Useful

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th September 2019, the thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost.  I used only one of the four lectionary readings, so this is a sermon on the entire letter to Philemon.

Philemon 1-21

Paul’s letter to Philemon may seem like an odd text upon which to preach, I mean, what does it actually say about anything? It’s more like the sort of message you’d leave on voicemail than an epistle of scripture, don’t you think? “Yeah hi Phil, it’s me, Paul here. Yeah mate your brother’s actually here and says he’s been a bit of a ratbag. Has he? Yeah, well anyway he’s on his way back to P-town now so if you could just be kind to him that’d be great, ‘cos it sounds like he’s had a bit of a rough trot. And look, if he has caused some actual damage then, yeah, just fix it up and send us the bill. Or you could just knock it off the tab you owe me, yeah, ha. Anyway, cheers mate. Oh, and Ephaphras and the mob they say g’day too, yeah. Uhm, yeah, so righto, seeya-mate-bye.” Hmm, hardly words to build you life on are they? I mean, you won’t find anything from Philemon on a coffee mug at Koorong.

So why do we have it? Why’s it in the Lectionary for today, and why’s it even in the Bible? If you’ve done any sort of study in New Testament at a Bible College you will know that there are other letters and gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament. Things like Didache which means “The Teaching” and is a basic summary of Christian doctrine of salvation against the life of sin, like a two column breakdown, followed by instructions around how to run a worship service, I mean, that’d be helpful. Or The Acts of Peter since what we actually have as The Acts of The Apostles is really just the activities of Paul after Acts 9; again you’d think that’d be a useful read. So, how come something like The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians didn’t make it in, but this letter to Philemon of Colossae did? The reasons why Philemon is in the Bible and Polycarp isn’t might become clear, but really it’s the reasons why Philemon is in church today rather than more from Hebrews is what I want to talk about.

One of the key things we know about Philemon as a letter is that Paul wrote it. Unlike many of the letters with Paul’s name attached to them, some which are probably not his actual work and three which are definitely not his at all, Philemon is agreed to be genuinely from Paul’s own hand, or at least his dictation to a scribe. So that counts for something, indeed that’s the key reason why Philemon is in the Bible, because Paul actually did write it. (We don’t know who wrote Didache, but we know it wasn’t an apostle. Actually we don’t know who wrote Hebrews either, but it probably was an apostle.)

Paul very likely wrote this letter from gaol in Ephesus, so that puts it around 56 AD and it puts Paul in his mid forties, so around my age. This is very early in the history of Christianity, it’s foundational stuff in that it is some of the first stuff written down and it is being written down personally by the actual founders of Christianity. (I say “founders” plural because Timothy has a hand in this, see it in Philemon 1a.) It’s also personal correspondence, we get the idea that Paul and Philemon are friends if not colleagues, and Apphia and Archippus are Philemon’s wife and adult son. The letter is actually addressed to a house church of which Philemon is the leader and the host; so even though it’s personal correspondence it’s not actually private. Paul writes to the group, via the dad, to teach them all something about Christian fellowship and the central place of reconciliation in the gospel story.

There are varying opinions about who Onesimus was with regard to Philemon. Most scholarship suggests that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, but not all scholars agree. One key set of scholars present that Onesimus is actually Philemon’s younger brother, maybe like the prodigal from the gospels. Regardless of the foundation of the relationship the facts are that the relationship has been strained or even broken: when Paul sends Onesimus back he does so with the hope that he and Philemon will be reconciled. Maybe they were brothers, but even if they were not they are now Brothers-in-Christ, and that is what Paul wants to say to that little fellowship in Colossae.

So what is Paul saying? Well, we can start by saying that whatever Paul is saying he is not saying it with arrogance. “I could demand this of you as an apostle and a prophet, Philemon”, says Paul in Philemon 8, “but I’d rather appeal to your good conscience and the outworking of your discipleship as my Brother-in-Christ”. Remember that this is way way early in Christianity and Paul has never been to Colossae; he seems to know Philemon, so maybe they met elsewhere, maybe even in Ephesus before Paul was gaoled. So this is making-it-up-as-we-go-along stuff, where the theory of brothers- and sisters-in-Christ and the story of Jesus in Luke 8:21 where him saying these are my brothers and sisters, the ones who do my Father’s will, and even the prodigal’s parable of Luke 15:11-32, have been told around the fellowship but not yet written down. This might be the first time any of them has actually had to do the hard work of reconciling a broken human relationship, in the name of a new kind of Christian relationship, where everyone is family. What does it mean, how does it actually work when all men are brothers even (and not sixth cousins), and returned slaves and prodigals are to be welcomed. What, exactly, is Philemon supposed to do when Onesimus arrives, and stays, and participates in fellowship around the table? Well, here’s some tips from Paul, glory be to God.

