If Today Was Your First Day (Pentecost 10B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn and Morwell gathered at Yallourn North on Sunday 29th July 2018.

2 Samuel  11:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

Last Monday was an anniversary for me.  Actually, it was two on the same day.  On Sunday 23rd July 1972 I was baptised, and Monday 23rd July 2007 was my first day in prison.  I’m still baptised, and my last day in prison was Friday 30th January 2009, but I’d never really connected those two “first days” in my mind before.  I knew they were the anniversaries, but I tend to have remembered only one or the other, not both, but this past week I did.

Something that drew that connection even closer for me this year was the titles of two of the commentaries I chose for this week.  One book was called “Letters from Heaven” and the other was called “The Prison Letters”.  Of course, these books each in their own special way refer to the same letters; specifically, for me the pastoral Letter to the Church in Ephesus, attributed to Paul.  That Paul could write words of such heavenly encouragement from a prison cell is not a surprise to me, but we must not breeze past that fact either.  Even in the twenty-first century a gaol is not the sort of place you want to make a life, despite what you may have heard of its creature comforts boasting three square meals a day, a warm bed at night, and a 14’ TV in every cell.  The gaols where Paul spent time were a far cry from that, but even if they were of today’s standard they’re still not the sort of place you want to stay in if you have any other option.  And yet, the hope of Christ is found there, perhaps strength in weakness as I alluded to a few weeks ago.  When all you have left is Christ then, and perhaps only then, can you discover just who Christ is.  That revelation is truly a communique from Heaven, the message of salvation, friendship to sinners.

This news seems particularly relevant to me in the light of what I have just told you.  I have spent time in gaol, and I was baptised as an infant. For some people that news is scandalous, either piece of news an issue in need of remediation.  Of course, you all know that there is more to the story of my being in prison, a far less scandalous explanation, and I dare say many of you were ritually sprinkled or poured upon as babies and have never been submerged as adults, so you will see no problem in the story of my Presbyterian infancy.  Nonetheless, the finer details of my life are not the issue; the subject of Christ as saviour is a great theme.

In our reading for Jewish history this morning we find David not doing what a king should do and what every other king does.  David has gone home part way through the campaign of battle and is in Jerusalem and enjoying the comforts of his cedar-lined palace while his armies are in the field under the command of generals.  David’s conduct is contrary to that of the faithful Uriah who refuses on several occasions to spend even one night with Bathsheba, even when drunk.  Look at David in 2 Samuel 11:1 and compare him with Uriah in 2 Samuel 11:11, 13.  So, while the army is under canvas and in the midst of military manoeuvres David is at home, first having a nap and then having a perve.

Now, we need to understand that just because David can see her bathing that doesn’t mean that Bathsheba is showing off.  Remember that David is on his palace’s roof, potentially the highest point in this city which does not have a permanent temple.  Bathsheba might be innocently going about her bathing in the privacy of an inside courtyard, not anticipating at all that anyone would be looking down from the roof, or if they happened to do so that they would stay there leering at her.  David is in the wrong here.

What I most liked about the story as I read it this week, and like you I have read this story many times before, but what struck me as fresh information is that the Bible gives Bathsheba a full identity.  So, a Feminist reading might object to her being the daughter of some man and the wife of another rather than a woman in her own right, and fair enough actually, but at least she is identified.  This woman does have a name, a named father, and a named husband.  Bathsheba even has a calendar and we are told that it is the end of that week of the month for her.  The Bible identifies this woman by name, by relationship, and by care for her welfare.  King Leer on the other hand, David the just-awoke-from-his-nap-time sees her only as an assortment of curvaceous lumps of sexy meat.  The Bible tells us that she has just had her period, that’s why she’s in her ritual and hygienic bath, which means that in the coming week she will ovulate and be fertile.  David, obviously, could not care less.

In Ephesians 3:1 Paul calls himself a prisoner of Jesus.  He was also a prisoner of conscience at the time, probably in Rome.  Paul credits his imprisonment for the sake of the Gentiles; he understands that he’s been locked up for preaching and specifically for preaching what it is he has actually preached: but as far as he is concerned what choice does he have?  The gospel itself compels him, the news is too great not to share and the call of Jesus to apostleship is not something that Paul would ever refuse (Ephesians 3:3,7).  “Keep the faith, but don’t keep it to yourself” is his motto.  God has order in all things because all things are in God’s keeping, even if they are not all in God’s plan (Ephesians 3:8-13).  So, where the reading this morning began with for this reason the reason is all of the above; that the gospel is compelling, and that Christ’s own ordination is upon one so undeserving.  In Christ, from the Father, we are given a name and an inheritance which is being delivered now through divine blessing and resource for the work of the Kingdom (Ephesians 3:14-16).  All of this is delivered by love, and by the Spirit of Christ dwelling within each of us (Ephesians 3:17-18).  Paul is so assured that he has made a telling point that Ephesians 3:20 reads as a benediction; Paul might just as well have ended the letter there.

The writers of 2 Samuel 11 tell us that David denies Bathsheba’s and Uriah’s humanity: the woman is sexy meat and the husband is a barrier between David and the sexy meat.  Paul in Ephesians 3 on the other hand tell us that The Father, in Jesus declares and provides identity, lifting up nameless nobodies to kinship with God and ultimately to perfection.  Uriah was a great bloke cut down, Bathsheba was a victim of rape, and Paul was a bully transformed.  David is a bully right now, his transformation will come later, and Bathsheba will one day become Queen Mother.

Today’s message from scripture is that identity is personal.  Personal not that it is private, and not just that it is “you-specific”, but personal in that that it is meaningful to each individual.  When I was baptised and then as a more mature believer made confirmation of that baptism I was entering into a specific, recognisable covenant with God.  When I was three months old my parents made a loving choice on my behalf, and twelve years and three months further on I chose to confirm their intention, that I would follow God and God alone for all of my life.  God, who had already chosen me before I was knot together in my mother’s womb, indeed before my mother was knit together in her mother’s womb and so forth back in time, the God who chose me became my God by my choosing.  Even though God had no vows in the Presbyterian liturgy of baptism as was current in 1972, nor in the Anglican liturgy of confirmation as was current in 1984, I’m pretty sure God actively engaged with those processes and continued to choose me as a son and disciple.

I can also tell you that identity is important in gaol; you might expect this, maybe you didn’t.  You all know that my time in gaol between 23rd July 2007 and 30th January 2009 involved me wearing mostly black clothes and a pair of epaulettes with a blue band on them.  I also carried a numbered a set of keys and a radio with a unique callsign.  I was an OSG, an “Operational Support Grade” member of staff: not a prisoner in my prison, but a gaoler in my gaol.  I had a unique name and specific grade “OSG Tann”, a unique number (MT264), and set roles each day.  This made me distinct in the system; no other person in Her Majesty’s Prisons Service was me.  And, importantly, I was not a prisoner.  Prisoners also had specific colours to wear, maroon if they were especially difficult and green if they were especially amenable.  Prisoners also had their own name, usually their own surname prefaced by “Mr”, and a number.  Each prisoner is unique in the system and any prisoner “on the estate”, which is to say anyone incarcerated in England and Wales, could be located and identified to his or her specific cell.

