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.

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By Faith

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 18th August 2019, the tenth Sunday in Pentecost.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, 29-12:2

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen: for it was by faith that our ancestors received approval. So we are told, in the phrasing of the New Revised Standard Version in Hebrews 11:1-2. This verse has been of great comfort and rousing sustenance for many, including me, but a nagging question has arisen for me in recent years, and especially in recent days: what exactly is faith? Specifically, what does this word mean in this case?

I have mentioned more times than I’d like to, and I’m name-dropping it here again, that the first of my four university degrees was in Sociolingustics. I mention this now, and all times previously, to tell you why it is that I am so nerdy about language. I’m a words-nerd, as well as a preaching-nerd, and I love the way that language works. In the way that some people get all sweaty about number patterns, or galaxies, or the intricate dance of sub-atomic particles I cannot get enough of how sounds and scribbles make meaning, and the different messages conveyed by the same words in different situations. So that’s me, and my personality, and my interest. So it’s not that I have a university degree in something the rest of you have never even heard of and that that is a reason for me to boast, no it’s an excuse for why I’m such a nerd about words. It’s an apology really; but probably less than full-hearted because here I am doing it again.

So, “faith”; what is this word and what does it mean in Hebrews 11 and in my-slash-our today?

Well, I have come to the conclusion that oftentimes when Biblical authors and editors write of faith the key outcome is always about trust or hope. Christian Faith (and Jewish Faith for that matter) is not about a list of doctrines or proofs for truth, faith is trust is the one who is inescapably more and who is therefore utterly dependable and trustworthy. This is why I like the way the New Revised Standard Version uses the phrase faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen because assurance and convictions are words about trust: whereas the more common (at least to my ears) phrasing that faith is the evidence of these things is more about proof of truth. So, maybe you are scientifically or mathematically minded and for you God is a puzzle to be solved or an equation to be…equated…whatever, and for you evidence is an important word. That’s fine, I’m not saying it isn’t. But for me, a sociolinguist (someone who looks at language as it is used in society) and a narratologist (someone who look at how stories are put together) God is a story to be read, and Christianity is an autobiography to be lived. I don’t look for evidence to prove a theory and make a law; I look for assurance and conviction to keep going toward the next chapter, it’s how I am.

I hope I haven’t lost you. Have I? No? Good. My point is that Christianity is a personal thing and God works with us, the us who we are not only as sinners in need of grace but women and men with unique personalities and distinct interests, and that because of that the words we use can have different implications depending upon where we have come from in life.

I believe truth. So there’s a statement for you, just in case you were wondering about all my talk of assurance rather than evidence. I have read where Jesus calls himself the Way, Truth, and Life, and I have assurance and conviction that Jesus is the Truth, and that if I follow Jesus and get close to him through discipleship then I will be where Truth is. So let me tell you something true, something I have found to be true by following Jesus for more than forty years.

The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are not saved by faith.

Wow, weren’t expecting that were you? Actually as the congregations where I preach regularly (or as readers of my blog, hello!!) you might well have been. No, here’s the tricky linguistic bit: we are saved by grace through faith.

The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are saved by grace.

This is actually the deepest truth of Judaism too, salvation by grace: Jews are saved simply because God chose Abraham (seemingly at random) and promised him the salvation of his descendants simply because God wanted to do it. Yes there were covenants and so forth, but the fact that Abram was offered a covenant out of nowhere, and no-one else in Sumer was offered such a covenant, is significant. The realisation of that promise came because of Abram’s response, and that story is summarised for us at Hebrews 11:8-12. The significance of that story today is that Abram knowing nothing about God, having no set doctrine or a Romans Road of Salvation set before him, chose to say “yes” and to trust the God who addressed him. Grace saved Abram, and he allowed himself to be saved by trusting the One who held out a hand to him.

So as for Abram and the heroes of Jewish History, so for us that salvation is entirely and solely through the free gift of God who is Father to us. Those of you hearing me this morning (or reading me later) and who are saved were not saved according to how well you acceded to doctrine, I mean how much of Christianity you believe to be true, or how complicit you are in the idea that faith is belief without evidence. No, salvation is by grace: and your part in it, the faith aspect, is that you trust that Jesus did it all on the cross and therefore there is nothing else you can do or say that will add to your salvation.

Salvation by grace means that no matter how else you try to save yourself you will fail: only the blood of Christ can save. Even if you are trying to save yourself through the work of belief and gathering evidence which demands a verdict in favour of The Gospel argument, that work in itself will not save you. God’s grace is not a trial to be won but a gift to be received, a gift which is all-sufficient and needs nothing else. Salvation by Christ’s blood needs no batteries, no patch, no 2.0, and neither does it need help from you or your creeds. As was read to us in Hebrews 11:13-16 there are options to return to safety and to stop trusting God, you may well have been there where it’s a bit “whoa God, slow down eh, this one’s too deep for me” and you are wondering whether God’s sat-nav is out when you’re slipping all over Kane Swamp Road all the while knowing that Yarrock Road is bitumen and would have got you there more safely. I think the point here is that God’s way is trustworthy, even if Subaru’s installation of Tom Tom and/or your own sense of direction and expediency is not. Jesus who is the Truth is also the Way after all. This is why assurance, in my thinking, is better than evidence.

But what about the legitimate place of evidence: I mean, just because I personally am a word-nerd it doesn’t make Science wrong. In other words, what’s the point of faith and creeds? Is there any point to these? Yes, the point of creeds and beliefs is discipleship; in other words how your salvation directs your life of gratitude and thanksgiving, and worship and service.