So, again, (get to the point Damien), what is Paul saying? Well here’s a list, to stop me getting side-tracked.

1. According to Philemon 6-7 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally a life lived together: Christian fellowship is partnership. As local Christians we are to do more than associate together, we are to move beyond casual (and even regular) socialising and into businesslike association for the Gospel but also for our strength. Unity is not optional, we are to do it in groups, and we are to hold each other up. This is love from the guts stuff, which is why it hurts so much when we are betrayed by another Christian. But it’s supposed to hurt, (so don’t betray, stay.)

2. According to Philemon 10-16 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally set upon the bedrock of reconciliation. The work of the Church very much includes mediation within itself, the unity of believers is not just about everyone sucking-it-up and walking around on broken toes. We live together as siblings, and our close quarters often means that others will be hurt. When hurt occurs don’t ignore it and don’t shake it off, don’t hand around teaspoons full of cement and tell each princess to harden herself up; actively seek restoration and healing, including (but not limited to) forgiveness.

3. According to Philemon 12-22 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally about mutual obligation. Living in unity, actively welcoming and rehabilitating trespassers and those who have been trespassed upon, requires everyone working and them working together. It is within the rights and responsibilities of leaders to tell followers what to do, we have leaders so that the work is co-ordinated according to the shared goal and the talents and input of each person: but it’s so much better if everyone just gets on with his or her work for Christ out of love and obedience to him. Again, get your guts in the game and give God your best; don’t wait to be told what to do when you already know what to do, and you’re confident enough to go with God in trust and faith. I believe my job as a leader here is to help you when you get stuck, and to train you for what comes next: I’m not here to micro-manage what God has given you to do because of God’s trust in you. Don’t wait for me to tell you, just go for it!

You are now Christians, says Paul, and Onesimus has joined us as a brother-in-Christ. As Christians please do the hard work of welcoming the young man home with a prodigious welcome: and live together, heal together, and pull together. That’s how churches work, and how churches grow. I reckon that’s a pretty good message and I’m stoked that Philemon is in the Bible. I’d have liked Didache in there too, and to be honest some of Clement’s stuff (Clement was the fourth pope), and Polycarp’s story (he was bishop in Smyrna, the same Smyrna we read about in Revelation 2, and he was possibly appointed bishop by John himself), are excellent reading too, but then you can buy those in Penguin Classics if you’re really interested.

So, the message is the same for us as local Christians. As two parts of the six-part Church in Kaniva and Serviceton, and the local branches/franchises of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania, we have committed ourselves to building the Church in our towns. We’re not here solely for friendship or to be seen with the in-crowd, the days of people attending church for just that are long gone. No, we’re here to work, and if we are serious as I believe we are then the message is clear: do the hard work of welcoming the lost and wayward, welcome them each home with abundant welcome. For those who come in and for those who are here now, the message of God through Paul is that we live together, heal together, and pull together in unity. That’s how our churches will grow.

And with God’s help, we will.

Amen.

New Life (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for chapel at the Day Centre of the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) for Tuesday 6th August 2019.

Colossians 3:1-11

New life in Christ seems like a great topic for any act of Christian worship: the hope of faith we have in Jesus means that we’re all looking forward to what lies ahead.

Recently I was listening to an ABC podcast which featured three Christians, each from a different tradition, discussing the place of Hell in Christian thought in 2019. One of the key outcomes, perhaps a point of similarity between the three people, was the idea that God is the source of all life, and so whatever Hell is as the place where God is absent so too is life absent to some degree. Maybe there is existence without fulfilment, hardly a “life” at all; or maybe in Hell there is no life of any sort and it’s simply the case that if you don’t make it to Heaven then Hell is place where you go to just cease to exist: you die a second time in being annihilated. Well I don’t want to talk about Hell or annihilation today, I’m sure you’re pleased to hear that, because such a future is not something any healthy person would look forward. It is true that mental illnesses of various kinds might mean that you’ll look forward to ending the struggle and sinking into nothingness, (I have lived with that thought on several brief occasions), but as I say that’s illness and not what God intends for any living creature. However I think that’s a good first point, that God is the source of all life; because if that is true then new life can only come from God in which case new life can only be good.

