Lectionary Sermon for 12 July 2020 on Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Do you ever feel like yawning and quietly going into a dream about something else when one those best-known gospel parables reappears in Church for the umpteenth time. Today’s story is very likely to be very familiar, but today I want to issue a challenge. Instead of listening like bored children to familiar stories, I would like us ask ourselves if we dare consider of how today’s very familiar Gospel story might be seen as challenging us to push our boundaries as we embark on this coming week.

I want to use today’s parable as a spotlight on something that speaks to my conscience when it comes to calling myself a Christian. I’ll leave it to others to decide if it may also apply to them.

Perhaps you know the saying that Christianity is said to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Don’t forget Jesus’ message was so unpopular in his day because it challenged accepted thinking and common practice . His message was likely to have been at least as disturbing to the comfortable in his day as I suspect it would be now if we took it seriously in our modern world.

I was in still primary school the first time a visiting Anglican minister explained to our class what today’s story meant. He gave the standard explanation which I guess has been heard by all of us here many times since. He reckoned the seed represented the potential faith cast into the whole community by Jesus. Not everyone is ready for the message. Some refuse to allow the message to get hold – the seed for them falls on rock.

He said in effect some take a bit of notice- but don’t really nurture the message. Poor soil… Others not only welcome and accept the message – but allow the seed to germinate, to grow and become the living embodiment of the faith.

He really stressed what he considered the key part of the parable … When the seed comes you should offer it the right conditions to get it started…and who knows you might become a proper disciple.

But did you notice that these days something is now missing. Jesus was indeed entitled to use that story to his disciples because after-all they had seen him day after day offering his words of wisdom, his listening ear, together with acts of compassion and even healing to anybody he met. The disciples would have seen the entire range of responses to Jesus, so his parable would have meant something. But there are two things we miss if we think we should read this story in Church and hope as a result that all of us present ourselves as good soil and see our faith grow.

This morning Jesus is not physically present to scatter his faith potential. Surely then seed scattering can only be the task of his followers. And that is not just the minister. And nor can we get away with just telling the story. His first listeners to his story would have got the point. Jesus acted on his faith not just talked about it with words. He also showed by his actions his listening skills, his actions of hospitality, his ability to share food with anyone who is hungry- his offer to turn the other cheek to those who are his enemies. What is more Jesus certainly never implied his lived message would offer seeds of faith only to those who booked in for an hour on Sunday morning.

The parable of the sower and the seed implying that the message of Jesus should be shared with the symbols for those outside the faith – the bad soils – would not have gone down too well with some of his listeners. Why would Jesus waste his time with non followers of the faith – or worse. But notice he did. Jesus also gave his time to uneducated fishermen, Zealots (who were the ancient equivalent of terrorists), to prostitutes, Samaritans, to invading soldiers, tax collectors. His mission was to live the parable…he didn’t seem to prejudge who encountered his lived faith.

Again if Jesus is indeed the sower in the story, he is no longer present in the flesh! I wonder if we too will pick up the mantle….?
OK now let’s start again, remembering the sort of religion we approve of – and the sort of people we would like to see in our faith community. Knowing what we know of our own Church and community settings would, or does, our own faith community throw itself into spreading the seed of Jesus inspired actions including in areas where the results are likely to be ambiguous at best.

First a true life story…. At one service I remember ….One of the more vulnerable rough sleepers who was a frequent visitor to that Church and for whom the Church has offered much by way of practical assistance was a late arrival. Unfortunately the young man had some addiction problems and was clearly agitated in his seat as the service unfolded, and just as one part of the liturgy was moving to a dignified conclusion he suddenly stood up – cursed the minister very loudly and made a most dramatic exit, abusing those who attempted to calm him down. During the morning tea which followed, one of the congregation members asked why the Church was wasting time with “losers like that”.

Now that’s a very good question. So if we were the ones providing the answer to the man who asked his question on Sunday morning, do we agree that we in the Church should be concerned about “the losers, particularly those who don’t respond with appropriate thanks or approved changes in behaviour?

And for that matter would we be entirely honest if we were to reply that since we are quite comfortable with those who don’t share our background… um… including potential Covid-19 virus sufferers. In short do we think the message and actions that Jesus put at the centre of his ministry must be offered to all regardless of social position, health history, religion, or even personal history?

Perhaps one way to read the parable is to see ourselves as the ones entrusted with sowing the seed – or if you like – being those who are those called to take on the task of being Jesus to the community. But here is the catch. Jesus doesn’t just say concentrate on telling, or even better being the word only for those most likely to respond and implying all will be well. In fact Jesus is brutally frank. His story says that the seed is offered to all situations – stony soil as well as the soil rich with natural resources. Yet nowhere does he pretend that the seed will always be able to do its work.

History shows the not all the recipients of the seed will respond in an ideal way. More embarrassingly, I guess if we are listening to the retelling of the parable we must also be open to seeing ourselves collectively as less than ideal soils.
A more complete description of the seed comes in effect in another of Jesus’ talks…. The one we call the Sermon on the Mount.

Christian communities and Christian nations have typically long and chequered histories. There are very few nations who have always treated neighbours as themselves. Think of religiously motivated wars, or what about the history of slavery and all too often its passive acceptance down through the centuries. Even today child slavery, sex slavery and sweat shops continue to exploit the vulnerable and for the most part the mainstream Churches are somewhat lukewarm about their protests. Does that include us?

Then of course there is the message that Christians should forgive our enemies. Do you agree that this message has for the most part fallen on very stony ground when the so called Christian nations invest far more in military hardware than in paying for the repair of the towns they ( or those who have bought their military hardware) have blasted into oblivion – and for the most part our main allies including the self claimed Christian nation of the United States of America US, have made it abundantly clear that civilian refugees fleeing the bombing are unwelcome in the West

Certainly it is true that offering the hand of friendship will not always be accepted. Perhaps in part Jesus is merely underlining that unfortunate truth when he offers his parable. But remember nowhere does he imply that the one who does the sowing is entitled to only offer love to the one who is certain to reform and love in return. Those who work with Alcoholics and Drug addicts tell me that not all who enter the programmes for recovery will instantly reform – in fact in the real world, in situation after situation, the majority (including many who claim church membership) will continue to act against the words and acts of the offered gospel.

In one way the parable is mirrored by what happens every Saturday night at the emergency department of any major Public Hospital in the country. I know for some of the inner city hospitals Accident and Emergency can resemble a casualty clearing station from a battle field. The injured, the drunken party goers, the raving druggies just keep coming and yet, although the doctors and nurses are saving lives, patching up the wounded, offering comfort to the dying – and in short- being the Christian face of society, all too often their reward is not so much gratitude as it is likely to be a response of violence and abuse.

But think for a moment what the alternative would be if the assistance was only offered to the well behaved and politely grateful.

Certainly the traditional main point to the Parable of the sower and the seed is that the message – or if you like the lived gospel – can be offered to everyone regardless of how likely it is that they are worthy or ready for it. It is always been the case that not all will receive it.

The more interesting and often overlooked question is whether or not we can accept the implied challenge of accepting the role of the sower of the seed. If our current society is not living out the message perhaps someone here wants to step up in response to become the one – what was it Jesus said? Be “the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

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Lectionary Sermon for 5 July 2020 on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Are we Christ to the Different?
A few years back the English Methodist minister and writer, Colin Morris, was delivering a broadcast talk on BBC’s Thought for the Day on Radio four. Listen and reflect on one comment he made.

Our love for God is measured by how much we love those we love least in the world”.

In case you missed it Colin Morris didn’t say it would be measured by singing “How Great Thou Art” at a funeral or saying AMEN to a worship leader’s Prayers of Praise?

Here in New Zealand we have just come out of lock-down. Among our community were there those outliers in the community who we made recipients of our individual acts of love?

Ours would not be the first generation in history where people have displayed feelings of superiority when they involve themselves in conversations describing the shortcomings of those who have chosen different paths of enlightenment. It is an age old game where the followers of one faith or current version of faith pour scorn on the followers of another. I suspect it is a phenomenon which crosses land and sea and goes way back into prehistory.

Early in my teaching career together with my wife who served as a school secretary we spent a year volunteer teaching in the territory of Papua and New Guinea. Although I had had previously read that this country of 3 million people had more than 700 languages and many dialects, I was taken aback at the intertribal distrust. Inter tribal fights were common and historical grudges were nursed over many years so that pay-back could be exacted. While, to outsiders like my wife and me, the tribes had seemingly obvious similarities of belief and custom, minor differences appeared magnified to the point where discrimination was the rule rather than the exception.

It took some years to come to the embarrassing realization that that was not much different to age old tensions between ourselves and those of other nations, and which at times have spilled over into extremely nasty warfare. It might be good then to wonder to ourselves how much of the principles of Jesus and other religious leaders are internalized by those of us who claim to be followers.

I guess we all play social, economic and even religious games appropriate to our setting and to our generation. Given that we constantly adjust a set of choices about our appropriate customs and values for our lives, it is curious we should then expect for others to be acceptable to us they should really try to think and act like us. We act as if it is good that our government should favour those who reflect what we believe in trade and immigration.

Using rivalry between John the Baptist’s followers and his own as an example, Jesus portrays the silly consequences for adults as being the equivalent to children playing their version of adult customs for weddings and funerals, with the boys dancing like men at a Jewish wedding and sneering at the girls who are not dancing while the girls are wailing as they copy Jewish women mourning at a funeral. The girls in their turn sneer at the boys for not joining in their game. The needless quarrels about such matters Jesus identifies as similar to the irrelevant diversions from what really matters.

