Pentecost 8A

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 26th July 2020.

So, how’d’ya go?  Last Sunday I set you the task of spending some spirit-searching time with God’s Spirit, to diagnose the condition of your faith and to discuss with God some therapeutic options for your growing in strength.  How was that?  For those who haven’t got to it yet there’s still time, (there’s always time with God), but there’s no time like The Present.

The parable of the Mustard Seed speaks to what some of us have done in the past week, and of course what we have heard in the past two weeks.  Once again Jesus speaks a farming parable, and he’s still in that boat just off the beach at Capernaum, the town where he lives and the hometown of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, and James and John.  The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed says Jesus, it is the smallest of all the seeds which grows to become the greatest of shrubs in its day.  Perhaps this means that from little things big things grow (undoubtedly true) and that in the context of Christian faith you don’t have to have much of God to start with, but by the end of your life walk you’ll have become something big and fruitful as God has grown you up.  That is true from experience, but it’s not all that Jesus is saying here.

One of my commentators informed me  this week that in Jewish traditions trees often represented the rule of a king, and birds were symbols of the oppressed people of God.  So the story of a shrub that becomes a tree big enough for nests is not just about how big the shrub grows from its tiny seed; the story is saying that Heaven’s Kingdom is a kingdom where the oppressed find shelter.  The Kingdom of God is not just a massive empire, it’s a spacious sanctuary.  Today (Jesus’ day) is not looking good for the Kingdom, says Jesus: present day Jerusalem is full of Romans, and the Roman Empire is enormous and vicious; but that’s not the future.  No, says Jesus, the future is that the tiny presence of God’s new thing in the world, the Kingdom coming through Jesus Godself, will one day outshine Rome and the Romes to come (Byzantium, Russia, Britain, Spain, USA) to be a place of enormous influence and abundant shelter.

So, how do these two ideas relate, and how do they connect with us?  Well it is true that big things do grow from small, no seed is ever bigger than the tree it produces, so the idea that what we see now can and will be bigger in the future, with the right conditions, is clear.  That Jesus is using this as a metaphor for the rolling out of the reign of God, and that the world will be safer with more God presence evident in the world in no way undermines the idea that I can grow in faith from small faith to big and be a more effective disciple and witness.  I suggest that these are related ideas, the more Christians there are in the world and the bigger the faith inside each Christian the more effective and spacious the Kingdom to come will be.  And, going back to last week, the best way to build bigger Christians is that each one spends time with God assessing the growth and condition of his or her heart.

Christians who are conditioned by God’s close attention, especially at that Christian’s invitation, are chosen by God to be effective in the world.  God sends out those whom God trusts to speak the truth and to speak effectively: the whole point of the Kingdom according to today’s gospel is that it is effective in saving the world.  In the parable after the one about the mustard seed Jesus speaks of the Kingdom as being like yeast.  Once again the kingdom is small and secretive, but give it time and it will has great significance in the future thing.  Yeast is another one of those daily items that has metaphorical meaning; in Jesus time yeast was considered to be a contaminant.  When the Kingdom of Heaven comes in power the kingdom’s people (that’s us) will spoil and corrupt the Roman, Flesh world; that’s the story of the Parable of the Yeast.  But in the meantime, as with any parabolic saying of Jesus, shh!

So the Kingdom is small but influential, and when the time is right it will be massive and welcoming.  Jesus also tells his disciples in private that the Kingdom is precious, priceless, and pure.  The Kingdom is worth attaining.  “Sing out your song, but not for me alone; sing out for yourselves for you are blessed! There is not one of you who shall not win the kingdom; the sick the suffering, the quick the dead,” sings Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, and this is true even if it is not scripture. Buy the field, buy the pearl, sell all that you have and throw everything at this one thing because it is the only thing worth having says Jesus in Matthew 13:44-46.  Even if it costs you all that you had, go and buy it.  In the privacy of the house (Matthew 13:36) Jesus tells the disciples that the Kingdom sweeps up everyone in its net (Matthew 13:47) and that the good fish who represent the righteous people will be separated from the bad fish, and that the bad influences will be removed and destroyed.  And the point is not to worry “oh but what if I’m a bad fish”; the point is to exclaim “thank God that one day I’ll be in a world away from those things that distract from the things of God, I am blessed!”  The disciples, the ones in the house with him, understand the points that Jesus was making (Matthew 13:51) and are able to teach the same stories.  The Empire of God will crush and destroy all other empires, not only Rome but systems of religious legalism and human barbarity and injustice as well.

But that does still sound a bit scary; I mean, what if I am a bad fish?  Or, okay so I am a good fish (I’m a Christian) but I have a lot of “the flesh” in me and I’m easily led astray, what then?  Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness offers Paul in Romans 8:26, in the context of prayer and repentance.  The one who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit, (Romans 8:27), and God is this one who listens to what the Spirit says about you.  “This one”, says the Spirit, “is a work in progress: not there yet but well along the way, and being cooperative towards change”.  Our job as Christians, as citizens and participants in the Kingdom of God, is not to be perfect but to cooperate with the Spirit who is perfecting us.  Your strength comes from God, your healing comes from God, but God is not yet finished making you strong and safe.  In all things (good and not good) God works for good for those who love God says Romans 8:28, and that means that God is not restricted by your offerings but is free to use the wealth of options provided through grace.  So even if you are a good fish with a lot of worldliness left in you God can still use you, and heal that worldliness while you are ministering to others.  This is grace, that God can do more.  If God is for us who is against us? asks Romans 8:31, you needn’t resist God’s work of restoration any longer when you know that God is kind and is working for your benefit even in the bad times.