In Hebrews 11:29-12:2 we read a summary of a summary, how by faith (which is to say with complete trust in God’s goodness and ability) God’s people went from the condition of enslaved, landless Hebrews in Egypt to established Israelites in Israel with David of Judah as king. Look at the record of history and scripture, hear the traditions of the elders and scribes passed down in word and deed, remember how faithful God is and know, always know, that God is to be trusted. God is so good that God saved us by grace, and by God’s grace we live in confidence and trust that by God’s grace we will never be shamed or destroyed. It’s only when trust in God’s grace is misplaced and we try to save ourselves that things go pear-shaped: that is when we end up in a divided kingdom without an heir of David to reign over us, and then the whole twelve tribes end up landless and enslaved again, this time in Babylon, where Jeremiah waits for us with a wagging finger and a plaintive cry of “if only!!”

Trust-derived discipleship looks like many things for me, but here’s one as an example. I believe that I was created in the image of God, and I believe that because that’s what it says in Genesis 1:26. That belief won’t save me, Christ’s activity on the cross saved me, but the belief that I am God’s very own and that I was made by God in God’s own image for God’s own glory and delight directs how I live my life. As imago Dei I try to live as Christ would, if not entirely WWJD then at least following the character of the man revealed in the gospel accounts. And, perhaps more so, if I’m created imago Dei then so are you, and that belief which does not save me might save you because I’ll honour you as a child of God and a divine presence because of that. I’ll treat you as sacred, set apart by God to bear God’s image in the world; and I’ll treat you as precious and important, and I’ll tell you how special you are as imago Dei, the image of God, in case you’ve never been told that, or you once were told but now you’ve forgotten and you life looks more like Babylon than Jerusalem.

In Hebrews 12:1-2, which I remember was a memory verse for the Year Ten class at my Christian school in 1987 (but which I have forgotten enough that I can no longer recite it from memory), we are presented with a great image. The great cloud of witnesses has been compared to the end of the Olympic marathon where the final part of the race is a lap of the stadium. As you enter the stadium, having run forty one and a half kilometres to that point, you have five hundred and ninety five metres to go. That distance is one full lap of the stadium from the point where you entered, plus a home strait to the tape…or clock…whatever. Anyway the stadium is packed, and it is packed not with ticketed-spectators and corporate types in corporate boxes, no it is packed with those who have already finished the race. And they are going absolutely American on your behalf. Man, they are hollerin’, they are shootin’ in the air, they are whoopin’ and singin’ and chantin’ and dancin’, and U-S-A! they chant U-S-A! Now, of course, you’ve been trained by a sociolinguist so you hear what they are supposed to be chanting and not the confused babble that they are chanting…they’re saying U-S-A but what they mean is A-U-S. Regardless, it’s all for you…Oi oi oi!

Why this? Because it’s true. Those who trusted God finished the race, and the race did not finish them. They have run and they have won (because everyone who runs God’s race wins it when they finish) and they are so excited to be home that their joy bubbled out, spills all over the floor we heard last week, and they welcome you home with such abandon. This is our faith: our trust in God who alone is mighty to save, our hope in this God who is willing and capable to save, and our creeds and beliefs written down by those who went before us to cheer us on as they were cheered on so that everyone will finish.

You were saved by grace and you are constantly being saved by grace. You walk as the road goes through the wilderness, through pagan lands, through green fields and beside still waters, maybe you run through the valley of the shadow of death, (or maybe you tip-toe, just keep going forward), and on to the outskirts of the distant homeland (Hebrews 11:14), and through the shires and suburbs until you reach the place of completion where The Glorious One waits to crown you. Do you trust the One who runs with you? Run by grace, with trust.

Amen.

It’s All About The Good (Pentecost 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 21st July 2019.

In our story from the Hebrew Traditions today we come across a people bored with religion. This could be Australia in 2019 where much of the population just wants to set it aside all of those obligations of ritual to live the lives they want. “When will it be Monday,” they cry “when can we stop having to sit around (boring!) in our Sunday best and we can do what we want and play outside again?” Well obviously that’s not Australia in 2019; it was probably Australia in 1919 for most people but nowadays the shops are open, the parks are not patrolled by the fun police (who used to be actual police) and you can even buy a beer at the footy on Good Friday. But that’s not the case for Israel in the 700s BC, and their complaint goes even further: “why does God always have to be looking over our shoulder, when will God turn away so that we can fiddle the scales a bit and make a bit of extra in our margin?” So not just Sunday trading instead of church, but dodgy trading instead of honesty! But God remembered what the covenant stipulated (Amos 8:7) and God knows what should be expected of the chosen nation who are the light of God to the world, and God is not prepared to compromise the high standards of ambassadorship. God will remove the blessings due to the Chosen ones, those benefits that they have taken for granted (Amos 8:11-12) so that the people notice how bereft they are, the poverty of their own shame, and they will hunger for God again, but God will withhold divine favour from them just as they have withheld divine favour from the other nations of the world. This is utter devastation and the loss of all hope, the nation is beyond the point of salvation and it will be annihilated. There won’t even be prophecy any more in Israel; God has finished speaking to them.

As we saw last week, so this week, the Psalm connects with the theme and action of our reading from the prophets. Here the faithful one (this is a human voice, not God) speaks to the evil ones quizzing them on their evil. The people being accused are outright wicked, there is no pretence and there is no error here, the veil is blatant and is celebrated, boasted about. The retort comes in Psalm 52:5 where the faithful man says but God…, because God has seen and God will vindicate the true and hospitable manner of the chosen people. Evil will not win, injustice will not prevail, God will restore the world to the way it is supposed to be and God will tear away and remove completely anything or anyone that undermines the goodness of creation. And not only this but those who have stood firm for goodness will be delivered and will in their turn mock the downfall of the evil: Psalm 52:7 tells the whole story of why the destruction has come, and Psalm 52:8-9 tells the whole story of what should have happened in the first place. It cannot, surely, be made any clearer what God expects of us: take refuge in God, trust in God, and seek refuge nowhere else except in the steadfast and eternal love of God. Following that plea we see the response: if you depend on God so tightly and so completely then when God comes though, public worship will be thrust out of your spirit in a proclamation of thanksgiving and praise. God will destroy the self-reliant before they can destroy anyone else because of their wickedness, and God will rescue the faithful and deliver the ones whose trust and hope is in God, secure in God’s own knowledge that the faithful when delivered from the wicked will honour God with praise and obedience because The LORD is good.