We don’t have to look too far before we can find modern equivalents. Think of the upset Muslim women cause with their traditional clothing for those who consider Western dress is the only appropriate custom, the distrust of orthodox Jews for their appearance, and for the difficulties the Sikhs’ experienced for wearing turbans in much of the West in the post 9-11 period.

Our assumption that our interactions are only with those like us moves far beyond church when it starts to affect socioeconomic outcomes. Most Christian nations don’t want to be burdened by the poverty-stricken and despite the pretence of following Jesus teaching, we actively block the arrival of refugees. NIMBY Not in my backyard. We all know about community protests when cheap housing or Temples for foreign faiths are suggested for our residential neighbourhoods. If we are honest with ourselves we might even secretly think this doesn’t fit the gospel we claim. Does it fit what Jesus taught?

Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about the contrasting styles of John the Baptist whose diet was Spartan in the extreme and on the other hand Jesus who was criticized for his feasting and drinking with inappropriate company. Jesus is discovered here acknowledging the criticism but saying “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”. In other words the style of ministry is not the key – the deeds done as a consequence of the ministry are their own justification.

In that sense both John and Jesus offered their own useful cautions. John refused to see himself joining wedding celebrations because, as he saw it, with unwise leadership, enough had become more than enough. His followers raised serious questions for the rulers of Jewish society. Jesus’ followers became open to new concepts of what it is to be a neighbour. That both John the Baptist and Jesus had something different to offer did not mean that one or the other needed to be rejected.

Here perhaps we should step back to reflect, not so much asking the common questions about whether those from a different religious or cultural setting should be required to adopt our customs, but rather the more pointed question. Do our deeds vindicate our religious and cultural choices, and the corollary, do our actions justify condemning those who are not acting as we act?

In one sense part of the answer is surprising. Jesus performed his deeds in a variety of settings because he believed he was meeting needs – not because he was being appreciated. In a modern context we too are just as likely to be rejected for doing what we know to be right. Peacemakers can be and are often rejected.

Those who challenge rampant capitalism are still distrusted. Those who challenge corruption are certainly following the lead of Jesus who cleared the Temple of those trying to profit from religion, but are unlikely to find favour with some of the rich and powerful.

In Jesus’ day followers of the Samaritan faith were the heretics of the day. His finding them to be worth bothering with was in keeping with his teaching, but no doubt deeply unpopular with self appointed keepers of the faith.

Notice that Jesus made these observations about those who did not learn from his deeds. As Matthew recorded it in the bit censored out of the lectionary: “20Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

As Jesus indicated on a number of occasions, it is not for us to judge, nor for that matter, to withhold doing what we know to be right because we believe it to be unappreciated. But this does not mean that in the end willful inappropriate actions and bad attitudes will not reap their own reward. We only have to look at the destruction and desolation wrought by nations on their own cities when their greed and belligerence leads to all out war.

For those of us who choose to follow Jesus, it seems that there are two requirements. First we have an obligation to adjust our attitudes so that our own actions and deeds reflect the teachings we claim to follow. Secondly we need to be looking, not so much at the play acting customs which have become an inevitable part of our culture and religion, as we need to focus on our relationships. Are there aspects to our game playing which act as a barrier?

In my bookcase there is a small book entitled “Stirrings” where a number of modern theologians and thinkers questioned the mismatch between traditional Church thinking and the sort of theology needed for modern society.

One of these, Donald Tytler, looked at potential obstacles built into typical Church liturgy. For example he reminded the reader of the cultic setting, only home to the initiated, whereby specialized buildings are consecrated – deliberately set apart from secular use. Some buildings he said contain abnormal furniture and in other settings, stylized antique clothing is worn. Tytler, says at times the liturgy in such places typically expresses ideas through images and concepts which are alienated from modern discoveries. A childish dependence on a great fixer of natural and historical events neither matches historical records nor scientific understanding let alone makes room for new cultural, economic or political developments. Finally Tytler questions liturgy which encourages a pattern of submission rather than acting as a call to relevant action.

Religious games which draw attention to exclusion e.g. only offering communion to those who play the identical game, may help the initiated with their sense of belonging but surely that same game does little for those whose sense of alienation can only be heightened in knowing that they do not belong.

Perhaps in the last analysis we might ask ourselves how closely our practice of religion offers something resembling Jesus’ promise when he said:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

This is a key passage in the gospels. Perhaps more than any other verse it reminds us that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship. Certainly there is mystery. Turning to Christ with heavy problems is often seen as more than just applied psychology because some who have been driven to despair by tragedy and overwhelming grief later attest to their feeling that in the midst of their despair they found their load to be lifted.

Modern burdens are diverse indeed. Some are burdened by poverty, yet depression is a condition which is surprisingly common across all socioeconomic groups. The burden of alienation takes many forms and how we arrange to help may reflect the nature of our community.

I don’t want to say my way of approaching Jesus is right for others but the question we really ought to face is a bit more direct. As a consequence of our chosen style of worship and mission, are those in need of compassion finding that compassion in us? Again the games we play show very clearly whether or not we are seen by others to be open to their approach.

If the Christ we follow could claim that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, then presumably it follows that as his representatives in his church we should be offering the same deal to those who come with their problems and burdens to ourselves.

If we have found relationship in faith, we can only hope that others will encounter this same relationship in us.

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Lectionary Sermon for 28 June 2020 on Matthew 10:37-42

Expressing Faith beyond the Buildings
Today the Gospel reading in the lectionary is short. If we take it seriously, it is also demanding.

The notion of acting as if Church buildings are the only place to encounter religion may be partly inevitable, but that perception misses out on a most important dimension of what Jesus was attempting to convey. If nothing more were required of us than we should care about those who care about us, attend Church on a Sunday and drink tea or coffee with our friends after the service, we risk missing what Jesus was on about. Further to think that easy version is enough to entitle us to portray ourselves as carrying the cross and assume we are a messenger in his name doesn’t really ring true.

Please do not hear me saying I have it right and many have it wrong. I freely admit although I try at least part of the time to be a Christian. If I am honest even at best I have to admit most of the time I act as if I have a desire to lead the peaceful untroubled life, and what is more, with a faith so leveled that I can bypass the difficult texts. To be honest I can’t help suspecting that sometimes I have made sacrifices for other dimensions of my life that I might not have made for my faith.

Unlike those early followers of Jesus, because we have never witnessed a crucifixion it is unlikely we would ever feel the full impact of what Jesus is reported to have said.

To understand what Matthew’s first audience might have made about Jesus introducing the phrase about carrying the cross we need to remember that when it was first written it would have had real bite. “….whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Perhaps we even need reminding that those first encountering these words would not necessarily have been thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion.

To understand why, we might remember the date of Matthew’s gospel is generally accepted to be shortly after the abortive rebellion in Jerusalem (66-70 AD). The contemporary historians of the time tell us crucifixion was part of the wholesale punishment of the Jews who were reckoned to have had 1.1 million killed during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans with a further 97,000 captured and enslaved.
As part of this punishment, at one stage something like approaching 500 per day were reportedly crucified as a warning to anyone else who might have been contemplating rebellion. Josephus states that as part of the punishment the Roman soldiers amused themselves trying to dream up new ways of crucifying their victims in different positions. I suspect this phrase about picking up your cross and following might even have caused an intake of breath to a people who had recently witnessed such acts and for whom crucifixion was a grim and very real possibility.

That setting of Roman punishment and forced exile guaranteed the early Christians turbulent times and a most uncertain reception when they took Christ’s message to the roads. With terrified refugees fleeing a devastated Jerusalem, offering a Christian alternative to take attention away from the now weakened but familiar and supportive Jewish community would not have seemed a viable option and as a consequence, the apostles would have been met with suspicion and at times downright opposition from the Jews.

For non Jews trying to keep a low profile in the presence of the angry and suspicious Romans and for those anxious to avoid being seen as potential rebels, there would have been antagonism offered to anyone even hinting that the new faith being promoted was talking of Jesus being a possible Son of God, a title then currently reserved for the Roman emperor. Small wonder then that Matthew chose to record how Jesus had once asked for practical support for what he called the “little ones” which was shorthand for the new and understandably nervous apostles.

Certainly as far as we are concerned today, crucifixion (or whatever its modern equivalent would be), is now virtually unknown. We live in very different times and the challenges of the faith must change. This does not mean there is no hard edge to encounter for those who carry the gospel. Perhaps such problems need stressing. As with this reading this morning, we don’t normally find Jesus putting the priority on attendance at worship. Because he didn’t we should be even more cautious before casually likening our journey with Christ to carrying the cross.

On the other hand we should remember the ethical imperatives of how to treat the stranger, how to deal with enemies, (think here of the terrorist who shot up two Muslim places of worship in Christchurch), don’t forget so much of what Jesus said is just plain hard. The tricky thing for most of us – namely how to act as a servant and how to discover Christ in the form of those who are normally rejected by society may well all be helpful to the wellbeing of society, but wouldn’t necessarily make us popular in Papakura.

For example those who follow the sermon on the Mount and insist welfare spending be increased until poverty is no longer a serious problem, or insist more of our tax dollars be spent in third world countries, aren’t going to be supported by those in our community. Don’t forget those who are advocating pacifism are much closer to the teachings of Jesus than those dropping the bombs on cities in the Middle East. Pacifists are no more popular than those who insist on welcoming those who come as refugee immigrants from places that do not share our culture and religion. Those who protest the wholesale destruction of tropical forests and get in the way of Western industrialists already know that not everything that Jesus taught is likely to have the support of the community.