God is for us; God is for us; and in all things we are victorious and then some because of the One who loves and guides us.  But, where does this lead us?  To two places I think.

  1. When God searches for us in the world where we live, God is listening out for the noise of Holy Spirit at work in us. It is the Spirit’s groaning within us that draws God’s attention to the work of perfection going on.
  2. We are not separated from the love of God. God does not not love us (a double-negative says that God loves us even if we can’t think it’s true), and God does not keep the work of the Spirit in the world secret from us, rather we are fully informed partners in that work.

Our role in God’s work is to allow Holy Spirit access to our hearts for the work of perfection, and that we join the Spirit in praying (interceding) for the world in its brokenness.  Holy Spirit groans in prayer not because prayer is extraordinarily hard work (although it is) but because it is grievous work, it is groan inducing in its reality that the world is so sick and so sad that God’s essence groans with compassion.  Where God has not separated us from God’s love not only are we loved by God, but we are grieved by what grieves God – we groan too at the condition of the world and we urge God with the fulness of our own guts to make the world good.

When the Kingdom fully comes there will be grace enough for everyone, and shelter and healing for all.  Right now the Kingdom is small and hidden; it is insignificant compared to the globe of turmoil and the universe of pain.  This small but belligerent Kingdom is God’s work and God’s solution; now heed God’s invitation for you to check your spirit with God’s Spirit for healing and perfection and answer God’s call to the purpose of being one of those who activate the Kingdom in the world.  If you didn’t do it last week then I encourage you to check in with God for some spirit-care; in fact even if you did do it last week check in again for some more.  And then, on the way to wholeness by God’s grace, partner with God to bring wholeness to the whole world.  Go and be yeast.  Amen.

Pentecost 7A

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 19th July 2020.  We were still in lockdown.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Romans 8:12-25

The parables are radical and provocative stories, which is the main reason why they are told at all.  Throughout Matthew 13, and the other chapters made up of parables in the gospels, Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven; the way the world will be when God alone reigns and all other kings and empires are overcome by the presence of God fully revealed in the world.  If Jesus was to teach openly about these things, to use a list of facts rather than a story with hidden meaning, then the people who are threatened by the Kingdom’s coming might have an insight into what lays ahead, and arrest and silence Jesus.  Of course this is ultimately what did happen; however, in the short term Jesus was able to get away with teaching subversive stuff by hiding it in his weird little stories.

The villain in the Parable of Weeds is satan, not Caesar nor the Sanhedrin, but this isn’t always the case where Jesus is teaching.  It’s true that satan doesn’t have an army occupying Jerusalem’s posh suburbs, so Jesus might have been able to be a bit more upfront this time, but in the middle of a long teaching time for him he’s kept up the narrative with the parable form.  So, let’s look at what Jesus actually says, openly then in private about what he said in parables and in public.

In Matthew 13:24a Jesus makes it clear that once again (or perhaps “still”) he is talking about the Kingdom of God and specifically what that Kingdom is like.  Then in Matthew 13:24b he tells the unique point of this story, that the Kingdom began as a good and pure idea which in Matthew 13:25 is seen to be destroyed later by the fault of an external force, an enemy who sows destructiveness.  Weeds are destructive, we know this from last week’s parable (which was only five minutes ago in Jesus’ day), where in Matthew 13:22 Jesus describes the weeds as choking influences.  So it is interesting that in this story the master does not instruct his slaves to get rid of the weeds which might choke the wheat; indeed he resists their offer to get out the Roundup because of the potential danger to the good crop.  It is as if Jesus has such faith in the seed of the gospel that he assumes it to be choke-resistant and weeding is not required.  Or maybe his confidence is in the soil, and that his crop will always grow better in his soil than weeds will grow.  “Nah, don’t worry about the weeds in this paddock,” he says, “weeds won’t grow well in that soil anyway so they won’t be a problem.”  Whether it’s a superior class of soil, or of seed, the danger from the weeds is lesser to the good crop than the danger of the weeding.

In last week’s parable the seed was the gospel and the soil was your heart; but today the good seed is you (the children of the kingdom according to Matthew 13:38) and the soil is the world.  There are two kinds of seed in this story and that same verse, (Matthew 13:38), tells that there is bad seed which is the children of the world alongside the good seed which you are.  At the right time Jesus will send the angels to remove the weeds and then to gather the harvest; the crop depending upon its seed ends up in the fire or in the barn, and that’s the point of the story.  Last week one of the points made was that good crop can be crowded out or choked by bad crop; this week Jesus’ people are imperilled by satan’s people, but Jesus’ people don’t need rescuing just yet because they will be known by their steadfastness even in peril.

So, what is your seed quality?  Maybe the better question, far more accusative and personal, asks which seed you are.  And, even more blunt, whose child are you?

In Romans 8:12 we are told that we owe nothing to the world but everything to Jesus.  Is that true of you?  How true is that of you?  Since I am writing for my congregation here, people I know to be Christians and children of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:38), I’m more concerned for degree than identity.  I know you are all Christian, none of you belong to satan at all, but as much as you belong to the kingdom how much do you belong to the kingdom, and how much do you still belong to the world?  How attached, how deep are you within the Christ whose you are?  How dead are you to the world and how alive to Christ: how much has the Spirit [put] to death the deeds of the flesh, your body (Romans 8:13)?