Our reading from the Christian Traditions this week, just like our reading from the Hebrew Traditions, follows directly on from last week’s readings. Last week we read along with the Colossians as Paul praised them up and spoke back to them about the reputation he had heard that they were generous and hope-filled people, an exemplary church when it comes to displaying the likeness of God in action. Now Paul goes on to say more about the likeness of God, in that he describes Jesus for them. “I have heard that you have hope,” Paul tells the Colossians, “and that hope is centred in the redemptive, sin-destroying work of Jesus. Now let me tell you more about Jesus.” Jesus is the image of the invisible God says Paul in Colossians 1:15, he’s probably quoting a hymn that the Colossians already know and he’s about to explain what the lyrics mean. This is doctrine, it’s something to be learned and understood, but it’s also straightforward; there’s no philosophising or metaphors here but only direct information and that information is that what God is like is what we have seen Jesus to be like. We can’t see God, but we used to be able to see Jesus and we know what Jesus was like: well Christ is like what Jesus was like, and The Son is like The Father (I’m moving away from Paul’s wording here), so if you want to know the characteristics of God’s perspective remember Jesus.

It’s straightforward, there’s no metaphors here, but it’s not exactly simple to understand. Okay so God is like Jesus, patient and loving and compassionate and radically protective of the downtrodden against even the most scripturally literate religious leaders, but how does that actually work? How did Jesus get these characteristics? Well Paul goes on to tell his readers and hearers, and we can see for ourselves from Colossians 1:15b-20, that Jesus is special because Christ is an eternal partner with God in creation. Christ is the means of Creation (through him) the reason for Creation (for him) and the centre of Creation (in him all things hold together). In everything Christ is first, all of the fullness of God dwells in Christ, and through Christ all Creation is being reconciled with the Creator, including the Colossians who are creatures being drawn by Christ to reconciliation with God.

So that’s good stuff; again pretty straightforward in that there’s no metaphors, it’s all about what Christ is because he actually is those things. But it’s also rather heavy. All of that is what Jesus was? Jesus from Nazareth you mean, man with the beard and the nice smile, handy with a hammer and a water-filled wine bottle; all of that Christ stuff is him? Yes. And all of that crucifixion stuff, with pain and blood and a borrowed tomb, that’s Christ too? Yes, and more so than Christ too, that’s God in all of God’s Godness too. This is why Paul is so prescriptive, so picking up our story at Colossians 1:23, we read where Paul indicates that Christian salvation (salvation through unmitigated trust in Jesus the Christ) is effective only so far as your unmitigated trust never mitigating.

Go back to Psalm 52:7-9, the wicked are not destroyed because they are wicked, but because they are self-reliant in the places where they should have been God-reliant. The wickedness is a result of their self-reliance, not a cause, and the same is true of Christians. You can start good, beautiful in fact, but as soon as you begin to take God’s authority out of God’s hands and try to wield it yourself, even if only for yourself, you get broken. The brightest angel in Heaven, the most luminescent one named for light itself, was not immune to this sort of disaster: we all know what happened to Lucifer don’t we? And then as happened for Lucifer, and for the people of Amos 8 and Psalm 52, broken and deviated individual people began to break and hurt others, and lead them astray, and before long the whole world was in peril of destruction not because God was ready to smite the sinners but because the sinners were empowered and emboldened in their numbers by their own unmitigated sinfulness to break everything. God doesn’t smite sinners, they destroy each other; and they and we have done so in wave upon wave throughout history. No, God rescues sinners, and God does so in person through Christ: and yes I did say “does so” and not “did so”. Jesus died in the human past, but Christ continues to save, so he does, and so he shall continue to do until there are no sinners left. Ultimately there will be no sinners left; either every human life will individually have been redeemed and turned around by contact with the grace of God (so they’re not sinners anymore) or that life will have ultimately and completely destroyed itself in spite (and in flagrant denial) of contact with the grace of God. The choice for salvation is yours says Paul in Colossians 1:23, now that you have become aware of what God is like through awareness of who Jesus Christ is.

I said last week that I don’t think the destructive part of Amos’ message applies to us, and I specifically said that with reference to the Uniting Church. Of course I did not mean that God is going to annihilate the Churches of Christ and only the Churches of Christ, not at all; what I meant was that the Uniting Church uniquely in Australia, and especially in South Australia, seems to be in a self-destructive fit. That destructiveness is not the work of Holy Spirit, God is not tearing apart the Uniting Church and God is not tearing apart the holy catholic and apostolic Church beyond that. Rifts, schisms, breakings away, whatever they are called, are painful for God. Both the Uniting Church in Australia and its sister denominations in other parts of the world, and the Stone-Campbell Movement internationally, were established by Christians with hearts for unity and goodness, Godness, in the world. It is not in the nature of the Uniting Church with its Basis of Union, nor is it the nature of the sesquicentennial restoration movement which includes all believers in the slogan “No Creed but Christ”, to seek to divide the Body of Christ on any point of human thought, doctrine, theology, or opinion. Neither is it the work nor intention of God The Trinity, God The Community, and certainly not the unilateral activity of God The Holy Spirit to tear apart the community of God The Son.

