The Son’s Life (Easter 7B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Uniting Church gathered at Newborough on Sunday 13th May 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the last Sunday before Pentecost.

Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19.

In the time between Ascension and Pentecost the Church lives alone.  As far as the lectionary is concerned the Easter season is almost at a close and today is our last Sunday in white.  According to Luke’s timetable in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus returned to Heaven for the final time last Thursday and he will no longer appear amongst the disciples in the way that he has been doing since he surprised the Cleopas family in Emmaus.  Next Sunday is Pentecost, coinciding with the Jewish festival of Shavuot, and we shall celebrate with all the churches of the West the sending of the Spirit upon the women and men in Upper Room.  But that’s last Thursday, and next Sunday.  Today and for the week to come, we live waiting for the fulfilling of the promise.

So, with Jesus gone and the Spirit yet to come, how should we live?  What is the Way of Christ when the Christ is no longer among us?  How do we live Life in The Spirit when The Spirit has not yet brought God’s new life?

Well, in 1 John 5:12 it says that “The Way” and “The Life” are found in having the Son of God.  If you have the Son you have life, but if you do not have the Son then you do not have life.  Many scholars agree that First John was written about a group of people who had once participated in the life of the John church, but who had left the church to follow another philosophical movement called “Gnosticism”.  These people were still in contact with some of their old friends who had remained with the John church and they trying to draw these friends away from the gospel and into their gnostic fellowship.  Hence this letter wherein the writer, speaking to people personally brought to faith by John or by people who had themselves been brought to faith by John, writes to keep the core of faithful ones still holding to Christ focussed even more strongly upon Jesus as the only saviour.  To have the Son is to believe and trust the story about God that you have been told, the story told by John, he writes.  The message for them applies to us gathered today: you have heard the truth and you have committed yourself to that truth by choosing to life your life as if what you have been told is true is true.  And what have we been told, what is it that those who heard John and those who have read the scriptures in the twenty-first century have believed?  In what have we placed our trust?  The gospel that God came in human form as Jesus, and that in Jesus we see modelled the ways of God in the world.  We who have seen Jesus, or who have believed the testimony of those who saw Jesus, believe that Jesus lived as if God were on earth.  Jesus lived like God would live if God were human.  And, Jesus lived like a follower of God would live if God were true.  Now since we believe that God is true, and that the life of Jesus was the life of God-as-human, then the way ahead is clear.  Believe what Jesus said about God, live as Jesus lived with respect for God and God’s creation, and model and teach this for others so that they can believe and trust as we came to believe and trust through the modelling and teaching of others.  Those who have God have eternal life, not just life after death (although there is that) and not just life which goes on forever (although there is that too) but life without restriction.  Not just a long life, but a wide life and a tall life and deep life and a rich life – this is the promise whereby God gave us eternal life…and life in the Son we read about in 1 John 5:11.  The key is believing that Jesus was who the Church says he was – Emmanuel, God in dusty skin.  Not just dusty in that Jesus was a brown skinned man, olive at least, not Anglo-Saxon, but dusty in that Jesus lived in a rural area in first century Palestine where there was dust in the wind and Jesus would have copped a face-full at times.  God lived on earth, and God lived well; there’s your model for life but also there’s your message.  God loves us too much to leave us at a distance, God came close and God lived amongst humankind, pitching a tent and hanging around for more than thirty years of anonymity and about three and a half years of modelling the God-oriented life and revealing God-directing truth.

In our prayers this morning we heard how Psalm 1 speaks of happiness, which is delight in the ways of God and not in the way of human wisdom or arrogance.  More fully it means the delight of blessing arising from being in a right relationship with God and living as one whose steps are laid upon the right path.  “Blessed are those who walk with God” might be the theme of the entire Psalter, and here it is found in the very first of the Psalms.  Those who feed on God will not wither says Psalm 1:3, rather they will flourish and be fruitful.  Fullness of life, stability and productivity are found in a life oriented towards God.  The wise person Psalm 1:2 tells us is the one who studies Torah, who hears and reads and meditates on the precepts of God.  The Orthodox tradition sees Psalm 1 as an accurate description of the life of Jesus prior to his coming, a prophecy of Jesus who is “the man” of Psalm 1:1.  This is the testimony of John Chrysostom and St Augustine and this passage sets out how Jesus the blessed man was different to all other men.  In Psalm 1 we therefore get a clear example of how to live, and how not to live.  I’m not entirely convinced by the Orthodox argument, which probably why I’m, preaching here today and not across the river with the Serbian Orthodox congregation; I don’t think the Psalmist in the tenth century before Christ was primarily writing about Christ, but the idea of parallel ways to live where Jesus is the ikon pointing towards the way of illumination rather than the way of darkness seems like a good fit.  So, if you want to fulfil 1 John 5 you could do worse than emulate Psalm 1, but you probably couldn’t do much better.

Or could you?

How could we possibly be better followers of God than by emulating scriptural imperatives for the holy and blessed life?  Well it’s quite simple, we read the gospels and we emulate Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong, Psalm 1 is a brilliant model, but since we are Christians why don’t we take it a step further and model ourselves on John 17 and the Jesus we find there?

Jesus made God known to everyone God brought into Jesus’ life (John 17:6) by speaking the truth of what Jesus knew about God (John 17:8).  Then, having done that and everything else that he did, Jesus prayed one last time for his band of brothers, the eleven of them who remained, before he lead them all into Gethsemane where the will of God took over.  The task of making God known was given to the eleven, and to those to whom the eleven preached.  The whole life of Jesus was about proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven, or we might say today the Commonwealth of God.  God desires shalom for the world; unity, peace, grace, restoration of what has been lost and broken and damaged and hurt.  Jesus taught this, and he modelled it by his compassion and his miracles.  But Jesus’ work was left incomplete in that he did not speak to every living member of creation.  Jesus’ death and resurrection as a means of grace was sufficient for all, but the lived-out message of proclamation and example was left to the Church, the beneficiaries of redemptive love and revelatory life.

So, in grasping all that let go of none of it.  As 1 John 5:13 says, having obtained eternal life through grace you must maintain your obedience.  You will not lose eternity through disobedience, but you will lose fullness and depth in life through apathy toward God’s instruction.  Christian life is not a one-off moment where you do the altar call thing with Billy Graham or Brian Houston, and then go on with nothing changed except an “Admit One” ticket to Heaven in your spiritual pocket.  You who have heard the story of Jesus and believed the story of Jesus must live the story of Jesus and be Emmanuel to someone else: God-with-him or God-with-her as the case may be.  Remember that God-with-us is God-with-you, for you and for those with whom you live and move and have your being.

So, get about it, for love’s sake.

Amen.

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Welcomed as Family (Easter 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Congregation to be presented on Sunday 15th April 2018 at Yallourn North Uniting Church.

Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Today’s reading from Acts puts us straight into action with the first generation of Christians.  We listen in as Peter speaks to the gathering crowd in Solomon’s Porch, a public part of the temple in Jerusalem where the man who had been lame from birth had just been healed by Jesus through the apostles’ prayer.  A man who had asked for alms from Peter and John had received legs from Jesus: the crowds were rushing to see who and what and how.