In Romans 8:13 we are told that those who live according to the flesh…will die, which does sound rather dire, however Paul goes on to say that if by the Spirit you abandon and neglect, (or even actively kill), deeds of the body you will live.  I see this not as a “sin leads to Hell”, to eternal death rather than eternal life, kind of teaching; rather it is a “stupid things have stupid results”.  Which is not to say that sin does not lead to spiritual death (it does), but this verse says more than that.

It was a widely publicised phrase a while back that “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven”, and whilst I’m much more likely to preach from scripture than from bumper stickers the phrase holds a lot of truth.  We are not perfect, yet, and we are in the process of being perfected, still, and in the mean-time when we do stupid things we require grace and forgiveness.  That’s what I get out of today’s passages, that it is good to hunger for God and righteousness and to want to be “a better Christian” by being more like Christ and less like the world.  But when you fall short and do something stupid; or you engage in some self-reflection on the quality of your person as a seed or a bed of soil, and you are disappointed at how far you haven’t yet come, the solution is not to sulk but to seek grace.

I was talking with a friend recently, (in fact she and I were workshopping sermons a bit and I wrote the first two pages of today’s effort in her company) and we were discussing the difference between treatment and diagnosis.  Without a diagnosis it is hard to get the right treatment, but with a diagnosis the treatment options are opened up.  I have a Mental Illness for which I take an anti-depressant medication, and I practice a healthy lifestyle where I avoid excess alcohol and stressing situations, and I drink a lot of water and spend a lot of time in solitude and quietness.  There’s no point in my taking insulin injections, or blood thinning medication; a wheelchair is of no use to me, and I won’t benefit from thrice-weekly physiotherapy.  At the same time if all I had was a diagnosis but wasn’t engaging in therapy at all then what would be the point of that diagnosis?  It would just be a name, perhaps a label.

Again I ask you the questions, as a diagnosis.  What is the quality of your seed?  What is the quality of your soil?  Whose child are you?  What deeds of the flesh do you continue to practice?  None of this is a about judgementalism or for me to assert moral superiority; it’s about you being able to identify areas in your life that you need to work on (or maybe work towards) by the Spirit (Romans 8:13), the same Spirit who is bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God; and if children then heirs (Romans 8:16-17a).

Jesus spoke often of the Kingdom of God in his parables, knowing that the news was radical and provocative: it is this same Kingdom of which we are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17b).  The news of grace, and of God’s supportive empowering available to us (treatment) beyond God’s forgiveness of our sinful state (diagnosis), is equally radical, equally provocative.  In this knowledge I encourage you to take some time this week or next to search your spirit with the Spirit of God as company, diagnose and address with God the help you need, and then allow God to meet with your strength to work toward your salvation.


A Roman Road

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 12th July 2020.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Romans 8:1-11.

Something I’d never noticed struck me as I read the gospel this week in preparation for sharing thoughts about it with you: Jesus tells The Parable of the Soils from a boat. Now there’s no reason why Jesus can’t do that of course, after all I’m now retelling it from a desk and a laptop. If you’re attached to Serviceton Church you might be watching me via YouTube, preaching to an otherwise empty room except for that laptop. I dunno why that bothered me; maybe I always thought of the parables as being a bit more local, as if Jesus would just grab something nearby or point to something in the visible distance and say “see this, well the character of God is reflected in this ordinary thing/scene because…” and there would be your parable. So when Jesus climbs into a boat, which is outside his house, and then he starts talking about farming rather than fishing I wonder. I do.

Okay that was a random and maybe pointless diversion, but that story of “The Parable of the Laptop” might have hidden meaning. Don’t forget to be surprised by scripture: even if you’ve read the stories before and you know every doctrine, dogma and memory verse, there might just be something new for you this time. I don’t know why Jesus told a soil story when he was sitting in a boat at Capernaum, but I’m a little bit delighted to have finally noticed that he did.

So, in this very familiar parable which Jesus does tell, more familiar here since many of you listening or reading today are farmers or neighbours of farmers, Jesus speaks about four kinds of soil. This parable is often called “The Parable of the Sower” and fair enough, but for me the point is the soil; the seed is the same and the sower is the same, it’s the soil that matters in this story. Some hear but the message is lost before they actually get it, others hear but the implications of the message don’t take hold, others still hear the message and its implications but other messages crowd out the hearing so the message is garbled or forgotten, others still hear the message and put it into practice and the Word goes forth to God’s own praise and glory. True, you probably can’t tell that story with fish, so it does seem that Jesus knew what he was doing.

True also is that if you’ve heard this story eleventy hundred times before you might tune out when it’s read. Or perhaps you like the story part in Matthew 13:1-9, but you’re not so keen on the evil one or the necessity to name the hundredfold against the thirty in Matthew 13:18-23 where Jesus shuts down all other interpretations. “I already know what’s going on here,” you say, “why do we have to read this one again?” Or “why doesn’t Jesus just let his parable stand for itself, by interpreting his own story he’s just undermining the parabolic genre entirely?” Interesting questions, so which type of soil asks these sorts of questions? Maybe there’s something new in your complaint and boredom, the sign of a movement in your faith. Maybe you are right to question Jesus and there is more than one interpretation of a parable, and maybe the soil degrades between seasons and the point of retelling the story is re-addressing the condition of your heart.

And yet, as Paul writes in Romans 8:1, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If your once prime soil is lacking nutrients, or has become poisoned by the run-off from next door, the Parable of the Soils suggests that something can be done about that.

