be called to stay if not in this room then at least in this district, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are absent.  And God will call you “not there, not yet, not now,” blah de blah.  What do we do with that?

Well, we do what Jesus commands via John 14:26, we wait for the Advocate and we lean on God.  Just because the instruction to go is not coming yet does not mean that Godself is absent: Holy Spirit is here, now just as much as Holy Spirit will be with us there, later.  You don’t have to wait for God without God, wait for God with God.  An interesting piece of Christian language is that we “wait on God”.  “On.” Think about that for a sec.  Do we wait on God as if God is a chair or a mat, or a playful Daddy lying on the floor with his toddler sitting on his chest?  Do we wait “on” God?  Meh, why not, that can work, can’t it?  Or do we wait on God as if God is a patron and we are wait staff, waitresses and waiters, maybe Baristas if we’re hip enough.  While God is sitting and waiting, and causing us to not go there and not go now, maybe we can serve God where we are.  Okay God is not in a cafe, but have some imagination in your prayer and worship, what would it look like in real life to “waiter on God”.

In two weeks’ time we will have reached the end of the Christian season of Easter, and the Feast of Pentecost will be upon us.  I’ll be in red, you’re welcomed to join in, and we’ll talk about fire and wind and power and spirit and language and it will be awesome.  But do we have to wait another fortnight for awesome?  Do we have to wait only another fortnight for awesome?  What if we wait a fortnight and the only awesome thing is my red shirt, and it’s an otherwise “Sunday in West Wimmera”.  These are not rhetorical questions, I do want you to answer them, but not now and not here.

Two weeks after Pentecost we enter the Christian season of Creationtide, and I’ll be in green until the Sunday before Lent.  That period in Christian thinking is about growth and newness, so yes there is some waiting involved but as all of you who are farmers know, or know someone who is a farmer know, if you just wait for growth and do nothing then nothing will grow.  I have asked the Shared Ministry council, so the Uniting Church elders and councillors and the Church of Christ deacons together, to ask God what God is saying to Kaniva and Serviceton, and what God is saying to the Shared Ministry church.  I invite you to join them, join us really because I’m on that council too.  Ask God, what do you want from us, and what do you want for us?  What do you want for our towns, Lord?

Maybe there’s another Paul somewhere who tonight will see a vision of a “Man of Wimmera” begging him to come.  Maybe there’s a man or woman in Wimmera who tonight will see a vision of a “Man from ‘someplace in North Korea starting with M’”, or “Melbourne”, or “Merretts South Road”.

Let’s be ready, whether we are Paul or Lydia in the coming story, let’s be ready.

Amen.

A Dedicated Faith (Praying with “Open Doors Australia” during Ramadan)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Unting Church for Sunday 19th May 2019.  It was a special service of prayer and reflection for the Church under Persecution and for Muslims seeking God during Ramadan.

Sirach 2:10; Romans 12:12; Hebrews 12:1; Ephesians 6:18

Two weeks ago, (on my birthday would you believe it), I was in tears at the end of the service.  I was crying not because it was my birthday, (47 years is nothing to be ashamed or desolate about), but because one of my heroes of faith had died.  A young woman who had authored four books alongside countless blog posts, emails, and tweets; a young wife and mother with a three year old and a one year old child at home, and only thirty seven years old, passed away in hospital after complications following treatment for an otherwise ordinary, unrelated health complaint.  The shock of her death caught me off guard and I wept for her, for her family, and for her legacy.  Sometime when we lose a hero of the faith we lose something few others understand.

Today I want to speak about two more heroes of the faith, one thirty years dead and another old but alive in this life, heroes of the Christian Church in the twentieth century.  I do that in honour of the work that the Church is doing at the edge of its world, which nonetheless is the centre of God’s attention.

One of these great heroes, someone perhaps better known to you than the recently called home Rachel Held Evans, the young mother of my opening paragraph, is the Dutch survivor of the Nazis Cornelia Arnolda Johanna ten Boom.  Corrie, as she is known, passed away in 1983, (the year I turned 11), and I remember her story from a cartoon version of her book “The Hiding Place”.  I’m sure I saw a movie version around the same time too.  After her release from penal detention in a German camp, a place where her sister had died of illness and neglect, a place to which all the ten Boom women had been sent for the crime of keeping Jews hidden from the Gestapo, Corrie travelled widely speaking of God’s grace to her and her family.  She was and is remembered for her love, and her attempts at forgiveness, even when met by a former camp guard at one of her rallies.  Corrie proclaimed for all of her days that God is always good, even in Ravensbruch.  Corrie’s was a story of dedicated faith and the message was inspiring to me as a church-going Aussie kid who liked to read. I suspect it may have been for you too.