In the first verse of today’s reading we see Peter grasp the opportunity of the crowd’s amazement at the miraculous healing to point to Jesus in a new and exciting way.   Look at Acts 3:13 and see how Peter refers to God with the names of the Jewish ancestors.  This is the same name by which God introduced Godself to Moses in the burning bush: Peter repeats the phrases of God’s self-identification and connects their ancestral God with Jesus whom the Judeans had had murdered by Pilate.  The one who was lynched by the Judean crowds had been sent to them by God to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  The miracle of the burning-yet-not-consumed-shrub given as a sign to Moses that The LORD was the one whose message was to be proclaimed is mirrored by the miracle of the walking-yet-recently-lame-man.  Once again God is speaking, and once again God chooses and vindicates the choice of the speaker of God’s behalf, the new Moses was Jesus and now in Jesus’ authority Peter and John speak.  Once again “I AM” is speaking to Israel, but this time it is “HE WHOM”; he whom you crucified and is both LORD and prophet whose truth is proclaimed.

So many signs.  In the mystical past God spoke to Moses and proved it was God with a burning bush which doesn’t burn.  In his immediate past God spoke to Peter and proved it was God with a dead man who was not dead.  In his today (today for him) God speaks through Peter to Judea, and proves it is God with a lame man who is not lame.  This is as much a sign for Peter as it is for Jerusalem, Peter who is now understanding that God has a preaching ministry for him, attested to by signs and wonders as had been the preaching ministry of Jesus, has just seen the second sign of his ministry.  First, he and his fellow apostles had spoken in every language needed to proclaim the good news to every adult in the Shavuot crowd in Jerusalem; now he and John see a man born lame begin to walk.  Even as Jesus welcomes Jews of all nationalities into the Kingdom of God, not just the Galileans, Judeans and Idumeans of the Holy Land, so Jesus welcomes Peter and John, and in their model all disciples, into the ministries of the Holy Spirit.

The resurrection is supposed to remind us that God is at work in the world, and that God is at work through us as God had been through Jesus.  What Jesus did, we now do.  What Jesus said, we now say.  How Jesus was given authority to do and say, and was vindicated in the doing and saying, which is the testimony of Godself through the Holy Spirit, so we are authorised and vindicated.

Peter describes Jesus in this sermon as the child of God (Acts 3:13b) which also carries the meaning of very trusted servant: and he reminds the Judeans that they collaborated with the Roman government, against the personal wishes of the governor, to murder this one most dear to God and to secure the release of an assassin and rebel.  “You made Pilate release Barabbas,” says Peter, “a man who you know was a zealot and a killer, and you had Pilate execute Jesus for treason and sedition.  Pause and consider!”  Briefly, we hear Peter go on to describe Jesus as the holy one, (so, God), and the ruler which also carries the meaning of “source” of life, (so, also God).  It is Jesus working through the proclamation of those who believe him who delivered the man from his lameness: short answer, look at the man on his feet here and praise Jesus who is the message of the God of Judaism, the liberator of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.

So that’s all rather spectacular: Jesus is the very trusted servant of God, the child of God, and one who carries the nature of God as holy and sovereign in life.  This is Peter’s introduction to what he goes on to say, first to lambast the Judeans for killing Jesus, and second to announce that with the resurrection the story did not end there.  “New life is available for you,” says Peter, “even you, you murderous scum, just as it is for this man with new life in his long-dead legs.  Believe Jesus, the child of God.”

Now that’s a pretty exciting message, but it gets even more exciting for us.  Where Peter speaks of Jesus as the child of God, John, in 1 John 3:1, speaks of every Christian as a child of God, and all of us together as children of God.  Woohoo!  Peter proclaimed in Acts 3:13-15 that Jesus was like God, now John in 1 John 3:2-3,7 tells us that because of Jesus we will become like God.  Woohoo!  And again, I say woohoo!  But I also want to ask what that means.

I think it’s great that when God’s fullness is revealed to us and we perceive it that we will become like God as we see God.  But I wonder what God is like that we shall become like God.  Of course, the full answer to that is a mystery, the mystery which John explains.  We just don’t know, because we don’t know yet, and when we do know then we will know, and it will all have been done by God.  So, does it matter that we don’t know yet?  After all what we do know now is that we will know later, you know?

Two answers.

  1. No, it doesn’t matter. I trust God, I believe God, and that’s enough for now.  It will happen, and when it happens God will do the thing.  As far as I am concerned if God is doing the thing then God can do whatever thing God wants to do when it comes to doing things to me.  You too?  Excellent.
  2. We already know a bit, because we have seen Jesus. Specifically, we have seen the risen Jesus, Jesus at his most like-God-ness, or perhaps Jesus at his most Godlike-ness.  So, we will be like Jesus, like the Jesus of the empty tomb, the vindicated, transformed, child and most trusted servant of God which John says is now our status within creation.  Where Jesus is The Son you and I are each a son or a daughter in the likeness of The Son, who is the image of The Father.  Awesome.

Are you following this? Phew! So, what is The Son like then; that I and some of you as a son, and the remainder of you as a daughter, will be like him?

Well, in Luke 24:36 we pick up one of the stories told about Jesus and his adventures around Judea on the evening of Easter Day.  In his first post-resurrection appearance according to Luke; (there were only angels in the garden to speak with the women and no risen Jesus); Jesus walked the last part of the road with the Cleopases and broke bread with them in Emmaus.  Then Jesus disappeared from their sight, and Cleopas and Mary returned to Jerusalem and told the story of Jesus on the road and at the table.  And then…well and then we get to today’s reading.

Enter Jesus, from nowhere, having only been seen by two people since his death (and even then, he went unrecognised until the final second), suddenly in the middle of the room, declaring “shalom”.

The first thing we can say about Jesus on the night of the day of his resurrection is that he is an embodied life.  And as I am trying to say, this will one day be true of us.  Jesus the risen one is not a spirit in Heaven and a ghost on Earth.  He has a body, he can be touched, and he can eat and breathe do all those things that bodies with a life in them do.  But he can also appear in a locked room without making use of the door.  The presence of Jesus is a presence that belongs in both worlds, the world of Heaven and the world of Earth, without needing change.  There is no border for him, the place where you need to change trains at Albury and get into the NSW carriage with a different set of wheels if you want to go to Sydney.  No, Jesus can pass between Heaven and Earth in a new way, a way he couldn’t have done a week ago (and remember a week ago for Jesus was Palm Sunday).  Even the man heralded as “Hosanna, Son of David” can’t walk into Heaven on human feet – but The Resurrected One can.  That is the Jesus we worship as Lord above all, The Son of God, God’s child, who is also God The Son, Godself.  And we shall be like him, him like that, when we enter eternity.

But for me that it not the best bit.  It’s a pretty good bit, and that would be a great conclusion.  Jesus is Risen, he is risen and returns to show himself in person, in glorious and shining and walking through walls and breaking bread and eating fish with his hands person to his friends and to strengthen their faith and vindicate their hope.  Hallelujah and Amen.  But look also at what Jesus says.  He says “shalom”.  Now, okay, that’s a pretty standard line at first look.  He’s saying “hello”, he’s saying “g’day” in the sense of “good day” or perhaps “good evening” as it is for him.  It’s a greeting, and nothing special in that.  Well okay it’s a bit special because the actual message is also “peace be with you”, so he’s speaking like a Jewish man, like a Christian.  He’s “passing the peace”, well (shrug) good for him, he’s a rabbi and these are his mates, so what?

