Wail

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 137

Well! In all of my years as a Christian in church I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on Lamentations. That’s not to say it’s never happened; more likely the message as it was didn’t connect with me or appeal to me, so I didn’t take much notice. I hope that today is not like that for you. On the other hand I have heard sermons on Psalm 137:1 with its famous disco riff By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion, popularised by Boney-M; less so on the notoriously misquoted Psalm 137:9 where God commands all Christians to bash out the brains of infants and rip the wings off newborn puppies. Yeah, that got your attention didn’t it!

And, like I did with Philemon last month, when I began my reading for this sermon I wondered why we need Lamentations in the Bible at all. I mean, isn’t there enough moaning and sighing going on in Psalms and all of the prophets, why Israel needs a specific book just to lament I don’t know. Well, I do know now, but I was wondering then. Like Philemon which in one way is about the specific message of reconciliation wherein it would be safe for Onesimus to return home, the big theme of the Jewish Bible is homecoming. You have messed up and you have been kicked out, but God is ready to welcome you home: be you Adam and Eve kicked out from Eden, or Saul kicked out from the kingship, or the entire nation of Judah kicked out from their land and into exile in Babylon. Exodus is about the journey home and Joshua and Judges is about how home is then made homely. Ezra-Nehemiah is a similar story. The stories of Kings explain why the exile happened, the messing up leading to the kicking out, and many prophets take up that story with the words of warning included. This is where Lamentations comes in, it is the sorrowful tale of the sorrowful people sorrowing: it is the explanation of why the people of Psalm 137 wept, and why God’s chosen nation had to remember Zion as a decimated past home rather than living in its glorious present. Sometimes it’s good to remember what was lost so that we appreciate it if we get it back: and even if we don’t get it back we are able to see with hindsight how faithful God has been to us, and we are prompted to worship.

In Lamentations 1:1 we read how the daughter of Zion mourns like a widow, how the much cherished princess is now a servant-girl. Her husband is not dead, rather he has left her and now he is threatening her with divorce, that’s why she’s a widow. All comfort is gone, everyone has betrayed her and abandoned her; the daughter of Zion is alone in her grief, except for her enemies who are abusing her we read in Lamentations 1:3. What a tale of woe for the one whom God has caused to suffer: by taking away all her strength and every means of rebuilding that strength the daughter of Zion has been utterly destroyed by God. The sobbing goes on for a bit, and we take it up again in Lamentations 3:19 where Zion is now characterised as a man, and he is speaking for himself rather than being described by a narrator as the daughter of Zion was. Zion speaks like Job here, bitterness is in his mouth and he is utterly desolate, but even in that there comes a spark of joy. Here, again, is the thought that even if God will not restore what we have lost that it was God who gave all the good things first, and God is faithful to God’s own character. God is worthy of worship, and beginning at Lamentations 3:22 that is what we hear and see. The song of Zion is returning to the mournfully abandoned man and he no longer feels betrayed.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases sings the son of Zion, perhaps with clenched fists and gritted teeth. “I will hope, I will hope,” he says, grasping at that small flicker of light, blowing on that one last bit of red in the coals and ashes of his incinerated life. Like Job he says “I am not cut off”: everyone and everything may be gone, every “thing” and every “one”, but not God. God is here because God is faithful, and not only faithful but steadfast, and not only steadfast but steadfast in love. I have hope, says the son of Zion, I have hope because God always brings the dawn and with the dawn God always brings my portion. Maybe the point has come in time where the son of Zion has confronted his exile, he’s taking account of his sins and recognises why he is in Babylon now and not in Zion. Not every disaster that befalls a believer in God is divine punishment, neither is distress always the plain consequences of sinful behaviour; however in this case it is the truth. God is faithful, and I am faithless: and because I am faithless I am here, in exile, and not in Jerusalem; and because God is faithful I am here, in exile, and not in Hell or otherwise dead. Where there is life there is hope; and even here, by the rivers of Babylon, I am living and I am alive, and God is present. Thanks be to God.