Another cartoon book hero of my Christian childhood, and another Dutch person of dedicated faith, is Andrew van der Bijl.  Brother Andrew and his Beetle full of Bibles is a legend of our religion, taking his chances with the Communists who routed the Nazis from Eastern Europe only to plant their own special kind of restrictiveness.  Unlike Corrie, Brother Andrew is still with us, although he’s just had his 91st birthday last week so we take nothing for granted.  Brother Andrew is no longer smuggling Bibles under the Iron Curtain, not because he’s old, but because the need is no longer there.  However, his Open Doors organisation is still involved in supporting the Church and proclaiming the gospel in places where it is dangerous and difficult to do so.  In fact Andrew had already pulled back from his work in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 so as to focus on an area of greater and ongoing need: the Muslim World.

We are currently in the Islamic month of Ramadan.  Okay maybe “we” aren’t, but that’s the month our Muslim neighbours are living in at the moment, and it is a time of daylight fasting and prayer for them.  In view of this, Open Doors in Australia and New Zealand is encouraging local churches in our countries where it is relatively easy and safe to do so, indeed places where it is downright cushy, to join in prayer for two key things.  First, that Muslims in their dedicated acts of devotion this month, in their prayer and fasting, in their searching and beseeching, are met by the Living Word of God who is Jesus.  Oh God, let those who seek God earnestly find God completely: let them see Jesus.  So that’s first, and that’s awesome.  Isn’t is awesome?  Yes, it is.  And second, that we would pray safety and protection upon the Church, and local churches, in nations where Ramadan is a central event.  There’s no baiting here, but there is reality, that when Ramadan comes around some believers in the Quran seek to purge the world of infidelity and impurity by knocking over the Christians.  Maybe they’re tired and hungry, maybe they’re radicalised by the nature of their devotion, but Ramadan can be an especially bad time to be a Christian.  So we stand with our brother-sisters in Christ that they are protected from violence, and that they take up opportunities to show love and compassion for their neighbours who are seeking God with fervour.

In many of the countries where Islam is the majority religion, and in some where it is the official or state religion, there was once a vibrant Christianity.  Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and in the days between Jesus and Mohammed the countries that are now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria (to name only four) had numerous bishops and cathedrals.  I am not here to talk about the destruction of those cultures in the seventh century, or the ways in which Christianity fought back in the eleventh to fifteenth centuries in Crusades and the Reconquest of Spain: but I am going to point to what has gone.

In recent weeks, since Easter really, we’ve had a few readings from Revelation.  We have heard how Revelation was addressed as a letter of encouragement and sent to seven churches as a prophetic act for the building up of all people toward the end of the first Christian century.  The question I’m asking today is what happens to Churches who do not overcome?  Churches can die; look at the seven churches today and you will see that many are no longer places of Christian worship.  Yes they were finished off by the Muslim invasions, but they were on their way out long before.  If churches like Ephesus and Colossae (near Laodicea), fellowships founded by St Paul and governed by St John as bishop can be gone in a couple of generations how can we presume this will not happen to us?  Brother Andrew’s counsel is “strengthen what remains,” which is why we must pray now for the Church where it is under assault.  Paul wrote to one group of Christians undergoing hard times and external pressure saying rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, check out Romans 12:12.  To another group he wrote pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication…to that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints, see Ephesians 6:18.  If you’re suffering then pray, if you are not suffering but you are aware of others who are suffering then pray.  Whether we are in the first group or the second, and I hope it’s obvious where we are today, the call to prayer for the saints is non-negotiable, and I encourage you to heed the invitation of Open Doors and Brother Andrew to hold up our sister-brothers in prayer.

The other question raised by Open Doors’ call, at least as far as I see it, is what does Christianity have to say to people who seemingly have nothing to lose?  What is the Christian response to Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps?  What about entire families of Pakistani Christians living almost as slaves making bricks because they can’t get better jobs without denying their Lord?  What about the widows and orphans or the child-less parents made across Sri Lanka after resurrection services were bombed and terrorised on Easter Day?  What does our religion say to such as these, and if it can’t speak coherently to Christians standing against the crimson tide of martyrs’ blood, what can it possibly offer to Muslims seeking God during Ramadan?