So what, indeed.  For me it is remarkable that these words are coming from a man whose body, miraculous and glorious as it is, is still in the shape of a body torn apart by nails, flails, sunburn, and a spear.  He is risen, and he has in a sense been healed as he’s no longer dead, he’s no longer bleeding, and he is breathing without difficulty.  The stuff that actually killed him has been fixed, yeah?  But he was killed, and he was betrayed, and it was bloody hard: it was bloody and hard as we heard on Good Friday.  Friday hurt, we heard that on Good Friday too.  What that says to me is that not only was Jesus’ “shape” restored in a glorious new way, this body that can hold bread yet pass through walls, Jesus’ “sense” was restored too.  The man of sorrows, the man who had been broken, abused, mocked, betrayed, abandoned, flayed, crucified, and stabbed walks into a room and says “shalom”.

I think I would have started the conversation, and remember that this is the first conversation Jesus has had with these people since Gethsemane , I would have started with “now listen…about Thursday night…and then Friday…all bloodied day…hmm?”  The new body of Jesus has come with a resurrected spirit.  Jesus does not hold a grudge; indeed, Jesus does not hold anything because he withholds nothing, he gives all he has.  All his love, all his comfort, all his blessing, all his shalom.

When John in 1 John 3 speaks of us as God’s children he is telling us that we have a future in God’s family.  That future looks like the resurrected Jesus, the eternally living one who is also the eternally loving one.  We who live surrounded by sin will sin and live with sin no more, because we will be refashioned for an eternity where we will live with shalom from God and shalom for each other.

This is the story we proclaim.  This Jesus, whose return in Luke’s account seems more interested in comforting his grieving friends than in declaring his own glory and vindication, this Jesus speaks the fullest form of peace and hope to humanity.  The shalom of God which raised Jesus from the dead raised the lame man from the path outside Beautiful Gate, raised Peter from a denier of Christ in a darkened private courtyard to a proclaimer of Christ in the busiest part of the temple at the busiest time of the day, raised two weary travellers who had walked mournfully from Jerusalem to Emmaus to then run all the way back to declare their hope because of who they had seen and what they had heard.

Because he lives, his peace be among you.

Amen.

So, you good?

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell and Yallourn Cluster for Good Friday, 30th March 2018.

Psalm 22; Hebrews 5:7-9

So, you good?  How’s your Friday been so far?  How’s it looking for this arvo?  Good Friday can be one of those days when you can’t get your head around much else, if you really get in to it.  It can also be one of those days that is best skipped over.  Go to church, sing “The Old Rugged Cross”, look sad for a bit and then go home to watch Channel Seven for the Royal Children’s Hospital Telethon, or since 2017 some AFL.  It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

Psalm 22 begins with a cry of desolation in the midst of an episode of feeling forsaken.  Why is God acting so much out of character as to abandon the one who is screaming out to the deliverer, with faith, for deliverance as we read in Psalm 22:1-2.  Yet, there is praise and acknowledgement that God is exalted in Psalm 22:3-5, and humanity is not, even at the best of times, let alone from the place of despair we are told in Psalm 22:6.  So, despite how its opening line has been perceived this is actually a prayer of faith and confidence in God.  The desperate one is so confident in God’s ability to deliver that he is ashamed of his own situation because it is causing God to be mocked.  The unbelievers see the believer shamed, the deliverer has patently not delivered, and blasphemy is arising we read in Psalm 22:6-8.  Think of the Pharisees with their “he saved others, why doesn’t he save himself” taunts.  Today Christians face similar mockery when life stumbles for us and the secularists cry “ha-ha, he believes in the flying spaghetti monster, but now he’s bereft and there’s no pasta-ral care forthcoming for him.  Wattanidjit!”  Still, according to Psalm 22:9-11 the desperate man believes, and he believes because of God’s prior record of faithful deliverance.  On and on the man describes his predicament, and on and on he reasserts his praise for God and his absolute confidence in God’s faithfulness to deliver.  This is seen in Psalm 22:12-21a. God is capable, and God is willing, and I shall be delivered, and when I am delivered I shall praise you all the more says the man in Psalm 22:21b-31.

When Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1 out loud from a Roman cross every Jew who heard him would have been reminded of the Psalm, even the positive bits.  I wonder what it means that this whole prayer is in the mouth of Jesus as he crucified.   I wonder what is actually going on for Jesus here, and what we are supposed to learn from this.  Well, in Hebrews 5:7-9 we read that while Jesus was alive as a man he prayed boldly and loudly to God, with passion and volume, and that because of his faith God was faithful to Jesus and responded to Jesus prayer.  Jesus was a Psalm 22 sort of person, a man of relentless, resilient, resolute hope in God. And we are assured that Jesus understands humanity because he lived as a man among women and men; Hebrews 5:8 clearly says that Jesus learned about human life through living a human life of his own. So, the perfection in Jesus that we read about in Hebrews 5:9 is not only that Jesus completed the work of salvation; that he submitted to God at Gethsemane and held that commitment right through all that occurred at Golgotha, and that by dying on the cross as a bloody sacrifice and representation of all created things he opened a path to human reconciliation with God and the possibility that we might be made perfect.  Yes, there is that, but there is more because Jesus understands perfectly. Jesus has completed and perfect experience of all created things because he lived like a created thing, a man.  So, the message of Hebrews 5 is that we are perfected by redemption because Jesus perfectly understands us; and he understands us because he was one of us.  See?  Do you see?

To think of God as “friend of sinners” is to assert that the pure and righteous God is not so far removed from the impure and unrighteous. We don’t need to protect God or God’s reputation from dirt, as if God lives in some Oxy-Action brightness and turns into a Dickensian gentlewoman at the sight of dust: the crucifixion tells us how God in Jesus got right down into the mud with us so as to lift us out.  That’s what the cross is about; the holy one who embraced lepers and allowed unclean women to embrace him, the foot-washing rabban, got bloody and muddy to rescue us from the grot and snot; even the grot and snot of our own making.

But don’t believe that this wasn’t hard.  Even with the faith that Jesus expresses and how he never drops his dependence and confidence in God The Father, Friday hurt.  The word “excruciating” was invented for this day, ex-Crucis literally means out of (or from) the cross.  Jesus died of shock and asphyxiation after six hours of excruciating pain as he hung all his bodyweight from nails through his wrists and ankles.  “Ouch” doesn’t come close.  His back from neck to knees had been torn open to the bone from the Roman flagellator, and you’d better believe that that would not have been comfortable.  Add to that the psychological, emotional pain of anguish and shame of hanging naked and alone while the whole city spits abuse at you and your sobbing woman friends (including your mum) who scream with broken hearts at the foot of your cross.  It was hard, bloody hard, bloody and hard for Jesus to die like that.

And God The Father?  Evangelicals like us often sing of how “the Father turns his face away”, but I cannot believe that.  I have no doubt, no doubt and every confidence, because I am a Psalm 22 person, that The Father watched every livid second of Jesus’ last 24 hours of mortal life. I am sure you’ve been told before about the torn veil in the temple, shredded at the very moment of Jesus’ last breath, as a prophetic sign of access.  Our traditions teach that with Christ’s death we can meet the Father at any time, and God is now on the loose in the world never again to be domesticated behind a curtain.  We have access to the holiest place, and God has access to the rest of the world: we can enter in and God can run amok. But perhaps the tearing of the veil was also a prophetic sign, or even an actual physical manifestation of our interventionist God’s anguish as the grieving Father, Abba Daddy, rends his garments in grief at the sight of what has been done to his beautiful and best-beloved son.

Or maybe it means that on a day like Good Friday that no place is holy, no place at all.  After all, how can our priests conspire to murder God yet hope to maintain a holy of holies in the temple of the holy city?  And if our priests can’t maintain a temple, how on earth can we scum-of-the Earth poor sinners lay people manage to achieve such a thing?