Like it or not, giving attention to the poor, is at the heart of much of Jesus’ teaching, but for those these days who insist that local and national government move priorities in line with the Gospel imperatives soon start to encounter resistance …. as those advocating such moves have always done.

Notice too, Jesus is not asking his disciples, (is that us?….) to simply stay on home territory mouthing the right words to those who are already friends, or even that we should only welcome those who come in his name with the customary platitudes. If there is a message worth sharing, Jesus’ thinking was apparently that we shouldn’t wait until the intended recipient of the message comes to us – we should go to that person. And what is more he seemed to be asking for practical hospitality of the sort anyone might offer, even as simple as offering a glass of water, rather than going through the charade of some religious dogma, when we welcome those who come in his name.

In today’s passage from Matthew we get a glimpse of a world now virtually unknown. This was an age where letters were often used as a means of communication, but there was no postal system. If the author of the letter was unable to personally deliver the message, an envoy would be appointed, and welcoming the proxy was considered the equivalent of welcoming the author of the letter.

The “sent ones” tradition was part of many cultures of the time and the Jews used the term shaliach to refer to such an envoy or “sent one”.

Similarly the word “Apostle” also meant “sent one” and the intention for the early Church was to have many who were prepared to take on such a task. Because of the natural tendency for those receiving the messenger to see the apostle as a proxy for the author of the message, there was of course a danger that the status of the Son of God would be associated with the one who comes in the Son’s place. Think for a moment about those religious leaders who throughout history claimed personal power – and even some of the more self-centred religious teachers today who seek personal wealth and demand something close to worship from their followers.

I guess Jesus was pre-empting this danger when he reminded his followers of the essential need to remember the cross that was to be carried.

For those of us caught up in Church leadership, we might check our own actions to see if we are still true to the intentions we brought as new Christians to our faith. Remember these days we go out into a very different world than the first disciples.
Clearly there are some through the ages who have forgotten this reminder. Those anxious to preserve their mystique as important people in a hierarchical Church have clearly missed Jesus’ teaching about servant-hood and we would be wise to remember that we ourselves risk a similar mistake each time we use the Church to reinforce our personal status. Can you think of any Churches where clergy enjoy special status?

I suggested at the outset this was a demanding reading. In reality, with the best will in the world we cannot be certain in advance that when the chips are down we will be found amongst those who put Jesus’ teaching ahead of our personal relationships and inclinations. Nor can we know how welcoming we will be to those who challenge our consciences. What is more likely is that when we encounter those whose lives already reflect these principles we are likely to find an integrity there that can inspire us in our own personal journey.

Because for most of us the serious challenges are uncommon we may still be unaware of how we will react when we too are asked to do the modern equivalent of carrying a cross.

If we need a reminder that Christianity is no protection against some grim realities think of the current Pandemic. I happen to agree with the Pope wanting to pray for an end to the Coronavirus but even with the best of prayers I still hope to read one day soon about a new vaccine that does the trick. Signing up for the faith is not a Talisman against future horrors in life.

Even in my own Christian congregation there are many families who have lost loved ones to the ravages of cancer. Perhaps it is human to look for compromises and comforts, but with the memory of some of those we now miss together with the words of today’s text, at the very least, we should listen to what it says and ask the question of ourselves, to wonder if there might not be something there that might help shape our lives while we still can?

A wise man once said “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” (Perhaps today, thinking of the Americas Cup he would have said foils)

If we take the gospel seriously we have no way of predicting the difficulties ahead. Perhaps like those invited by Jesus to welcome the Apostles our task will be limited by circumstances and opportunity to supporting those who carry the hard edge of the gospel. Whatever is our lot, all we can do is – have the determination to hold to the course, and trust that in some, perhaps mysterious way, that good might be served, if not for ourselves, then for others.

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Lectionary Sermon for June 21, 2020, on Matthew 10:24-39

The Fine Print in the Gospel
Even if our faith encourages us to shut out the sounds and sights of the world for an hour on Sunday morning, it would be hard to pretend that hour makes all well with the world. Even the words of Jesus in today’s gospel remind us that following Jesus is no guarantee of Peace. Think of the traditional artist’s image of Gentle Jesus meek and mild. Now listen to some of the words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”

The contrast with Jesus’ alternate words from the Sermon on the Mount about peacemakers being blessed from may cause a puzzle until we remember that peacemakers are often unacceptable to those who wield power. The current world wide protests…for example “Black Lives Matter” may identify key community problems in the US and similar mixed race communities, but the protesters clearly stir up resentment in some quarters.

I concede that not every city has a visible black sector but we don’t have to dig too deep in many nations to find similar examples of races or religious intolerance where we can find very clear examples of discrimination, unfair distribution of resources and unequal access to health, education and financial security. Holding a placard might be a start but don’t forget anyone who stands up for the disadvantaged will not be treated kindly by those benefitting from the disparity.

The reality is that there have probably always been real life consequences to standing up for the Gospel message, and remembering that today’s Gospel appeared some years after Jesus had already faced crucifixion, this particular teaching passage would have had real meaning for the early converts. They would have already begun to experience the rejection. What is more, for us too, it is also a timely reminder of how modern prophets and how those who speak up to be the public conscience are still likely to be rejected.

Those early Christians converts deserve sympathy. They would have had to face their families with the unwelcome news that they were now in effect turning their backs on the practice of traditional faith, challenging the teaching of powerful religious authorities, and perhaps, even inadvertently making some in the community feel guilty. In so doing the early converts were not exactly setting themselves up for a good reception.

In those first years of the Christian Church, contemporary histories tell of new converts being ostracized, many cast out from family and community, leaders of the new faith being maligned, reputations destroyed and some converts beaten or even killed.

Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Did you notice he wasn’t asking his followers to wield the sword.

Relatives will turn against relatives, and friends against friends. Notice this is not so much a declaration of Jesus’ mission, but rather a statement about what will (and did) happen for those who join him –in other words, the backlash.

In the decades following Jesus’ death, as the Christian faith spread, families and communities became divided – sometimes violently. We have local histories, both from Biblical and non-Biblical sources, as to what happened when one member of a family, or one family of a community, became followers of Christ when their principles interfered with tradition. For their changed views and actions, Christians were ostracized, abandoned, rejected and even killed by their communities.

All too often, those outraged were family members and former friends – people who had made the decision that the norms of the culture were so important to protect that even close family members would be rejected if they dare questioned traditional views with what the Christians thought was essential gospel teaching.

Given that it is not a phenomenon confined to ancient history, from time to time there is a need for some self-reflection. How do we ourselves react when someone close to us advocates tolerance or forgiveness for someone our cultural traditions would normally reject? Could it be that we ourselves join in the rejection of our modern day prophets.

Since in other places and at other times Jesus taught the principles of forgiveness and peace-making we may well be initially surprised to find him saying “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In this instance we might also note that the word being translated as “peace”, here means creating “order or harmony or acceptance in worldly ways”.
On occasion this particular text about bringing a sword instead of peace has been lifted out of context and used as an excuse for taking up arms against those who rejected Christ.

Although much is made of the early Christians who were martyrs to the faith, it is sometimes (and perhaps conveniently?) forgotten that when Christianity was later adopted as the preferred faith of the Roman Empire with the Emperor’s support, some Church officials interpreted this as compulsory conversion and those reluctant to convert themselves became martyrs. From time to time over the centuries leaders of a variety of State Churches mined such texts to excuse wholesale genocide and also proscribe torture or execution for those daring to set up variations of local mainstream faith.

Even today many can find plenty of excuse for rejection of immigrants on the basis of faith differences . Taking arms against those who are traditional opponents of Christianity is an easy ask. In practice many modern military incursions, no matter how they are presented, turn out to be hopelessly compromised since target states usually coincidentally have strategic or frankly commercial attractions.

Selling such invasions to a nation’s public sometimes focuses on bad behaviour of self- appointed guardians of rival faiths. For example instances of suicide bombers and those who choose to use Sharia law selectively eg honour killings, make it extraordinarily easy for us to demonize our Muslim opponents, yet all too often in practice it is those who have oil or gas or other natural resources who turn out to be disproportionately targeted.

The association between previous foreign incursions by our side and the subsequent suicide bombing from our victims is rarely remembered and the notion that somehow the practice of our religion is better than that of our rivals, overlooks inconvenient texts which we prefer to overlook . Contrast Jesus’ teaching with what our history shows our people did. Jesus specifically asked us to treat enemies as neighbours and he directed his followers not to store up treasures on Earth. Surely this doesn’t somehow match the past unequal oil and mineral grab visited on defeated opponents.

I would like to suggest that being true to the teachings of Christ does not include lifting texts out of context. It is not hard to discover why Christ who said blessed are the peacemakers is the same Christ who says “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”.

Telling the unvarnished truth is not a recipe for a quiet life. Imagine for a moment the reaction if we were holding our politicians to account and insisting that our allies’ attacks on ISIS in the Middle East should only be carried out on our behalf, if those on our side doing the bombing take full responsibility for the civilian casualties and were prepared to take full care of the refugees and fund the rebuild of the destroyed cities and towns.

If we think for a moment about divisive issues of recent times, we can see why the message of Jesus will not always bring peace even locally. The role of peacemaker may be good for society as a whole but when the message is taken to those engaged in activities which encourage violence they are unlikely to react well to anyone attempting to change their behaviour. Think for a moment about the police officer who steps into a domestic violence situation to protect a victim. All too often in practice it is common for both the aggressor AND the victim to turn on the police officer.