An interesting insight which I don’t think I’ve preached on, and which I have certainly never heard in a sermon, is that Emmaus was a Roman garrison town in the time of Jesus.  Now of course there were Judeans living there too, it was a town with a base and not a base in and of itself, but I wonder…I wonder, were the two on the road on the night of Easter Day hoping to change sides?  Yes, great, we know the story of Jesus appearing on the road and explaining the whole Bible from page one and Genesis 1:1 to page two thousand and twenty and The Map of Paul’s Journey to Rome.  We know about the breaking of the bread and Jesus disappearing without even a cloud of smoke or unleavened flour.  But were Cleopas and his friend (his wife) simply returning home after a disastrous Passover in the big smoke, or were they doing a Judas (or a Josephus of the next generation) and getting their names on the safe list with the local constabulary?  Tired apostles, or trying apostates?  And how do we feel about that sort of thing now; the Christian father for whom it is all too hard to live another day for Jesus in Baghdad or Beirut or Bishkek, and who converts to Islam to save his family from poverty and murder?  Words from the Hebrew Tradition just prior to the time of Jesus remind us to consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Or has anyone persevered in the fear of the Lord and been forsaken? Or has anyone called upon the Lord and been neglected?  You’ll find that in Sirach 2:10, if you have a Bible with Sirach in it.  It’s a great encouragement, but it might not be enough if Jesus doesn’t meet you on the road and come in for tea.  In Hebrews 12:1 we are reminded that since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we can lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and…run with perseverance the race that is set before us.  But what if there are no witnesses where you are, no great stadium filled with the athletes who have already finished the marathon to cheer you on over that last 400 metres of your own race?  What if you are running for Jesus, but you’re running alone, and the weight of expectation is too much to bear, so you drop all Christian expectation and try to run life unencumbered rather than dropping out of life entirely?  We must pray for them, and more importantly pray with them.

So, two things, the same two things that the New Testament writers and editors, along with Andrew, Corrie, and Rachel have said.

  1. Run in a group. Stay close to Jesus by staying close to those of your friends who are staying close to Jesus.  Pray for your own strength, ask God to strengthen what remains of your dwindling energy.  Seek God until you find God, then keep going in deeper in the confidence that God is good, even in Ravensbruch.
  2. Be the group that others run with. Exclude no one from the pack, no matter what condition or colour their shirt (or all colours).  It is good to pray for those who persecute you, and pray for those who are persecuted, that’s Jesus stuff, but do more than pray.  You can petition for change, post letters and tweets of encouragement, be one of the great crowd of witnesses who yells the same story as Sirach of how God came through for you.  This is not just a local thing, being faithful to the Christians of the Wimmera, be the group that is The One holy catholic and apostolic Church: run with the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and let them know too.

And one more thing, pray with those who experience violence and resistance, not only praying for them.  Pray for them in the words they pray for themselves; they do not pray what we might think they pray, or even how we might pray if we were them.  Pray with Christians in Muslim-majority communities that the persecutors would come to see Jesus as saviour and master, not that the persecution would stop.  As iron sharpens iron the Church in these places doesn’t want to become safe: they grieve for us in Australia because in our faith we have become fat and lazy, our prosperity is a bigger barrier against Christ than their persecution in their view.  So we pray that Muslims would see Christ and turn to him because Christ is the better option for life, not because we want the bullying will cease.  That is the prayer of a dedicated faith.

This week, indeed from the evening of May 5th (on my birthday, would you believe it) until the evening of June 2nd, more than one and a half billion people will spend every daylight hour fasting and praying for guidance from God, and wisdom for a God-honouring life.  Some of them will make mistakes and go and kill Christians in their misguided piety, but think of the thousand million crying out for a revelation of God, a revelation we have seen.  Open your heart and open your mouth, let them know that you are with them in the name of Emmanuel, God with us.

Two weeks ago I wept in exhaustion because a channel of the voice of God was rendered silent by a medical complication.  This week I am tired of weeping over the many channels through whom the voice of God has never spoken; voices never released to proclaim the Father’s glory, the Son’s compassion, the Spirit’s comfort, the soul’s rest.  Open your heart to God and ask that those mouths will be opened by grace to declare all praise to God, the merciful and compassionate one.

Amen.

Mighty to Save 2 (Easter 4C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for proclamation on Sunday 12th May 2019.