It’s a day of mixed emotions: bewildering and contradictory to say the least.

So, how’s your Friday going?

Amen.

Nisi per gratiam per fidem (Lent 4B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 11th March 2018, the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21; John 6:28-40

Today’s reading from the Jewish tradition is one of those texts that causes me bafflement.  I do not claim to have the full picture on this, and I challenge any of you who think you do to explain it to me later.  So, in this story the Hebrews are in the desert with Moses, somewhere between Egypt and Canaan, and they are sooking again about hunger, thirst, and poor leadership from God and from Moses.  So, God sends snakes, and those snakes bite some people, and some of the bitten people die.  The not dead people catch on that God is upset about their sooking, so they wisely repent of their sookiness, and God responds to their repentance by mandating a means of healing.  In a tick we shall hear how the bronze snake lifted in the desert for healing is an image used by Jesus in John to speak of his own being lifted on the cross as a means of healing: it’s a great image.  But for now, for the Hebrews their specific sin, the lesson that we are supposed to take away is that thing that needs healing even more than the venomous attack is the people’s speaking against God and against God’s appointed leader.  Death by reptilian poison is merely a symptom of the Hebrews’ shoddy attitude toward God their deliverer: once they understand that they repent and ask their embattled leader to intercede for them.  And Moses prays, and the snakes leave, and the people rejoice.

But did God really have to send actual deadly snakes for all that to happen?  Other times when the people complained of hunger God sent manna and quail and water from a rock.  So, what’s with all the bitey vipers?  That’s not very Jesusy of God, even taking consideration for it being 1200 BC at this stage.

Today’s psalm declares that all of God’s healing for the sick and stupid comes by God’s word, literally a diagnosis of “all clear” from the specialist.  The God of steadfast love delivers God’s people, so let them rejoice with sacrifices of praise says this psalm.  The Christian writer Selwyn Hughes once described the sacrifice of praise as “thanksgiving with blood on its hands”, a phrase I like.  This suggests that sometimes praise is hard fought, hard won, and worth hanging on to.  These are the songs of an overcomer sung toward the God who has delivered victory to him or her at long last.   Perhaps this sort of sacrifice of praise is the one sung by the Hebrews who received a harsh lesson in discipleship and who heeded that lesson to now stand and sing with awe of God’s power and deliverance.  Confronted by the one who can destroy, but who chooses instead to deliver, the people understand that God desires praise as a response to grace, but it is not a prerequisite.

Paul picks up the theme of Torah in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus writing in Ephesians 2:4-5 that debt has left them dead, but God has made them alive with Christ by grace.  All who belong to God are saved by grace through faith, not by faith itself he writes in Ephesians 2:8.  In other words you are not saved by what you accept as true about the universe, neither are you saved by what you accept as true about the Bible.  You are not saved by signing your name beneath or reciting every week the Creed of Nicaea; as if by saying “this document details what I agree to be the facts of Christianity” is what will get you into Heaven.  It won’t.  None of those things will.  It doesn’t matter what you accept as true says Paul, it matters only what God has done by grace, and by grace alone.

Salvation in the Christian tradition is by trust in Jesus and that what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross is sufficient.  The Christian tradition teaches that if you don’t trust the sufficiency of Jesus then you are un-saving yourself because you are taking yourself out of the hands of God who only ever saves by grace.  Jesus says this in John 3:17-18.  Every other means of salvation falls short, and salvation that falls short is salvation that doesn’t succeed in saving.  When a method of salvation doesn’t save then the thing is lost, or to use Jesus’ words the thing is left in the dark.

The message of Jesus who brought light to the world is choose not to walk out of the light; stay in the light and be saved.  To think and act as if you must earn your salvation is to walk away from God’s initiative which is the free gift of salvation by grace.  To receive salvation by grace through faith is not about praying a certain way or saying a certain formula, or even by being baptised, or by any other liturgical or traditional thing.  Salvation by grace is a trust exercise, it’s the heart’s acceptance that “Jesus did it” evident in the attitude that “I am safe because Jesus”.  Everything else we do as Christians can be only be because of one of two things: assured discipleship which is living freely within the reign of God, worshipping and serving out of gratitude and loving delight; or anxious despair wherein the cross is insufficient, and one must earn salvation through spiritual disciplines and altar-specific formulas.

In a Jewish devotional work written around the time of Jesus The Wisdom of Solomon 16:5b-7 says that it is not the symbol of the snake or even faith in the symbol that saved the Hebrews back in the day, rather it was God’s activity.  Today we might go on to add that God acted by grace to preserve the people.  When we look at images Jesus crucified, be that a crucifix or a painting, or a mental image since none of us were eyewitnesses, we see the evidence of our salvation.  God has saved us, and by grace alone are we saved.  Look at the cross and see how much you are loved: look at God hanging dying, and don’t doubt that you are overtly and utterly beloved.  But don’t think that hanging a cross on your wall or around your neck will do anything other than remind you of how much you are loved: possessing a renaissance sculpture or a piece of cruciform jewellery won’t save you any more than those formulaic prayers.

Flip over your Bible, if you’ve got one there, and have a look at a conversation Jesus had with the crowds.  In John 6:28 a Jewish crowd is listening to Jesus speak about salvation and they ask Jesus “what must we do?”  Judaism is a religion centred on practice and belonging rather than doctrine and belief: what makes a person a Jew is that he or she behaves like one and is accepted into the group who is behaving like Jews.  In other words, you are a Jew if you do Jewish stuff and other Jews invite you to join in.  You can’t earn salvation as a Jew, you don’t need to: you are saved because you are chosen, saved by grace just by being a descendent of Abraham.  As a saved one, a chosen one, you live that out by doing Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic things.  So, in that framework the crowd asks Jesus “what’s your kosher? your circumcision? your ritual? your psalms?” to which Jesus says in John 6:29 “trust me”.  Nothing else, no instruction for action, just “trust me”.  He doesn’t even say “accept these facts to be true, agree to the following doctrinal statements”, he just says…what does he say?  Trust me.  So, the crowd says in John 6:30-31 “okay, you want us to trust you?  Why should we trust you unless you prove it?  Abraham made us reshape our sex organs, Moses gave us laws, David wrote us songs with theology in them.  Give us something tangible so that we know you are telling us the truth: do something” they say, “or at least ask us to do something for you” they might have added.  And Jesus says in John 6:32-33, 38 “no.  It’s all about God’s generous grace and not about performance, indeed it isn’t even about my (messianic) performance,” and in John 6:40 Jesus says again “trust me and live abundantly and confidently, and I will look after you.”

What if Jesus said that to us?

What if our reasons for believing ourselves to be saved weren’t the reasons Jesus offers?  “But Jesus, I was converted at 27 when I repeated the special prayer line-by-line with Billy Graham-slash-Brian Houston.” Or “but Jesus, I was baptised because of my Christian parents at 3 months of age, confirmed in my local congregation at 12 years of age, hit with the Holy Spirit at a Charismatic Renewal convention at 13 years of age, and I’ve prayed in tongues since I was 35 after specifically asking my Pentecostal megachurch cell group leader to pray for me one night.”  What do you think Jesus would say to that?  My reading of John 3, John 6, and Ephesians 2, is that Jesus would say “doing those things didn’t get you saved, being saved lead you to do those things.”

Huh?  So, how then were we saved if not by a prayer of invitation and confession, or the waters of baptism following vows of obedience and faithfulness?  How were we saved?  How were we saved?  By grace.  Grace alone.  We know we were saved because God has told us, and also because we are actually safe.  If we weren’t saved then we’d be unsafe, wouldn’t we?  But we’re not unsafe, so we know we are saved.