Peacekeeping forces in a mediating role in a civil war situation are often themselves subject to aggression, and I would have to say from my own observation that the same applies even as far as those attempting peace-making in local Church and family situations.

Perhaps the warning words (always assuming they have been accurately reported) namely that Jesus does not come to bring peace but a sword, may have been intended as metaphor. Yet since we know Jesus’ teaching enraged the self appointed guardians of culture and religion in his own time, those of us less confident that we are following through his directives, have no right to expect more peace than Jesus was offered when we show what his message might mean when interpreted for our own communities.

In this country we saw evidence that this antagonism is close to the surface and when a relatively small number of pacifists tried to challenge this nation’s involvement in both the First and Second World Wars they faced severe backlash at the hands of an angry administration.

In no way does this mean that we should shut our eyes to some future Hitler – but nor should we behave with self interest if there is a moral issue at stake. For example the Holocaust with its wholesale murder of the Jews by the Nazis was indeed an outrage and the six million victims justified a military response. However when our side who were supporters of the war against Hitler are reminded that Stalin, our ally in that war, subsequently killed an estimated 30 million in his acts of genocide, we grow strangely silent.

The start of Matthew chapter 10 begins with Jesus issuing the disciples their challenge to: “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” But remember, Jesus also warns them what might happen to them on the way, and in case they are under any misapprehension he tells them to flee to another town when they are persecuted. Jesus reminds the disciples that because the current dominant culture is opposing Him, they should expect no less. In other words they are not above the same treatment that their teacher encounters.

And, lastly, Jesus tells the disciples what they will encounter as they deliver the good news. The reaction to the good news of the gospel may not be good news for the messengers. One last time:……..

Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Jesus’ words might equally apply to us. The modern world offers some values that are not Jesus’ values, and we need to face our own community standards with his alternatives. It is realistic to admit that standing up for Jesus’ values may turn out to be uncomfortable and is unlikely to be trouble free. On the other hand what Jesus offered is a potential way of transforming relationships and bringing love to a loveless world. Now that is a goal worth pursuing.

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Progressive Sermon for 14 June 2020 on Matt 9.35 -10:8 Pentecost 2, 43A

The Call to Practical Mission: ( Gospel Reading: Mt 9:35 – 10:8)
(Please note that today I have lent on some mainstream Methodist resources to help me assemble the following!!)

Now, almost unexpectedly, we find our New Zealand churches returning to the task of regular worship and day-to-day tasks of mission. Unlike many other nations, we can now look forward to what we hope at the very least is a substantial reprieve from lockdown. But I also wonder if we have been reflecting on how we succeeded in attending to our faith and being the Church without our standard Church services.   During the lockdown we were without our accustomed freedom and luxury of assuming normal church practice.   I assume for many this meant mission with the challenge of doing without paid Church leaders to do the bulk of the mission tasks of the Church.    Do you agree with me that, without conventional worship, Christianity depends very much on how individual members are able to operate independently from those who would be normally calling the shots.

I know in my own local congregation, one unexpected bonus has been the amount of contact individual members seemed to have achieved by using phones, Zoom and other various forms of Internet contact. Could it be that some in our community might even have received more friendship and compassion contact than usual during lockdown?

Yes, for many of us, we are back. But if our faith is going to be nurtured, there is something else about what normally happens in our regular Church services of worship. While it is true that taken as a whole through the readings from the lectionary we hear much about Jesus and the developing message, because different parts of the stories and challenges speak to different issues, some readings and parts of readings might speak to us more than others.

The economic uncertainties and health issues over the last few months have been very unevenly distributed and this in turn makes it very hard for congregations in different locations to find common responses to set readings which speak to wildly different local situations.

Certainly every year, week by week, our church retells the story of Jesus via readers and preachers … through Advent to Christmas … through Lent to Easter … through the Easter season to the Ascension and on to Pentecost when we celebrate the birth of the church and the coming of the Spirit. For those of us seeking inspiration for our own spiritual journey.. and as for our actual lives, our Bible readings communicate a story full of challenges and hard choices and wonders, and betrayal and suffering. And at least in the eyes of the gospel writers it’s a story that ends with joy, hope, forgiveness and new life. Now today our lectionary brings us to the point where much of the story has been told and as we move to what the lectionary calls “ordinary time”, the all important question confronts us. What does that now mean for us?

According to the church calendar for this year the outline of the Jesus story has been told but in the context of Church tradition we are reminded it hasn’t ended. If Christianity means what it says, as we hear the detail of the rest of the Jesus story we should now be looking to translate what we hear to the response we can live out for ourselves. We talk to the Church speaking to those about us in trouble. Very well then, who is going to do that part? And let’s be truthful. When Covid-19 strikes a community there is a sudden spike of individuals in need of genuine assistance.

If we reflect on recent events I suggest it isn’t just the Church members in a community who were always the first to reach out. That many of the spontaneous food banks set up came simply from good people, often with no church connections, should give us pause for self reflection.

In today’s gospel reading there is a part that should give us all pause for thought. Notice Jesus didn’t say just “call on me and I will heal and bless whoever needs help”. What he actually did in this instance was that he called on his disciples to go out and deal to needs on his behalf.

You and I, together with all those who worship across the world today would probably like to think of ourselves as being identified as disciples. Very well then… whether we’re reading and reflecting on written services like this one, or sharing in streamed services on the internet, or gathered in households for prayer, or alone in our homes … we claim to be the church, but we also live in a world very different to Bible days … Certainly we may well live with the hope of the resurrection, even if we are not necessarily sure as to what it means for us, but more importantly we would be singularly obtuse not to notice there is more immediate work to be done.

Recent events would hardly have bypassed us altogether. There have been protests like the “ Black Lives Matter” and it seems fairly obvious that those supporting the Christian message would agree that Black lives do indeed matter but saying we agree is not the what is required of those who care about such issues.

OK then: if Black lives matter – or Asian lives or Maori or refugee lives matter to us, how does this change our day to day living? If we insist that we should care about those who are not necessarily already part of our social circle matter, should we at least start by making contact?   Company directors can say they support movements like “Black Lives Matter”  but do they make room for Black lives inside the Board rooms.

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced radical changes on our immediate population. Visitors, foreign workers, tourists, and even students have fled : and some have been trapped unwillingly with limited support available. The spread of the virus in impoverished and war ravaged parts of the world has left many places far worse off than ourselves. As followers of Christ do we simply say we need to look after ourselves and the rest are on their own? Do we at least instruct our politicians to spread the load and ensure that our rich and middle classes do their bit via our taxation system? Do we now need to ignore the direction of the US and support the UN, the World Health Organization and the international health efforts. What would a disciple do in real time and in real place?.

In our Gospel reading it was concern for those in need that moved Jesus to commission the twelve disciples and send them out to help with the work. He sent them out to those who needed the message of hope, and to those who needed healing. I guess the most obvious theme of his message was compassion or if you like, applied love.   If we assume his disciples had listened to his teaching, then they would be tasked with spreading this same message.     He didn’t send disciples out to build what we might think of as a mega-church. He sent them out to love, to challenge and bring healing to those whom society considered untouchable and unlovable – the outsiders and the outcasts. To such as these the disciples were called to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. But there is something else too. Proclaiming is not necessarily quite the same as sounding preachy. Don’t forget St Francis who is quoted in different biographies as saying to his followers something like: “preach to everyone and if all else fails you could even preach with words”.

And it’s the same today. Even when our buildings may be closed, the people with their needs society are still out there. For some the needs are obvious, for others they are hidden, invisible to casual observation. And yes society may no longer have its lepers or heretics but it still has its outsiders and outcasts. Healing takes many forms – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual.

Yes, there are people who need our prayers. That is the easy bit. But there are also people who need us to reach out to them … just waiting to hear a friendly voice on the phone, or receive a card or a letter or even just a greeting across the internet. More importantly, there are people who need more practical help. Some encounters will be easy and pleasant … others will not. So, as the church year moves once again past last week’s Trinity Sunday and back into what the Church sometimes called “ordinary” time,  there is nothing ordinary about the mission to which we are called.   We’re reminded afresh that every day is a new beginning. Our buildings may have been temporarily closed but the real part of Church is not, and Jesus, filled with compassion, is still calling workers to the field to proclaim the Kingdom of God in word and deed. And the field to which he calls us is all around us.

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Sermon for 7 June 2020, Trinity Sunday, Year A on Matthew 28: 16-20

Trinity and Covid-19: Where the rubber hits the road.
It may well be an understatement to state much of the world’s population is struggling with consequences of the latest pandemic. Community shutdowns, overwhelmed health systems and sudden collapse in business confidence have left entire nations reeling and witnessing political and economic disruption. So what then should we make of the lectionary choice for our Church’s set reading? Trinity Sunday is a bit confusing at the best of times but in an age of enforced social distancing or Zoom services it is fair to pose a more urgent question. What is it about the subject of the Trinity that might make any practical difference to our real problems, our current relationships or for that matter to the lives any of us here participating in this act of worship?

Much of the discussion about the Trinity through the ages has centered on trying to describe the entire mystery which somehow unites all that we come to worship. Yet somehow we often overlook that this same mystery was hard won by early followers actually living their emerging ideas in their adventures in faith. Surely our own selection of theological ideas is supposed to guide and influence our personal decisions about our response to our current realities. At present for many of us that reality includes the unfolding challenges of a spreading virus.