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; John 10:22-30

In today’s story from the Jesus traditions the writer makes the point that these events take place in winter.  But it’s not about it being cold, it’s about the setting of the event during the Festival of Dedication.  Hanukkah goes for eight days, usually in December (depending how the Jewish and Roman calendars line up), and it recalls the rededication of the temple by the Maccabeans after their revolt against Syria in 167-160 BCE.  The centre of the celebration, other than the routing of the invaders and the rededication of God’s temple to God, is that it was followed by a century of Jewish independence which flowered between 160 BCE and 63 BCE.  In 63 BCE the Romans had arrived, and by the time we take up the story of Jesus in Solomon’s Portico they had been present in Judea for nearly one hundred years. That’s why it’s important to know that it is winter.  “Winter is coming” we might say; there is a “game of thrones” afoot.  So, is Jesus about to do a Judas Maccabeus and throw off the foreign oppressors; is he the Messiah or not?  That’s the actual question the Judeans are asking him in John 10:24; “Jesus if you are ‘Messiah’ then where is the army coming from and when is the uprising?”  And what does Jesus respond?  He says (and you can read it for yourself in John 10:25) I have told you and you do not believe.  So what does that mean in the context of this story?  Well it means two things actually: a) yes I am ‘Messiah’, and b) I keep saying that the Messianic plan is not about an army but you’re not listening.  Let’s keep reading from John 10:25, the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.  Jesus ends his response with the claim that he and The Father are “one”.  If we were to read on we would find that the Judeans are ready to stone Jesus, right there in the temple according to John 10:31, because of this claim.

This story is the only place in John’s gospel where Jesus is directly asked to name himself as “Messiah”, in other places he’s asked if he’s “one whom we might expect” or words to that effect.  And Jesus does not say “I am the Messiah” in language as plain as that, but rather than what Jesus does not say let’s look again at what he does say.  He says I have told you, so the question has already been answered, and he says the works I do in my Father’s name testify to me…The Father and I are one, which he offers as interpretation and evidence of that answer.  Jesus is not saying that he is God, but as I’ve said just now that is what the Judeans hear him say and they are ready to kill him: no, what Jesus is saying is that his work, the things he has been doing, are indistinguishable from the work of The Father.  Jesus is not The Father, they are not the same person, but these two individual identities have one agenda and one mindset; they are completely united.  For me, when Jesus speaks like this at Hanukkah and a Hanukkah when there are centurions in Jerusalem, he’s probably baiting the Judeans even more with what he really is saying.  Claiming to be God is blasphemy, fair point: but claiming to be the 100% embodiment of the agenda of God in the world, and then living that out by non-violent anonymous activities of prayerfully casting out illness, death, and demonic spirits, and specifically not casting out the Romans…well that needs shutting right down right now!

I wonder, what has Jesus told us about God’s agenda?  How has Jesus demonstrated God’s agenda, God’s heart to us in West Wimmera and Tatiara?  What do we want to shut Jesus up about before the message gets too far: what is he telling us to do instead of engaging in the fight we’ve been brewing for a hundred years?  Who, or what are we not supposed to overthrow?  Who are we supposed to not kill and kick out but deliberately welcome and serve because we are Church?

When Peter is invited to Joppa, and to the death-bed of Tabitha, we are given an insight into Jesus’ preferred options of discipleship.  In Acts 9:36 Tabitha is specifically called a disciple, (the Greek word specifies that she is a disciple and that she’s female), and her discipleship is proven by her reputation for good works and acts of charity.  Later, in Acts 9:39 personal testimony is added to reputation as all the widows wept and showed clothes that Tabitha had made.  Tabitha had served the poor and the marginalised, with practical help, and not one had been overlooked: all the widows had been made tunics.  It is likely that Tabitha was herself a widow, perhaps living in a communal house of widows, so she’s not just some charitable socialite giving her Cup Day hats to the Op Shop, Tabitha is herself poor and marginalised but that doesn’t stop her from showing love for others.  This is a woman in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Peter himself.