So, here’s a big statement for you.  Don’t let your faith get in the way of your salvation.  By this I mean as soon as you try to work out what it is you did which actually got you saved, which specific belief, which specific action, you’ve missed the point.  It is grace that saved you, God did it all and you did nothing.  That you received the message that you are loved, and that you responded with joy or relief or whatever, and that you accepted the story of grace to be true, made your salvation effective and it put you on the path of growing in discipleship.  But the actual deliverance was all God’s work.

So, remember that.  And make sure that when you share your faith, and you should, that what you share is the free gift of grace given by God because of love.  And nothing less than love.

Amen.

One Day in The Temple (Lent 3B)

This is the text of the message I wrote for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th March 2018, the third Sunday in Lent.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

I am an uncle to three magnificent children with whom I caught up in South Australia last weekend, but I am not a father.  However, in the light of today’s reading from the gospel I want to start with a “dad joke”.  Are you ready, is your excitement building?  Okay, here it is: what is the highest jump recorded in history?  What was it, do you know?  Are you ready for this, are you sure?  Okay, here it is: it’s when Jesus cleared the temple.  Bahahaha!

Okay, you’re not laughing but I get it, it’s okay.  It probably sounds better in Aramaic.  No worries.

In all seriousness Jesus clearing the temple is one of the surprisingly few stories which occurs in all four gospels, but it is unique even among those stories because of its timing in the life of Jesus.  Mark, Matthew and Luke each locate this story specifically on Monday in Holy Week, the day after Palm Sunday, whereas John puts it right at the start of Jesus’ public ministry.  Did he actually do it twice, did Jesus throw a hissy in the courtyard two times, three years apart?  That’s a good question; it’s not one I’m going to answer today, but it’s still a good question.

Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggests that in clearing out the traders Jesus did not actually “cleanse the temple” as the language about this episode often goes, in fact Jesus symbolically abolished the temple[1] and the temple-way of doing things.

Borg and Crossan make this claim regarding the activity of Jesus in the week before he was murdered, so it fits better with the time of the year we are in now rather than the time of John 2, but it’s worth making the point for that since we are in Lent right now.  I’m not going to get into the depths of what these theologians say, but the basic story is that Jesus is not bothered by the different ways people worship God: be that by sacrifice or by praise; by sitting or standing; by singing or silence; in Aramaic or Latin or Shakespearian or Australian English.  Activities of the religious community presented to God for God’s pleasure are never of themselves a problem for Jesus, no matter how strange they might appear to Protestant Gippslanders.  However, when any supposedly worshipful act becomes a substitute for activities of justice and gracious-welcome then that act is a problem for God.  Our God, the God of our people, is the God of All Nations; so, if our church-stuff excludes other types of people from God’s company then we shouldn’t be surprised when the Word-became-Flesh, God-with-us immediately shuts down this counterfeit worship.  To sing to God, to pray, to sacrifice, yet to resist and not allow justice is not pleasing to God; therefore, whatever goes on in church must empower disciples for acts of justice, it must never excuse them from it.

The blaze of Jesus’ anger in the temple therefore had nothing to do with merchants doing honest business, or even with merchants doing dishonest business.  Jesus is not bothered by a parish fete making use of this room, (although I am), and he’s not fussed if our fundraising garage sale takes place on this property.  That’s not the issue here, and it never has been.  Rather the issue at hand, and the reason behind Jesus suddenly going boonta in Jerusalem’s holiest building, it is the shift in emphasis of the temple authorities away from prayer to cosy up to the imperial oppressors.  Borg says in another book, one written without Crossan, that it’s not the sacrificial-animal sellers and coin merchants who Jesus names and flogs as thieves, it’s the priestly collaborators who are using their social status to cosy up with Rome[2].

The people of God are supposed to stand away from the rulers of the world: not to ignore them or to rebel against them, but to make sure that we are never implicated in human schemes of oppression and greed.

As with almost all Christians who will allow the name “Evangelical” to be pointed at them I understand and proclaim as truth that Jesus was crucified because of human sin.  But this is not as obvious a statement as it might seem.  It’s not just that Jesus died as a sacrifice for us, it’s that he was murdered by individual sinful men acting sinfully.  Jesus died because of the envy and corruption of a group of Jewish religious leaders, and the cowardice and injustice of the Roman imperial governor.  These men who were supposed to care for God’s people as God’s appointed leaders instead established a system in which religion and government, high priest and governor, temple and empire operated in life-destroying ways.  Jesus was killed by the powerful men of his day.  Part of the story of Easter is that like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, and millions of brutally silenced other men and women of God, Jesus was assassinated by the powers that be in an attempt to shut down his God-centred summons to their repentance.

In the light of this different view of the death of Jesus, a view which expands what we were taught about the cross and sin but in no way undermines it, the New Testament writers offer another way of responding to Jesus.  Salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection is not about life inside a broken system of injustice and corrupt self-interest but with a new and handy reset button called “confession and repentance”.  No, Calvary says that the world is broken and a completely new way of doing life which turns domination on its end and affirms God’s Kingdom justice above human imperial injustice is required.  If you follow the Easter story through Mark, Matthew or Luke what you find out is that it was this activity that lead directly to Jesus’ death.  When Jesus called out the injustice and corruption of the temple and shamed the Jewish leaders as collaborators with the Romans, that was the last straw.  “He needs to be shut up and shut down: let’s kill him embarrassingly” says the Sanhedrin first to each other and then to Pilate.

The Bible’s story of salvation, and this is evident in the message of Jesus is not primarily concerned with life after death, but with life on a transformed Earth within the Kingdom of God.  Salvation is therefore about the life of the world to come, meaning this world in its restored state.  Salvation is Genesis 2, but better.  But this world, the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated, must be healed.  The new Earth, by which the whole Bible means this Earth made new rather than an entirely different planet to replace the current, old one, is a place of completion rather than fragmentation, and wholeness and healing rather than brokenness, because of grace.  Salvation runs right through the Bible as a healing story, moving the people of God (and the persons within the body) from slavery under Pharaoh to the land of milk and honey with lots of walking and being upheld by grace in between.  Then Israel falls apart, becomes too corrupt for its own good, and the people are exiled.  Then God brings them back and starts again in a rebuilt Jerusalem.  Then Israel falls apart and God leaves them in Jerusalem but the Greeks, then the Romans arrive.  When Jesus comes he is the saviour in this repeated Jewish pattern.  Like God through Moses Jesus is the liberator who sets the captives free.  As he says of himself, and like the prophets in the model of Elijah who we met at Transfiguration three weeks ago Jesus is The Way who points the exiles toward home and gives navigation to homecoming.  And like the temple itself, and as reiterated by the authors and editors of the New Testament book Hebrews Jesus is the Sacrifice who once for all fulfilled and made obsolete the temple and its rituals for atonement, guaranteeing acceptance and forgiveness for all from God.

Beyond the gospels we read from the early Church how Jesus, the one murdered by Rome has been vindicated by God.  Peter says this in his great sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:23-24, 36.  Throughout his letters Paul repeatedly says that his primary purpose, his life’s work as a writer and a public speaker is Christ crucified.  Christ is wisdom where the world is foolish we began to read today in 1 Corinthians.  This story goes past where we finished today and for the full effect read 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 where for the first time in his life Paul writes about the cross from a theological perspective, not just an episode of history.  Where Paul sets up a comparison between the wisdom of the world practiced by some of the Christian factions of Corinth (that is to say, the broad way) and the wisdom of God (the narrow way which is foolishness to the academia of the Greeks and a stumbling block to the religiosity of the Jews) he does it within the framework of Christ as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24, 30).