In all of his letters Paul is writing to Christians, and the promise of this verse for the Roman churches was for those who are in Christ Jesus. I understand this phrase to refer not to those who have answered an altar call and prayed “The Sinners’ Prayer” to walk “The Romans Road of Salvation” and who have learned “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but those who have heard the message of Jesus and who responded with joy (Matthew 13:20). At some point these people took notice of who Jesus was and trusted that he was who he said he was; they lived and moved and had their being within the world in the way that Jesus did. So, yes those who are in Christ Jesus are the ones who received salvation from sin; but it wasn’t about a rigid as a rote recitation of a written prayer of invitation or the memorisation and unwavering devotion to every word of the Nicene Creed, but a joy-filled response. In the parable these joyous recipients are the ones whose soil is rocky ground; perhaps a bit more rigidity might have kept the wavering Christian on the straight path. Or maybe dedication to rigidity threw the rocks up and hardened the fertile soil into lumps of clay. Moving from soil (our heart condition) to paths (the testimony of following), the Way of Christ is shown to be a better way than the way of rigidly legalised faith, just as much as the Way of Christ is better than a way of wordly compromise and spiritual shallowness. This is what Paul is saying and this is what I am saying. (So if you don’t like what I’ve just said, take it up with Paul.)

According to Paul in Romans 8:3 only Jesus can save: the Law can point out error but it cannot do anything to save a transgressor. In response to this revelation Paul invites us to emulate Christ in our lives: ultimately true discipleship is not about being careful around sin but about being carefree around Christ. Paul says this secure in the wisdom of experience that if you live for Christ then sin becomes an unlikely experience for you. The light of the Word (Psalm 119:105) is revealed in Jesus the Word made Flesh (John 1:1) and not in rigid adherence to the syntax and grammar of the scriptural texts. The New Revised Standard Version calls such a revelation for discipleship “Life in the Spirit” in its subheading for Romans 8; we can see this is true in two ways:

  1. In the spirit of the law we find the way in which the law was supposed to be read and applied.

  2. Life is supposed to be framed by the presence and up-taking of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit who is counsellor, advocate, friend, and empowering one.

    Do not let your obedience of the Law get in the way of your discipleship of Jesus Christ reads Romans 8:7. If your way of following Christ by obeying the commandments and practising the rites and rituals of the faith leads you to act or think in ways that Jesus did not or would not act or think, then it is your way which is wrong, not Jesus and not his method for discipleship. And if your way is not the way of Jesus what does that say about your way? This is not condemnation from Paul or from me: Paul desires that the Romans follow Jesus, not him, and I desire the same for you. Receive this invitation to reflect upon what your Christian life looks like, and deeply ask yourself whether your Christian life looks like the life of Jesus. I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Paul continues in Romans 8:9-10 and he reminds the Romans that no-one is bound by their narrow ideas of God but that all can be swept up by God into fellowship with Christ, by the Spirit. Those who have the Spirit belong to Christ, and because we have the Spirit we have life and not death. And if not death then not condemnation either, nor guilt, nor punishment, nor fear. We have a saviour who can deliver us from the consequences and shame of sin, not just a judge who points out our wrongdoing but is powerless to do anything more than point and frown, which is all the Law can do.

So walk with Christ in his Way; and let the one who is the Word of God, the light and lamp of God, guide your feet along the Way of God. To disciple to Christ is to choose the way God chose for him and to be fruitful and useful in that way. Provide a place for the seed to multiply, seek grace when the ground is poor, and live beside the Spirit who empowers you for service, and cossets you in love.


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.


Pentecost (Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Uniting Church gathered on Sunday 20th May 2017 at Yallourn North, Pentecost Day.

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Many of you will be aware I hope (because we didn’t read it this morning) of the story found in Ezekiel 37 where the prophet speaks at God’s command to a valley of desiccated bones.  In Ezekiel’s first-person account the hand of The LORD comes upon Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:1) and he is lead to the place of revelation.  This is not a story of resurrection, rather it is the story of the renewal of a whole nation by the Spirit of God.  Can God raise the dead: of course God can, there is no question of it and we saw that in Jesus.  Not only can God raise the Messiah but through Jesus we have seen God raise otherwise ordinary people such as the unnamed daughter of Jairus, the unnamed son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus the brother of Mary and Martha.  The question asked of Ezekiel is whether God can renew a devastated people, an entire nation cut down such that there is nothing left of it, left of them, but dried and dislocated bones on the one hand and shattered exiled slaves on the other.  The still alive ones have been taken far away, the only occupants of the land are the dead in the form of bones in disarray.  “What can God do here”, asks God, “God alone knows”, answers Ezekiel.  The story of the bones coming together and being re-fleshed is the first stage of the sign, and the lifeless corpses being inspired with breath and spirit and rising to their feet is the second stage.  It’s a great image of renewal because there is both reconnection and resuscitation going on; what has been lost is returned and restored, and the new thing goes on toward the future.  It’s as great an image for the Church as it was for the people of Israel: and that is the point made by all who preach on Ezekiel be they priest, pastor, professor, or rabbi.

But today there’s something more to be had, because today is Pentecost Day.  So, recalling all of the above, and mindful of the restorative and revitalising power of The Spirit of God consider this: God chose to act through a man’s voice.

In our key reading for Pentecost, Acts 2:1-21, we read the story of The Spirit’s intrusion into room full of believers expectant in the message and person of Jesus Christ.  The Spirit comes as and when the Spirit wants to come, and like the Risen One The Spirit has no need of a door. When The Spirit of Holiness comes, when the wind of purification blows through, when Ruach haQodesh fills the room, it is ordinary women and men who are empowered to speak the news of God’s revelation.  Ezekiel prophesied to bones and again to corpses, which is an allegory of God’s word coming to the exiled Judahites in far distant Mesopotamia.  Peter and the ten, and the other one hundred and nine, prophesy to the nations within Judaism; to Judeans for sure but also to Mesopotamians, and to Mediterranean Europeans and to Africans and to Arabians and to Asians with words of reconnection and renewal.  In the scriptural accounts the Spirit moves when men and women of God speak at God’s command.