Now is not the time to hear serious theologians discussing the Trinity with its long history of disputes, esoteric vocabulary, and at worst, its apparent disconnection with the everyday world

Some theologians might have nothing better to do than reflect on the astonishing assertion that the three persons of the Trinity are consubstantial – I hope you all know what that means because I can’t be certain that I do. Am I right in guessing you haven’t been turning on the TV news over this last week to wonder why it took something like 300 years before the disputes about the emerging idea of the Trinity began to settle at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Did you know Augustine made at least twenty separate attempts to make the idea plain? More to the point are you surprised that news commentators from BBC and CNN seem totally uninterested in that revelation?

However if you turn it around for those of us anxious to make sense of a sometimes dimly understood faith and its implications for the current confusing world, surely it all depends on whether or not this same Trinity opens us to some new ways of thinking and encourages us to consider whether or not the idea opens us to new relationships.

The bit most Churches hear in the Great Commission is that Jesus told his disciples to make disciples in his name and baptize in the names of the Father Son and Holy Spirit which also fits the notion of the Trinity. The part of the Great Commission which is down-played is the bit about following Jesus’ commandments (the actions of love). To take just two recent items off the news bulletins. How could anyone accept a policemen apparently deliberately cutting off the brain’s blood supply for a suspect for a minor crime, yet still claim to be following Jesus? How could someone following the Prince of Peace live with the declaration that protestors should be stopped by force.

Many of course claim to follow the Spirit of the Trinity, care about how creation is being treated (or if you like – our God of creation), and agree the human dimension of this is found in God in Jesus. Very well then, when PPE and respirators are less available to the poor, how should we respond? When some races and some nations are more vulnerable than our community to the virus how should this alter our giving to caring organizations. If we truly follow and respond to our Trinity should we act if some nations are poorly served by the United Nations? Are our Politicians responding to our Church demands made on their commitment to acts of compassion, or haven’t we asked them. Is it simply we prefer to have our Trinitarian beliefs limited to the blessing at the end of our Church services?

Nevertheless by reminding ourselves of the metaphor that God is in creation, surely we might thereby be reminded we have some responsibility to think what we are doing to this creation, not just for our generation but for generations to come. In the world media we are now all aware of huge piles of plastic being washed up on Pacific beaches. If we honestly believe that we are entrusted with the care of God’s creation here on earth, surely this affects our attitudes to waste plastic. If we care about pollution and fossil fuel burning doesn’t that also mean we should care about what our politicians do when they set up laws for this nation and support them when they want to sign up to climate control agreements.
But our developing ideas about religion also remind us, as the theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, the Trinity emerged because the early Christians were trying to explain that they experienced God in three different ways, ie God in a threefold way.

In Elizabeth Johnson’s words: “They still believed in one God, but they experienced this one God in at least three particular ways: beyond them, with them, and within them”. The Father part was the notion that not only was there mystery in creation, they felt that there were glimpses of a caring force which they and their religious leaders likened to and personified as a loving parent.

When they talked of Jesus being the Son of God they were trying to say Jesus had grounded this notion in his own person and they felt that his being with them (demonstrating what we might these days call “his empathy”) gave a human dimension to the mysterious God which they wanted to call the Father. Once Jesus had left the scene, his followers had a strong sensation that somehow he was still with them – and was now in effect within. This they felt was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
The essence of what became the Trinity was then: beyond them, beside them and within them.
As a more modern generation we might argue we are now in a position to question aspects of the early Church view. Each part of the metaphor description of the Trinity is potentially moderated by knowledge gained elsewhere. Creation not only unfolds as our telescopes push back the frontiers into the depths of space, or look down through our electron scanning microscopes, but every aspect of this changing creation, great and small, is gradually unfolding year by year.

The biggest change for the Trinity is that this knowledge overwhelms our Father image with an impression of something much more unified and far less restricted to the human concerns of a single species on a relatively tiny speck floating in an unimaginably vast expanding universe populated by Galaxies of innumerable changing stars, planets and just when we think we know where it is going, a Universe now suspected to be only one of many universes.

God the Son similarly changes as more facts come to light. It is not so much that Jesus himself will be radically different to his portrayal in the Gospels, but since we now know far more about other religious settings and far more about the history of his time than was revealed in the New Testament writing, we have to be more cautious about what we claim to know with certainty.

A key question here is to ask how much of his reported wisdom is applicable today for our changed circumstances? – and how much relevance we can expect Him to have for those born into vastly different cultures and religions?

Perhaps we need to acknowledge that those mysterious feelings we have about a guiding Spirit are a little harder to interpret when we now know that many of our feelings are partially shaped by the biochemistry of the brain. To take one small example, many behaviours that in Jesus day were classified as sins, are now known to be influenced by neurotransmitters in the brain, by heredity and by environment.

Please notice that the sense of mystery and transcendence if anything is increased by modern knowledge, and it still makes perfect sense to remind ourselves that “God” is still beyond us. If we know that we ourselves find it hard to grasp what we are trying to describe as creation, we should be reluctant to pretend that we know enough to dismiss others’ attempts to put it into words. We should also check out our own religious language to make sure we are not dumbing down our image of this God of transcendence until “He” becomes what the poet William Blake once called a “Nobodaddy” as a sort of a ventriloquist dummy, somewhere “up there”in the ether, fabricated by our imaginations for the express purpose of doing what we ask for our exclusive satisfaction.

When it comes to the metaphor of God the Son highlighting the importance Jesus for us, beside us, remembering him in particular as the wisdom teacher for the practical everyday situations, we can’t have it both ways. If the flesh and blood Jesus was prepared to reinterpret the law for situations of need in front of him, we cannot pretend that this same Jesus would have us stay unable to face the unfolding situations and issues in front of us because we are frozen in our religious past. Nor are we entitled to ignore those who have chosen different faiths, particularly if one important enough to us to be described as part of the Trinity dealt with those of different faiths as neighbours to be loved.

I stress it is not just a matter of announcing to others that Jesus is the Son of God as part of the Trinity, it is more a matter of showing by our actions that this same Jesus is still beside us because we are attempting to follow the essence of his wisdom and reinterpret it for our generation. If being a grandparent is only discovered in the reality of relationships, surely claiming to follow Jesus must also be lived in our relationships.

In the last analysis, it is when we stop reading and cast within for the Spirit leading us on, that our faith might start to be transformed from something to be talked about to something that lives. Yes, new knowledge will continue to bring new insights and the last word is far from being spoken. Remember the notion of the Trinity continued to change long after the writers of the New Testament had struggled to express what they felt, simply because the situation facing the early Christians continued to change. Those changes are now accelerating. As life brings new challenges we will need to continue to adjust our thinking and no doubt the most meaningful creeds are still to be written.

Maybe the biggest adjustment in the time to come is when we realize that our greatest challenge is not to shape the right faith formula, Trinity or otherwise, but rather to seek the Trinity inspired formula that will shape us particularly in a way that we might be freed to offer something for our present community and future world.

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Lectionary Sermon May 31, 2020, Pentecost Year A on Acts 2: 1 – 21

Challenged by Fire and Mystery
Making sense of the strange accounts of Easter and its aftermath has long been a challenge for Christians in a scientific age. And if that wasn’t hard enough, before we can reflect on much of the history of the early Church, we must first come face-to-face with something which some might think even more unexpected or bizarre than a resurrected Christ. Certainly the gospels tell of unusual and wonderful happenings associated with Jesus. Now as a postscript, Pentecost introduces yet another story with features that don’t fit our real life experiences.

This time the principal actors are the disciples themselves. If you had been present, just imagine being suddenly transformed in appearance with flames around your shoulders. Assuming the literalists are right in their claim Luke is correct and reporting this event as it happened, wouldn’t you too be bewildered if yet another supernatural gift is visited on you and the really weird bit …you could suddenly speak in another language.

For those of us uneasy with the supernatural bits, at least admit some of the people present sound suspiciously like real live people today.

Because things were getting a bit tricky for those who called themselves followers of Christ, they shut themselves away in a large room. Ring any bells?

Then there were those who said, “These people are drunk”. Can you imagine a religious gathering which included judgmental types? So can I. Have you ever encountered anyone like that in the Church today? Then there were those who said “They can’t be drunk – for it is only 9 o’clock in the morning”. See, they had Methodist wowsers even then.

Leaving aside the magic bits for the moment and turning to the history that followed we can at least infer that whatever happened in that room, doubters were changed to functioning disciples and numerically at least, there is an apparent boost in number of loyal followers. What is more, apparently as another consequence of the Pentecost experience, at least some of these followers were now prepared to step out on their own to face potentially hostile crowds and to witness to what they have seen as if what had happened was utterly transformative.

To the modern educated mind, Pentecost is always going to be a hard sell. Tongues of fire, babbling in strange tongues with snatches of recognizable foreign language and talk of a mysterious Spirit…. yet whichever way you look at it Pentecost certainly matters to the Church. A little more than half the Sundays of the Church calendar are reckoned by numbering the following Sundays as the Sundays after Pentecost. So if Pentecost is really the birthday of the Christian Church, what makes the difference? To find out why, we need to go back a little.

First the word itself: Pentecost is derived from the Greek for “fifty days” and is, for the Church, fifty days after Easter. But the initial opportunity for the Pentecost gathering was not strictly exclusively to do with Christ. The disciples and supporters of Jesus would have been able to assemble conveniently because Jews were gathering in Jerusalem at the time to celebrate another important Seder or feast, this one the Jewish festival of the Shavuot Seder, when the Jews too had a fifty day period to remember. This was, we remind ourselves, fifty days after the Passover, that occasion when Jews recalled the event of escaping from enslavement in Egypt, crossing the Red Sea by mysterious miracle first to the Sinai desert and then setting out to the Promised Land.