So, how then is the Church being torn apart like it is, because no one can say that it isn’t? Well we’ve had the answer today haven’t we?  The Church is tearing itself apart because its people and its leaders have compromised their unmitigated trust in Jesus Christ. We, and I mean we rather than “they”, (this isn’t about a handful of suits and albs in Sydney or Adelaide), we are not listening to the prophets like Amos, like the Psalmist, like the Galilean. This isn’t about the orthodoxy of scriptural faithfulness, as if the Evangelicals are standing up for God and the Progressive are standing up against God, (and I dare you to say that to my face, or even in my hearing); neither is it about the orthopraxy of what actually would Jesus do, as if the Evangelicals are resisting the compassion of Christ and the Progressives are rejoicing in the compassion of Christ (and the same warning applies). And the thing is, it’s not just the Uniting Church in South Australia, or even nationally because it’s not just the Uniting Church…look at the kickback for and against Israel Folau just inside the Church. Think about the anguish expressed by some Christians when the Australian Christian Lobby took up the call to funds when gofundme.com shut it down. Whether you agree with Folau in his theology, and/or in his stance, (because it’s possible to stand with Bible truth without standing with the need to do it on Twitface), or whether you do not; and whether you respect “political correctness” or you think it’s “gone mad”, the conversation itself has got out of hand. The Church in its wings has moved outside grace, the people saved through trust in love and sent back into their neighbourhoods as agents of the King of the good Creation have become sidetracked, and the message is about to be lost.

We must not let that happen.

It may sound odd to hear the next sentence in the light of such passion, but there’s a reason for it. I am not going to take a stand and I am not going to call you to steadfastness. Not. There’s enough fighting in the world and in the Church, and in the church in the world and the world in the church, without KSSM publicly declaring a side.

The choice for salvation is yours says Paul in Colossians 1:23, now that you have become aware of what God is like through awareness of who Jesus Christ is. This is what we proclaim: not as a stand, not as a rampart, do not even attempt to assemble a barricade because that is not what God has called the Church to do in any era of Christian history. Popes yes, bishops and deacons far too often, local pastors all the bloody time, but never God. We are not taking a stand, but we are standing a stance: KSSM is the place where if you know you need God’s loving welcome you will find it.

This is not a house where we rush through Sunday to get to Monday and the more exciting life: we are not the Israel of Amos and we are not the Australia of the post-war years. We are a house of integrity, of respect, and ultimately of welcome. We are a house of truth and accountability to Christ and to the gospel. We are not a house of destruction but we are a true Bethel, a house of God.

Amen.

Rise in Power (Pentecost 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 14th July 2019, the fifth Sunday in Pentecost in Year C.

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14

The Word for this week has been a delight to peruse.  That sounds happy doesn’t it?  It’s a bit odd really though, because as you know I tend to write my services about three weeks or so ahead, and so even though I’d standing here in front of you today happy and hearty, if not a little dusty after a week at Family Camp with the Servi Church mob, when I actually wrote this I’d just spent a week feel less happy and hearty, and a lot more dusty fighting off my second bout of Man Flu for 2019.  I had missed an important church meeting in Ararat because I’d been a) too sick to want to get up at stupid o’clock and minus stupid degrees Celsius to drive there, b) too sick to be out in public where I might contagion all over other people and make them sick, and c) too sick to pay much attention to what was being said anyway.  I was even too sick to get a Flu jab.  So when I finally sat down on my first day out of bed before ten o’clock, “delighting in the text” wasn’t on the agenda so much as “get something down because you’re going to be at Camp and you’ll not have time to write then”.  It was also KSSM council that evening so not only did I have to get something written that day, I didn’t have all day to do it.  Praise God for great Bible passages and inspiring messages from the Word in all God’s forms.

In our reading from the Hebrew traditions we come across the prophet Amos.  Now when I say prophet that’s more about hindsight than highlight, because Amos was nobody special in his day, and even in the action of what we read this morning he’s still a bit of a nobody.  Anyway, in the course of his being a nobody Amos sees and hears God in the act of testing Israel: God is doing a prophetic thing wherein Israel is being compared to a well-built wall and God is checking the angles and edges with a plumb-line. Bad news for Israel, and for Amos who oversees the examination, God finds that the wall (and hence the nation) is askew and God declares that it shall all be knocked down.  The nation of Israel shall be utterly destroyed, its king shall be slain, and its people shall be exiled.  Israel is broken beyond repair, it cannot be repaired, it never will be repaired, and so God is going to knock it all over and start again.  Cheers for listening Amos, says God, now go and tell the Israelites.  Bad news for Amos eh?  Well yes it is, especially since the religious elites and the professional clergy don’t like all this defeatist language and they tell Amos to take his words of judgement and go pronounce them against some other nation; Judah for example.  He is to clear out of Bethel because Beit-El, literally the House of God is the royal worship space and the religious elites and the professional clergy don’t want the king to be upset.  Amos’ response is that even as a religious nobody God has called him to speak truth, mainly because the religious elites and the professional clergy don‘t listen for God, they refuse to hear and therefore they cannot speak God’s message, and that because of this the whole nation will fall.  So to put all of that into one dot point, God will speak to God’s own people, but if the professional listeners won’t listen then God will tell someone humble enough to listen yet bold enough to speak.  For me as a leader, even a leader with clogged ears and a blogged doze, I need to notice when I am no longer hearing God speak because it might mean God has stopped trying to get though my facade of priestliness and is speaking to one of you, or even one of them, instead.  Good to remember.

Inspiring eh?  Well it was for me in my week of weakness because it reminded me that God has not stopped speaking to the Church, even if God needs to speak through someone lower down the pyramid.