As someone who loves God fiercely, and who knows that he is loved by God with even greater ferocity, I like that the language of the Bible is bold. And as a man who has lived with illness and disability for all of his adult life, and much of that psychological and emotional, I like that the language is not only bold but dead-set blunt. Lamentations is honest in its grief, as is much of Job, and many of the psalms including Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion; and it’s no wonder when you consider what we have just heard. They didn’t just weep, they lamented like the darling daughter who is shut out in the cold not only by daddy but by her fiance. They grieved like the king who has lost everything and everyone, and all he has is cold ashes and boiling memories. That’s what’s going on for them, so when the Babylonians say “hey, gissa song then, how about one of those songs where you boast about how awesome your God is and how Zion is impregnable, bahahaha”, they are not laughing. No, they are seething. First they whinge, and rightly so, about how it’s all a taunt and that even if it wasn’t there is no mood for joy and celebration when you’re living in exile. Then they grieve when they think of the songs themselves, songs about the land God gave them and the land they filled with crops and children, a land that is now desolate and abandoned. No-one wants to be reminded of what was once glorious but is now a ruin, yet these are hymns of praise to God and isn’t God worthy of praise even if the people have sinned and the land has been wrecked? Yes, God is worthy, and in signing God’s praises the memory of what has been lost comes to the forefront. Look at Psalm 137:4 and Psalm 137:7 where the poet refuses to forget God but the memory of God is also the memory of defeat. God’s beautiful city was destroyed by bogan pagans, and as a royal priest and a holy citizen that triggers rage in the poet, which is why he wants everyone and everything associated with the Babylonians dead. Again this is raw, honest, blunt language: but because it is these things it is also worship. To pray like this is to trust God completely, to trust God with your emotions and your vulnerability, to have the greatest respect for God, the God who laid you low in Exile but who hears your righteous rage at what has become of Israel.

The commentaries that I read all said about Psalm 137:9 that it’s good to vent. God doesn’t really want you caving in the skulls of toddlers and God is not going to be doing that sort of thing on your behalf: no children were harmed in the making of this story. If you’re that upset then have a good yell and a good spit and get it out there; however there’s more to it than that, and the commentators say more. The point is not only that it’s good to be raw and honest with God, although it is, but that God is not violent like that. Remember that God is steadfast in love; love doesn’t kill children, even the children of enemies, even the children of the Babylonians who had killed Judahite children. Even exile and slavery are not good reasons to kill people, says God.

To kill children is to kill hope. We see this in the church today where we wonder about the next generation; we wonder whether there will even be a next generation. God who is steadfast in love and alongside us in presence is the source of hope, and the promise to Abram back in the day was not only the land of Canaan but also the millions of descendants who would occupy it. What if God engineered the return of Israel and Judah from exile, just as God had caused the exodus from Egypt in the first place, but the nations had no children and so the nations died out in the land. “That’s not who I am,” says God, God is not the sort of personality to cut off hope from anyone, even from Babylon: neither is God the sort who repays an eye for an eye. As Christians we know that God is faithful to all who place their hope and trust in God, you don’t have to have had a Jewish mother for God to love you as one of the chosen: it seems this love and invitation extends even to the Babylonians. Hope must not be killed, babies must be allowed to live, God is to be glorified even in the depressing place of mockery and isolation.

Our hope lives because our God lives: this is the message of Lamentations and of Psalm 137. That we live in a hole of human construction is not God’s fault, but it is God’s concern. God is concerned because God’s people are suffering, and God’s remedy is coming just as sure as it did last time, in Egypt.

Even in a time of lamentation, of anger and bitterness and shame, we can rejoice in the steadfast love of God.

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ

Advertisements

A Rite of Welcome

Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.
 
