Together

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th April 2018, the Sunday after Easter in Year B.

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

On previous Sundays at this point in the service I have spoken of my time as a teacher, and this morning I want to briefly touch on that experience again.  Some of you may remember from my earlier stories that in several schools in the past was a teacher of students who wore the label “EBD”, which stood for “Emotional Behavioural Disorder”.  These were kids, and kids they were, whose disability was not physiological in that they had brain damage or a missing limb, but emotional in that they experienced mental illnesses or simply displayed anti-social or asocial behaviour.  I taught kids who had been expelled from other schools because they had taken a gun or a bong to school, or been involved in repeated fights, or were chronic non-attenders.  In other words, “EBD” quite often stood for “every bloody day” because that is how often they were naughty in class (or not in class as the case may be).  These weren’t the special children in wheelchairs you might feel sorry for, no, these were the special children who would spit at you because you wished them good morning and for whom no one ever felt sorry.

In other words, these were children with a reputation, and specifically a reputation that they were each and every one of them irredeemable.

In today’s reading from the gospels we came across a man of irredeemably poor reputation, the disciple Thomas.  Now when I name Thomas I am sure you don’t immediately think of the ambassador in chains, that apostle to the east who was the first man to live and die for the sake of the gospel in the lands of India.  I am sure you aren’t immediately put in mind of the Thomas Christians who to this day worship Christ in India because of Thomas, and who have a tradition of faith that is as old as the Petrine and Pauline Christianities of the Roman and European churches.  No, when I say Thomas you say, “ah, Doubting Thomas”.  Poor Thomas.

Well, let’s have a look at that story.  The lectionary jumps us in to John’s story of the twelve on the evening of Easter day, and the time when ten of the twelve, plus some of the women no doubt, were gathered together in shell-shock. Jesus appears in their midst and these gathered disciples were given divine authority as apostles, given the right and power to reveal Jesus and make him known to those who did not believe.  Jesus delegated this holy power personally through his breathing on them and conferring the infilling of the Holy Spirit in John 20:22-23.  There is no seven weeks wait for Pentecost according to John, this is the time, on Easter Sunday evening, when the Spirit is conferred and the ten are blessed with power from on high.  The power they are given, alongside the task of preaching for which they are empowered, but the authority as power, their right and duty of command and superiority relates to sin which they are authorised to forgive or not forgive.  “Now that you have seen me again,” says Jesus, “and you know me as the risen one and have received the Holy Spirit, go and meet unbelief in the world with grace and enthusiasm.”  That’s what they’ve been told to do: tell people that Jesus is Lord, proven by his resurrection, and help them to believe him and follow him as disciples.  If the apostles spoke of faith, then the rumour of God would be in the world and people would be able to respond; but if the apostles did not speak of faith then the word would remain hidden and the people living in darkness would not have the opportunity to respond.  The future of the Christian story, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the frightened women, was up to the witnesses of Christ.  Jesus wasn’t going to preach any more, the duty and authority to speak and to keep silent was up to them, the apostles.

Jesus made it quite clear: whether people live in the sin of unbelief or in the sun of understanding is up to us because we have the job of telling them the story which leads to hope and belief.

Now, Thomas wasn’t there John 20:24 tells us, so he missed out on the empowering sight of the risen Christ and the impartation of the Holy Spirit so it’s no wonder that he’s doubt filled.  Thomas was where the other ten had been seven days earlier, they’d not believed the women so how can they judge him for not believing them?  They’d seen Jesus, so how can they begrudge him the same evidentiary experience?  And, most importantly, how ineffective must their preaching have been that Thomas was not convinced?  Here are the apostles charged with all of the authority and resource of Heaven to declare new life to the world, and they can’t even sell it to one of their own?

Psh, “doubting Thomas”, more like “dubious apostolic preaching”.

When the resurrected one appears a week later and speaks to Thomas, Jesus does NOT breathe on him; rather in John 20:27 Jesus addresses the area of Thomas’ unbelief, which was Thomas’ desire to have touchable proof in John 20:25.  Thomas, having been offered the chance to put a finger in Jesus’ wounds, but without actually doing so, worships Jesus in John 20:28.  Jesus words in John 20:29 are probably not what he actually said to Thomas, after all Thomas has done more than the ten with the evidence he was given; more likely John later put these words in Jesus’ mouth as encouragement to those who read the gospel.  Thomas is no more doubting than the ten, and a week later he worships Jesus as Lord which indicates to me that he was far more convinced, and therefore far less doubting of Jesus than the other ten.

No wonder it was Thomas who Jesus and the Holy Spirit sent to India, and less effective Peter and James who Jesus left in Judea.  As with my EBD-labelled kids in England, reputations can be undeserved, but they stick once stuck, and they mislead.