In Colossians 3:3 Paul suggests that the new life we have in Christ is a replacement for the old life. New life is not an improvement on the old, it is not a renovation, a new lease on life: no the new life is a second, different life because the first life, the old life, has ended. Paul quite plainly says …for you have died, and there you have it, which is why in Colossians 3:5 Paul writes …put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly which he unpacks in a list of unhelpful behaviours and attitudes. We can get bogged down in this list, trying to decide what is sin and which sins entrap us, but we needn’t do. The simple truth, simple in that it isn’t complex even as it is a bit challenging to out in place, is that earthly behaviours belong to earthly lives, and we who are alive in Christ are earthly dead. So don’t act like the life that is past, act like the life that is present, the life that is found in Christ, the new life we live which flows from the source of all life which is God.

Beyond the new set of behaviours and attitudes, which doesn’t look at all like the old one which shaped the old life, is a new shape for relationships. In the new life there is no distinction between people, on any basis at all, when it comes to living the life. The new life, sourced from God, channelled through Christ (the only way, truth and life), and lived out in the company of the Church is available to every person. The Jews heard the news first, the Christians are now proclaiming it as a done deal, but you don’t have to have already been a Jew or a Christian to get the new life (although once you get it your Jewishness and Christianity will be transformed). But you can be a male or female, of any age, from any nation and speaking any language, having a shed-load of money or none: so long as you like the idea of the new life you can have it for the asking according to Colossians 3:11.

What can that mean for us, the us who are gathered here today? Well the invitation applies to us as much as anyone else, so if you want the new life of Jesus and you don’t yet have it then now’s as good a time as any. And of course if you do already have that new life, the life that means you’re empowered by the love and grace of Jesus in your daily life, then what you have is the promise that that will remain with you always. Once you have died to the world’s way of doing things, to those earthly attitudes and activities, and accepted the gift of life from Jesus then that is what you have for ever.

We rejoice, Christ is with us and we are with him.

Amen.

Reconciliation

This is the text of the Ministry Message I prepared for the August 2019 newsletter for KSSM.

Reconciliation is one of the big themes in the writings of Paul. Jews and Greeks, males and females, slaves and free, all are welcome and to be welcomed as participants in the fellowship of believers for their common humanity. This is something the Church has always had in its heritage, but sometimes local churches and even entire denominations seem to have forgotten it.

The Uniting Church and the Churches of Christ are reconciling churches, historically and currently seeking unity and community above difference. Sometimes it is painful belonging to an organisation which includes everyone, and sometimes pain is caused when those differences which shouldn’t matter still rub against us in tender places: but ultimately belonging is life-giving.

The Uniting Church and Churches of Christ are also typified by holiness, as is The Church catholic and apostolic, because we are set apart as bringers of light seeking truth and health in a world which in many places is dark, sick, and seeking a hiding place for its shame and its scheming.

Christianity is a radical way of being human, and life within a radical new way of being family (in church) which brings all together. One family with one Father is who we are, and this is what God intends for the Body of which the Son is Head.

Paul in Thessalonica

This is the text of the message I prepared for Servi Church (KSSM) for Sunday 7th July 2019.  It was the day before our church “Family Camp” during which the Bible Study sessions would be on 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

Acts 17:1-15

This week coming is a bit of a first for me; in fact it’s a lot of a first.  I have not been on a family camp with the local church for close to forty years, and so that means that I have never been as an adult.  When I was a child my family worshipped with the Wheelers Hill Uniting Church as part of the Mulgrave Parish, we’d been the local Presbyterians since the 1880s and they (Mulgrave) had been the local Methodists.  In 1977, with Church Union, we joined up formally having been informal friends and ecumenical neighbours before that.  Our annual family camp took place over Cup Weekend, back when Monday was not a public holiday but no one went to work in Melbourne anyway, and we’d be away from Friday night until Tuesday lunchtime.  I remember a time of fun and I remember that there was always water: we usually (but not always) went to Wilson’s Promontory and stayed in on-site vans, back when they really were vans and not purpose-built cabins.  I remember a lot of colour too, and I distinctly remember one year when we were not at “The Prom” when we were visited by Rosellas.  Many of the memories and some of the photos I have of that time involve body paint, I made a very cute little pirate with my primary colours eye-patch and moustache.  But, as I say, that’s back in the seventies, or maybe the early eighties, but certainly no later than 1984.