My identity as a Christian, and as an OSG, were given to me.  I chose to be a Christian, and I chose to be an OSG, but how I was identified after those decisions was given to me.  Your identity today is both your choice and decision of the places into which you have been included.  In this cluster as a whole and in each of two parish congregations, you are called “sister” or “brother”, you are one of us not only in Christianity and the family of God but in our gathering as Yallourn and Morwell.

God sees you as unique and as part of the whole body.  You are you and you are part of us: this is an important distinction missed by David who saw only a whole mob of which he was shepherd.  David did not understand how one sheep here or there would be missed in the grand scheme, big picture of the flock.  A cute girl here, a random soldier there, who was to tell Israel’s king otherwise?  Well, God was to say otherwise, and so was Nathan (on God’s behalf) in his story of one ewe lamb amongst the mobs.

If you are a Bathsheba or a Uriah to God, then so may you be to me.  One, unique, irreplaceable one.

Amen.

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Watch Your Step 2 (Pentecost 9B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell congregation gathered for worship on Sunday 22nd July 2018.

2 Samuel 7:1-14; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

In Mark 6:30-34 we return to the place where two weeks ago we watched the twelve go out in pairs to proclaim the Kingdom of God around Galilee.  This week they have returned, and Jesus whisks them away for a bit of a rest and a debrief; just the thirteen of them, the twelve and him.  But, as ever seems to be the case with ministries, the mobs in need of God’s care trail the team and when Jesus arrives at the place of retreat he finds the crowds ready to ask him for more of God and himself.  Jesus’ practical response, which we did not read today, is provided in the miracle of superabundance of food and the feeding of five thousand families.  Since the disciples had not even had time to eat, (hence Jesus’ attempt to take them away from the crowds in the first place), perhaps those twelve baskets of leftovers mean that they did get a basket each.  I’ve told you before that it says in Second Leviticus 8:1 that the minister’s family gets the leftovers from all church meals; here is Jesus showing that to be true.  Following this event, the disciples turn the boat around and head home, no doubt giving up on the idea of a rest, and Jesus later meets them on the lake by walking across the waves and out to the storm-tossed boat.

What strikes me about the readings we have today, more so there than in what we have skipped, is that Jesus was moved by the people’s desperation for ministry, and especially their need for leadership.  Jesus is tired and the twelve are tired; they should have been recipients of ministry at this point, not providers, yet Jesus steps up because as Mark describes the people in 6:34 Jesus sees “a flock without a shepherd”.  Maybe in Australian terms they are “a mob without a dog, let alone a roustabout”; and even though the twelve are exhausted they do at least have a leader.  So, without apparent regard for his or the twelve’s tired and emotional state Jesus prepares to once again extend himself and them in ministry to the lost sheep of Israel.  He brings food to the mob, and he brings shalom to his mates.

The story this morning is taken up again in Mark 6:53 as the thirteen men in the boat bump up to the dock at Gennesaret.  We know it’s the dock because Mark tells us that they tied the boat up, they didn’t drop anchor and wade ashore.  And, once again, Jesus isn’t even off the jetty before he is besieged by the sick and their intercessors.  When he does finally get as far as the grass and then the open road he’s beset by caring friends and bouncing stretchers.  Caring friends of those on the stretchers I mean, I’m not sure how many people were showing care toward Jesus at that point.  (I hope his solo walk across the water was rejuvenating for him because that’s the only alone-time he’s had since the twelve returned.)

So, what do we say at this point, same old same old?  Jesus awesome in majesty, disciples struggling to keep up, world pathetic and needy: c’mon it is the gospel every week.  Well maybe not.

I’m thinking that, maybe, the twelve didn’t want a break at all.  Maybe, as one of my commentators this week suggested, the “apostles” (in quoteys) were all hyped up from being out in pairs and they wanted to keep going with the flow.  They were sent out by the Messiah himself as emissaries of the Kingdom of God, and they saw lives changed and miracles performed by their own selves, not by Jesus.  Can you just imagine them all returned to Jesus and trying to top each other’s story?  “Yeah, well, but where John and I went …” Indeed, this is the only place in Mark’s gospel that we can be sure that he used the word “apostle”; the only other place you’ll find it is Mark 3:14 and some scholars suggest that that might be a later addition to Mark’s completed book.  Perhaps Mark is making a point, that twelve discipuli (students) went out whereas twelve apostoli (missionaries, emissaries) returned; at least in their own eyes.  Maybe Jesus didn’t want them to rest up so much as to calm down.  And, I wonder if this is where we also find David in today’s reading from Jewish history.

David’s story as we read it today in 2 Samuel 7 is taken up just as David is sitting down.  Like the twelve he has found himself ready to rest after a time of heavy activity:  David has conquered Jerusalem and he has seen the Ark of the Covenant brought to the place of meeting in the City of David, the site where the temple will be built.  David looks out of his cedar-lined palace to the Tent of Meeting and wonders whether it is appropriate that God lives under canvas.  This story is also where we first meet Nathan, a prophet who will have much to say to David in coming years and chapters.  Nathan has discerned (or maybe he has just opined) that God is with David in all that David does, therefore whatever David does will have the blessing of God and a divine stamp of approval.  Go, do all that you have in mind for the LORD is with you we read in 2 Samuel 7:3, so that’s pretty clear; however, God has other ideas when it comes to building a temple.

For the bulk of the first decade of this century I lived in the south of England.  One of the churches with whom I belonged to God during that time made quite a point out of 2 Samuel 7:5b in its call to mission.  “Are you the one to build me a house?” asked the paraphernalia, calling attendees to connect and connected people to sow into the work of that local church with this rousing question from God.  I could ask the same of you today, are you the one to build a house for God in your local context. Well, are you?  Interesting to me, and I knew this all along which is why the church publicity puzzled me somewhat, the answer to the original question is “no”.  David was not the one to build a house for God, and maybe you aren’t either.  God’s plan was for Solomon to build the permanent temple; a fresh man with a fresh start, and God would honour the moment of the new thing in the fullness of time.

If David the conqueror had built the temple maybe it would have looked like a monument to victory, the shining house of worship as the ultimate prize of the warrior.  Less of a House of God, more of a Colosseum, built by slaves and paid for with war booty.  Perhaps God chose the unnamed-at-that-point Solomon because Solomon could not have been seen to earn the prize: the glory for the temple would be God’s alone, not the triumphant king.

The church in London that I speak of has been grown, and I am sure that God has found women and men to build a house.  I am not sure that all of the glory belongs to God, but God is glorified in that place.  I’m sure David’s temple would have been a blessing to Israel, but God’s temple built by Solomon was undoubtedly a greater thing for the People of God.

So, what am I saying.  Should we do nothing for God?  Of course, I’m not saying that at all.  What I am saying is that we do for God must be done for God, and not for ourselves.  God must have all the credit, and all the glory.  We can work in expectation of God’s reward, God’s “well done good and faithful servant” when we finish, but we must listen for God and move only where God is moving.  In other words, we must not get ahead of ourselves lest we get ahead of God.