The Psalm we read this morning is a demand for justice, but it needs to be read carefully.  The first time I read it I missed it, I missed who it was who is actually doing the talking, I didn’t see the 66’s and 99’s where they are and I thought this was another one of those “how long must we wait O Lord” prayers.  You know the ones, c’mon Lord the wicked are getting richer, the faithful are getting poorer, and it’s your job to intervene.  Good stuff, worth praying, is usually relevant.  But not always, and not this time, no this time it’s Godself doing the “how long must I wait O people”, declaring that it’s about time the people of God started to punish sin and wickedness and to vindicate and liberate the innocent and the good of all classes and nations.  This passage is a covenant lawsuit, it’s a contractual claim by God as one party upon the elders and rulers of the Abrahamic tribes as the other party to hold up Israel’s side of the covenant.  “You know better, so why are you allowing this gut-rotting oppression and suppression by the wicked of the faithful to set in?” asks God.  Israel is supposed to be God’s example of a true nation, they’re meant to be just and peaceable and to display the nature and character of God in the world, but God has found them to be corrupt and violent, exploitative and cruel, and certainly no better than the other nations even if they aren’t actually worse.  God has set us apart to set an example for the world, the plumb-line was set against the Church at its inception so as to be a straight and true representation of God in the world and each of us agents of the Kingdom.  What has God seen of Christians in recent times?  Is the Church light and salt?  If not, why not, and what are we going to do about it?  And what would happen if we didn’t?  The connection between Amos 7 and Psalm 82 is the plumbline, not the outcome; I know that many within the wider Uniting Church in particular disagree with me on this, but I don’t think God is about to destroy us and exile us.  However I do think we have got wonky and shifty, and I believe we need God to call us back to order, to attention, to straightness and steadfastness, and we need to listen to those down in the ranks who are declaring the words of God because those at the top echelon are not listening.

Inspiring eh?  Well again yes, God is still speaking to the Church and God is calling us to account for our discipleship.  Our issue is not that we are failing to meet together or that we are not doing enough Bible Study, singing, tithing, or even evangelism, but that we are living in a dark and cold and cruel world and at the very least we are doing little to remedy it and at the very worst we look dark and cruel and cold ourselves.  God’s word to us is simple: love and be more loving in the way you go about it.  That’s a command I’m busting to follow.

Our story from the Christian tradition is the culmination of this push toward faithfulness as evidenced in the brightness of the light we shine.  In the opening thoughts of his letter Paul is thankful to God for the people of Colossae and especially the loving-kindness of the Colossian church (Colossians 1:4).  He speaks to them about their reputation particularly because he has never met them: Paul never went to Colossae, so he’s using his reputation as an apostle to presume to write to them, and he comments in opening on their reputation as a bit of an ice-breaker.  “Okay mob”, he says, “so we’ve never met each other, but we each know about the other and here’s what I know about you, your reputation is a good one and especially so in the areas of hospitality and hope.  I don’t know your actual names and I’ve never been to your town, let alone your church, but I do know this one fact about you, I know that not only have you heard the gospel you are now living it out.  Onya!  The gospel that is flowering all across Asia and Macedonia is flowering also in you: praise be to God and thanks be to Epaphras who told you about Jesus.  You listened, you learned, and now you are living and leading in life.  Onya!  And may the odds be ever in your favour, because trouble will come.”

The key characteristic of the Colossians seems to be their hope, that’s what Paul knuckles down on in his praise of them.  Not only do they love each other and not only are they diligent in the discipleship tasks of prayer and fellowship, they are keenly so as people with everlasting, abundant hope.  The Colossians seem to be to be John 10:10 people, people who are living abundantly because they know that they are loved by God, a God who will never abandon them and who is directing their present toward a glorious future.  This seems especially so, says Paul in Colossians 1:13-14, in the case of sins which might otherwise hold us back in life.  The Colossians alongside all Christians are forgiven people, freed to pursue God and the fullness of life in God because of Christ and their trust in Christ’s word and work.

So what are we to do?  How much of this are we to take to heart here, today, in Kaniva and Serviceton?  I think the answer is all of it, we are to take all of it to heart and we are to overlook none of it.  As I say I don’t think Amos’ prophecy to Israel applies to us directly, God is not about to exile us and slay our kings, but the prophetic symbol of the plumbline and the prophetic declaration of the wall being skewed is noteworthy.  We are not as tall or as square as we should be; the Church is off kilter and it has been for generations.  For all of the vitriol we see in the media, secular and religious, for all that generates vast amounts of heat and chafing but very little light, there are truths in the rumours.  The Church has let down families, let down children, let down Christians, let down the world, let down itself, let down God.  Not every priest in all of Christendom is a paedophile, much as it seems that Twitface seems to suggest it at times, but the gut-ripping truth is that many priests were and some still are.  Sinners are damned without Christ, no matter the nature of their sin, but all are received with grace and such an indescribable bounty of love if all they do is lift their eyes in longing to the one who saves through the cross; but Twitface only reads the first three words (sinners are damned) and the cross is pilloried.  Is this Twitface’s fault?  In the sense of its users, yes, there is a lot of intolerance in the world and the secularists are just as militant as the inquisitors and the crusaders were back in Christian past: but with the stories of the Inquisition and the Crusades, and without the story of the cross and the empty tomb, what do we expect?  Honestly and really, I’m not the black armband type and I don’t believe that the Church has brought upon itself everything it is reaping right now, but when even God holds a plumbline against us and we are found divergent, crooked, bent, and…you get the point…what hope does our light have?

Our only hope is that our light, like the light of Amos and the Colossians, is the light of God.  Shine brightly people of God, do not allow yourself to be extinguished because God demands our luminescence: but God is also our own love and hope, and so long as we shine with Christ then Christ will shine for us.

Amen.

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.

Pentecost Day

This is the text of the message I presented to KSSM on Sunday 9th June 2019, the Day of Pentecost.

Genesis 15:5-11, 17-18; Tobit 2:1-5; Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost.  Pentecost is one of those tricky days when a preacher could say so much that he ends up saying nothing at all.  More than once I have been in church on a Sunday when a lay person gets up to preach and he takes every opportunity to say everything he knows in that one sermon, such that three sermons were probably preached and none of them were particularly good.  I don’t say that as a slight on lay people, I’m a lay person myself and have been for over forty seven years.  No I’m speaking as someone who might easily have said so many things today, and who has had to discipline himself to keep it down to one sermon and one and a half hours.  So, if I don’t mention your pet Pentecost topic today that’s okay, come back next year.