This week to come, and Family Camp at Halls Gap, will I hope bring back happy memories for me.  I also hope it will create new happy moments which will become happy memories for me in the fullness of time.  I hope and indeed pray the same for all of you, especially the littlest people.  But what will mean the most for me in my memories is that this will be the first time I am the pastor, and the first time that I’ll be leading an intensive Bible Study.  Not that the Bible Study will be intense, there’s no high pressure stakes here, but there will be a series of sessions rather than it being a one-off chapel event on the Sunday (which is today) and then it’s kayaks and badge-making after quiet time.  I’m excited by what God has drawn my attention to, and by what we’ll be learning about God-in-Christ and Christ-in-Church as we spend some time in and with The Word.

Our main texts will be Paul’s two letters to the Church in Thessalonica.  This is interesting because 1 Thessalonians is almost certainly Paul’s first letter, (or at the very least the earliest extant letter of his).  Historically we can date it to 51 CE when Paul was living in Corinth, a year or so after his visit to Thessalonica.  If we follow the tradition (and many scholars these days do not), 2 Thessalonians was written within six months of the first letter, and so is Paul’s second (or maybe third, depending when he wrote to Galatia) letter.  Two things can be said straight away about this history:

  1. Paul is doing something new: he’s writing a letter where he has never written to a Church before. Paul is beginning a new form of ministry; with hindsight we know that this will become a major aspect of his legacy.
  2. Paul engages in correspondence: not only does he write to Thessalonica he writes back. We can assume that there was a letter, or a least an oral message, between the two letters of Paul because we see how the second letter expands on some of the points of the first.  It seems as though the Thessalonians had a few specific questions, and Paul addresses them.

The Thessalonian letters are personal letters of encouragement, written during a period where Paul is seeking to establish a communal work of God amidst cultural opposition.  There’s no finer point to be made here: Paul is inventing the first form of congregational Christianity outside the Jewish homeland, and he’s doing it on the hop.  Paul uses a lot of family language wherein he addresses the Thessalonians as siblings; the Christians are his brothers and sisters, the adult children of God the Father, who are becoming a new kind of family that engages in mutual support including responsibility for material care.  There was sharing but not like in Acts 2:44 with complete equality of possessions administered by a central body of apostles: in Thessalonica there was to be shared care from each person’s conscience and capacity such that in 2 Thessalonians there is teaching about what to do with bludgers and spongers.  It seems that Acts 2:44 didn’t work everywhere, and even 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 had been misconstrued and some correction was needed: the Christian Church is inventing itself and making notes about what works or doesn’t as it goes along the way.

So, in these first letters we see Paul trying out some new ideas as he puts them into writing; he plays around with words and phrases that he will develop as his preaching and correspondence ministries continue.  Paul is not writing systematic theology here, these are letters and not a text book, so the ideas do jump around a bit.  But isn’t that just more exciting?  Well I think it is, but then I’m a preaching nerd so I like this sort of thing anyway.  I mean, look at how we get to earwig in on Paul as he follows his trains of thoughts to their various stations, even jumping between trains every now and then.  He’s writing with passion, with fervour for the truth and a love for his friends at Thessalonica, and that’s a good thing.

There are a few key themes in the letters to the Thessalonians, and we’ll meet some of those at camp, but one that I want to highlight now is how Paul directs these new Christians to seek God-esteem rather than self-esteem as they struggle against opposition, persecution, and inexperience.  As we read in Acts 17:1-9 Paul had had a difficult time in Thessalonica and he may have been there for less than a month.  Paul had had to leave in a hurry, (and he never returned), so Paul is concerned for those new believers he left behind and for the work that he began but was not able to support long enough to see safely into self-replicating growth.  His prayer and desperation is that God will make up for the absence of the apostles, that the new believers will look to Godself for wisdom and insight rather than struggling to make philosophical ends meet from their own wisdom, small as it is.