In both of our Old Testament portions for today, one of which comes from Acts 4 in that strange way the lectionary provides for our history lesson in the time between our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the theme is unity.  Better said the theme is the opportunities that congregations of believers provide God with to bless the world through our single-minded devotion to each other in God’s name.  Unity is not enough, even ten-against-one the apostles could not convince Thomas of the resurrection, it is unity with devotion that God requires.  How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity we heard as our call to worship from Psalm 133:1Now, the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul we read in Acts 4:32, such that with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them we read in Acts 4:33.  The spoken out witness of the apostles as individuals was supported by the lived out witness of the loving fellowship in which all lived, including the support of all from the common wealth of resources.  Everyone had a bed under a roof, everyone had food and clothes enough, everyone had love and comfort as part of the family, everyone had encouragement and good cheer from the testimony of the others.  No wonder they saw three thousand added to their number in one day, and others added daily because of the apostles’ testimony: who wouldn’t want to be part of such a loving community with a profound and delighted sense of hope in the world.

Thomas was part of that Acts 4 action, and then he went alone to India where he spoke of Christ and established a community of faith that lives to this day.

So, what does this mean for us?

  1. We must hear the message and take it to heart. Like Thomas we must believe and know that Jesus once dead has been raised by God in vindication of his message of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.
  2. We must proclaim the message and take God’s appointment to heart. Like Thomas we must go where God draws us and filled with the Spirit and the authority of God to do so we must proclaim the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.

Our evidence that the gospel is truth is that we have met the risen Christ.  Like those who came after Thomas we have not seen Jesus in the flesh, but like Thomas we don’t have to touch the resurrected one to believe, we believe without seeing yet we believe by having known Christ. The world’s evidence that the gospel is truth is that we who have met the risen Christ live in harmony, unity, peace, and mutual enjoyment.

Where our reputation is one of love and peace the world will believe that we have the life-giving words of faith.

Every.  Blesséd.  Day.

Amen.

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The Good and Pleasantness

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 20th August 2017.  It was a communion Sunday.

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Matthew 15:21-28

The picture you see up there is a painting named “The Conciliation” and it was painted by Benjamin Duterrau around 1840.  The European man is George Augustus Robinson, Protector of Aborigines for Van Diemen’s Land, and the other mob are Palawa, the indigenous people of Trowenna as that island was known by its First People.  This painting is supposed to indicate the end of “the Black Wars” which ravaged Tasmania until 1831, where Robinson met with the last group of warriors and convinced them to accompany him to Hobart and meet with governor Arthur.  In one way, I like this painting: I like that is that it is entitled “The Conciliation” rather than “Reconciliation”.  This is the first time these two groups, the Palawa and the Riana (or white people), have been in harmony.  This image marks a new relationship of peace, not the restoration of an old one which was broken.  In many other ways, all dependent upon my being a sometime Tasmanian and a student of Van Demonian history, I find this painting shocking.  What you see there never happened, not like that anyway.

Today’s readings all point toward the theme of unity, and are predicated upon the idea of reconciliation.  The Psalmist speaks in Psalm 133 about “the blessedness of unity” as the NRSV translators would have it, and of the desire that all people might “live together in harmony” as my commentator Professor Toni Craven suggests.  Psalm 133:3 describes how God orders and bestows divine blessing where God finds unity expressed.  This blessing is doubly special because not only is it from God, but it is a blessing akin to ordination and consecration.  Furthermore, that blessing is the promise and strength of life for evermore.  God gives great favour on the people who live in harmony, guaranteeing them a long and fulfilling life while they maintain that state; and God derives great joy from such people.  In Hebrew, but sadly not in the English of the NIV or the NRSV this Psalm begins with the word “behold”, indicating that what was to follow would be something worth hearing.  This is one of those points in scripture where as a reader or hearer you want to take note of the message.  In this case the message is the benefits of unity.

Psalm 133 like many of the psalms we have read in the past months is a song of ascent.  Therefore, it is a prelude to collective worship: the sort of song you sing on your way to the temple as you prepare yourself to enter the worship space with a worshipping heart.  It is also a greeting which might be sung and echoed to and from fellow pilgrims you meet on your way up.  “How good it is!” you sing, “when brothers gather in unity!” comes the reply.  Stirring stuff.

The psalm also speaks of oil.  Olive oil was used for anointing, but also for healing.  Appointment to office and healing where it is needed are gifts from God, so is unity.  Where the people’s sin brought separation from God and from one another God desires to bring unity and to restore what was broken.  Continuing this thought there is no place for selfishness in unity.  Where God has called women and men together only those focussed on the task will complete the task, the selfish one looking for his or her own needs above the needs of the whole, or the one looking for fame, will destabilise the task.  The agenda of the people in unity can only be the saving work of the Church; otherwise the congregation becomes a Babel of confused messages and opinions.