But let’s not overlook Peter himself, look at his discipleship here.  He goes with the two men, who come to him at Lydda and bring him to Joppa, and he enters the house of weeping women.  That the widows are showing him their tunics and other stuff suggests to me that Peter took the time to be with them in their grief, he didn’t rush through the sook-fest of sobbing biddies and he didn’t think to see the room as that at all.  No, Peter deliberately stopped, and he comforted these distraught sisters, and he understood their loss.  Then he sends them all out of the room, and he goes across to Tabitha, and he greets her by her name. This is important because she’s been referred to as “Dorcas” in the story, which is not her name but a Greek language nickname.  So, calling her by her name he says “Tabitha, get up”, so a bit like when Jesus said talitha arise in Mark 5:41, and then he helps her up and he showed her to be alive to the widows whom he has invited back into the room.  See how much he has the heart of Jesus: not only the agenda of The Father outworked in healing the sick and raising the dead, but Peter basically follows Jesus’ dot points from Jairus’ house.  And having done as Jesus did Peter then stays in Joppa, he doesn’t return to Lydda, and more that that he stays at the house of Simon the Tanner we are told in Acts 9:43.  Simon works with leather and with chemicals to turn flesh into leather: so he’s handling dead animals, and he’s using ammonia drawn from urine to tan the leathers.  I wonder, how fragrant was Simon’s house?  How popular was it as a social hub do you think, a place of flesh, piss and vinegar?  Not only was Simon considered unclean by his profession, his house would have stunk: so why did Peter stay there?  We aren’t told, but I can guess.  Why, why do you think Peter stayed with Simon Tanner? Because he was invited?  Maybe having done the Jesus-and-Jairus episode Peter goes on to the Jesus-and-Zacchaeus thing.  No Pharisaic or Puritanic piety for old mate Pete, (who grew up stinking of fish anyway, let’s be fair), no Peter takes Jesus at his word and example to stay where he is invited and to leave only when the work is done.  Peter had more to do in Joppa, have a look at Acts 10 and see what God did next.  This is a man in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Tabitha herself.

And so we get to my favourite thing about writing and preaching a sermon; no, not the end (bad luck, sucks to be you, I’ve still got a page and a half to go), no, we are at the bit where we look at a very familiar reading in a new way because of the other readings attached to it by the Lectionary.  So, with Jesus at Hanukkah in mind; and Tabitha and Peter and Simon Tanner in mind; what is God saying to us from “The Twenty Third Psalm”.

Discipleship of Jesus living out the agenda of God in quietly miraculous ways of healing, blessing, kindness, restorative action, justice, and with an example lived out through Peter and Tabitha; discipleship that is not about overthrowing the Romans, looks like Psalm 23.  How?  How?  How about confidence that there is no need to struggle for liberty when God meets all your wants with rest and lush pasture, still water, right guidance and restorative rest as we read in Psalm 23:1-3.  There’s nothing militaristic about that; but it’s not weak.  Psalm 23:4-5 speaks of confidence in the dark places, maybe even battle where into the valley of death rode the six hundred; confidence that there will be an “after battle” when there will be a meal and a good soak and a glass of red.  Good things will pursue you, God will come at you with mercy and healing and the offer of hospitality and a place to live forever in God’s house, we are encouraged to believe in Psalm 23:6, if only we live with trust.  This is not about Heaven for disciples, although there is that, it is about a life of calm trust that God is your provision and that if you are a disciple, a student, a follower, a pilgrim in the master’s mob, then you’ll be right.

Look, it won’t always be nice.  Just today we have been told how Jesus was very close to getting himself pelted to death with rocks, Peter slept in a house that smelled like the public toilet at an abattoir, Tabitha died from illness, and the widows were bereft and bereaved by her loss.  These are not nice adventures, and they were not one-off events either.  Jesus was threatened with death more than once, and he was brutally murdered in a way where stoning would have been a mercy.  Peter grew up stinking of fish, he too died by crucifixion, and he was left bereft and bereaved by Jesus’ death.  Tabitha was raised to life, but the fact that she was a widow suggests that she was married to a man who died at some point and then stayed dead.  And the would-be Maccabeans did kick up in 70CE, and Joppa would not have been any more fun a place to live as a houseful of widows than Jerusalem when the Romans out of Caesarea fought back.  For anyone living in such times, stuck and feeling abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death, the table set before enemies would have seemed like an impossible dream.  But the hope of the gospel says that it is not so, and that there is a resurrection, and there is a pursuing Christ with healing and happiness in his hands.

There is no need to fight.  Trust, acknowledge, rest.

Amen.

Mighty to Save (Easter 3C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry, gathered at the Church of Christ, on Sunday 5th May 2019.

Acts 9:1-19a; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Today’s psalm speaks of one man’s lamentation and then vindication: the one who cries out to God from the place of death, calling upon The LORD to save, was rescued and restored.  More than simply lifted out of bed, or commanded to pick up his mattress and walk home, the man of the psalm was specifically delivered from Sheol, and he responds to God’s gracious intervention by summoning his community to join his declaration of praise of God.  An early indicator of what this song is about is that only in despair do we truly know who God is and where God can be found: when we are in “prosperity” (Psalm 30:6) we forget to look for God and God is hidden from us; maybe God hides or maybe God is obscured by our stuff and nonsense.  But God is there when we re-/turn and God is faithful in welcoming us home with joy: God is always more ready to love and restore than to withhold and punish.