When the twelve returned from their preaching tour of Galilee they were  justifiably excited.  God had moved amongst the people and God had been demonstrably at work through their ministering hands.  Maybe Mark is genuine in his ascription and these men had moved from disciples to apostles, from apprentices of the master to artisans in their own right, even if they were not masters.  But Jesus was wise as a leader, and a teacher, wise as a master to say, “well done fellas, brilliant first effort but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, let’s take some time after the reporting for quiet reflection and solid debrief”.  God, through Nathan, said the same thing to David who was genuine in heart but was about to get ahead of himself in his inertia.  The kingdom is united once again, there is a capital at Jerusalem, and God’s chosen man sits on the throne.  That’s enough for now, that’s enough.

Maybe that’s why the people on the other side of the lake, and at Gennesaret, were frantic at Jesus’ departure and then at his appearance elsewhere.  Unlike David and the twelve they did not have a leader, someone ahead of them, to direct them to the still waters for a time of what the Psalms call “Selah”: pause and consider.  The sheep without a shepherd were overexcited and there was no one to lead them to the still and quiet waters of Spiritual Retreat, or Sabbath, or Selah.  The mob had no one to remind them that they were cared for by someone capable of healing, restoring, and safeguarding them.  The team had no coach to remind them to “warm down” and to know when to take five for water and an orange quarter.

David was wise, and God was able to use David for more than David ever imagined because David heard God say, “that’s not for you, leave that with me”.  The twelve discipuli were wise in the same way, they saw their continued need for Jesus when the lake rose, and the boat fell, and he walked across the waves to them.  Eleven of these men became apostoli, and ten died as martyrs for the truth about God that they heard from Jesus over the years between Gennesaret and Golgotha.

Listen for God.  If God directs you to build the house then build it with all your might, except on Sabbath days when even God took a  break from creative, constructive work.  If God directs you to leave house-building for the next generation wait for what God has set aside for you to do, and then do that, with the same Sabbath proviso.  As church we are the flock of Jesus, but we are never to be an unruly mob, listen for the shepherd’s invitation to green fields and still waters.  And if God chooses to live in a tent in the midst of our homes of brick and tiles, so as to be free to commune with us as we grow, rather than imprisoned behind three layers of massive stone edifice where we are celebrated by the world for erecting such a fine piece of architecture, well that’s God’s call to make.

Listen for God.  Look for the shepherd who walks among the people.  Lay down when the time for selah and shalom is given to you.

Amen.

Profundity

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell and Narracan for Sunday 1st July 2018.

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130

In today’s reading from Jewish history we heard some of the earliest words spoken by David when he became king of Judah.  Saul and the sons of Saul, so Saul’s dynastic line and David’s best beloved friend Jonathan, are dead, killed in battle against the Philistines with whom David is allied at this point.  Even with himself now king over part of Saul’s realm, and freed at last from the murderous intentions of the now dead ex-king, David composes a song of mourning and not of celebration.  This is not a time for praise for David: the king is dead.  We read several weeks ago how David had been anointed king by Samuel back in David’s boyhood, but we must remember that Saul remained king over Israel until the day of his death, and that day has only now been reported to David where we take up the story this morning.  David had not been present at the battle where Saul and his sons died: unlike David we are able to read in 1 Samuel 31 that Saul dies by suicide.  In 2 Samuel 1 we read how David is told that Saul was slain by the very messenger who brings him the news of Saul’s death, a man who was essentially a refugee in Israel at the time.  David believes Saul has been murdered, even if it was euthanasia, by an insider.  The one who David himself refused to lay a finger on has been assassinated by some gloating random foreigner: David may never have found out the true means of Saul’s death, and in this moment, he is visibly distressed by what has befallen God’s anointed.

David’s way of dealing with his emotions, anger, confusion, grief, horror, is to write a song.  In the death of Saul and his heir Jonathan Israel has been humiliated, and David is conscious of the mockery that this news will elicit in the cities and towns of Philistia, today’s Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.  Not only prestige but prowess has been lost; Saul may have been a poor king, but he was an excellent swordsman and a decent general, and Jonathan a champion archer.   Israel’s potential for greater things has been cut off and Israel should mourn.  Even the poor king had brought good things to Israel and now that king is dead.

In Psalm 130 we read a plea for divine redemption, and is widely known by its first line in Latin De Profundis.  It is an individual lament and is a prayer of penitence – its theme is “O God I have messed up, I’m in the depths, hear me and come and save me”.  God alone can save, and without God’s approval no one can be saved even if God is not the agent of salvation.  No one can be saved in spite of God, Psalm 130:3 makes that plain.  So, God either allows saving to take place or God actively steps in and does the saving Godself; and this prayer is a plea for the second one.  As we heard about last week when we read John 17 together, so this week there is evidence that God’s reputation is at stake: God is glorified or “revered” in today’s wording, when forgiveness is evident.  In penitence I will glorify God when I am restored, and others who see me revived by grace will also give God praise for what God is doing for me and in me.

The saving grace of God inspires confidence.  Having called to God from the depths, the profoundly dark and deep, I am confident to wait.  Psalm 130:5-6 suggest that having cried out to God the work of the sufferer is done, it’s now up to God to do the saving.  I like this for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with me; I have experienced the profound depths and this Psalm speaks directly to my story.

Today my story is that God has restored me this far, to where I am now, and I am confident that will go even higher with God.  If I stay close to God-my-Saviour I will be taken even higher in joy, fulfilment, confidence and competency as the work of deliverance continues.  I am being restored not to where I was at the point of tripping up, but to the place I should have been at now and would have been had I not gone backward when God called me forward.  God continues to restore me, and God has brought me from depths so dark and so deep that I’m sure that I’m not sure that I understand just how low I was, so confused was I at that time.  I was in so much trouble that in hindsight I see now that I lost the ability to see then just how messed up I was then, how much in danger I was.  God’s deliverance of me began with God’s shielding me from understanding the extent of my peril.  So, to read a prayer where the text implies that my job is to cry out and God’s job is to respond comforts me.  I am reminded that I do not have the responsibility to improve my situation; not because I am irresponsible but because I have become incapacitated, unwittingly disabled by the situation and I actually cannot to anything, even if I don’t know that and think that I can.  It’s like being hurt in a fall and saying to the paramedics “no it’s alright, it’s only my neck that’s broken, not my legs, where would you like me to walk?”  Lay down idiot, and let us carry you!!

The most important aspect of this message, I think, is that it relates specifically to sin.  This is not the song of a man (or woman) who has been beset by external enemies.  This is not the prayer of an innocent victim of robbery or violence, or a stock market collapse or malicious slander.  This psalm makes quite clear that the cause of the profound isolation is iniquity.  This is not a victim of anything, this is a perpetrator of sin, and sin that has lead to something beyond despair.  This is not the prayer of someone in Auschwitz or Nauru: this is the prayer of Judas Iscariot on Good Friday, or Saul on Mt Gilboa, or the other Saul in Damascus, or even David lying next to Bathsheba (although it isn’t literally that last one, David did not write Psalm 130, his actual prayer after Bathsheba is Psalm 51).  This is the prayer of “I have massively screwed up and I need major help”: it is the prayer of the penitent perpetrator.  And, as I say, that is the most important thing for me about this Psalm – that all of that “I hope for rescue”, and all of that “I can sit here and wait for God to swoop and scoop”, and all of that worship in Psalm 130:7-8 for God’s steadfast love and might to redeem, all of that is said by someone who up Shipwreck Creek because of his/her own poor navigation.