Along this line, of this whole thing being new and a bit slapdash, notice in Acts 17:4 where not only were some of the Jews in the synagogue convinced by the gospel as Paul proclaimed it, but so too were many of the Gentiles (probably local Greek believers in Judaism rather than random pagans) and some of the leading women.  This new church is diverse from the outset, and perhaps as was the case in Philippi where Paul and Silas had met Lydia of Thyatira there was a distinctly European (Macedonian) model of church forming, distinct from the Judean and Asian models.  This is all new as even the models of Antioch and Jerusalem wouldn’t have fitted.

From the perspective of my history the Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry is very unique.  As a student of ministry and theology with the Uniting Church I had not been trained for work in a shared or combined cross-denominational ministry setting, despite at least one of my lecturers having served as minister at Keith One Church.  (And even Keith One Church is one church, not two in partnership.)  Of course this arrangement is not new for you, and this is especially true in Serviceton, but what might have been missed is that external models do not work well here: Servi Church is more unique than other churches.  (By the way “more unique” and “very unique” are totally fine as usages, neither is grammatical but both are linguistically significant.)  Why do I say this?  Well because you (and Kaniva) are doing something that no one else has done, at least not in the same way: and that is what Paul was doing alongside-yet-away-from the Thessalonians.  This is why I chose Thessalonians as our Biblical text for Camp.

So, the theme of the Bible studies at Family Camp is “building a church in changing times”.  The question is how or even if times are changing at Serviceton, and how or if our circumstances are difficult.  Where is there upheaval in our town; what are we doing about it now, and what are we prepared to do differently to proclaim the Kingship of Christ in the Wimmera and the Tatiara?  (Do we need to do anything differently?)  One of Paul’s key answers to this question, and there are several answers, is primarily found in 2 Thessalonians 2 and it is to “get on with today”.  The narrative of Acts 16-18 reports that Paul was thrown out of three major Macedonian cities: and he’d even been beaten and gaoled in Philippi.  Paul arrived in Thessalonica having been forced out of Philippi (Acts 16:39 and 1 Thessalonians 2:2) and he had had to flee from Thessalonica.  Paul’s confidence to continue preaching came from God and the assurance that he was doing God’s work (Acts 16:10 and 1 Thessalonians 2:4), but that must have been hard.  Imagine that you have seen “a man of Macedonia” in a vision like Paul had done, and imagine if Holy Spirit had three times closed the door on Asia and Bithynia so that you would go straight to Macedonia, don’t pass go, don’t collect two hundred denarii.  And then you get beaten up and gaoled, and then threatened with more of the same if you don’t sling your hook from the town you went for refuge, and the town after that.  I’d be asking God some serious questions about the whole endeavour, and I’m sure that Paul did, but Paul heard God and he took God at God’s word, and so Paul went on into Achaia and Athens and Corinth.  This is the same assurance Paul wants to give and to hear back from Thessalonica as they face trials of their own: Paul is like a father who wants to see his adult children doing well in their own maturity just as God the Father had desired the same from Paul.

I want to end with the words Paul began with, so look with me at 1 Thessalonians 1:1b and 2 Thessalonians 1:1b where Paul writes to the assembly of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Shalom! I like that, because it speaks of people gathering together rather than of an institution.  It is the people who matter, perhaps that’s why Paul used the phrase “brothers and sisters” so often in these letters.  And so as we gather in the coming week, in more relaxed circumstances and with plenty of free time to share, let’s be mindful that we are “ecclesia”: not just “church” but gathering, “assembly”, “mob”, and also in Christ, “family”.  Together we are about to do something new and exciting, something which might just change the world.

Amen.

Mighty to Save (Easter 3C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are you today?

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

Bloody oath he is!

Amen.

We stand together

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church at Newborough on Sunday 9th September 2018.  It is the second in a series of five sermons on James and as such much of the text is repeated from the first week since this is a different congregation.  I have added below only what was new, so if you want the first part then look at last week’s text.

James 2:1-10, 14-17

The third thing humanity needs in a messy world is love.  God’s first gift to each of us was life and with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  Live abundantly, which is to say generously, with love.  Listen before you speak says Jacob, and don’t be fast about anger.  (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God.  If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose.  There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it.  Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.  Love is active, and Jacob encourages those of us who are religious to practise faith as well as talking about it.  By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness.  Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing.