Know that you are welcome if this is your first time among us,
or your first time in a long time
or your first time since last week.
Know that you are welcome if you have been here since 8:59
or 9:29
or you’re not here yet but are on your way.
Know that you are welcome if you have arrived with peace,
or you have arrived with rush,
or you have not arrived at all.
Know that you are welcome if you have come alone,
or with friends,
or with family, including an untidy child.
Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.

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.

Mutual Love (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Kaniva Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 3rd September 2019.

Hebrews 13:1-8

Let mutual love continue says the writer in Hebrews 13:1. We don’t know for certain who the writer of this sermon was, although we can be pretty certain who it wasn’t: it wasn’t Jesus, or any of the apostles, and it wasn’t Paul. With that in mind I wonder whether we should care who it was, and what he or she said. “Who are you to tell us what to do, who are you to tell us how to live a Christian life?” we might ask. Christianity, indeed all life, is very different in 2019 to how it was in 65 AD; and in Australia to how it was in the Roman Empire; and for people born Christian than people born Hebrew. But I’d advise against getting too upset because if we do we might miss the point. The point is that this is good advice; “let mutual love continue” is a good thing to keep in mind.

The thing about mutual love, and this is especially so in how it related to Christians of Hebrew background, is that we are all in this together. At this point in church history much of the terror to come had not yet come. It’s been about thirty years since Stephen had been martyred and Saul of Tarsus had been locking people up; but then Paul had been converted and life had gone on without much backlash, save the occasional bullying episode. Nero hadn’t arrived on the Roman scene yet, and the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing when Hebrews was written: still, that bullying was going on, and especially so at the local level toward Jewish converts to Christianity. You can read about of that in the stories of Paul’s travels in Acts and his letters. And this is interesting, well, I think it is, because I think this is one of the reasons why Hebrews is relevant to Christians in Australia in 2019. We are not being persecuted like the Christians of later decades, look at what was happening ten years later across the empire and the condition that the Romans left Jerusalem in and you’ll know real pain. But no, for the original hearers of Hebrews the message is not about the struggle against flesh and blood and spiritual authorities, but about being kind to itinerant strangers at the door, and about staying in fellowship and encouraging one another for mutual support when the neighbours start throwing sideways glances and well-aimed fruit as you pass by.

This sermon also addresses the hardships of life away from bullying, specifically the things that all people find hard at times. Again this is as true for Christians today and here as if was for Christians then and there, and for people of all times and places who aren’t Christian for that matter. How do we help our friends who are in gaol, or who need advice from a trusted friend because they struggle in their relationships or with self-confidence, or they are becoming distracted by money and possessions, or with fear and overwhelming concerns? The same message applies, let mutual love continue: consider the suffering of others as if it were your own and offer the help you would desire in that person’s place.

The help that the writer of Hebrews wants us to offer to our troubled friends is twofold:

1. Compassionate inclusion. Show care in whatever way care is required – be that practical hospitality to the stranger or practical wisdom clothed in comfort to the friend, do something and do what needs to be done.

2. Share Christ. Encourage others with the promise that God is faithful and consistent, Jesus Christ s the same yesterday, today and forever, which we read in Hebrews 13:8 is a reminder not that the church needs to be sterile but that God can be utterly relied upon. That’s why we read in Hebrews 13:7 to remember your leaders…and imitate their faith. This is not because the Church demands honour for its clergy,  but because leaders as those who have gone before us in the faith, and who spoke the word of God to you know the story of God. When someone is doubting God, assure him or her that God is faithful and make that assurance by your own story. Say something like “I know this looks hard now, but when I was in a similar situation God pulled me though, and because Jesus is the same today as he was back then then I am sure that God will pull you through too.” The leader speaks encouragement drawn from experience, the wise person heeds that voice.

The book we call Hebrews is really a sermon. It’s not even a letter, it’s a sermon and as a sermon it is directed entirely at Christians. So let’s pay attention to this ancient sermon; let those of us who know Christ as Lord, God as Father, and each other as sister or brother look after each other as family. Let mutual love, love for one another, continue.