I wonder, do you have such a testimony?  We’ll come back to that, but keep your story in mind as we hear more about this man’s story.

There are two subheadings in the New Revised Standard Version added this psalm on the page: one says that Psalm 30 was associated in Jewish tradition with David and utilised in the annual rituals of dedication of the temple at Hanukkah.  The other subheading which comes from the twentieth century editors suggests that Psalm 30 is a song of thanksgiving for one man’s recovery from a grave illness.  I like that it can be both of things, it’s such a wonderful tribute to our God and to those who worship God.  I mean, why not both?  Why not praise for what God did for me as part of a greater festival of setting up the house of community worship for a great festival of God’s deliverance of the whole nation in a time of war and oppression. This is true of Judaism then and now, and also of Christianity, that God is interested in you for who you are and also in the whole congregation as a unity, indeed the whole of Creation as a unity: it doesn’t have to be either/or.

This is why Psalm 30 is a great psalm to read in the weeks after Easter.  Just have a look at Psalm 30:1-3 and focus on the individual story, the one man in his song of deliverance, and how he exalts and extols The LORD for drawing him up, the downcast one, and for lifting him above the scorn of the mockers.  They, (remember “they” from Easter Day?), “they” had thought the faithful man had been deserted by God, but God came all the way down into Sheol, down beyond the platform of the living and into the place of the dead to rescue the man who cried out, to rescue him from falling even further down and into “the Pit” as the psalm puts it.  God lifted him above all the scorn and all the pain and restored him to God’s presence, above the platform of the living, where there is healing and recovery.  Of course when I say “faithful man” this is no less true of a woman who cries out to God; but I also think it true of women and men we might consider not to be “faithful”, people who cry out in desperation even if they haven’t previously been religious or even Evangelical to our liking.

So I ask you again, how does this psalm fit with your story?  Have you ever cried out to God from “the place of death”, from “the grave” as it were?  If you haven’t then I assume it’s because you’ve never been to the lowest place; I assume this because if you have been to the lowest place and you did not cry out to God then how is it you are here today?  Seriously!  I can’t say I’ve been to Hell and back, because my journey took me through the middle of Hell and out the other side, and without God I’d be dead.  In fact without God I might have been dead on any one of multiple occasions, so if you’ve done it without God then either you’re lying, or you need to step up here and I need to sit down.  Anyone?  So we’re left with two options: either you’ve never been to Sheol; or you, like me and like the faithful man, have been down there, and the only reason you are here now, and not there now, is that God delivered you.  I hope none of you have been there, because Sheol, but if you have then you know why God is worthy of all honour and glory.

In Revelation 5 we read about another faithful man, one man who went to Sheol, even to the deepest depths of its Pit, and who returned because of God.  This man is the source and object of the community’s praise in Heaven: Jesus is worthy because he was victorious over death and all that leads to death, be that sin, illness, isolation, exposure, or shame.  In the eyewitness account of the recipient of the revelation it’s not just a choir of angels and a few assorted cherubim and seraphim who sing, but every created being that has a voice.  Every angel, every cherub, every seraph, every woman and every man, every beast, fish, bird, sheesh every rock and stone cries glory, because Jesus was vindicated by God in the sight of all creation for the benefit of all creation.  The cry begins under the earth, resounds across the earth, and culminates above the earth as even the Eldership of Heaven falls face-down.  That’s some adoration, massive praise and worship, glory and honour; but is not Jesus worthy of it?  All who have been to and thorough Sheol say “Amen!”, or as it translates into Australian, “oath mate!”

One of the commentators I use regularly describes Revelation 5:13 as “a song of praise to the Redeemer of all”, and I have to agree.  As it should be, really, given all that Jesus did and all he went through physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially, spiritually, and I’m going to suggest geographically as well.  Worthy is he, blessing and honour and glory and might, and power forever and ever.  I add my voice to that today, and if Revelation is a picture of the future then I’ll be singing my lungs out on that day too.  Glory to the one who came below the dirt and pulled me out of Sheol, lifting me above the sky to wipe me down, stand me up, and set me off on a new life.