The human way of doing things is broken and it leads to brokenness.  The People of God: the people who honoured Abraham, Moses, Elijah and the prophets, David and the good kings, and Samuel and the faithful hearers and doers of the word of God; this People executed the Messiah for Blasphemy and the King of Kings for Treason.  Tell me how that’s a good system, if you can.  Calvary says that the human system is broken.  Jesus’ anger at how the system had pervaded and corrupted the very heart of God’s own nation’s worship shows how much that hurt him.  That the religious and national leaders of God’s own nation chose to murder and humiliate Jesus for calling them out is all the evidence and more that we are up against it if we choose to stand with Jesus.

This is a dangerous message, after all according to Mark, Matthew and Luke this is the message that got Jesus killed.  Yet in that we hear the heart-felt cry of the Word of God.

Resist evil, but do not rebel.  Let me be clear in saying that I have not heard calling us to storm the council chambers in Traralgon, or the parliaments in Melbourne or Canberra.  God is not calling us to picket the Uniting Church offices of Assembly, Synod, Presbytery, or Cluster.  Do not burn your flags, just don’t worship them either.  Listen to God, follow Jesus, and pray without ceasing for the Church and our nation.  Just don’t be surprised if when the world continues in the way that is going, without God, we who live according to the Way of Christ find ourselves headed for the high jump.

Amen.

[1] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final days in Jerusalem. (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 48.

[2] Marcus J Borg. Meeting Jesus in Mark: Conversations with Scripture. (London: SPCK, 2011). 93

Up! Up and (not) Away!

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 28th May 2017.  It follows the readings for Ascension.

Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:36-53.

Ascension is one of those days in the liturgical calendar that many Uniting Church congregations appear to overlook.  It’s there on the calendars, marked on my lectionary and on the two month-per-view calendars I have on my wall at the manse, one each from the Synods of Victoria-Tasmania and South Australia.  Perhaps Evangelicals see this festival as a bit religious, a bit High-Church, more than a bit irrelevant to the cause of global evangelism.  Perhaps it is that, unlike many other Christian festivals which move with the day of the year, Ascension is always on a Thursday and never on a Sunday.  Good Friday, always a Friday is an exception because of what it is, and of course Christmas need not be Sunday to be Christmas, but otherwise if it doesn’t happen on Sunday it doesn’t seem happen at all.

I think that’s a shame:  I like Ascension.  I like what it represents and I like that it goes almost completely ignored by the world.  I mean, if you aren’t a High-Church person now or you didn’t go to an Anglican or Roman Catholic school back in the day, you probably don’t know it exists at all.  So, it’s one of ours, a day that the Church gets to keep for itself.  We can worship God in the way we want, without interruption or compromise, and we get to eat all the lollies on our own and we don’t have to share them with anybody.

So, what is Ascension?  Well in simple terms, and there is no need to be any more complicated than this, Ascension marks the day when Jesus returned to Heaven after the resurrection.  Pretty much all of Christianity believes that after Jesus rose from the dead on that third day, the day now called Easter Day or Easter Sunday, Jesus wandered around with the disciples for seven weeks or so, popping up here or there, before finally giving the Great Commission to the readers of Matthew, and the assurance of the Holy Spirit to the readers of Luke, and then was taken bodily into Heaven.  That’s one long sentence, because it’s one complete idea.  The risen Jesus is the one who ascends; the one who walked out of the grave is a different sort if being from the one who was carried into it.  More of that later.

Luke suggests in Acts 1:3-8 that Jesus ascends and descends many times in the forty days between the day of his resurrection and this final ascension ten days before Pentecost.  I find this idea fascinating, and somewhat under-reported.  If you’ve heard anything about the ascension before you know that it happened once, on the sixth Thursday after Easter.  Jesus rose from the dead, hung about for forty days, and then was beamed up Star Trek style from a rock just outside Jerusalem.  But Luke, and therefore the Bible, says something different.  Luke says that Jesus came and went many times in those seven weeks, and that raises a question for me.  Why did Jesus stop coming back after those forty days?

In the way that Luke reports it Jesus’ final ascension is an apocalyptic event with the cloud of presence and the angelic figures.  So, does Acts 1:11 predict an apocalyptic second coming?  He will return, just as you have seen him depart say the messengers.  I don’t doubt that Jesus will return to the earth in glory, but I don’t think this is a proof text for it.  Remember that Jesus has been up and down from Heaven on a frequent basis for the past six weeks; what I think this text says is that this will continue, even if less publicly.  In other words, Jesus did not stop coming after the forty days, he just did it differently.  Think of how Jesus appears to Saul in Acts 9.  Think, if you believe them, of the millions of accounts of Jesus appearing to people right up to our own day, many of them not Christian when he came. “Aha, but”, you might say, “Jesus appeared in person to the apostles; his appearances to Saul and the people in our day were only visions.”  So, were Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the road to Emmaus, and back in Jerusalem when Cleopas and friend returned, appearances in person or in vision?  After all, in Luke 24:13-49 Jesus eats a piece of fish and breaks apart a loaf of bread in his hands, but he also appears and disappears suddenly and at will.

I’m not trying to tell you that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, I believe he did, but I am asking the question whether what we read in Acts 1:10 and Luke 24:50-53 really is the end of the story of the Christ in the world, or whether he indeed continues to come and go by the grace and will of God.  Again, I say, the Jesus who walked out of the tomb is different in substance from the Jesus who was carried into it.  The real, present, resurrected Jesus was not limited to one place at one time in the same way that the pre-crucifixion Jesus was; this is true of him today but I believe it might have been true of him in that six weeks too.

Forty is a number with Biblical significance: in Jewish philosophy, it tends to signify completion.  Forty days and forty nights of flooding rain is sufficient to destroy all life on earth except the lives God personally saved.  Forty years in the desert is sufficient to effect generational change in the Hebrews who left Egypt.  Forty days in the wilderness takes Jesus to the brink of giving in to temptation, he has reached the very limit of human forbearance.  Where in the Lord’s prayer we say, “save us from the time of trial” we mean “don’t push us beyond our limits, our ability to say no to evil.”  For Jesus that limit was forty days or turmoil and starvation: his emptiness was complete.  So, forty days between the opened tomb and the opened sky brings about the completion of the teaching and coaching ministry of Jesus the disciple-maker.  Jesus returned to Heaven when the work was completed.  And what was that work?  Preparation of the 120 to receive the Holy Spirit.

That is why it does not surprise me at all to hear or read of Jesus returning to earth in our day.  He comes for the same purpose, here time and again to continue to complete the work of preparing new generations of disciples to receive the Holy Spirit for the work of mission.  I mean, look at Jesus’ last works in Luke (24:48-49) and Acts (1:4-5, 8): wait here in the place to which I have brought you until the Spirit takes you on to the next step with the Spirit’s power.

The power that Jesus promised to give the apostles is not the power to restore Israel to superpower status, but the power (boldness, authority security) to go with the good news of the Reign of God to neighbours, strangers, and aliens (Acts 1:8).  Jesus does not intend to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6), he will restore Israel (and the world 1:8b) to the kingdom, by the word of the apostles’ witness.  This is indeed what happens.