Today we read where Jacob in James 2:1-9 wrote about justice in interpersonal relationships, writing that God does not favour anyone by human standards of wealth or health so neither should the Church.  We should not exclude anyone from full participation when we meet as Church, and as Christians in our individual dealings with people in the world we should show respect.  Human justice is not trustworthy: many among the rich are exploitative and are therefore unfit to be favoured over the poor anyway, and in Jacob’s experience it is the self-satisfied who speak against the glorious name into which we were baptised.  Think about the wealthy people mocking equitable healthcare on those TV ads, the Church is not to act like that with regard to social justice.  Rather the  Church is to display the love of neighbour as for self as the scriptures used by Jacob clearly state in Leviticus 19:18.  If it’s good enough for Moses it’s good enough for me, and that Jesus said exactly the same thing leaves me in no doubt.

What we read in James 2:10-13 connects these ideas with the greater truth of keeping God’s law.  To act unjustly is to go against everything God says and is about; to follow the world in this is just as sinful as to murder or fornicate.  You can’t pick and choose which parts of the Way of God to focus on and be righteous in, it’s all-or-none, and because of this Jacob wrote in James 2:14-26 that the way Christians live is as important as the way Christians think.  A follower of Jesus cannot have one without the other.

Be in no doubt that practical help is a necessity when injustice is seen, not just well-wishes.  Your theology is important, but it must not get in the way of your work for the Kingdom in the world and the mission of extending the influence of God’s will in the world.  Jewish heroes, male and female, showed their belief in God by obeying God in action and not only in #thoughtandprayers.  A faith without action is no faith at all, and religious action without understanding is no faith at all.  As plainly as Jacob can make it he goes right to the heart of Judaism and says that even the core creedal activity, the one thing above all things that makes you a Jew, to recite Shema, is not enough.  Read the words of James 2:14 in The Passion Translation, faith without works is useless for saving anyone.

So, get on with it.  Amen.

It’s time to stand (Pentecost 15B)

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 2nd September 2018.  It is the first in a series of five messages I wrote for the parish over September.

James 1:17-27

In the five Sundays in September I want to walk us through The Letter of James, portions of which have been set as the lectionary Epistle reading for each week in this month.  So first, an introduction.

James has had  a troubled time in Church history, and the letter was in danger on more than one occasion of not being included within the New Testament when the Church’s scholars decided what the Christian scriptures would be.  Despite the fact that this text was attributed to Jacob the brother of Jesus, which is really what got it across the line and into the top twenty-seven, there are a number of big issues with it even for Christians today.  James does not speak about Christ’s cross or resurrection, at all, and it doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit.  And, other than identifying himself as a belonger to Jesus Christ in two places, James 1:1 and James 2:1, Jacob doesn’t actually mention Jesus at all in the text.  This is a letter about God, the Adonai of the Israelites.

James is a general letter, addressed to everyone at large and nobody in particular, unlike Paul’s letters which were addressed to newly born churches in specific cities or regions.  As a general letter James is not as personal as Paul’s writings, it offers a few bits of generalist advice rather than answering the questions of one specific location.  James was written within a contemporary Greek and Hebrew literary style called paranesis which means it offered admonitions and exhortations; it’s all about “everyone should…” and “no one should…” and the like.  And James jumps around a bit, there’s no clear flow from one point to another, there’s no development, there’s just a bunch of ethical points, almost like dot points, and then having made all his points Jacob stops writing.  There’s no “farewell to the brethren and tell Sophie I said hi”, there’s just stop.  In this way Jacob’s writing is more like Jesus’ preaching than it is Paul’s writing.