Psalm 130 says that there is grace and salvation for you who is living a life worse than death, even if that situation has come about because you did stupid or evil things.  This psalm is not only a prayer for the depressed and deprived, it’s a prayer for the depraved: and with that understanding look at how it is a prayer of hope.  Amazing stuff.

Several weeks ago, as you are aware, I lead a funeral for a young man who died by suicide.  This man was not a Christian by his own or his family’s understanding; indeed, I was asked to facilitate the service only because the family wanted to make use of the chapel where that man had been married, and that chapel was Narracan Uniting.  This man had never been baptised and had not had his son baptised; as far as I know he’d only ever been inside a church building to attend weddings or funerals.  And this man had killed himself.  So, when a social worker who is assigned to one of the dead man’s brothers asked me how they, the social worker and the brother, could get the dead man out of purgatory, I was faced with an interesting pastoral conundrum.  Much as it would be a great anecdote for this morning I can’t actually tell you that I recited Psalm 130 back to the social worker, or that I preached on it at the funeral, because I didn’t. If you’re actually interested to know I will tell you that I recited Psalm 23:4 to the social worker, and I preached on Luke 24:36 at the funeral: you can look those up for yourselves later.  But thinking about it today I think that that was a Psalm 130 moment.  Not that the deceased man was the greatest of all sinners, because according to 1 Timothy 1:15 he wasn’t; or because he died by suicide and that is the greatest of all sins, because according to Mark 3:29 it isn’t.  No, the pastoral response to a grieving and eternally-concerned non-Christian about his non-Christian and dead by suicide friend is that God is eternally gracious even to the stupidly evil, and to the wickedly stupid, so why not to some randomly ordinary human.  I’m not here to tell you that everyone goes to Heaven regardless of their life choices, not excluding the means of their death; but I am here to tell you that everyone who dies goes to meet God, and that God is gracious and generous.  I did not promise Heaven to the family of that man, but in the name of Christ I did assure them of grace, and in the name of the Church I did assure them of welcome and the embrace of shalom while they were in the pointy-roof, pointy-window building.  I assure you today, here, of the same: because that is what Psalm 130 says to me.

I can’t say what God said to Saul on the day of his battlefield suicide, and I can’t say what God said to that young man who died last month and whose life was celebrated here a fortnight ago, but I can tell you what God said to me de profundis, when God swooped to meet me in the depths: You called me, and I answered you. I am here with you to take you out of here, to take you home. You are loved, and forgiven, and loved.

Amen.

A Sign on the Highway. (Anniversary of the Uniting Church in Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th June 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the closest Sunday to the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia

Psalm 127:1-2; Ephesians 2:17-22; John 17:1-11

Without wanting to get overtly political, even if a gathering such as this where the congregation is very much minded of justice and equity in the world, I have something profound to tell you: US President Donald Trump is not the Antichrist. However, in light of reading I have undertaken over the past few weeks leading into today’s service I have come to the conclusion, shared by many others of my spiritual persuasion, that Christ Jesus is the anti-Trump. This is especially true today, in June 2018.

Where the leaders of many nations, including our own, wish to erect fences or walls or enforce strict controls to separate families and isolate the much loved but very unwell, Jesus offers citizenship of the greatest realm of all – the Kingdom of Heaven. Where many flee poverty and corruption, and others flee persecution and genocide, we are brought to thought by today’s readings that each of us in this house have fled sin and tribulation. Make of those words what you will, be they literal fire and brimstone to you or simple metaphors of a life lived outside the love of God; II don’t know your past, but I so know mine and both of those apply, the literal and the metaphorical. Paul says that we are all refugees from the world and that God in Christ offers us not only asylum but citizenship wherever God is king.

With respect to the Kingdom of Heaven as it was proclaimed by Christ “Operation Sovereign Borders” is a series of rescue, recovery, and reuniting manoeuvres; it is about expanding the reach of God to include all, rather than erecting barriers to exclude most. In the homeland of the People of God the resources of compassion are never overwhelmed, the earlier arrivals and previously settled are never envious or afraid of the newest arrivals, and the welcome at the door is as effusive for the last one in as it was for the first.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are no longer strangers to God in danger of deportation, but citizens with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities, of belonging to the realm. In realm of God those rights and responsibilities include shalom (Ephesians 2:17). Shalom; that deep, soulful, healing, energising, forgiving, cleansing, restoring, satisfying, joy-bringing peace that only perfect love can bring. That’s our experience, and that’s our mission as ambassadors of the Kingdom, not cross-armed bouncers but hospitable welcomers and stewards of the message of peace to the world. In Christ’s love, in the Father’s realm, in the Spirit’s fellowship there is no division because God is equally present everywhere and with everyone (Colossians 3:11). Paul told the Ephesians and by our reading this morning he tells us that the realm of shalom is the kingdom of God, built upon the foundations of those who went before. Paul wrote of the apostles and prophets, women and men who are gifts of God to us and charisms, gifts of the Spirit, women and men who were sent by God and therefore are sources of authority and wisdom with Christ as cornerstone. Jesus is the connection holding all together, this temple who we are is a dwelling place for God. It is the congregation which is the temple, not the individual because as Paul wrote we are built together in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22) to form the place which God inhabits in the world. Where God “lives” on Earth is where we gather when we are gathered. An empty chapel or a single Christian is not “the place”, but the congregation gathered where it is gathered.

I have spoken often in the past nine months about shalom, and about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Reign of God in various combinations of those words. So today, today when we celebrate the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia and its now 41 years of service to the nation under that name, and close to two hundred in the various forms of Methbytgationalism, I want to touch briefly on the topic of apostles and prophets.

The Uniting Church of itself is not a church of hagiography, the stories of saints. Today’s house at St Luke’s Morwell is named after a first century evangelist, not a twentieth century administrator. We are St Luke’s, not St J. Davis McCaughey. But we do have our cultural heroes in Misters Knox, Wesley, and Brown of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational movements; and we do remember with thanks to God the work of Davis McCaughey and Ronald Wilson. We celebrate the ongoing teaching of Andrew Dutney, Vicky Balabanksi, Chris Budden, Katherine Massam, Geoff Thompson, Deidre Palmer, and foremost, Damien Tann. We are a pilgrim people on the path to salvation on the Way of Christ, and we have been blessed with faithful guides along the way. Today we thank God for the women and men of faith and courage who walk a step or two ahead of us, or who walked a generation ahead of us, and leave us markers.