The other thing about Pentecost, other than that there is so much to say about it, is that there is an obvious story.  Wind and fire, indeed tongues of wind and fire, and speech, and 3000 saved in one sermon.  A good preacher might just read Acts 2:1-21 and say “okay, youse all know how it goes, that’ll do” and end it there.  What a blessing it is for you that you don’t have a good preacher, you have a great preacher, so I’ll be here and you’ll be there for longer than five minutes…far longer than five minutes.

I am going to begin today by talking about Shavuot, the Jewish festival of weeks and the reason why so many people were gathered in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. The significance of Shavuot is laid out by God in Leviticus 23:15-21 and basically it is a harvest festival, which later in Jewish history became associated with the giving of law at Sinai.  Seven Sabbaths and then the day after the first blade of the harvest was celebrated at Pesach (Passover) the Jews celebrated a festival of new grain with a wave offering. Food was prepared at home and brought to the gathering, with ritual involvement from the priest before it is consumed, and no ordinary work is done. Shavuot is one of three regalim, pilgrimage festivals (alongside Pesach and Sukkoth), hence the crowds in Jerusalem on that day, although from the language the writer of Acts uses it is likely that many of the foreign Jews listed as present in Acts 2 probably lived in Jerusalem as expats.

In the Hebrew tradition known as Jubilees Shavuot is considered to be an eternal festival, it has always been celebrated in Heaven, and Noah was first to celebrate it on earth.  The events of Genesis 15 where God promises a natural heir for Abram and the land that Abram then occupied and much more would be for his descendents, and Genesis 17 where the same promise is repeated to the renamed Abraham occur in the same Jewish month.  And it’s also in Jubilees that we read the tradition that Moses received the Law on the fifteenth day of the third month.  The story of Exodus chapters 19-24, are summed up in Jubilees 1:4 where the presence of God looks like burning fire on the top of the mountain.  As Christians we look back to the fiery bush where God’s spirit had been on Moses, and the anniversary day of the fire circling Mt Sinai, where in Acts 2:4 Ruach haKodesh was on everyone in the room and the fires burned on (but did not consume) their heads.

Shavuot has been celebrated by Jewish people throughout history: it isn’t some random Bible demand that was later forgotten.  We read in Tobit 2:1 where Tobit, an exile celebrated the festival in his home in Nineveh and where with his son Tobias, Tobit shared the plenty of his table as an act of rejoicing.  There is a direct comparison between Tobit 2:2 and Deuteronomy 16:11.  We also read in Tobit 2:4-5 and this is echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 16:8, where love for people comes before the ritual requirements of the festival.  Tobit and Tobias go and rescue an abandoned corpse, (think about what you’ve been told about the Good Samaritan story and how the priest and Levite each avoided the dead man beside the road), and Paul delayed his departure from Ephesus until after Shavuot because an important task has been assigned to him by God.  Paul is a Pharisee and he makes the important rabbinical legal decision that it is more important to obey God’s direct instruction to stay and minister than it is for him to acknowledge the generic obligation to travel to Jerusalem for Pesach.  By making and then recording his decision Paul shows us that the festival was still happening in his day, and that he’d have gone, except that God specifically told him to stay where he was.

So, with the history of Shavuot in mind, and remembering that everything we read from Acts this morning occurs on the day of anniversary of all of that, let’s earwig in as Peter preaches Joel. The traditions of the rabbis and their commentaries on history and interpretation of scripture suggest that Galileans are ignorant: hence the comments in Acts 2:7.  Think of that also with the point made by Peter in Acts 2:18 that in the world to come (The Messianic Kingdom of God which is what Joel was prophesying), the Spirit will be poured out even on female slaves.  God has no favourites and there is no hierarchical list with the undeserving missing the cut: no, instead of that every person gets all that God offers.  And, get this, this news is proclaimed to every nation under Heaven, since all are present (metaphorically speaking), and not only does every nation hear the gospel, every nation hears the gospel in its own dialect.  Whether you say pater or whether you say abba everybody says “Father”: that’s the point.

Pentecost is a story of wind and fire, of what the Spirit brought and did.  God came close and the city was impacted, impacted by preaching and language yes, but that’s just the evidence.  The true impact was Presence and that is what the Church needs more than human activity.  The life-giving Breath of God, which blew across the shapeless void before Creation, is now present in sound and fire in a room filled with scared little weird guys.  And like Adam the spirit is breathed into the disciples of Jesus, who filled with life (just as the pile of dust was in making a man), come to life and declare the glory of God through testimony.  When Jesus said to Nicodemus you must be born again in John 3:5 he also speaks of the breath of God (ruach) breathing where it does, the wind is blowing where the wind blows. It is not we who breathe the Spirit but the Spirit who breathes us, as if we are bellows and God is the one pumping.  We breathe to live when it comes to air, but we live to breathe when it comes to Spirit, we live when we are being breathed, our purpose in God is to bellow the Spirit.

Pentecost is a new act of creation; not the act of another Creation, but another act of Creation in that the second one is like the first one, not a new one to replace the old.  Got that?  Pentecost is God again being God, because God is always God.  The point of telling the Adam and Nicodemus stories today is because we are not spiritually alive without the breath of God any more than we can be alive physically without continuously breathing air.  The activity of the Spirit’s breathing us is an eternal activity: God does it and God is always doing it.  This is why “you must be born again”, not because if you aren’t born again you’ll go to Hell, but because if you aren’t further born you won’t be further created: you won’t actually exist in spirit, only in body.  So, again, this is what it means to be born again: it does not and never did mean for Jesus that you convert to Christianity through some verbal formula beginning with “repeat after me, ‘Dear Lord Jesus…’”.  It does mean and always did mean for Jesus that you are regenerated by the filling of God, which comes through Baptism in the Spirit (complete immersion in fluid, in this case the fluid is wind and fire).  Again, it’s not about praying a “Sinner’s Prayer” on the way in, nor is it about “Speaking in Tongues” on the way out of some specific and mystical experience designated as “altar call”.  Of course it can happen in church, and the front of the hall is just as good as the back, my point is that that’s not the formula that Jesus told Nicodemus, so we don’t have to use that formula to be effective.  There is no matching formula for baptism in the Spirit like the one for baptism in water because it is God’s Spirit who does it, and God’s Spirit does what God’s Spirit does.