Where once there was disunity and disharmony in the family of Jacob, Joseph is delighted to be reunited with his brothers.  Where hatred had led to harm and the intention to destroy God ensured that there would be life because the brothers have a second chance to live together.  Where there might have been death for Joseph as a slave where there might have been death for the brothers as the drought set in, now by the grace of God there will be abundant life.  Joseph chose not to hold on to past hurts but to use the outcome of his poor treatment to benefit his family, even the ones who hated and hurted him.  Joseph sends the brothers to live in the Nile Delta, the best irrigated and most fertile portion of Egypt.

So, let’s be clear: Joseph has chosen not to remember the pain of the past.  He had been humiliated and betrayed by his brothers while still a boy of seventeen.  He had been alone and no doubt frightened as a slave in the convoy of the Ishmaelites, and again as a prisoner of injustice after Potiphar’s wife accused him of attempted rape.  Even after he became Prime Minister of Egypt, and named his sons “God has caused me to forget my troubles” and “God has made me fruitful”, the tears he cries on Benjamin’s neck indicate a wall of emotion which has broken down in him.  It is this moment where he is finally released from the past, not the moment in which he was summoned from the gaol to speak with Pharaoh that first time.  Joseph’s suffering was broken by reconciliation, not by material wealth or unlimited power.  Indeed, the commentator I read for Genesis this week, J.M. Boice, suggests that Joseph remained fresh in his loving-kindness even after twenty-two years of exile from his family because he stayed close to God.  That is a great lesson for us: stay close to God.

Matthew and Mark both tell the story of Jesus speaking with a displaced indigenous woman, a Canaanite: today we might call her a Palestinian.  Matthew tells us in 15:23b that she’s annoying the disciples so much that they ask Jesus to send her away.  “Look,” they say, “just heal the daughter will you and then this woman can go.”   Jesus tells them that that is not going to happen because she is not an Israelite.  In other words, she is not part of the unity; where we are an “us” this woman is a “them” and “they” don’t get what God has given “us”.  So Jesus ignores her and her inappropriate claim upon his time and anointing.  When she speaks to him directly, having had no luck with the disciples, Jesus insults her.  “The Jews are the children of the master,” he says, “you are a dog and not worthy of what God has provided”.

That’s what Jesus said.

But in a quote worthy of Joseph, the one who endured imprisonment and exile by staying close to God the woman agrees with Jesus, but says that that is no reason to deprive her of her miracle.  “Yes, I am a dog,” she says, “but even dogs get leftovers in the master’s house”.  In other words, she is saying that while she does not have a set at the table, she is still within the house and a member of the household.  What a comeback, no wonder Jesus grants her her request.  Most commentators suggest that Jesus was baiting the woman to draw out this revelation.  Some scholars, a minority but a vocal minority, suggest that the human Jesus was challenged by the woman’s retort and that he learned something about the grace of God in that moment.  I can imagine Jesus turning to the disciples and saying, “you know, she’s right,” before sending her on her way with the words of Matthew 15:28.  And as we have discussed earlier in the year, she alongside only the Samaritan at the well and his own mother, is called “Woman” by Jesus.  Something profound occurred here, and even Jesus has had a shift in his understanding.  The Canaanite mother came as an outsider to the covenant of God conscious that only God could help her daughter.  Surely a God who is so generous to Israel, so generous that even the Canaanites can see it, can spare the leftovers for a mother desperate for her daughter.  Surely this is so even if the mother and her little girl are dogs?

As we move toward the high point of our service of worship and the gathering around this table as a place of unity, let us be mindful of the ones we might want to exclude in God’s name.  Ask yourself, as Jesus asked himself, to whom is God denying access to the blessings of God?  This table is open to the indigenous people of Australia, and not just because George Augustus Robinson made them put on shoes and learn to use cutlery.  But to whom is this table closed?  To whom is the promise of unity denied?

There is an answer to that question.  The table is closed to those who don’t have faith.  I’m not saying at all that the table is closed to people of different theology or none because of that theology, as if only Uniting Church members can have this feast.  But this table as a sign of God’s welcome is only accessible if you know God, and you believe yourself to be welcomed.  As we saw from Matthew’s story the Canaanite woman believed herself welcome to at least gather the leftovers, the God of Israel was not God of her because she was not an Israelite; but as Lord Almighty of the universe she had some rights as a creature.

Those who are not welcome at this table are those who exclude themselves.  If you don’t know you are welcome, why would you even come and risk the embarrassment of eviction?  Unity means that all are welcome, brothers and sisters alike, Israelite and Canaanite, Palawa and Riana, Koori and Anglo.

As we gather at this table today, let us agree that when next we gather at this table we will have invited those waiting for an invitation to participate in this act of unity.

Everything has been done.  Come, and bring a friend.

Come.

Amen.