And this is where we see more of what Jesus has become in his resurrection.  The new kingdom which the Church is heralding is characterised by embodied existence; Jesus is no ghost but neither is he a resuscitated corpse (Luke 24:39).  And he has been raised by God, the great, complete, and unargued vindication of every word of his message.  As I have heard it said, when a man walks out of his own grave to tell you something you want to pay attention to whatever he says.  And as if more proof were required, the resurrected Christ then ascends publicly to the Father where he sits right beside God Godself.  There is no higher proof that the message of Jesus is the whole truth of God, and therefore worthy of human worship (Luke 24:52).  There is no higher proof that the promises he made will be fulfilled, the promise that he will be with us always, the promise that if we act according to his will he will complete the work because of us, the promise that we are loved, forgiven, and will ultimately be reunited with God in the new kingdom.

Paul gives thanks for the reputation of the love of the Ephesians for all the Church.  This to me is evidence that the gospel has struck and stuck.  The kingdom’s values are being lived out publicly, the disciples of Jesus are known for their character and they are unique.  The Holy Spirit’s power is effective, the promises of Jesus are being fulfilled, and the news of the reign of God is going onward and outward.  From Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria the gospel has reached and is filling Roman Asia with the news of God, the message is not too far from hitting the Ends of the Earth.

Paul prays for the Ephesian believers for wisdom and revelation as they come to know the Father so that they might see and understand the hope in the message of Jesus.  That hope includes the story that the Church is empowered to continue the work of God, empowered with the same power that raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to the highest place in Heaven.  From being in the grave of an executed blasphemer and traitor Jesus is now enthroned beside God the King, and rightly so, because Christ is the head of all things.  The ascension of Christ is the next state of his resurrection, a continuation of the process of vindication that not only is Jesus revealed as Christ the true messenger of God, but that he is Godself, the king and lord who was in flesh but is now in the fullest of glory.  All that which was laid aside prior to the manger is now restored completely.  This is the news that was proclaimed on Pentecost day and this is the news which is being proclaimed a generation later in Roman Asia.

Paul prays that the Ephesians, and I pray that the East Gippslanders know this.  In Greek, this whole passage is one long sentence: one connected train of thought which we are supposed to hold together in our minds.  We have been chosen by God, because of the work of Jesus who blesses us, to receive the free gift of redemption through grace, and the power to tell others where to get it for themselves, so that every member of creation might live a life full of hope, joy, and utter security.

I do believe in a second coming of Jesus.  I’m not sure about the “Left Behind” model and I’m not a pre-Millennial, post-Millennial, ante-Millennial or any other sort of thousand-years person.  Whether one day I will vanish in the blink of an eye, or bodily ascend like Jesus, or whether Jesus does what Jesus will do another way I am not bothered.  Maybe I’ll not live to see the ultimate return of Christ at all and I’ll watch it all unfold from the old Heaven as the new one descends upon those of you who remain.  But what I believe even more than the glorious apocalypse, the great and undoubted revelation of God as both Lord and King, is that Jesus has never stopped coming to earth to be with his own.  Jesus does not walk with me like he walked with Peter, James and John, but neither is he watching us from a distance.

Ascension carries one strong and hope filled meaning for me.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, he is still with us.  Elvis may have left the building, but Jesus hasn’t gone away, and he never intended to.

Amen.

What must WE do?

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 30th April 2017.

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23.

Good morning Church.

When I began my time amongst you on January 1st this year I told you in that first service that I’d not be telling you too much about myself from the front.  I said that my focus as a preacher was upon the gospel, and that if you wanted to get to know me then you were welcome to come to the manse and catch up.  Because of that you’re still finding out things about me, even after four months.  This morning I’m going to share another part of my story with you.

During the months between May 2003 and January 2009 I belonged to a Hillsong congregation, particularly the one which meets in central London.  The site of our worship moved about a bit, so I cannot tell you about a specific location, but Hillsong Church London was where I “did church” to use their terminology.  One of my great privileges as a participant in Hillsong Church London was the time I spent associated with the “New Christians Team”.  We were the sneaky ones who were sat strategically around the theatres where we met as church, and when everyone else had their eyes closed for the altar call we had our eyes open.  When someone in my “section” raised his or her hand for salvation I would see that hand, and then I would discreetly identify that person to one of my team members who would then approach that person during the final songs and speak with him or her about salvation as the service ended.  In 2004, there were something like 637 “hands” raised, some for first time salvation and others for a re-connection with God after a time “in the wilderness”.  In 2005, we saw the thousandth person that year raise her or his hand in late September.  We stopped counting after that: we had the delicious difficulty that converts were being made faster than we could count them.  So, we stopped counting them and instead focussed on loving them.

Two things from that experience stand out for me, and I hope you’re already seeing the link to our reading from Acts this morning.

  1. Whilst we never had 3000 people baptised in one day, God really was adding daily to our number those who were being saved.  One of our regular guest speakers was a church planter in India and his intention at the time of one of his visits to us was to plant 365 churches each year; statistically that would be one new church per day.  Let alone God daily adding people, this pastor wanted God daily adding new missional congregations to the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
  2. I remember that one service where no one raised a hand. I’m a bit used to this story now, but when I first began telling it in sermons in Australia I used to choke up at the memory.  Now to be clear, I’m not talking about no one in my section raising a hand, that often happened; what I’m saying is that after the hour and a half of song, praise, prayer, message, and all, there was not one hand raised across our theatre.  I remember the visible distress in our team room after the service: not one person had been saved anew!  We had been church and we had done church, and no one had found Christ anew.  No-one, not one!  We had failed God: to say we were devastated is an understatement, we were gutted and hurting.

Can you imagine why Hillsong Church is so successful at what it does?  I’m not here to praise them up, after all I am here and not there.  What they do with media, music and film, is another story, not a bad story, just not my focus this morning.  Can you imagine what it feels like to be in a congregation where the leaders go home crying, some wracked with sobs, because there was a service without a salvation?  I don’t need to imagine it, I was there, and it haunts me occasionally, and here’s why.  At that stage Hillsong Church London met in a small theatre, it had about 650 seats, and because of that there were three services on a Sunday.  There were salvations in the other two services that day, so it’s not like God went home empty-handed.  People were added to the Church that day.  So, imagine that.  Even though God was saving Londoners in the morning and in the evening, that not one person had asked for grace in the afternoon set off grief like I had never before seen in a bunch of Christian leaders anywhere.

In today’s set text from 1 Peter 1:18-19 the writer tells his readers, which includes us, that we were ransomed with the blood of Jesus; a ransom far more valuable than coin and bullion.  And in Acts 2:41 we are told that about 3000 were added to the congregation after they had been cut to the quick by the word of the gospel.

Do we really doubt that salvation is a precious thing?  More precious than anything the world can provide, more devastating when it is missed than any other human catastrophe.  Just think of it in these terms, to miss salvation is to have an “Act of God” which didn’t happen.  As nasty as storms and fires are we understand that they are awe-inspiring in their power: imagine how powerful a positive “Act of God” might be, and how awful to miss out.  Money cannot buy that, and if you miss that window in the skies how can you be sure that it will come again?  We as Christians have faith that there is always a way to God, but if you are not a Christian, and you miss your chance, how do you know there will be another chance?  Or, and this one does cut me to the heart, if we Christians miss our chance to open the skies to those who are not Christian, how will we know that they’ll get another chance?  We trust that God is gracious in seeking the lost to save them, but if this congregation did not extend a hand to welcome the lost how can we rely on the next congregation to do so?