You all know that sometimes I like to speak about what the Bible doesn’t say, or what God doesn’t require: but why don’t I just focus on what God does say?  Fair question; but sometimes as pastor I need to speak on God’s behalf to correct error, I need to expose the lie, or the half-truth, so that the truth is made plain.  So here it is more plainly: the altar call style of conversion is effective, it works, God honours it, and if you were saved like that then you are saved.  But it’s not the only way.  To say that someone else’s conversion is not effective because it didn’t look like yours is not right.  In fact it’s wrong.  In fact it’s rude, and it may even be blasphemy, but we’ll stop at rude at this point.  The Bible says that the Spirit moves; so whether you believe in The Bible, or whether you believe in The Spirit, you must accept that ultimately God does whatever God does, and God cannot (and indeed will not) be predicted.  I don’t need to add “whether you believe in the Bible and the Spirit” because if you do believe in both then you already know that God is sovereign and resists all boxes.

One my commentators (Boice) observed that it wasn’t just fire that was seen on Pentecost Day, but tongues of fire.  Why tongues: because your tongue (along with your larynx) is the hardware for speech.  To speak is to exhale (breathe) and to use your tongue; and when there is a tongue of fire then the glory and witness of God is what you speak.  Fire is a specific symbol and sign of God’s presence in the Hebrew Traditions, think of the fire pot moving between the slain animals in Genesis 15:17 marking God’s activity (by God’s presence) in declaring a unilateral covenant with Abram.  Think of the pillar of fire ahead of the Hebrews in the wilderness, and then enveloping the sacred mountain where only Moses (and only by invitation) was allowed to approach the presence of God.

This is what I long for and what I desire for you: the presence of God is what Pentecost is about.  It’s not about whether you speak in tongues; it is about is whether God breathes you into life and breathes life into you, and whether your tongue speaks of God’s flame of warmth and light.  Are you close to God?  That’s the point of Pentecost.  Are you close enough to God that when God moves you are disturbed and made to move too?  That’s the point of Pentecost.  Are you moving toward and alongside The Father, (abba, pater, bapa, otosan, alab, vader, otec, dad) and looking forward to the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God where everyone lives secure and happy in God’s household?  That’s the point of Pentecost: so let’s do that.

Amen.

Wait (Easter 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 26th May 2019.

Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67:2; John 14:23-29

In our story from the Christian Traditions this morning we read how Paul heard God speak in the visionary voice of a man of Macedonia, leading Paul to change his direction and go there instead of elsewhere to proclaim the gospel.  Paul headed straight for the capital city, Philippi, by as direct a route as he could find:  Samothrace is a mountainous island and so a bit of a navigational landmark, and Neapolis is the coastal part and maybe the port town for Philippi.  So it looks like he’s in a hurry (and wouldn’t you be if God had called you with such a demonstration) and he has no interest in side-tracks or delays.  And once Paul and his crew get to Philippi they do nothing until Shabbat when they leave town and find a quiet place to pray, probably to ask something like “righto God, we’re, now what?”

So, Paul is not necessarily shunning the synagogue, there probably isn’t one in Philippi so he goes where the Jews go, which is beside the river, and it is there that the crew meets Lydia of Thyatira.  So, who is Lydia?  Well, she is Greek, (her name tells us that), and she’s from Thyatira in the district of Lydia which is later named as host town for one of the seven churches of Revelation.  We know therefore that Lydia is neither Jewish nor Judean, but we are told that she honours God as revealed within Judaism, and one of the Greek words used to describe her is used elsewhere in Acts to describe people who are “devout”, so we can join the dots there, maybe.  Anyway, Lydia receives the missionary’s baptism and she invites Paul’s group into her home.

This is a sort of Paul-version of the conversion of Cornelius under Peter’s  tutelage from Acts 10 which we foreshadowed a few weeks ago when we heard about Tabitha of Joppa.  Where Cornelius was on active duty at Caesarea, the Roman capital of Judea and where Pilate and his mates lived most of the time: Philippi is also a military town but is a veterans’ colony, so a soldier settler place.  Lydia is a trader who sells upmarket clothing, probably just the thing for Mrs Centurion in her husband’s retirement, so she’s a great social contact for Paul in Philippi.  But, but, even more important than her entre to “farshion” and society, the fact that Paul does take up her offer of hospitality demonstrates that he accepts her as a sister-in-Christ.  She’s a Christian, and many would say she’s the first European convert.

So that’s all pretty good then.  Lydia accepts Christ, Paul accepts Lydia, and the gospel and its missionaries have an opened door to European soil via a respectable city of good, middle class retirees with disposable income.  But none of that would have been the situation if Paul had hushed the Spirit and pushed into Roman Asia or Bithynia.  So I wonder, has God ever closed a door on you like that?  Has God closed several in a row like that?   Twice the Spirit resisted Paul’s attempts to change state, until God spoke to Paul in this vision and gave him the direction God wanted Paul to go.  Sometimes we hear no (and need to hear no) before we hear yes/go.  So, do you know how to “Praise God in the Hallway” as some would have it; can you walk forward until God opens an eventual door?  How far, or for how long, can you walk that dark corridor of locked doors until you tell God you’ve had enough and you decide to kick one in just to reach the sunlight?