Turning to today’s set gospel reading in John 17:1 we read Glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you. These are the words of Jesus, and since it’s John 17 you already know that these are among the last words of Jesus. “Glorify your Son” said by Jesus on Maundy Thursday seems obvious, but what do those words mean for us? How can we pray this? Well, in many ways this is a prayer only Jesus can say since he is Son in the way that no other man is – and there are no daughters like him either. Jesus alone is worthy of the glory of God, I’m sure I’ll get no argument from you at this point, however I wonder if “glorify” might also mean “shine the light of world attention” on us so that we might “shine the light of world attention” on God through our glorifying. The Church can certainly pray that, we can and indeed should have the courage to pray that God would make us notable such that we can point to God when people are looking at us. Let the Uniting Church in 2018 be another Statement to the Nation as Assembly issued in 1977 and 1988. Again in the steps of those who walk ahead of us let us give thanks for those times when the Australian society has established justice, equality, and mutual respect among people; has placed care for the people who have least above sectional interests; has welcomed new migrants and refugees; has exercised solidarity and friendship in times of crisis in Australia across divisions of race and culture; and has engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker. This is what we told Australia in 1988: let us in Morwell be a sign on the highway, a sign of the compassion, grace, justice, and shalom of God. In words addressed by the newly birthed Uniting Church, to Australia, in 1977 let us continue to challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor. I know this is a passion, a flavour, of St Luke’s Morwell and as you gather over lunch to discuss your way ahead I pray that you would continue to hold the wounded world in your eyes even as you keep Christ central in your heart and mind.

Eternal life, the life of the Kingdom of God is the knowledge of God and Christ whom God sent (John 17:3), so it’s about fullness rather than endlessness. Eternal life is not just chronologically infinite, it is broad and expansive. Eternal life is seeing Jesus for who he always was (John 17:5), the one from before time, the glorious God the Son. In Jesus we see God, God is compassionate and self-giving, generous to death, not wrathful. Eternal life is also responding to the complete revelation of Jesus by making Jesus known in the world (John 17:6), especially in the part of the world to which we have been given and has been given to us. As Gippslanders gathered as a Uniting Church on this 24th June we ask who are our people, where is our country, to whom shall we share the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. When we proclaim Christ what we proclaim is what Christ proclaimed to us, they are his words and we have heard them before because they are the words to which we responded in the first place (John 17:8). Jesus prays for us that God will be with us as God has been with him – since Jesus is no longer in the world in himself but only through us (John 17:11).

The believing community has been formed by Christ’s call to each to follow him, and to whom he has displayed God, and by the receivers of revelation and the responders to call becoming brother-sisters with each other in that coming together.

In the context of Psalm 127:1-2 we are the house built by God, and therefore not built in vain. This reminds us to build only for God and in partnership with God, our being a Church and a Christian organisation does not protect us from foolishness and failure if what we do is not directly informed and partnered with God. (We partner with God first, not asking God to partner with us in projects of our choosing – although we are encouraged to be creative in our response to God’s call to meet the world’s need.) Without God all work is a waste of time, even the work of being church and doing faith stuff. Not only must we rely on God we must make known that God is our source – we don’t take God’s help and then take all the credit, neither do we do the work of the gospel yet hide our light. We do what we do with God, and we do what we do to glorify God. Even if it “works”, if we haven’t made God’s fame public in the doing of it then the whole point is not made. It is good to be compassionate, it is better (fullest) to be compassionate and let God be glorified (the illuminated focus of the world’s attention). We don’t serve the world for credit and our own fame, but we do serve the world for God’s credit and God’s fame: our humility (and especially our fear of embarrassment) must not get in the way of God’s glory. We are God’s advertisement, not our own, but not no one’s either.

What we advertise is that God is dependable, and that we attest to this because we are dependent upon God and God sustains us. The same power that conquered the grave lives in us and can live in others who want what we have – because of God. Because of God we do not strive, we have no need to. We operate in the world out of shalom, out of eternal (fat) life.

So, whether you trekked alongside the followers of Wesley, Knox, or Brown before 1977, and whether you march amidst the followers of Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, Justin Trudeau, Richard DiNatale, Angela Merkel, Benedict XVI or Francis or Lyle Sheldon today, the call to you is the same. Walk with Christ, walk his Way, share his love, and invite others to join you on the road to God which already traverses the outlands of the realm of God.

Amen.

What Happens On The Sabbath (Pentecost 2B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Morwell and then at Narracan on Sunday 2nd June 2018.

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6

I must admit I groaned in pain when this week’s lectionary gospel reading appeared.  I won’t say I hate this story, because I don’t.  I won’t even say that it’s very difficult to preach on, because it isn’t, and in the next hour or so you’ll see I’ve done a great job of exegesis and hermeneutics on it.  Sigh, no, this passage annoys me because I have written on it so many times.  So. Many. (Many!) Times.  It is the favoured passage of a certain Professor Emeritus of the theological college I attended, and I have written at least three essays, and a complex synoptic comparison on it. Oh begone “Jesus walks through a field of grain on the Sabbath”, begone.

Having said that, I have made no reference to those essays or synopses in preparing this sermon, so we’re good.  It also means that I’ve been able to take a fresh look at Mark’s version which we read today, and I found something new.  But let’s get to that in a minute because we need to ask why the disciples of Jesus were engaging in behaviour which violates the Jewish laws around keeping Sabbath in the first place.  Sadly, for you, I don’t want to answer that question; and if you look at the text, Jesus doesn’t actually give a very good answer himself.  The situation Jesus uses as a counter-argument wherein David as a refugee fleeing for his life, and hungry for anything food, pauses before eating to discuss theology with the high priest, is quite different to the random picking and chewing of the disciples on their Saturday afternoon stroll.  The twelve are not starving, and they are not being chased; but maybe the reason Jesus didn’t give much of an answer is that he didn’t think it much of a question: aren’t the Pharisees just being pedantic here?  I mean, come on, the disciples are taking a casual stroll and grabbing a few heads as they pass through the field, even if they aren’t the army of David, it’s not as if they’re actually harvesting.  Work is forbidden on the Sabbath, but mindlessly grabbing at the corn while you meander through the paddock: that’s not really work is it?

Still, in defence of the Pharisees we must remember that Sabbath keeping is one of the Ten Commandments.  It’s not one of those pesky religious rulings made up by scholars with nothing better to do: it is an actual decree of God given to Moses in God’s own handwriting on tablets of stone.  So, it pays to look at what Jesus is doing here.  He is not questioning pettiness, although he does that in plenty of other places and that certainly is part of what he’s doing here: no, Jesus’ primary critique is for the traditions of interpretation.  The way Jesus is speaking about Sabbath is akin to a prophet today claiming a divine mandate to redefine murder, or theft, or adultery and marriage.  And what does Jesus say?  How does The Word of God –  The Word made Flesh reinterpret a central teaching of Jewish scripture?  He says that people are always more important than doctrine.  In other words, if your interpretation of The-Word-of-God-revealed-in-scripture inhibits any person’s wellbeing, (including your own), then you need to rethink your interpretation.  God is never in error, and scripture is never in error, but the way you’re reading and thinking just might be.  According to Jesus sabbath is foremost a blessing, a gift of God, an entire day set aside each week for the fullness of shalom.  It’s not just an R.D.O., or a public holiday, and it certainly isn’t a day of mandated boredom in the name of some malevolent, laser-eyed god looking to obliterate anything that blinks or breathes before the precise instant of sundown on Saturday.  Jesus says that to be legalistic about the Sabbath is to be wrong about the Sabbath.  In other words, to be legalistic about this teaching of scripture is to be in profound theological error since Sabbath is not a legalistic matter.  Legal yes since it does pertain to the Law: but its application is never punitive.  If you want to know what is lawful on the Sabbath read on to Mark 3:4 where Jesus asks a group of lawyers gathered at worship that question.  What has been legislated, and how is it interpreted, Jesus asks.  What did Parliament decree and how have the majority of local magistrates understood and applied this?  What is the legal precedent here as established by the full bench of the High Court?  Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath: to save life or to kill? asks Jesus.  Now as a one-time English teacher I can tell you that this is an open question: Jesus is asking a question that requires a sentence answer because he gives a number of options.  Which is it, kill or save?  Which is it, good or evil?  And what do the scholars answer?  What?  Well they don’t answer do they: but if they had been brave enough I wonder what they would have said.  Probably “save and do good” right?  Wrong.  Think of what they believe about God: I think they would have answered with a closed answer, one word, “no”.  Just “no”.  Is it lawful to do good or evil?  No.  Is it lawful to save or kill?  No.  “Jesus,” they say, “you need to understand that it’s not lawful to do anything on the Sabbath.  Even if you do good then you are guilty of doing something simply by doing: to do good is just as horrific as to do evil because to do is to sin!”