In John 16:4b-15 we read of the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and of his promise that his going would prompt the coming of the Helper, capital-H.  The word paraclete in Greek also carries the meanings of Comforter, Counsellor, and Advocate; capital-C, capital-C, capital-A.  When such a one comes, one we rightly identify on Pentecost Day as God the Holy Spirit, the work of the Spirit will be to convict the world.  The Spirit comes with power, we saw that in Acts 2, and with miracles, (also Acts 2), but importantly for Jesus it seems, since this is the bit he specifically mentions, the Spirit comes with challenge.  The Spirit confronts the Church with a call to repentance; not just confession of guilt since our last sorrowful prayer, or our rites asking for forgiveness, but of completely reassessing our lives regarding our vocation.  The sin Jesus speaks of here is not random acts of human naughty, but of the unforgiveable sin, the decision to not believe Jesus who is The Word of God.  The righteousness Jesus speaks of here is not our random lack of human good behaviour, but of the broken relationship between each woman or man and the whole of Creation.  The judgement Jesus speaks of here is not an eternity in Hell from the point of human death for everyone other than baptised-by-full-immersion Evangelicals, but of God’s verdict regarding the entirety of Creation and what it has become since Adam.  Our Christian testimony by deed and word is all of the above, guided by the Holy Spirit, who alone speaks truth to us and to the world through us (John 16:13).  Therefore, we are not to be despondent that Jesus has died and ascended out of human sight (John 16:6), rather we rejoice that his Spirit is with us, empowering us in loving acts of worship of God and the service of Creation.

So that’s much more than a one-off event of preaching in Swahili and fire above our heads!  Pentecost, the coming and dwelling of the Spirit within and amongst us is a now and forever event, continuous present-tense.  The Spirit is with us and always will be, and one indication of this is our continual proclamation of the gospel of belief in Jesus and reconciliation with each other, and our continuous immersion in the blood-and-dust world, the world in-the-wrong respecting who Jesus is and who the Church is and what justice is, as ambassadors of loving grace.  More than Swahili in Jerusalem, the Spirit descending gifts us to speak the language of justice in Yallourn and compassion in Moe.

So, Swahili is optional, Strayan is preferable; and God’s character made word and flesh is mandated.

And then, in Romans 8:22-27, we read how we who have the first portion of the Spirit’s pouring out are aboard with the Spirit’s work of interceding for Creation to the Father who loves it.  The Father who loves “it”, it being both the Spirit who intercedes and the Creation who is loved by the Spirit as it cries out in labour pains.  We who are creatures, and therefore part of Creation, and bearers of the first portion of the Spirit and therefore part of what God is doing in love, are intermediaries of sorts.  We are that part of Creation which is in tune with the Spirit’s work, and we are the first portion of the world for God, even as we have the first portion of God in the world.  In Romans 8:25 we read that hope is only hope when the hoped-for thing remains unseen; if you see it it is not hope it is existence.  No, instead we have hope because we have seen and been the first portion of God’s acts of blessing in the world, our hope, our trust-fuelled desire is that more is coming.  And this more is not just more of the same, but a more which is taller and brighter and louder and more pungent than what we have received from God even now.  No wonder we are groaning with Creation, “bring it on LORD” is our desperate and ecstatic cry.

Such a cry of exaltation and exhortation takes us beyond words, beyond Strayan and Swahili words, beyond even the prayer languages of Shalom.  The Spirit is groaning like a woman in labour, like a man trying to shift a stubborn boulder or wheel-nut, like a child trying to convince dad of the need for this lolly or toy because dad is our only hope in a world where mum always and only says no.  Groan!  Desperate groan!  Wrenching groan! Nh-mn-ll-fr-st-rh!  Groan beyond words, where only consonants thrust through gritted teeth and bulging eyes can express it.  This is the desperation of the Spirit for the Kingdom of God to come on Earth as it is in Heaven.  This is the desperation of the Church for the Kingdom of God to come to Earth such that the God of the Kingdom will walk with us in Eden once more, an Eden to which are readmitted by the grace of God.  An Eden which is the restored Creation for which all of Creation is already groaning and moaning in grief and necessity and labour pains.

Pentecost is about the gift of God of the Spirit to the Church.  It is, and we cannot forget that it is.  But there is so much more to today than that our forebears and founders spoke in languages not their own and that 3000 people were won for Christ by a single sermon.  That’s an everyday occurrence in some parts of the world even today.  What should be an everyday occurrence in all parts of the world, especially today, is the gift of God of the Church to the world.  God gives the Church the Spirit, and therein gives the world the Church, a Church empowered and emboldened by the Spirit to make the world aware of who God is and what God desires.  Who God is is Saviour and Lord; what God desires is trust, reconciliation, and passion for renewal.

That is what Pentecost is about.  That is what God can do with a valley of dried bones and a Brown Coal Mine.


My Opia

This is the text of the message I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 30th July 2017.  Immediately following this service was the congregation’s Annual General Meeting

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-31.