And if we continue to miss our opportunities, if we continue to shirk our responsibilities, perhaps God will not send the lost to us anymore.  Maybe when God is shepherding a lost woman or man into the Kingdom of God God will send that one to one of the other denominations in town.  Now I’m not saying we are in competition with the other churches, not at all.  I am delighted that God is adding daily to the Church those who are being saved, even if they are being saved in Lakes Community Church, the Baptists, the Anglicans, and the Roman Catholics.  But if God is sending lost souls there because God feels God cannot send lost souls here…  I don’t even want to think about that being true.

So, what do we do?  Do we have an “altar call” each week for the next six weeks in the hope of having a mega baptism service on Pentecost Day?  Do you need to start bringing your unsaved friends to church more often so that I can preach salvation to them?  Do you actually trust me to do that, or is this congregation and its worship life embarrassing to you?  I’m not suggesting it is, and I’m not having a go at you at all: in fact, I have belonged to congregations where I would not have invited my unsaved friends along, so I know that such sentiments exist.  On the other hand, and this is new to me as pastoring a church is new to me, as your preacher and chaplain can I trust you to disciple and encourage those friends and neighbours of yours that I lead in salvific prayer?  I know that Hillsong lost converts when having “prayed the prayer” they were then not followed up or encouraged in their new faith by their Christian friends.

The gift we were given in Jesus Christ is beyond compare.  It is beyond value, (we’ve already said that), and it is beyond comprehension.  Salvation from sin, from its effects in our life (through the process of healing and discipline, not magic); security and salving from aloneness and hopelessness, and from feelings of worthlessness and uselessness; these are concepts that we could spend a lifetime of sermons and Bible studies unpacking and still not get to the end of.

I have always been a Christian.  If you want to argue the merits of that statement in view of original sin and the time between my birth and my accepting Christ’s lordship over my heart as a sentient adult, well I don’t care for your tone.  I was born into a family of disciples, raised in discipleship, and I’ve never departed from it.  I am not sinless, I am far from perfect, but I have always had God in the centre of my life.  And because of this, for the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone could possibly live without that.  I mean, how do unbelievers even continue in the world?  They exist because God created them human, but how do they actually live without the knowledge of God and this deep, core, fundamental, central, foundational, defining understanding that they were made in the image and likeness of God with the sole purpose of being loved by the God who made them?

This is why it is so important that we be ready when people from “outside the awareness of the love of God” come to us ready to respond.  Psalm 116 speaks of a man who was ensnared and in deep distress but God leant down so as to hear his cry for deliverance all the clearer, and God saved him.    He goes on in the later verses to say “now I will thank God with an offering and with public declaration of God’s magnificence and my gratitude.  I know that I am precious to God and that God is interested in me and takes care of me, God deals carefully with me.  I am nothing, yet I am precious to God, so I will praise and magnify God’s name.”

We must take care when people come to church.  We must be aware when something extraordinary is happening in someone’s life and any given Sunday is a special day for him or her because of what God has done.  Last week I prayed our confessions by using Bruce Prewer’s poem “During Last Week”.  But what if during last week something extraordinary happened and someone wanted to come and give exultant praise to God?  What if for us it’s ho-hum another Sunday, time to get the urn on and to ask who left the fans going, while a visitor (or more so, a local whose attendance we might take for granted) wants to be flat on her face before the Lord in exaltation or despair?

In the last two weeks, last week and Easter day, there were visitors here at 9:15.  Now I am not addressing these remarks only to those of you who are the early comers, those who arrive closer to 9:30 than 10:00 because you have jobs, we all need to hear this.  I am here earliest and I have my 9:00 jobs, so this is me too. We must never, ever, be too busy or too noisy in this house for those who need it to be a church.  Altar calls and discipleship classes aside this is what we can do right now, be church for those who are coming here on any given Sunday.

Here’s two quick stories to illustrate what I mean:

  1. I didn’t see this happen but I’ve been to the place where it did. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional place of the cross and the empty tomb, many different Christian denominations have their own zone.  Like us there are bowls for candles and intercessions: I have been there, I have seen the bowls, and I have lit a candle.  I have been a Christian on his first visit to Jerusalem.  I have knelt at the slab where tradition says Jesus was laid out between cross and grave.  I have knelt in the sepulchre itself, the empty tomb.  Well this story goes that another pilgrim such as I was, this one a woman of the Roman Catholic faith, joyfully placed her candles in one of the bowls of sand in celebration of her being in Jerusalem.  Can you imagine this woman’s joy?  Can you imagine this woman’s heartbroken terror when a bearded man screamed “No!” from across the space, and in a mass of cassocks and flame sent her candles flying?  She had placed Catholic candles in some very specifically other Orthodox bowl.  I mean, you’d think she’d shitted on the actual cross, with all the offence that my use of that word implies as well as the act.  Horrifying!  Not my use of the word “shit”, but the way in which this dear daughter of God was treated in her own Father’s house.
  2. I was almost there for this next story, I know the woman involved and I passed her in the foyer on the day in question. A young woman who had been inconsistent in her attendance at church for a few months was present one particular Sunday.  She was not backsliding at all, she was just struggling in life and her very new husband, who was not a Christian at the time, really only got to see her on Sundays so she’d stay in bed with him rather than go off to church by herself.  Anyway, the woman came to church this week, and feeling a little bit frail for a reason I’ll tell you in a minute, she sat in the very back row.  She sat there quietly, her head bowed, while the bustle of church went on around her.  The 8:30 traditional service (which I had preached at) was emptying out of the hall after coffee and the 10:00 family service crowd was arriving.  But there she sat, this young woman, quiet in the back row.  After church got underway, and the young woman had sung the first song and so forth, she was sitting, again silently and with her head bowed, when one of the regulars came in late.  Being late she sat at the back.  She sat next to the young woman.  And since the young woman had been infrequent in her attendance the older woman whispered to her: how are you?  How is your new husband?  How do you like married life in place of just living together life?  and your new house?  and being called Mrs?  And so on.  On she whispered, being friendly and interested.  On she whispered through the formal prayers.  On she whispered through the time for silent prayer.  On she whispered through the sermon.  The young woman, unbeknownst to anyone that day, unbeknownst to the older woman, unbeknownst to the minister or any of the elders, unbeknownst to me who passed her in the foyer as I left and she arrived at 9:45, that young woman had miscarried her first pregnancy earlier in the week.  She had come “to church”, practically “back to church”, to spend some daughter-time with her Father in Heaven and some crying time with her Comforter.  What she got was an hour of whispered interrogative interruption.

Let’s not do that.

Let’s never be that priest or that older woman.  Let’s all be aware of where we are and what this house means to everyone who comes.  Let’s take care of God’s house, not just in keeping the plastic-ware in its only possible correct drawer, the blinds at a certain angle, or the cars parked facing only east in the front and precisely one metre back from the gravel.   All of that is important, some of it is a legal imperative for OH&S, but if we truly believe this building to be the house of God then we must always be aware that God is at work here, and is welcome to be at work here, in God’s own house.  We can be fun, and we can be social.  You know I have a very evident sense of humour and most weeks I have elicited a chuckle or two from you.  That must not stop.  But we are first and foremost here, here in this place, here in the house of God, to worship and to respond to our glorious Father and magnificent saviour whom we adore so much.

So please Uniting Church, please Damien, please please please all of you and me, don’t get in the way of anyone else seeking God in adoration, desperation, or both.  If we are so care-giving, so careful in this better way, then maybe, just maybe, God will add to our number those who are being saved.

Amen.