Amen.

Where There’s Smoke

This is the text of my ministry message for the September 2019 edition of The Vision, which is the quarterly newsletter of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry.

How many of you are purveyors of social media I don’t know, although I am aware that some of you are attached to Facebook and Twitter because you are connected with me on those platforms. You may then be aware via The News According to Twitface that several high profile Christians are declaring a loss of faith, or perhaps the realisation that there never was faith for them in the first place. Among the several is Marty Sampson, one time lead worshipper at Hillsong Church Sydney and lead singer with the band Hillsong United. A decade and a half ago Marty wrote the words: “I want to live, I want to love you more, I want to be used, Father, in all of the world, may your word be heard, and may it stay on my lips, to live what I speak, until your kingdom come”, (“Shine For You” © Hillsong Publishing, 2003). I remember this song fondly, and particularly this bridge as it has been my own prayer for some time, probably since 2004 when I was participating in Hillsong Church London. But for Marty all the shazam of Hillsong has not been enough, and he thinks (and says) that the issues within Christianity have put his faith on shaky ground. Marty has not renounced Christ, but he is expressing the raw honesty of a young man (he’s 40) struggling with a Bible which is self-contradicting, and a church which proclaims miracles as reality yet does not see them evident in worship contexts. His central soundbite is “no-one is talking about it”, suggesting that in his church experience the issues with Christianity are being ignored, or papered over.

Whether this is a legitimate critique of Hillsong Church or of Pentecostalism in general is not for me to say, but I do think it’s a fair point for Christianity in Australia. It is appropriate for us to look into our own church and not just point fingers at the happy-clappies (and jumpy-shouties). Is Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry prepared to engage with going deeper into Christian doctrine: do we acknowledge Marty’s concerns and see what he sees? How are we addressing the struggles of believing and trusting a 2000 year old message, a message that includes talking donkeys and massacred enemies as “facts”? How do we answer Marty’s question about a God of grace and love who sends the majority of humans to a fiery, eternal Hell simply because they haven’t said a certain prayer at some point during their earthly life? Or do we just concentrate our attention on singing “All I need is you Lord”, (“All I Need Is You” ©Capitol Christian Music Group, 2005), louder and louder in an effort to shout down the screaming crescendo of doubt until such time as we find we actually do need more from Jesus than a bunch of unquestionable doctrines?

Inside KSSM right now doubt is welcome. (I wanted to say “under my ministry” but I’m not the “above” type of minister; however if you need your senior pastor to say that then he just did, even in brackets.) I do not want anyone drifting away from Christ because of unanswered questions, unaddressed fears, or squashed doubts. Curly questions are welcome in our family: trite answers are not. I think it sad, and more than sad, that Marty heard no-one addressing these concerns in his Christian home, (especially since I lived in that same home for six years and I did hear such conversation), but it would be for me an absolute tragedy if someone looking back at KSSM in 2019 from years in our future were to say the same.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith: doubt is a necessary part of faith, and doubt addressed is what creates trust. Without doubt there is only certainty, and certainty is the condition where learning stops happening and smugness and self-reliance set in. I have no interest in participating in a congregation which is smug and self-reliant, and I will resist with every part of my being the development of such a congregation where I am in leadership. In view of that the invitation stands: talk to me, ask me, bring The Spanish Inquisition if you must (so long as they bring coffee with them…), but do not be afraid or ashamed of your doubt or your questions. As your pastor I am primarily the one who is responsible for your spiritual care and your spiritual health, I am here to teach you and to love you: I hope you feel safe enough in my care to talk to me first before you walk out the door and leave church and/or faith behind.

My front door is always open so that the church’s back door is kept closed. Please stay.

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.

New Life (WWHS)

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

Colossians 3:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.