In 2007 while I was still living in England I attended a rather well-known church.  This was not the rather well-known church I have spoken of previously, the famously musical one where I belonged between 2003-2009, no this is another church.  This church, the other church, was famous not for its music but for its mission-minded community groups.  Anyway, one evening at this church, following a particularly pointed message from the vicar, I ordered and then received by post a book written by him, and in that book, was a story.  Here’s my take on the gist of that story:

The parish church of St Osram’s in the rural village of Great St Osram had a weekly attendance of ten people, the youngest of whom was 72.  They were faithful people and they enjoyed each other’s company over tea after the service, and the rituals and rites of the Order of Common Worship during the service.  Anyway, there came a time when old St Osram’s, with its twelfth century bluestone nave and sixteenth century oak-board porch, needed some major repair.  Money was requested and then forthcoming from the diocese and from the pockets of the parish.  When all the tithes, gifts and offerings added to the cake-stall takings, grants and loans had attained a sufficient sum, St Osram’s was closed temporarily and the congregation moved across the road to the WI hall for worship.  (Now Women’s Institute is the UK version of CWA.)  Now, because the WI hall was a 1950s edifice and was brighter, warmer, and larger than old St Osram’s, the congregation decided to run a midweek playgroup and coffee morning for the village in addition to its Sunday worship.  This became very popular, and soon enough the mums and bubs who had been popping in on a Tuesday started coming to church on Sundays as well.  Then some dads came, and a few school aged-kids with their parents too.  And other people, younger adults without kids started coming.  The church grew marvellously, a Sunday school was set up, a Wednesday Bible Study was started by one of the young couples, and at the end of the six months that it took for St Osram’s to be renovated, the church had grown from ten people to thirty-five.

Are you with me so far?

So, when after the six months the church council met specifically to facilitate the move out of the WI hall and across to the renovated St Osram’s they were faced with a dilemma, weren’t they?  Can anyone suggest what it was?  Yes, that’s right.  How can we get the original ten of us back into St Osram’s on a Sunday without those twenty-five interlopers coming across too?

In Genesis, we continually read of God’s faithfulness to individual people, even when along the way their story speaks of episodes of disappointment.  Today’s reading from chapter 29 sees our friend Jacob safely arrived in Haran and living with Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah, his uncle.  The daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel, are his first cousins and the nieces of Rebekah: exactly the clanswomen the inheritor of the promise to Abraham needs to marry.  We heard this morning how Jacob worked seven years unpaid for Laban in lieu of a monetary bride price.  At the end of that time he was to receive his cousin Rachel, at which point he would be free to take her back to Canaan and inherit the land promised by God.  And so, after seven years and then the traditional tribal wedding, as Genesis 29:25 says [w]hen morning came, it was Leah!  Disappointment is an understatement in this story; the deceiver has been deceived and he has been sold the wrong girl in a transaction where there are no refunds or exchanges for faulty product.  All is good when Rachel arrives in Jacob’s tent a week later; at the end of the traditional (and no doubt rather cold in this instance) week of day-long parties and night-long honeymoon-style consummation.  In exchange for this second wife Jacob commits to another seven years of unpaid work to purchase Rachel from her father.  How this all appeared to Leah we are not told, and it’s not a question I wish to answer today as I have a different point to make.  But for those of you interested in Feminist readings of the scriptures this passage is a corker.

The Hebrew adjective used to describe Leah’s eyes in the original text might mean “delicate” more than “lovely” as the NRSV puts it.  Her eyes might therefore be weak.  So, was she doe-eyed and lovely, or was she short-sighted and squinty?  Whatever she’s selling, Jacob isn’t buying.  At the same time, I wonder how, after seven years of living close by the sisters Jacob doesn’t realise even in the dark which girl he is bedding.  Leah might not be the only squinty-eyed seer in this story.

The words of Psalm 128, somewhat ironically reflect the story of Leah.  It is she who is fruitful in the early days of this family, bearing four strong sons to Jacob while Rachel remains barren.  It is she, the eternally disappointingly squinty one, who bears the fruit of Jacob’s labour, not the best-desired Rachel.  Jacob was no doubt proud of his boys, those olive shoots around his table as 128:3 puts it, the evidence of the blessing bestowed on the one who fears the Lord.  But as Leonard Cohen might have said, “it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” from Leah’s perspective.

So, here’s my question: are we blind, as Jacob was, to the blessings that God has given us?

Psalm 128 is a blessing song in that it may well have been pronounced over pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem, in other words it’s another one of those festival songs we know about which make the Psalms in the one-teens and one-twenties.  Those who came to Jerusalem would be blessed by the priests in attendance as part of the ritual, before being sent home beneath the spoken favour of God.  What we read here as blessing is all that has been given in the early life of Jacob, but had he seen it?  Had he seen that the channel of God’s favour to him is Leah, or is he both besotted and blinded by Rachel such that God’s favour goes unseen?

That’s what my family would call a chin-grabbing question.  Here’s how it works, it’s congregation participation time.  Everyone grab your chin with one hand.  Then drop your eyebrows into a frown and say “hmm”.  Perhaps give a little nod as you do to indicate the profundity of the question.  “Hmm.”  Has Jacob overlooked the goodness coming into his life because it has come through a doorway he was not attentive towards, and because it has not come through the doorway he is watching?  Hmm.

So, let me ask you another one.  You don’t need to grab your chin for this one, I’ll do it for you.  So, what about us?  Hmm.  Where is God blessing us and funnelling blessing in to us that we have missed, or ignored, or despised?  Hmm.  Where has God answered our prayers in ways we do not like?  Hmm.  Where might God be wanting to prosper us, but we don’t want to know?  Hmm.