So, who here today would like to belong to that religion?  Not me!

I should say very quickly, in case you are confused, that that religion is not Judaism.  Jesus is the ultimate Jew and is speaking to other Jews about the God of Abraham: so, don’t get all cocky in your Christianity.  The Pharisees were acting poorly as Jews in this example, Jesus was acting perfectly as a Jew.  That broad kindness always trumps the finest point of legislation is a Jewish concept, and Jesus didn’t invent it.

Anyway, Jesus is justifiably angered by the lawyers’ response, and by the lack of it, and the man is healed regardless.  Notice that the man is healed by his own action.  Jesus doesn’t actually do anything, Jesus doesn’t actually break the commandment even according to the Pharisaic definitions because it’s the man who sticks out his hand to petition and receive God’s healing.  That is when Jesus turned to the Pharisees and Herodians and said “you wanna argue about the Sabbath some more then talk to the hand.”  Of course, Jesus didn’t actually say that, but I reckon I probably would have.

But what is Jesus actually angry about?  What’s the actual trigger that moves him from despair to disappointment and rage?  Well in Mark 3:5 we read that Jesus is angered by the leaders’ hardness of heart.  “Why does the man have to bring up his troubles on the Sabbath,” they seem to be asking.  “And in the synagogue too.  Why can’t he just stay home with gloves on and come tomorrow if he wants to be healed?”  And let’s be honest, they do have a point, don’t they?  I mean, when presbytery made the effort to build a manse next to the church what is wrong with Monday?  And why do these people who need God have to interrupt church?  I’m glad you laughed there, this would have been my last Sunday here if you hadn’t.  But I wonder how far our patience really would extend if someone we didn’t know came looking for God’s miracle during our regular Sunday event.  Or worse still, someone we do know; someone who should know better than to be noisily troubled one Sunday when, after all, we all know where Damien lives and we’re sure he won’t mind giving up his Monday off if it means we can all get out of here unruffled and before 11:00 this morning.

Oh Lord we want our church to grow, please send us an interruption!!

Rituals must be subordinated to the needs of living people: but so must work be subordinated to the needs of living people.

As we listened to 1 Samuel 3 being read this morning I was reminded that Samuel was in bed and almost asleep when God spoke to him, even if he was in the sanctuary.  Had Samuel been living a 24/7 existence I think he would not have had time or energy for the voice of God to penetrate his exhausted haste.  It is for this reason, among others, that early nineteenth century Methodists were the leading voices in advocating for sabbath keeping.  This was not because they were as pious as Pharisees but because they agitated for the sacred right of every workingman to have time for sleep, eating, relaxation, and worship.  In view of this I wonder about those Christians who do not have a healthy attitude toward the Sabbath; some believing that taking one whole day in seven is an instance of old covenant, Old Testament Law to be set aside in the name of new covenant, New Testament Grace.  Really?  God’s ordained and directed regular pause to experience the peace that passes all understanding is a demand of legalism and not a fruit of grace?  Really?  So, where does Paul tell us that we are no longer obligated to have a day off?  Imagine a religion free of the compulsion to rest, and to let your slaves have a day off.  How awesome is Christianity that we are free to work 24/7 and to expect the same of our employees, especially the Christian ones. How remarkable is this good news that we are no longer enslaved by a blood covenant that commands a day off as if not working on Sundays was as important as not committing murder, rape, or fraud.

So, who here today would like to belong to that religion?  Not me!

The call of Samuel is one story of how a person, in this case a quite young boy, can best hear God when he or she is at rest in the world.  God speaks peace, shalom to the frazzled and anxious mind.  But once the mind is settled into shalom then God is able to reveal the wonders of grace and the message of God’s will.  Samuel had not sought the Lord’s voice, but because he was at peace in his life he was in the best place when God sought him.  Those among us today who are currently seeking God for some specific answer, or just for the sense of being closer to the One you worship and adore, would do well to take a sabbath.  Let God rest you, calm you, still you, and guide you.  Don’t let the legalists tell you what is or is not appropriate for a Christian or a Sunday – seek God and allow God to seek you.

And if Sunday is the only day that you have time and space in your week to do that, then do that.  If not this afternoon, then next Sunday.  You have my permission to not come to church next week if you need to go up to the mountains or down to the river to pray: just make sure that you do.  Maybe you’ll just have a pleasant time like the disciples, maybe you’ll be healed by God like the man with the once-withered hand, or maybe God will tell you fearful and wonderful news about the world and your place in it.

Let me know how you go.

Amen.

Three (Trinity B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell for Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday in Year B.

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I don’t know about you, but for me the Doctrine of the Trinity seems like a mixed blessing.  It’s one of the big-ticket items that really sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam, let alone the religions that don’t worship the God of Abraham and Moses.  That’s not really a bother for me, that Christianity is unique in this way, it’s good to be unique.  It doesn’t bother me that the Doctrine is somewhat baffling; I want God to be a little bit mysterious because God is apparently all that is and was and ever shall be, and it’s kind of disappointing if I can grasp all of that, even at 46 years old and holding a Masters degree.  So, a God who is beyond my imagining and rationalising is a solid point for me: a God who is beyond is a God who is what a God is supposed to be.  No, the mixed part in the blessing is the question of the point of it all.  So, God is infinite, and God is Three-fold in Unity: but why does that matter?  Why do we actually need a Doctrine of the Trinity, can’t we just let God be God, awesome and eternal?  Why can’t the Church just get on with saving the lost, raising the dead, and healing the sick, and leave what is above the clouds above the clouds?