Shavuot and Pentecost share something else. Like Pentecost turned out to be for the Christians, Shavuot was a reminder of something that transformed their history but was not easily explained and despite our modern desire to have our explanations reconciled with logic and what we know of the natural world, open questions remain. For example if one or both accounts were written with intentional symbolism to leave impressions helpful for the basis of faith, perhaps the apparent challenge to the laws of nature might seem less important.

As always, we also need to remember that what would have been acceptable to contemporaries in the society of that day is rather different to that now expected. Regardless of our own personal views, even the most liberal commentator has to admit the parting of the Red Sea, like the foreign babbling and the tongues of fire at Pentecost, is still accepted by a good number as factual reporting. Equally we would be dishonest to claim that all commentators are agreed that this was the case. Since we can hardly expect similar miracles in our present circumstances we should as a minimum allow that the rationalists may have a point.

It doesn’t take too much experience with stories that change with repetition to understand traditional history is never entirely straightforward. People in real life shape stories for a host of reasons. This is not to say we ought to ignore anything that doesn’t fit our personal experience. Despite being a scientist and as far as my faith is concerned, one who likes to question everything, I would also have to stress that there is a place for mystery. Certainty closes off growth of thought but wonder leaves open the possibility that there is more than we currently understand. This in turn should encourage us to be more humble and as a minimum ready to allow ourselves to listen to one another.

It also occurs to me that the mystery of the Holy Spirit described as flame is a wonderfully appropriate analogy. Flames are mysterious as they flicker and spread, at times almost appearing to flow, as they provide warmth and light with a wide range of colour and intensity. Even if we know that a flame is technically only gas heated to incandescence, before the flame appears it requires fuel and air and sufficient energy for the reaction to start. . Even if we, as intending followers of Jesus, have the potential stored within us to be followers we may still need activating, before we demonstrate exercised faith.

At this point we may need a reality check. Note that the question we need to have answered is not so much about what actually happened. In any event, that question can never be answered with absolute certainty since we can hardly replay the scene. The rather more awkward and even embarrassing question comes when we ask if we, and others, can see evidence that the same Holy Spirit is continuing to act – not just in the lives of this generation’s saints, but in our own lives.

When we look analytically at our society, we can indeed find committed individuals who are able to make room in their lives for helping those in need, for exposing injustice and for inspiring others to a more positive outlook. It seems reasonable to describe these rare individuals as reflecting the influence of some indefinable Spirit. Yet truth also forces us to admit that some others who claim to be classified as Christian (if only for census purposes) do not reflect that Spirit, despite what they might say about themselves. Church membership doesn’t somehow excuse us from the temptation of focusing on self interest or being driven by a wish to stay uninvolved.

To stay with the Pentecost image of fire, avoidance of involvement hardly qualifies as offering ourselves to be fuel for the mysterious flame. One Jewish leader, Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, suggested that some modern persons are in danger of becoming “click vegetables,” who simply click from one data source to another with little comprehension. As the Rabbi put it, these have the attitude “If you’re bored with something, just click,” I think the Rabbi is right. If our only involvement with community is brief glancing with passing clicks, this is hardly what Archbishop Desmond Tutu once called “seeing with the eyes of the heart”.

Even the so-called Pentecostal service with its ecstasy of uninhibited arm waving and the emitting of emotion charged sounds is hardly credible evidence of the Holy Spirit if it not accompanied by a subsequent change of attitude and appropriate action once the worshippers have left the security of the Church service. The doors of the Church may be critical to allow the entrance of worshippers yet surely their other function is allow the same congregation out to be the Church in the world.

So what then can we say about the Spirit at this day, Pentecost, fifty days after Easter and the marking of the birthday of the Church? Can I suggest that we respond to the birthday as we would with the birthday of anyone of us here today. The celebration matters more if the reason seems worthy.

Of course there would be some who prefer to think Pentecost is best ignored or at least quietly forgotten. On July 4, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence. With this action, the American Revolution was launched and a new nation was born. There is irony that on that very day George III, King of England, made this entry in his diary: “Nothing of any importance happened today.”

On the day of Pentecost, in the year A.D. 30, we read of perhaps 120 followers of a man named Jesus gathered together in Jerusalem. Suddenly the Spirit of God filled each one of them and illuminated and energized them with tongues of fire. On that day the Church was born. But here is the kicker. No contemporary historian of the time saw anything significant in that event.

The significance, as it must do, came to lie in what those followers then decided to allow Pentecost to shape their lives. Remember if subsequent generations like our own can’t see discernible differences between ourselves as self identified Christians and our fellows who don’t share our faith particularly when it comes to empathy and compassion, perhaps our faith is no longer relevant. It is actually a choice that each successive generation must face for themselves. We are born, like the Church was born at Pentecost, into possibility. What we then decide to do with the motivating Spirit in our generation will determine of the significance of what that birthday potentially offers to the Church, the community…and even our world.

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Lectionary Sermon for 24 May, 2020 (Easter 7 Year A) on John 17:1-11


Some parts of the Bible are a real challenge for those seeking guidance for current real life challenges. Sometimes it is pure happenstance that a particular set reading coincides with a current issue. And let’s face it, John’s lectionary story set for today has Jesus, prior to his crucifixion, talking about impending everlasting glory, which seems curiously inappropriate to inspire his followers facing today’s current world situation.

The unfolding disaster centers on the Coronavirus pandemic which creates threats of economic disaster, and, in what we sincerely hope would just be the worst hit areas, finds unexpectedly piled up bodies in the morgues and freezer trucks not to mention exposing long hidden failures of our Christian communities to ensure the fair distribution of the means of protection for the vulnerable.

I guess at least some of us have come today reflecting on those news bulletins over the last month where we have been watching some leading economies of the world (including that of the US) begin to totter. Further, some have gradually realized poorer nations are in a more precarious situation. And yes, we too in New Zealand are part of the world’s supply chains and may also be more vulnerable to that of those who live in richer and more powerful nations. Certainly some of the weaker nations now face total disaster. Consider for example the unfolding devastation about to be wrought in the world’s refugee camps, which can only be serious in the extreme.

In summary, at least at first encounter, today’s set passage doesn’t match today’s main issues.

Perhaps Jesus here is intending, not so much to come across as awfully other worldly and disconnected from real life problems, but rather showing that, even when faced with disaster (which for him included crucifixion), that there might be something more important. Yet before we get to thinking about the implications of his words we need a quick reality check.

A number of scholars I follow, suggest that here, John, or at least the author responsible, is almost certainly using a standard Jewish ploy of putting last (or almost last) words in a respected leader’s mouth in such a way as to pick up main themes in his (or her) life. I find it quite reasonable to suspect at times the New Testament writers, writing years after the events, were in part, creatively imagining the words Jesus might have spoken, and the sort of issues he would have needed to address. This offers a form of life perspective.

I know this would worry some who have been brought up with a literalist acceptance of the Gospel yet there are three inescapable difficulties in insisting John simply reports accurately on what it is known that Jesus said.

Firstly when the text of John is examined, when it comes to the words of Jesus there are disagreements between the Gospel writers as to what was said in the same settings, (this includes last words spoken on the cross) and in noting difference in the order and sequence of events including a basic disagreement as to whether it was a one or three year ministry.

Secondly the changes in style of Greek within the Gospel of John suggest evidence that some parts were added later (perhaps different authors or editors?).
Thirdly these words were supposedly recounted by John “the beloved disciple”. Since the majority of commentators put the date of writing at more than fifty years after Jesus was off the scene, it is a tall ask to expect, even a disciple, to have a total recall of words spoken so long ago.

Regardless of the previously mentioned reservations we should at least acknowledge this passage contains some sections that are most helpful as reminders to anyone prepared to follow the teaching of Christ in a modern setting.

Look for example at verse seven. “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you”. It should be clear that anyone following the Gospel accounts would be aware that what Christ was recorded as teaching was consistent with his actions. He taught compassion, servanthood and forgiveness and demonstrated that these were practical possibilities. They also happen to be badly needed attributes for those of us intending to deal with today’s concerns.

Now we get to the key phrase that I find resonates with my impression of Christ is when he reminds current or aspiring disciples: 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world. Here John’s gospel is definitely not claiming that Jesus is in a position to do our work on our behalf. Our required actions are something to be lived by us because we are still in the world.

Think about it. Jesus is no longer in the world yet we as his aspiring followers are in the world. In other words, an unexpected virus, a break-down in trust between nations, the act of unexpected terrorism, whatever the injustice or potential disaster threatening, nothing should be passed off as something that Jesus will sort for us on our behalf.

Following through John’s version of the words of inspiration we are reminded that Jesus came bringing the gift and challenge of life in relationship. Because John consistently used the metaphor of God being love, we find ourselves recalling the challenge to relationship with our neighbours, and even with the concept of love itself representing our God.

Just as Jesus challenged those he met into this form of duality of relationship, the implicit message is that disciple-hood means carrying the same attitudes, and the same challenges to those we meet.

Here we need to be very honest. While there is plenty of evidence that new converts are often prepared to throw themselves into the challenge of following Jesus example, his injunction to be one hasn’t worked out too well in practice. Forget for a moment our failure to accept refugees of different faith. We can talk blithely of the Ecumenical movement and of being one in Christ, but try to get mainstream Churches to accept one another’s communion, styles of worship or even the other’s ordination and it seems well nigh impossible. At low points in Church history Churches have even resorted to violence to try to force others to their particular version of what it means to be following Christ.