Surely, you’re not saying Damien that we don’t want God to bless us?  Huh?

Well, where might God want to be bountiful to us, with an overabundance, but we are happy with sufficiency or even survival rations?  Hmm?  Huh?

We might be afraid of an abundance of the Holy Spirit, as if the world might think us arrogant if we have too much spiritual authority?  Hmm?  Huh?

Are we afraid that if we have more than enough of God for ourselves it is a sign that God wants us to share God around?  Hmm?  Huh?

As we meet later this morning to discuss the past eighteen months of ministry at our AGM, will we find that God is equipping us for a journey we don’t want to take?  Hmm?  Huh?

Here’s another chin-grabbing question for you: why is there so much gifting in this congregation, but so little action, relatively speaking?  Is it possible that we don’t WANT to be so fully blessed by God?  Are we happy in our perceived insufficiency, confident that we are too old, or too few to make a difference?  Are we happy to be excused from the work of the Global Church for that reason: the demand is too great for us so we shrug with a resigned smile and a sigh while the younger, more numerous, more gifted Baptists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics transform Lakes Entrance?

Hmm?  Huh?

To return to Jacob and his sister-wives, are we too squinty-eyed?  Do we recognise the God who is wooing us, the empowering One?  Do we fail to perceive the future, looking short-sightedly only as far as we can see in our own strength?

I want to say immediately, that this church, Lakes Entrance Uniting Church, is not doing nothing.  Double negative which makes a positive, we are not doing nothing and we are doing something.  We are actively engaged in our community and in our world.

  • You have all read the reports from Interim Church Council and Elders concerning the pastoral and administrative work of local leaders and outside assistants.
  • You have all read about the work of Toddler Gym, Days for Girls, Friendship Circle, Combined Churches Emergency Food Reelief, and Op Shop in our town.
  • You have all read about the work of the Lord through Mala’bi Foundation in Indonesia which this congregation supports.

We are not lazy, nor are we slack.

But are we doing all we are called to do?  Is each of us doing what God has gifted us each to do?  Are there ministries undone, ministers untapped, or gifts unopened in this place?  If so, is that because we’d rather someone other than ourselves step up?  Is that because we’d rather anyone but the one with her hand in the air, does it?

  • Is your prayer “here I am Lord, send him.”
  • Is your prayer “I see her over there Lord, but can’t you send someone else…not me…just not her.”

I really don’t think anyone here is praying that way, or even thinking that way.  I hope that I am right in that.

In Romans 8:19 we read that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.  Did you get that, the world is waiting for the revelation of God which only the church can proclaim?  In Romans 8:21 we read the reason that the world is waiting for this revelation, and it is because by the knowledge of this revelation the world will be set free from bondage and will obtain the freedom of glory.

My question is what, if anything, are we withholding from the world?  We are doing much, but are we doing enough?  We cannot do everything, but can we do more?  Now, we can only do more if God calls us to do more, leads and guides us in doing more, and equips and blesses us as the more is being done.  This is obvious and true and I know you know this.  So, my challenge to us all, on this day of our AGM where we look forward into 2018 from what we have learned and done in 2016, is whether God is already calling and equipping us.

We are not a church like St Osram’s.  But are we the church God wants us to be today?

I do not believe that there is anything to be feared from “more of the same” where what we are doing is faithful to God and effective in the world.  Not one of our annual reports makes for desolate reading today, everything we are doing is hope-filled and forward looking.  But the rhetorical question I want you to take into today’s meeting if not into the remains of 2017’s calendar, and by rhetorical, I mean I’m asking it now so that you can think about it and respond to it in your own time, is what additional reports could we be reading at the next AGM?  What could we hear of next year if everyone sought God concerning his or her gift and then responded fully from his or her bounty of the Spirit’s help in our weakness as Romans 8:26 says?  Maybe nothing more, maybe we are at capacity now.  Maybe not.  This is something to think, pray, and do about.

The tribes of Levi and Judah, the ancestry of Jesus, both derive from Leah, not Rachel.   The only descendent of Rachel to be King over Israel was Saul the Benjaminite, and we know how that turned out. In that way, I pray that we will always be a church looking for God’s blessing wherever and through whomever God wishes to bestow it, not only our perceived favourite ways or families.  I pray that we will always be a church attentive to the cries of desperation from a hurting world, hungry for what we have in our bellies and our storehouses.  And I pray that we will always, always, always, be a church which makes space for the interlopers.


Underneath the lamplight

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 16th July 2017, the sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11.

This week our visit to Genesis jumps forward twenty years from last week’s reading.  Isaac is now sixty years old and he has been married to Rebekah since he was forty.  In all that time she has not been able to have children, and it appears that the promise made to Abraham and then furthered through Isaac is again under threat.  No son for Isaac means no nation for Abraham.  So Isaac prays for his wife in her barrenness just as his father had prayed for his mother.  (We’ll see the same is true in the next generation with Jacob’s best-loved wife Rachel: this is a common theme throughout Hebrew and Jewish history.)  Consequently Rebekah does become pregnant and her babies, twin boys, wrestle with each other in the womb.  Rebekah asks God about all the fighting inside her belly and God confirms that two great nations (Edom and Israel) are forming, struggling for supremacy.  God also confirms that as it was with Isaac and Ishmael, the younger son will be preeminent.  After they are born and mature into young men Esau (whose name means hairy) is his father’s son and Jacob (whose name means heel) is his mummy’s boy.