In this morning’s reading from the scriptures of Israel the vision of God given to the Judahite prophet Isaiah is of God is The LORD high and lofty, the subject of seraph worship and adoration.  Isaiah doesn’t have a vision of God in Heaven; no God is enthroned on earth inside the room which is the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The seraphim are also present on the earth and they cry out in awe of God, the majestic one.  The whole temple shakes to its foundations with the sound of seraph worship as the seraphim heed the injunction of Psalm 29:1-2.  Now, let’s remember that the foundation of Solomon’s Temple is actually the summit of Mount Zion; so, it seems that the whole mountain and with it the whole city of Jerusalem is rocking at the experience of divine anthems of adoration.  It is not that the seraphim are singing loudly, no, what is occurring is that the response of God to worship is so resounding, and the response of all creation to the display of God’s glory as it fills the whole earth is so violent.  This is God in all of God’s God-ness, this is undeniably God the earthquake and not God the gentle whisper: indeed, we read in Isaiah 6:3-5 that God’s glory is volcanic in its sound, sight and stench, and that it is utterly terrifying for the self-consciously human Isaiah who stands before it.  In the first five chapters of his book Isaiah has been denouncing the sins of Judah, especially of the city, and now here he stands in the first verses of chapter six at centre of Jerusalem in the holiest place on Earth with the memory of his prophecies; he knows that not only is he unworthy to be in the presence of The LORD enthroned he is in a dire predicament as a sinner in the presence of so imposing a display of holiness.  However, he is not in imperilled at all, and with a seraph’s touch Isaiah’s sin departs and is blotted out: Isaiah is justified just as if he’d never sinned, and he is considered worthy not only to stand in the presence of The LORD but to step closer to the throne and volunteer for a mission of proclamation.

Now on Trinity Sunday we can see some obvious links.  The cry of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 is “holy, holy, holy”, so that’s three holies.  Three, eh?  Eh!  And look at Isaiah 6:8a where The LORD asks Whom shall I send, who will go for us?  “Us”, eh?  Eh!

But have you missed what has just happened with Isaiah?  Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God The LORD is personally present in Jerusalem.  And God The LORD forgives and forgets a man’s sin, and God The LORD commissions this renewed man to proclaim the Word of God to Judah.  I mean, wow, that’s a lot more pervasive an idea than a three-fold refrain in the liturgy.  God does what Jesus is supposed to do, but God does this before Jesus gets a chance to do it.  Maybe The LORD God and the messiah are not only on the same team, maybe they are following the same game-plan because today we have seen God act like Jesus.

In today’s prescribed part of the letter to Rome, Romans 8:12-17 Paul is admonishing the Church to be active in the outworking of their faith.  Grace introduces not just a new mood (forgiven), but a new way of being in the world.  Now life is by the Spirit of God and those who heed the Spirit’s wisdom are saved from the desires of the flesh.  It is this Spirit, capital-S, who empowers those who take up godliness to act in this way.  In other words, God is active in the life of the believer, and because of God’s action through the Spirit so the believer is supposed to be active in the work of God, calling upon God as Abba and living as children who serve, worship, and obey.  “God’s spirit in you is God’s voice testifying that you belong to God” is what Paul is saying.  And when the Spirit, big-S, is acting in you and on you when you suffer for Christ then God is in effect suffering with you.

So, another of today’s readings offers obvious connections to the idea that God exists in the plural as a unity rather than in solitude.  The Spirit in you points to God who is your Father, the two are working as one to guarantee your identity as son or daughter of the one you call Abba.  When you, son or daughter of Abba suffer for the sake of Christ who is the true Son, the Spirit who is in you also suffers alongside you.  So, the Spirit within you as you live for Jesus who is called Emmanuel (God-Brings-Salvation and God-With-Us), draws you close enough to God The Father that you can speak of God as Abba, or my own dearest daddy.

In John 3:1-17 the gospel author tells us that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, recognises in Jesus’ activities the action of God.  Jesus confirms this, and says that all who trust God in the way that he trusts God will do the work of God as they empowered by the Spirit, capital-S.  However, as he makes clear in John 3:13 Jesus is not ordinary disciple, he is The Son of Man who alone has descended from The Father, and he is the vehicle of trust.  To trust in the work and word of Jesus is to trust in the work and word of God, because as John 1:1 reads Jesus himself is The Word of God.  Those who exalt the LORD when Jesus the man is crucified are those whom God is saving through the blessing of a full life: Jesus is making a wordplay in John 3:14-15.  See Jesus lifted up and lift high the name of The LORD as you look at Jesus.  Those who lift high the name of The LORD will live a life of eternity: not just a life that goes to infinity but a life that is literally a “life of the eons”, the biggest, brightest, boldest, most abundant life possible, a life full of God because it is filled with and by the Spirit.

So, what is the point of all of this?  And even if we have somehow proved by this skip across the top of the Bible that God’s essence is expressed as a unity of three co-eternal persons, existing of the same substance distinct from all created things, why does that even matter?  In some ways that’s a deeper question than we can address in the forty minutes remaining in my sermon: some of the greatest minds in Christianity spent their lives examining this question and never got to the end.  The triune nature of God is literally an eternal question: infinite and beyond all proportion of space and time to tell.  So, I won’t even begin, except to say that if you’re keen to follow the theological pathways start in the Bible and go next to the Cappadocian Fathers.

In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves of what we have heard this morning.  In Isaiah 6 we heard God act like Jesus, forgiving sin and commissioning a missionary with the gospel.  In John 3 we heard Jesus speak with patient correction to an expert in scripture, a community leader whose love for law and ritual had misdirected his heart away from those for whom Jesus’ compassion was greatest, the spiritually orphaned.  In Romans 8 we heard Paul instruct a local church to be more like Jesus, especially to live in the world with the fullness of the presence of God, and to love like a brother-sister everyone in the Church and every woman or man who entered the local congregation’s space.

So, in a grossly unfair oversimplification, (but on the other hand why complicate things), the Doctrines of The Trinity tell us that whatever God is made of God is internally and eternally consistent.  God is always the same.  Three points, because of course there must be three.

  1. God is love and God loves. The Father in all God’s glory has the same character of Jesus in all Jesus’ simplicity; Jesus lived and proclaimed love for neighbour, love for friend, and that greater love has no one than Calvary.  That’s God, not just Jesus, that’s all of God who loves with greater love.
  2. Christians who claim to trust Christ for salvation, and who proclaim Jesus as the Way, not only as “the way to Heaven” where the Nicene Creed is the password to unlock the gate that St Peter holds shut, but the Way as in a way of life, should live like Jesus lived. God is abundant and sacrificial love: we should do the same.  We cannot be the love that God is, but we can express the love that God expressed in Jesus.
  3. Christian love, the love that God is and the love that the Church expresses as people who walk in the footsteps of Jesus, is hard. Love cost Jesus his life, and it may well cost us our lives too: or it may cost us something even worse than death, it may cost us embarrassment.  Martyrs sometimes have it easy, they only have to be brave for a few minutes and then they die gloriously even if somewhat messily: we have to stand fast for decades in faithfulness.  It can be a lot lot harder to live for Jesus than to die for him, I am in no doubt of this, but that is where the Spirit comes in.  The paraclete of Pentecost, the helper, counsellor, and advocate, is also God Godself and the Spirit is the one who helps us to call The Father “Abba”, to call Jesus “lord”, and to call others “brother-sister”.  The same one who is God lives in you; equipping, encouraging, and comforting you in the life-long ministries of worship and hospitality.

And that’s why all this Trinity business matters: because not only does God want you to act like Jesus, remembering that God acts like Jesus, but the Spirit who is God is given to you to make it happen.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow: praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

The Way of Sozo

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 22nd April 2018, the fourth Sunday in Easter in Year B.