And what of individual Church congregations when it comes to being at one? Our local Methodist Synod asks two questions of each congregation at the start of process of matching presbyters with new parishes. Is your parish an inclusive parish? Almost invariably the answer is “yes”. Second question….. would your Parish accept a homosexual presbyter? The answer is often “no”… Perhaps a new meaning of inclusive?

Telling potential followers that they should be one as we are one deserves some inward reflection, particularly when some of our biggest denominations are traditionally reluctant to yield even a little authority. Issues like caring about the problems of food and welfare facing our neighbours, acceptance of women priests, acceptance of homosexual clergy, and caring about disadvantaged groups in our community. If these all happen to divide rather than unite, would this make it something of a nonsense of claiming to be extending love to one’s neighbour.

Perhaps reflection about how far the various branches of the Church have strayed from this part of the gospel during dark periods of Church history should send us back to this part of the gospel teaching with new understanding for its significance.

History teaches that as the early Church came into being, strong rivalries between different interpretations about what Jesus means, and which theologians to accept were common. Paul refers in several places between rifts between the rival groups and the date of John’s gospel places the writing in the very midst of these emerging struggles. It is easy to see that as the writer was recording that particular section of today’s passage that he was trying to bring his hearers back to the essence of Christ’s teaching. It is unfortunate that then – as now – there was no real understanding that the call to relationship actually matters, and its neglect risks making a nonsense of that which Christianity sets out to be.

Given that many of the troubles in a political sense occur because communities throughout the world focus on real or at times even imagined difference, if the Church has anything at all to offer, if it turns down the unity option, at the very least it must be able to model how such differences can be recognized without endangering acceptance of the other.

We lose the right to offer assistance in matters of dispute if the ill-feeling between different groups merely mirrors our own inability to accept others, or for that matter when our ability to be peacemakers is hindered by our own vested interests.

The readiness of the super-powers to impose their will on vulnerable poor nations is a regular challenge self-claims Christian nation’s UN representatives. If we want to be counted among those who follow Biblical principles of compassion it is ourselves not the one to whom we pray to solve the injustices.

Perhaps we should be bringing the lack of oneness even closer to home. Officially we welcome newcomers to this country. So how come new immigrants who struggle with the language are often left isolated and cut off from social contact in our neighbourhoods.

We may be uneasy about putting politics so overtly into a Bible reflection, yet surely the whole point of following Christ is that it should speak to real lives, political realities and actual relationships.

Let me quote you something from Bill Loader’s commentary on today’s passage. “Unity is not a strategy of convenience and economy here nor just a strategy for marketing …….It is not a cleverly ambiguous ecumenical declaration which papers over differences. It is rather an extension of John’s understanding of what eternal life (or salvation) means. It is not about a place or a gift or a certificate of acquittal so much as about a relationship”.

If, as Jesus is reported saying, that we should be one, and when we look at how we are doing and find we are not one, I would assume that what we do from that point is up to us.

We come Sunday by Sunday to affirm that we follow Jesus and his teaching. We presumably see ourselves as offering compassion and assume our willingness to be one with one another is measured in part by the way we treat fellow followers of the faith. But our treatment of political and religious neighbours also matters. If Jesus’ injunction for oneness is a legitimate and important part of his teaching, and if honest self evaluation concludes at least in part, it is not being followed, perhaps we need to treat this as a challenge.

Those hearing or reading these words may be able to suggest what the next step(s) should be.

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Lectionary Sermon for 17 May 2020, (Easter 6 A) on John 14:15-21

Commandments that call for Action
What the gospel writers chose to highlight in the central teaching of Jesus or say about his emphasis is not always how his aspiring followers subsequently live their response.

Most church goers would for example be familiar with one sentence in today’s gospel namely the words as reported by John: “If you love me you will keep my commandments”. Perhaps for some, the current challenge of a global pandemic shows the wide variety of intended Christian responses. Reflect for example on one group who turn in fright to prayers to their God of Divine intervention – then contrast that with another group who appear to attempt to use their inspiration of faith to offer the hands and something of the heart of Christ to those in need.

Well, what would observers see in us? Perhaps our ‘Jesus representing’ attitudes and actions might not be as obvious as we might hope.

If we find ourselves members of a group of Christians struggling for a recognized place in a society, particularly where Church means less than it once did, it is all too easy to start focusing on the Church itself rather than the commandments that Jesus insisted we should be following.

Like those who favour particular car brands, there is always the danger we become obsessed with points of difference and may even start to think that selling our beliefs is easier by identifying weaknesses in rival faiths.

Jesus cuts through all that and simply takes us back to the centralities of his teaching. Notice, that asking his followers to keep his commandments is very different to insisting on agreement with a defined set of religious beliefs.

We ignore such leading at our peril. History shows clearly that focus on differences in religious beliefs have traditionally divided human kind and in the past have provided the excuse for ill treatment or rejection of those who do not share one’s own particular interpretation of scripture or cultural setting. The Jesus of the gospels does not support such focus on differences. Nowhere for example do we ever encounter Jesus in his role of wisdom teacher saying anything like: “ if you love me you will sign up to a particular denomination, or recite a creed, or sit at the feet of some teacher of exclusivity”.

Inviting us to refocus on following simple commandments also raises a suspicion that maybe signing up to detailed beliefs is not critically important for discipleship and even offers the possibility that limited or even wrong belief may not prevent us from finding a way of life that picks up the essence of what Jesus was on about.

Since as far as we know Jesus was able to summarize the two main commandments as love God and love one’s neighbour as oneself, it doesn’t take too much reflection to realize both commandments are helpful in coming to a personal philosophy which is designed for the benefit of the human race.

So what does it actually mean to love God ? These days this might be interpreted as attempting to respond positively to the creative forces on which the whole of life in its myriad forms is based. Perhaps this implies we should tread very carefully before imposing alternative ways of exploiting our environment. Burning forests, destroying soils, ravaging the bounty of sea and land, filling the atmosphere with choking poisons are all wrong at a number of levels, and following such courses of action hardly fits the notion of expressing love of God. In this sense loving God rejects the option of seeking short term gain and producing long term harm. The implied notion that we should respect life is not so much religion as good sound thinking. We can hardly expect others to care about our environment unless we are prepared to do the same.

That much maligned poet Shelley did us good service when he reminded us that loving God is not some form of simplistic enslavement. In his poem Prometheus Unbound he pictures that sort of enslaving false God as Jupiter, obsessed with triumph and self glorification, and one who keeps mankind forever at his mercy, with “knee worship prayer and praise” and with “fear, self contempt and barren hope.”

Shelley contrasts this with what Prometheus has to offer when released from his chains.
“To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite,
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power which seems omnipotent
To love, and bear; to hope till hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates….”

Love of this sort of God gives an insight into why John defines God as love itself.
Richard MacKenna in his book God for Nothing, suggests that church rituals for all their limitations need to be the guardian of this sort of vision. “In the stillness and mystery”, he says “we begin to sense the presence of the Holy which underlines the simplest everyday things and people” (P149)

MacKenna doesn’t say so but perhaps this is where the oneness of Jesus becomes the oneness of God. Finding creative wonder in the realities about us gives us new respect for creation and opens up the possibilities for growth in understanding. Loving God then might even become a way of starting to discover and safeguard wonder in all.
Loving one’s neighbour, similarly, makes for a much more harmonious community, especially when we remember each time Jesus explained or modelled such behaviour, he used as his examples those who we are not normally thinking of as friends.

Being deserving of loving is not the same as being lovable. When Jesus said “Samaritans” when he talked of neighbours, his listeners would have been picturing those they distrusted, or even feared. Jesus was insisting that those deserving of care and consideration must include those his listeners have previously chosen to see as enemies.

When Jesus talks of the need for his disciples to be following his commandments, this includes the awkward commandments. When it comes to identifying our unlovable neighbours, these days those under suspicion might include those from nations with high infection rates, those who have carried the flag of enemy nations, and those who have adopted alternate life styles. We are not entitled to make exceptions for abortionists, homosexuals, or those who are born into alien religions.

In Jesus’ day the sort of neighbours he seemed to have in mind were those on the margins and who mainstream society had rejected. For Jesus’ audience, neighbours included invading Romans, the tax collectors, women who had rejected the conventional norms, and this included the prostitutes and adulterers.

These days I guess there is much more variety. Easy travel means an abundance of those who don’t share our culture or religion. We take for granted a precarious economic system that makes not just millionaires but billionaires for a comparatively few while paying lip service to assisting the much larger group of underprivileged whose numbers show few signs of reducing as the years go by.

I have sometimes wondered at those who can with clear conscience pray for the starving in the safety of a well heeled suburban morning congregation and do virtually nothing to follow through with any form of practical action. Wealthy congregation members who place a few small items of food in an offering basket before tucking in to a substantial morning tea are at least doing something but the question about whether or not this truly represents love for neighbours still remains. In my own home town Papakura I take heart from the regular community meal organized by the mainstream churches for the homeless and poor of the city, but I also happen to know that most of the homeless are not known by name by more than a few of the local Christians.

Loving one’s neighbour has to go a step further from simply having benevolent feelings. We need to go that one step further and ask ourselves if our actions are already such that we ourselves will be recognized as neighbours by those we say we love. And yes, this is a tall ask. Maybe we need total honesty and admit when we have not yet arrived at that point.