Among the voices that will sing with me, and the psalmist, and maybe some of you, are those of Peter and Paul.  Their stories are told in the gospels and epistles at large; Acts 9:1-19a and John 21:1-19 are the set readings for today.  We haven’t read them this morning but I am sure you are familiar with these stories.  Can anyone remember what stories these passages tell?  Well, very briefly Acts 9 is the Damascus experiences of Saul the Christianophobe, and John 21 is the lakeside experience of Peter the wuss.  Both of these men have recently been through Sheol, in fact Saul is still on his way out.  Common to their stories is that their descent to the place where only Christ can save has happened because they let down Jesus.  Peter has denied knowing his best friend at the hour of greatest need; and Saul, well Saul just been very silly in general hasn’t he.  I’m not going to go into those stories now, you can read them for yourselves later, but I will say this; they were redeemed by Jesus.  Now of course we have all been redeemed by Jesus, that’s the cross and that’s Melody Green’s “thank you oh my Faaaather”.  But think specifically of Peter and Paul: these two nutjobs basically go on to found Christianity.  That’s a big and loose claim I know, and I’m not interested in debating it at all because you know what I’m saying; what I am saying is that these men were saved not only from suicide, (think of Judas in his despair), but from wasted lives because of wasted opportunities.  Christ meets them both and gives them what they need at the time, reassurance, forgiveness, friendship, and a mission.  “Feed my flock” says Jesus to Peter in John 21:15-17, and then in John 21:19 “ follow me”.  “Get back on your horse and go to the church, they’ll tell you what to do” Jesus tells Saul in Acts 9:8, and by Acts 9:20 he’s proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus the Christ.

Where are you today?

  • I’d be sad to hear that you’re in Sheol today; primarily because I’m your pastor and I didn’t know, but if you are then let me know, please. There’s no shame in being in Sheol today, and since I’ve already been there a few times I can show you the way out if you’d like.
  • Maybe you’re heading for Sheol; the bottom has fallen out of the world and you are falling and tumbling, and heading for a spreading that you know is imminent, so you’re bracing for impact. Again, please come and tell me.
  • Maybe you are climbing out; with God’s help assured because that is not a climb you can make on your own. Again, let me know, I won’t take your hand because you’ll need both of them to hang on to God, but I’m happy to rub your back.
  • Maybe, hopefully, you’re in a good place today. I’d like that to be true for each of you, because I don’t want disaster for any of you, but it’s okay if you’re not.  But it’s okay if you are, Jesus has risen and God is faithful and if life is blessing you today then praise God.  But if you have memories of your time in the shadowlands, I ask you to let those memories stir you to two activities.  One, show extreme and practical compassion to your sisters and brothers who are near the Pit right now, regardless of their theology and whether you’d accord them the status of “faithful”.  Even if they are not faithful, and who are we to say, but even if they are not, we are, and our job is compassion and support.  Don’t be the one kicking at the fingers of the climbing, which is never your job.  And two, which should be one because it is first, but is ongoing so I’ll say it last, worship and adore God the saviour, the redeemer, the healer and restorer and sanctifier.  Jesus is worthy of all praise, glory and adoration.

Bloody oath he is!

Amen.

Seen by Women (The Day of Resurrection)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Easter Day 2019.

Luke 24:1-12; Acts 10:34-43

Hmm, “they”.  I am always dubious about they.  “They”.  You know “they”, don’t you; they of “they have been saying”, or they of “they wear their shirts untucked these days”, or they of “they think that it’s dangerous to eat those foods now”. They, phsh!  So when Luke 24:1 tells us that “they” came to the tomb I immediately want to close my ears: who cares about they?  Not me, because if “they” truly mattered then “they” would have had names and faces, and “they” would have come to tell me to my face rather than sending you to tell me what “they” think.

Sadly you don’t have to be a pastor or a leader to be suspicious of “they”.  Indeed the “they” that Luke wrote about have been ignored and shunned since the day that Luke wrote about, even before Luke wrote about the day, which is probably why they are “they”, and not…well not who they actually were with their real names and faces.  So who are they, this “they”?  In the Greek text we don’t find out until Luke 24:10 who they were, although in some English translations we at least get a pronoun in Luke 24:5.  So they are “the women”, specifically Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod’s chief of staff, and Mary the mother of James.  Also with them were “the other women”, you know, “they”.  And what happens when “they” begin to tell the story of the empty tomb?  Well it’s pretty clear in Luke 24:11 what happens, they are accused of idle talk and the apostles do not believe them.  Fair enough because “they” are women and you know, women eh, idle talk: they are not apostles, they are not men; they are not to be trusted or believed without corroborating evidence from a man, a man who is not one of “they” but one of “us”.  And for two thousand years they have been written out of the story, except as minor characters who prompted Peter to go to the tomb where he was amazed.  And then Peter went home.