So, James is in the Bible primarily because Jacob ben Joseph, the second son of Mary the former Virgin, wrote it, apparently, and somewhat in spite of it not talking about Jesus much and not talking about Calvary at all.  But the main reason that James nearly didn’t get into the Bible is because it seems to contradict Paul.  Paul is all about salvation by grace, and James is all about faith revealed by works, right?  Well one of my commentators describes the solution this way: that Paul’s key message is indeed that our salvation comes about from the sheer generosity in grace expressed by God who welcomes us home.  There is nothing to be earned or achieved, Christ has opened the way through his death and resurrection and we are invited simply to open our arms and receive the gift.  But Jacob in James did not dispute or refute this, which many have thought he did, (including Martin Luther who thought James was a very dodgy piece of work), what Jacob emphasises is that God-faith is not true faith unless it mirrors God in producing a radically generous and grace-filled life.  James does not say we must earn our salvation, James says that our salvation should prompt us to action in a world desperate for truth and love.  In other words, Paul writes about how salvation comes about, and Jacob writes about not becoming fat and lazy in the salvation you were gifted, but rather live out your faith for the good of the world, just like Moses and the prophets said.  After all, what is the point of being saved if you’re just going to be gossipy and ignore the dire plight of your widowed neighbour, or be rude to the shabby man who comes to church looking for salvation?  Jacob says that we can live generous lives safe in the knowledge that God who has already saved us (and the prophets) and is eternally faithful to Israel continues to have our back.  Jacob is actually saying that if you’re saved, drop the nervous religious pretence and live freely and openly as an ambassador of the rolling-out Reign of God.

So, with the background in place let’s look at what James actually says in today’s readings.  We’re starting at James 1:17 so very briefly let me tell you that in the first sixteen verses Jacob writes about God’s understanding that humans are basically good creatures who do dumb things.  There’s no total moral depravity for Jacob in the fallen world, Jacob takes the mainstream Jewish view that Adam was a perfect creation of God, but Adam made a mess of things and that mess continues today.  But God is still God, humanity is still the image of God, and God desires a reconciliation between Godself and humanity.  Furthermore, God understands Godself needs to get about this because humanity can’t.  Basic, simple, Jewish and now Christian stuff.

The first thing that humanity needs in a messy world is wisdom and Jacob says in the mode of the Jewish scriptural wisdom writers that we should just ask God for it.  There’s no shame in asking God for wisdom, just be confident when you do.

The second thing humanity needs in a messy world is guts.  It takes bravery and perseverance to live well in a messy world, and since Jacob tells us to be bold in living out our faith then we need to be brave against the condition of the world, and brave against those who prefer the world in its current state and will resist our desire for godly transformation.  God does not send temptation, (this is very clear in James 1:12),  but God does send hope to stand when temptation comes from desire for something other than God’s provision.  Temptation leads to death because temptation leads away from God, who is life. James 1:14 in The Complete Jewish Bible reads each person is being tempted whenever he is dragged off and enticed by the bait of his own desire.  In Jewish rabbinical wisdom, only repentance can halt the vicious sequence of hezer hara (the evil inclination).

Now we come to today’s lectionary portion, with all of the above in mind, and we read in James 1:17-18 that God’s response to our lack of wisdom and lack of perseverance is generosity.  The first gift God gave us was life, and then with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  There is nothing dark or hidden about God, God is holy and good and the more you get to know God the more beautiful God is for you (the more you see God’s beauty, the less you can doubt God is duplicitous).  Jacob counsels us that the best response to God’s gift of life is that we live fruitful lives which display God’s dependability and eternal goodness.  As I said in the introduction, this is Jacob’s main point, and it’s the reason why I for one am happy that James is actually in the Bible.  Jacob continues in James 1:19-21 where he writes about lovingkindness and patience with regard to anger.  Listen before you speak, he says, and don’t be fast about anger.  (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God given through an abundant life.  We have already read that God does not send temptation, now we read that when the world does send temptation we have the opportunity of God to respond with abundance.  If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose.  There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it.  Furthermore, we must actively purge our lives of sordidness, immorality and growing wickedness.  James 1:21 in The New Jerusalem Bible reads do away with all impurities and remnants of evil; we must pursue the Way of God with meekness because the Way of God revealed in scripture is powerful to save.  Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.

Finally, for this morning, in James 1:22-25 we read about activity in faith and we are encouraged to practise religion as well as talk about it.  By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness.  Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing.  In James 1:26-27 this is taken further to specify good use of speech.  Speak with self-discipline and put into practice what you hear of grace, especially to your marginalised neighbours who are helpless, homeless, loveless and comfortless, and non-belonging ones in your community.  Show grace towards yourself and encourage yourself to live with resilience and perseverance in the face of temptation.  Jacob suggests that good speech is an outward sign of a good heart, so if you hear yourself speaking badly see that as an indication that you need to examine your motives and attitudes.  The best way to avoid pollution from the world is through practising wise hearing and action.

So, get on with it.

Amen.