Being at one with Jesus’ wisdom is probably at best understood as something that we might grow towards – however uncertainly.
Again I find encouragement in MacKenna’s take on this.

The call of life to be his soul is (only) the start of the religious journey. The call of Being says, “ Be” yourself, do not try to be a saint, fainting at the sight of anything human, but get on with life, loving people, accepting them, making mistakes, getting dirty, fighting against all the pressures of the night to be on the side of healing.” (Ibid P 148)

Jesus as reported by John is anything but obsessed with religious observance. For those of us who seek the solace and comfort of public prayer we should not simply ignore Jesus’ caution about those who like to pray in public. When he commissions his followers, here he is saying: . 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Perhaps we need reminding those commandments are not focussed on Church attendance, chorus singing or arm waving. The themes Jesus has as his focus are the practicalities of life. Forgiving our enemies and turning the other cheek, looking after the widow …. these are dealing with every day dilemmas. Reaching out to the leper precedes healing and even feeding the five thousand can only begin if someone first offers up some morsels to share.

Love is not merely an abstraction to be admired. If it is not part of daily attitudes and daily actions, we can hardly pretend it makes a difference.

If a bishop is better appreciated by his congregation when robed and wearing his mitre, that is fine…and if we can listen to a magnificent pipe organ or be uplifted by the sonorous music of the choir so much the better….. always provided of course…… that we don’t get carried away with the sense of occasion and forget the primacy of those commandments.

Dress and religious customs can only take us so far. Even the scriptures are only there as a starting point. It is only what we do in response that has any hope of helping our neighbours and the created world which surrounds us.

The gospel is forever potentially revolutionary because the world for all its progress and potential is still slow to realize what Jesus had to offer. Jean Vanier in his 1991 work Community and Growth, observed that “Rich countries themselves have to be awakened to the fact that happiness is not to be found in the frantic search for material goods, but in simple and loving relationships, lived and celebrated in communities which have renounced that search” (Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, London: Darton, Longman and Todd 1991, p309.

Perhaps he might also have added that those simple and loving relationships are nothing more nor less than the result of using Jesus’ commandments as a means to beginning real life.

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Lectionary sermon for May 10 2020 (Easter 5 A) on John 14:1-14

Deeds Greater than Those of the Master?
Occasionally, life can get very tough indeed. One of the hardest lessons for those of us enjoying lives of comfort and privilege in a local setting where the majority enjoy lives of security – is the shock of discovering we are not as safe as we thought.

Very clearly the current pandemic is no respecter of recent history, of position or wealth. Even before the current coronavirus snuck in, time after time current events have served a curve ball. My parents encountered the 1930s depression and a World War. Their parents lived through the first World War and the Spanish Flu. Sudden changes in the international scene can make travel hazardous and as a worst case scenario armed conflict is always a real possibility. Jobs can be lost overnight and families ruined financially. Earthquakes – Christchurch, Japan, China – where next? …floods…hurricanes …tornados…tsunamis and eruptions. We may not feel under immediate threat at present but you would need to have stopped reading newspapers or listening to the TV news to think no one is at risk.

So what then of Jesus’ words at the beginning of John Chapter 14. “Let not your heart be troubled” Is that truly for real? The Gospel of John reports this as only one of some very significant claims made by Jesus. In today’s gospel reading for example, there is that passage which must be one of the most frequently used of all the passages in the New Testament for Christian funerals.

What was it again?: “ 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Then there is that greatly misused passage which some would have us believe is to be used to show that only those with a particular view of Jesus are right, and the rest wrong.

Yet perhaps we are wrong to think only of this in terms of an exclusive entry to heaven.
6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also.

But notice too that the real test of whether or not to place our faith in such claims, at least according to John’s version of Jesus’ own words, is grounded in something more tangible:

11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

And there it is – a claim and a puzzle. Did the works of Jesus stop once Jesus was out of the scene? Which is a fair question because even in the self claimed Christian nations there are some pretty bleak periods of history where greed and violence seem to drown out those echoing the voice of Jesus with his call for peace and forgiveness and love for neighbour.

But did you also notice something that helps us check our realities for something a bit closer to home.
12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.

So when we encounter one of those more dreadful periods of history, what then should we do.

If we are merely cynical we might of course throw up our hands in horror and ask in a cross or despairing voice “where is Jesus today?”

There is on the other hand a rather more constructive approach. Certainly there are a host of examples I could use as illustration but let me illustrate with just one man’s response to trouble. I wonder if there are any flag experts amongst us today. Where is this flag from? (hold up a white flag with a Red Cross in the middle – a cardboard replica would do). No not a country – …an organization … the Red Cross.

Let’s go back in history. One day back in 1859 in Northern Italy at a place called Solferino a vicious battle was fought for 16 hours between the French and Austro Hungarian Armies. Casualties were high on both sides and at the end of the day the armies had withdrawn to regroup as best they could. A 31 year old Swiss businessman, Henry Dunant, passing through on a business trip, unintentionally happened upon the aftermath of the slaughter and suffering. Because it was the first battlefield he had encountered he was understandably horrified. He said later it wasn’t so much the dead bodies everywhere, it was that there was no one to care for the wounded and the dying. He wrote: “With faces that were black with flies that swarmed around their wounds, men gazed about them, wild eyed and helpless”

And where was Jesus that day? Well as it happened, straight away Dunant set about mobilizing and organizing the people of the town nearby. Churches were used as hospitals. Young children fetched water, while women washed and dressed the wounds, and the dead were given respectful burials.

Henry Dunant was surprised at how easily ordinary people could be organized to help and were so willing to make a difference. As a consequence he wrote a book about his experiences in which he suggested nations should organize such groups of volunteers to prepare in advance to help reduce the suffering in times of war.

With the assistance of some prominent citizens in Switzerland he set up an international organization to do just that, and so that they might be readily recognized as neutral volunteers they wore the insignia of what we now know as the Red Cross which was of course the Swiss flag with the colours reversed.

The Red Cross has had a huge influence ever since and even the Muslim countries have taken up the idea, although of course their organization had to avoid using the Cross which had been used as the symbol of their enemies in the crusades – so instead they called their version of the same organization, the Red Crescent. There is a lesser known Israeli equivalent. These organizations provide proactive assistance in times of disaster, assist those beyond the borders of the organizations, and their healing and humanitarian record is impressive indeed.

It is significant that when in 1864 the twelve nations who set up the idea of the Geneva Convention to limit the behaviour of nations at war, that each of the twelve also set up branches of the Red Cross.

I am not sure how great a deed needs to be before it is what Jesus might have had in mind when he talked of deeds greater than his own. What I do know is that in 1901 the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, was one of two people to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and four times during its history the organization itself has also received that same prize.

When you think what Jesus stood for with his own healing ministry, with his encouragement that his followers should help those in need, and his insistence that enemies should be treated as forgiven neighbours, surely Henry Dunant was enacting the Spirit of Jesus’ message.

Remember again Jesus’ words: 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these.

Supporting or initiating such endeavours is a significant part of the gospel in action.

Where it becomes less than the gospel is when we cannot quite bring ourselves to see our fellows as equally deserving of our assistance if they don’t share our heritage.

In world war one at Gallipoli when the Turks were fighting British and Anzac troops every now and again a truce was called to allow both sides to retrieve their wounded and bury their dead. In some instances the wounded were returned by soldiers from the other side. We should reflect on this then ask ourselves if the act of shooting prisoners and shooting the wounded enemy which has characterized other arenas of conflict could ever have been acceptable as Christian acts by those claiming to follow Jesus and his teaching.

While I accept the causes of war and acts within such conflicts are rarely simple and clear-cut, if we can at least go as far as to accept that the existence of such neutral helping organizations reflects the general intentions of Jesus’ teaching. For those of us in the happy situation of being able to afford to help either by donation or in some more tangible fashion, we should at a minimum ask ourselves if we are already doing so.

Alternately if we are helping in living the gospel in some other field, are we prepared to go so far as to at least admit, if only to ourselves, that our actions should reflect the intentions of our belief.

While it is not for me to try to put words in Jesus’ mouth, I cannot help but speculate that his statement “…the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” might be rather more difficult to ignore if he had added the implied words: “so why not accept the challenge to do such deeds.”

Remember it had been quite a few hundred years before someone like Henry Dunant came along to see the need for such a helping organization. What is more there have been many needless and foolish acts of battlefield slaughter in the years since Henry Dunant initiated his great deed for humanity, so we can hardly use the excuse that Henry Dunant has solved the problems for us.

I know some act as if Christianity is virtually entirely restricted to what happens in the context of Church services. This is why it is easier to recognize Saints for religious healing of one or two rather than those who achieve far more healing by the application of little more than common-sense. For those who use the Church service as retreat from the world it is worth reminding ourselves that the acts of Jesus, the subsequent acts of the disciples and the acts of the various apostles through the ages have for the most part been outside the Church or synagogue, and for the most part, are deeds in response to real life situations. The scriptures can only take us so far.

The gospels can tell us how Jesus chose to act as he interacted with people and situations around him. Our church histories and contemporary histories tell us how those who were inspired by the words, the attitudes and actions of Jesus and his followers then chose to live out their response.

But our experiences are not going to mirror Jesus or his first century followers. Our experiences and setting can’t be exactly like those encountered by a Swiss businessman encountering some nineteenth century war in Europe. The deeds we are called to dare are those in response to what we discover in our world today. Jesus claimed those who believe in him would recognize what he stood for by his deeds. What will our deeds tell others about the one we follow?

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