The compositor suggests in Psalm 67:2 that one of the observable signs of God’s blessing is when God’s way is made known; in other words you know God loves you when God actively directs you.  This is good to remember, especially when all God seems to be saying to you is “no, not there,” or “no, not yet,” and it’s never “yes” or “here”.  Sometimes, from experience, I wonder what is worse; is it when God is always saying “no”, or is it when God isn’t saying anything at all?  Experience, again, prefers silence, because at least when God is silent you can sit down in good conscience and wait for instruction.  When God is saying “no” and you’re not even allowed to sit down, so you’re bobbing up and down like a child anticipating the paused soundtrack in a game musical chairs you look and feel like an idiot.  As a preacher I’m supposed to tell you that the clear voice of God is always preferable to the complete silence of God, as a Christian of some life experience I will tell you that that is not true.  But yes, the psalmist is right, if God is talking to you and showing an interest in your way then you know that God is interested in you for you, and that is good: it worked out well for Paul, and for Lydia because Paul was faithful.  It has and always did work out well for me too, but theological hindsight can be a bit arrogant too; waiting is hard, but it’s worth it.

In today’s story from the Jesus Traditions, drawn from John 14:23-29 and Jesus’ last meal with his mates we get to earwig in on Jesus saying much the same thing.  If you love me, he says, then you’ll do what I ask: not because I’m a diva but because I’m speaking the words The Father has given me, and God’s words are good stuff.  This is how Jesus reveals God to the Church and not to the world at large, so to this degree the message is hidden.  Jesus is speaking in this situation to his mates, the twelve around the table, and through the gospel as a book to the Church, the ones who love Jesus and only to them.  The world will not do as Jesus commands, they don’t love him and they don’t know him; so why should we expect them to obey someone they don’t know or love?  Who is God to tell them what to do, God is a stranger to them.  But God is not a stranger to us, just as God was not a stranger to Paul, or Lydia for that matter, and just as Jesus was not a stranger to any of the twelve.  Jesus is lord to us and friend, and how does Jesus know this, well just as the psalmist said, because we listen to the One who speaks to us and we do what God tell us.  And when we do that, and don’t do what God tells us not to do (or do what God has not told us to do), when we do what God tells us to do then God acts through our doing and great stuff, God stuff, gets done.

Well that sounds good doesn’t it?  Do what God tells you to do, because if you know you’re being directed by someone whose love for you is wider than the cross, then you are confident that won’t be told to do something dangerous or stupid.  And God will work in your doing, and great things happen like the coming of the gospel to the continent of Europe: glory to God, kudos to Paul.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of what God is doing in the world; does anyone here not want to be involved when God starts doing stuff in Kaniva and Serviceton?  When I’m calling for volunteers on God’s behalf is there anyone who’d rather keep his or her hand down?  Yeah, didn’t think so, so we’re all agreed: God, come and tell us what to do.

And what if God did, and God said…“wait, just sit.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not now.”

And what if God did, and God said…“not there.”

And what if God did, and God said…“no, not there either…or there.”

Last week we spoke a bit about places where it can be hard to be a Christian, but where the hardest of Christians live as a response.  Not the sooky flabby Christians of Australia, people like you and me who need to HTFU, harden the faith up; but proper Christians who deal with persecution and violence and may face a choice between Christ and murder, or denial and release.  Inspiring stuff, and I pray that you are continuing and contending in prayer.  It’s still Ramadan until sundown on 2nd June, and it will still be the twenty-first century in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East well after that.  That kind of horror does hold some fantasy about it, that God might call you not to Macedonia but to The Maldives, or Medina, or…someplace in North Korea that starts with “M”.  Martyrdom and heroism, what a calling!  But to be honest, all of us in this room will probably be called to stay if not in this room then at least in this district, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are absent.  And God will call you “not there, not yet, not now,” blah de blah.  What do we do with that?

Well, we do what Jesus commands via John 14:26, we wait for the Advocate and we lean on God.  Just because the instruction to go is not coming yet does not mean that Godself is absent: Holy Spirit is here, now just as much as Holy Spirit will be with us there, later.  You don’t have to wait for God without God, wait for God with God.  An interesting piece of Christian language is that we “wait on God”.  “On.” Think about that for a sec.  Do we wait on God as if God is a chair or a mat, or a playful Daddy lying on the floor with his toddler sitting on his chest?  Do we wait “on” God?  Meh, why not, that can work, can’t it?  Or do we wait on God as if God is a patron and we are wait staff, waitresses and waiters, maybe Baristas if we’re hip enough.  While God is sitting and waiting, and causing us to not go there and not go now, maybe we can serve God where we are.  Okay God is not in a cafe, but have some imagination in your prayer and worship, what would it look like in real life to “waiter on God”.

In two weeks’ time we will have reached the end of the Christian season of Easter, and the Feast of Pentecost will be upon us.  I’ll be in red, you’re welcomed to join in, and we’ll talk about fire and wind and power and spirit and language and it will be awesome.  But do we have to wait another fortnight for awesome?  Do we have to wait only another fortnight for awesome?  What if we wait a fortnight and the only awesome thing is my red shirt, and it’s an otherwise “Sunday in West Wimmera”.  These are not rhetorical questions, I do want you to answer them, but not now and not here.

Two weeks after Pentecost we enter the Christian season of Creationtide, and I’ll be in green until the Sunday before Lent.  That period in Christian thinking is about growth and newness, so yes there is some waiting involved but as all of you who are farmers know, or know someone who is a farmer know, if you just wait for growth and do nothing then nothing will grow.  I have asked the Shared Ministry council, so the Uniting Church elders and councillors and the Church of Christ deacons together, to ask God what God is saying to Kaniva and Serviceton, and what God is saying to the Shared Ministry church.  I invite you to join them, join us really because I’m on that council too.  Ask God, what do you want from us, and what do you want for us?  What do you want for our towns, Lord?

Maybe there’s another Paul somewhere who tonight will see a vision of a “Man of Wimmera” begging him to come.  Maybe there’s a man or woman in Wimmera who tonight will see a vision of a “Man from ‘someplace in North Korea starting with M’”, or “Melbourne”, or “Merretts South Road”.

Let’s be ready, whether we are Paul or Lydia in the coming story, let’s be ready.

Amen.