I don’t know about you, I hope you agree with me, but it really doesn’t matter if you don’t because I am going to say it anyway: praise God for they!  If it wasn’t for “they”, the women who went to the tomb then Peter (who did not go to the tomb initially) would not have known that Jesus was raised.  And if it wasn’t for “they”, the women, continuing to tell the obtuse ten after Peter went to the tomb that Jesus was raised then no one would have known because Peter, (who went to the tomb and found it abandoned), went home without telling anyone.  So it’s a blessing for us that “they” did tell!

It was “they” to whom the angels spoke, it was “they” who remembered what Jesus had told them while he was still alive, and it was “they” who first carried the news of the resurrection of Jesus to the weeping world.  So when that other “they”, they with their untucked shirts and their ingredients-free diets, and “they” in their constant state of “have been saying”; when they tell you that women have no place in Christian leadership or proclamation, you tell them that without women there would have been no Christian leadership or proclamation to begin with.

Without these women there would have been no Peter, beyond Good Friday at least.  And with no Peter beyond Good Friday there would have been no sermon in the house of Cornelius, and therefore no assurance that God does not show partiality based on race, no assurance that God accepts with gladness all that come to God with humility and openness, and no assurance of peace and rest.  It is not just the resurrection that brought shalom to the world, not just the resurrection that brought forgiveness through grace by faith, not just the resurrection that jumped the rollout of the kingdom of God into a higher gear; it was the news of the resurrection, the news proclaimed first by women, then by Galilean peasants and fishermen, which did that.  The news proclaimed to “us” by “they” is the news that in God through Christ there is no us and they, that all are “we”, and we are God’s own.

Without women, and without Peter and the apostles, there would have been no Paul.  With no Paul there would be no Church in Corinth, no Christians in Europe, and no Christians among the European people of the planet.  (So, no Christian whitefellas in Australia.)  There would have been no letters to the Church in Corinth, and no assurance that since Christ has been raised from the dead, and that his gospel was vindicated by God, that ha-satan is on the way out and that the ultimate victory of the Kingdom of God, and the God of the Kingdom, is assured.  No resurrection: no hope says Paul.  Resurrection but no news of the resurrection: also no hope says Paul.  Our job as Church is to proclaim the resurrection, and hope, to those who haven’t yet heard, and those haven’t heard properly.  But who told us the news?  And who told them, and them before them?  With no women there is no proclamation and no hope.  With no hope, there is no life.

So, who have you chosen not to listen to?  Through whom is God not allowed to speak to you?  “Yeah, I’ll listen to Joyce Meyer, but not the local bloke, because she’s anointed and he’s just appointed.”  Or “I’ll listen to Rick Warren, but not to Joyce Meyer, because women shouldn’t preach.”  Or “I’ll listen to anyone on a podcast but I’ll never read a book, because it’s 2019.”  Or “I’ll listen to Damien, but not to anyone from the Baptists, because Damien’s humour and scholarship are awesome.”  Who are you shutting out?  Well, you’re shutting out God, d’uh, but you know what I’m asking.

More important to me is, whom are you shutting off from God?  From whom are you withholding the gospel, whom are you not talking to?  I’m pretty sure that Joanna and the mob of Marys knew that the male apostles wouldn’t have a bar of what they were saying, but did it stop them saying it?  No, it did not!  Would it stop you saying it, has it stopped you saying it?  I’ll leave that with you to ponder.

We are each and all called to proclaim because first we were each and all chosen to receive: chosen by God (as all are, without partiality); and chosen by whomever told us (having first gathered herself around her bravery against our possible rejection of her as gospeller).  The message of the risen Jesus, the vindicated forth-teller of the Reign of Heaven, is that hope lives and that God is gracious and welcoming through God’s own invitation to come and be welcomed and to learn to trust.  Like the women who first told it, the gospel itself is resilient, resolute, and relentless; strong against resistant voices yet soothing for those who need to be enveloped by its embrace.  The women were not silenced by the disbelief of the eleven, but they continued to sing and dance the message of the abandoned sepulchre and the abundant celebration until at last the men were stirred to look, and were amazed.  Isn’t this the hope that stirs your heart, your guts, your grin this morning?  Is it not so that Jesus is Risen, and so can you be, and so can “they” out there be, because the One who can raise the dead can certainly restore the broken?  Is it not so?  Is our God, our King, our brother not dependable and true?  Is this not a faith worth keeping?

Keep the faith, but in the model of the Marys and Joanna do not keep it to yourself.  “They” out there need to hear it, so don’t stop telling out your soul until they do.

Amen.