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24

Our history story begins today, as it does every Sunday between Easter and Pentecost, in The Acts of The Apostles, or as J.B. Phillips calls this book The Young Church in Action.  Outside Easter we hear the history of our faith from the Jewish tradition, but in these seven weeks we hear how the Jewish tradition continued after the departure of the messiah and how The Way, the practices of those who have faith in the name by which all men and women might be saved, was enacted.

Today we are in Acts 4, and Peter and John the disciples of Jesus, two of the inner three, have been called to appear before Annas, Caiaphas, Jonathan (who would be High Priest after Caiaphas) and the Sadducean elite families.  Hopefully you heard last week how, when a crowd flocked to them following their healing of the man born lame Peter began to speak of Jesus the Risen One who brings salvation through healing and grace.  Now the two have been detained by the temple guards, locked up overnight, and are now speaking with the Sanhedrin who ask Peter and John where their authority comes from to minister.  Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit we read in Acts 4:8 responds that the man who was healed was healed by Jesus, whose power was released through the apostles by their proclamation of the resurrection.  (At this point it’s good to remember that Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection, so Peter knows very well he’s stirring their pot.  Add to that that Jesus had been crucified by the Sanhedrin, the same council before whom Peter is now speaking.)  You yourselves murdered Jesus, but God has raised Jesus from the dead.  The rejected, despised one, the one you had taken out to the garbage tip and crucified, is the one chosen by God, and sozo (saving and salving) is found only through him, Jesus.  The challenge is clear, the Sanhedrin killed Jesus; they didn’t “have Jesus killed” but they killed him as if they were the crucifiers, but God is bringing salvation (sozo) through him and through those who he has authorised.  And not through the Sanhedrin.

Peter is either very brave or very foolish.  Meh, maybe six-of-one-and-a-half-dozen-of-the-other, but he’s full of the Holy Spirit and he’s speaking God’s wisdom.

The world’s history tells us that within forty years of the time of this episode takes place Jerusalem in its entirety would be destroyed, including the temple and the Sadducees would cease to exist.  The temple will never be rebuilt, and the Sadducees will never return; but the Christians, free of links to the temple in their dedication to Jesus the saviour, would go on.  The authority behind the disciples who stood before the Sanhedrin, and the authority of Christians from the night of resurrection and the Day of Pentecost right through today in Morwell and into the future, is the living temple built with living stones on the cornerstone which the builders had rejected.  Hereditary High Priest or third generation illiterate fisherman, without the Spirit you are nothing, with the Spirit you lack nothing.

Today the Psalm set for us is the greatly familiar one: perhaps I can paraphrase the first line and say, “The LORD is my saviour”.  The LORD is my protector and provider; when I listen to The LORD I am lead to places of restoration; to rest, and water and food, and safety.  My soul is restored, and my body strengthened.  My conscience is clear because I am lead by the Voice of God, the Holy Spirit, and regardless of the terrain outside my eyes my heart is at rest within me because I am with God.  Khesed shall pursue me says Psalm 23:6, the fullness of divine blessing shall chase me with the intention of grabbing and holding me when I am caught. This is the experience of Peter and John in the temple courtyard, in the cells, in front of the Sanhedrin, and on into life.  This is the sozo of Jesus: safety and healing, protection and restoration.  The LORD is my saviour, what have I to be afraid of?  Certainly not of the puppets of religion and empire.

God as Love is extreme: perhaps we might say that love is best defined by completion in that it goes right to the extremes and beyond them.  John said in 1 John 3:16, in another of those great three-sixteen verses in the Bible, that Jesus’ love for us was proven in his death, and our love for others is proven in our willingness to lay down our lives for them.  Who do you love enough to die for them: Jesus loves you that much.  This passage is not a guilt trip, as if if you don’t love Jesus enough to die for him then you are unworthy of salvation.  That has never been the Christian message, although you may have heard that said in error by the Church.  In error, by the Church.  Martyrdom is a gift, not a prerequisite: what God needs from you is not your death but your trust.  So, the point is not to guilt you in to martyrdom, the point is to explain the dimensions of Jesus’ love for you and the limits of his ministry of salvation. In fact, Jesus’ love is immeasurable, and it is limitless.  That is the point, the encouragement, the endorsement of the message of the Kingdom of God, the realm of love.  This is the context for 1 John 3:17: how can you say you have love, love which has just been defined for you by Jesus, and yet you do nothing to alleviate the need for salvation of the person next to you.  John speaks in the language of the NRSV of a brother or sister in need: not “an alien in your land,” not “a man or woman” not even “a neighbour”, a brother or sister.  A brother or sister is a member of the family, a son or daughter of your father, The Father.  If not a blood sibling, then certainly a fellow believer in Jesus.  Love in action, John goes on to say, don’t just talk about it but do it.  Make your ministry matter, make the truth obvious by the change it has made in your life, and the change it brings to the lives of those whom you meet as you go about your day putting love into action.

If your life, like Peter’s, or John’s, is about serving your world with generous love, then God will answer your prayers.  1 John 3:21 assures us of this.  Again, this is not some magic spell to get what we want, as if you can get those new shoes you had your eye on by asking God for a lotto win balanced by three days a week volunteering with the Red Cross and tithing fifteen percent to the Morwell-Yallourn Cluster.  By all means do tithe over and above but do it as an act of delight and gratitude for God, and your brothers and sisters.  Do volunteer with Red Cross, but from the same motivation to see the world transformed for the better for the glory of God.  (By the way, Red Cross will do that, you don’t have to focus your attention on organisations with “church” in the name and “Jesus” in the constitution for God to use you for Heaven’s glory.)

When Peter and John entered the temple, they were going to pray.  They had no other plans, no hidden agenda, they were a pair of Jews in Jerusalem and they were heading for the regular afternoon service of public worship.  On the way they met a man with a need, a need deeper than the one he knew about, and because they were attentive to the Spirit and were filled with the overflowing love of the Risen One they were ready and willing to act.  The man they met was released from physical disability and mental anguish, and he ran, and he worshipped.  Love, not obligation, not charity, not pity, love was on display.  In the mode of 1 John 3, (which of course was written much later than this episode), two disciples of Jesus met a brother in need, not a fellow Christian (yet) but a fellow Jew and a fellow Israelite, and their love would not let them walk past.  When they were called upon by the Jewish and Israelite authorities, religious and national leaders, and it was demanded of them that they explain themselves, they did.

  • What authority do we have to heal? The authority of love, with power to heal twisted bones and wasted tissue coming from God who is love.
  • What authority do we have to proclaim truth? The authority of love, with power to heal anxious minds and broken hearts coming from God who is love.
  • Who is God? God is love, and that love was seen in the preparedness to allow himself to be murdered by you rather than retaliate with the forces of Heaven and destroy you.

In Peter and John, in their actions on that day and in Luke’s writing afterwards, we see the story of God.  The love of God is always sozo love: God’s love only ever acts to restore.  God saves, God salves, God soothes; God forgives, God restores, God welcomes home.

This is how you are loved.  This is how you are to love.  This is the power and authority by which you love the world, beginning with your brothers and sisters.

Amen.