What we are presented with in these two men is two ways to live.  There brothers, twin brothers, are as different as men can be, let alone men born on the same day and from the same womb.  If you have been following With Love to the World in your personal Bible studies this week you’ll have read this passage on Tuesday and you would have been presented with the idea that what is going on here is very significant.  Not only is God choosing one son of Isaac over another, one grandson of Abraham to be the one who carries on that great promise made to Abraham to make a great nation of his decadents through Isaac, but God is favouring one way of life over another.  In contrast to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 God chooses the agrarian farmer rather than the nomadic hunter and tracker.  God has elected a settled way for men, and God has preferred men who are smooth-skinned, soft-handed and who work close to home.  God has de-selected the nomadic and ever wandering Neanderthal man who is rough and hairy, who eats only meat and other “red stuff”, and who doesn’t care what he has to give away to get some.

The question our readings ask of us is similar to the question asked of God.  Given two apparently equal options for moving forward, which option will you choose?  And pertinent to us alone, will your choice be the option that God chose?

The Psalmist finds in the Word of God a lamp for light in a time of severe (mental) affliction.  The section between Psalm 119:105-112 offers a plea that God would hear the praises offered by the afflicted one, and to teach her/him the ordinances of God’s chosen way.  “My life is in danger,” says the Psalmist, “but I will hold to God’s truth.  Others try to trip me up but I stay close to God so that I won’t fall, or I will be grabbed and saved if I do”.  The way of God is the way he/ she wants, and wants always, to be the way in which he/she walks.  The Psalmist finds joy, and we might unpack that as peace, rest, delight, hope, in God’s instructions to her/him.  The Psalmist listens to God and orients her- or himself to God’s ways.  The Word of God, like the creeds, is not a hammer to bash us into submission, but a light to illuminate the better way of life and to support those who walk it.  The Word of God brings freedom because in pointing out the dangers along the way the traveller can be confident that nothing will come as a surprising threat.  Remain listening and reflective as you walk, and you’ll be far less likely to walk astray.

In February I told you that I don’t like to use the headings which Bible translators have inserted into the text.  They can be misleading in that they are suggestive of only one, traditional interpretation of the passage to follow.  In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which I use to write my sermons, and you have in the rack in front of you, the heading for today’s passage from Romans 8 reads “Life in the Spirit”.  I’m not unhappy with that heading, because there is room for wriggle within it that perhaps the NRSV translators and the third-wave Charismatics may not have been aware of.  More of that in a sec.

The passage begins with the message that there is no condemnation. This is similar to the message of Psalm 119 but offers this message purely as support for the sake of freedom.  The peace of God towards you is your space to be free, and to move about on the way ahead.  (You are a hiker on a trail, not a tram on a rail.)  And like Psalm 119 there is a qualifier of this confidence, the promise is for those who are in Christ Jesus.  I understand this phrase to refer not to those who have answered an altar call and prayed “The Sinners’ Prayer”, who have walked “The Romans Road of Salvation” and who have learned “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but those who have taken notice of who Jesus said he was at face value, (i.e., that he was who he said he was) and who live and move within the world and its societies in the way that Jesus lived and moved.  Yes this is about your salvation from sin, yours and mine, but it’s not as rigid as a rote recitation of a written prayer of invitation or the memorisation and unwavering devotion to every word of the Nicene Creed might suggest.  The way of Christ is a better way than the way of rigid, legalised faith.  This is what Paul is saying; therefore this is what I am saying.  If you don’t like what I’ve just said, well take it up with Paul.  According to Paul only Jesus can save: the Law can point out error but it cannot do anything save a transgressor.  In response to this revelation, Paul counsels us to live so as to emulate Christ, not so as to avoid sin.  He says this secure in the knowledge that if you live for Christ then sin becomes an unlikely experience for you anyway.  The light of the Word which the Psalmist spoke of in 119:105 is revealed in Jesus, who is the Word made Flesh (John 1:1): not in rigid adherence to the syntax and grammar of the scriptural texts.  This is life in the spirit, as that heading in the NRSV suggests, and we can see it is so in two ways.

  1. It is life in the spirit of the law, “the vibe of the thing” it as the barrister says in “The Castle”. In the spirit of the law we find the way in which the law was supposed to be read and applied.
  2. It is life in the presence and up-taking of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit our counsellor, advocate, friend, and empowering one. Do not let your obedience of the Law get in the way of your discipleship of God, it says in Romans 8:7.  If your way of being a Christian, obeying the law and practicing the rites and rituals of the faith, leads you to act or think in ways that Jesus did not or would not act or think, then it is your way which is wrong, not the way of Jesus.

If your way is not the way of Jesus, then what does that say about your way?  This is not condemnation from Paul or from me:  Paul desires that the Romans follow Jesus, not him, and I desire the same for you; rather this question is an invitation to reflect upon what your Christian life looks like.  Does your Christian life look like the life of Jesus?  I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Paul goes on, in the light of this revelation, to remind his readers that they and we are not bound by our ideas of God, but that we have been swept up by God into fellowship with Christ, by the Spirit.  Those who have the Spirit belong to Christ, Paul says in Romans 8:10, and because we have the Spirit we have life and not death.  And if not death then not condemnation either, nor guilt, nor punishment, nor fear.  We have a saviour who can deliver us from the consequences and shame of sin, not just a judge who points out our wrongdoing but is powerless to do anything more than point and frown which is all the Law can do.

So walk in light.  Let the one who is the Word of God, the light and lamp of God, guide your feet along the Way of God.  Choose the way God chose, and be fruitful and useful in that way as you walk within and beside the Spirit who empowers you for service, and cossets you in love.