Lectionary sermon for 20 June 2021` (Year b) on Mark 4:35-41 and 1 Samuel 17 (1a,4-11,19-23,32-49)

True in what sense?
Among the tricky questions about the Bible that keep coming back to haunt church-goers there are two that seem to recur. The first issue seems almost comfortingly academic. Are the Bible accounts of the more unbelievable stories and events true in the sense that they happened as recorded ?… or alternately are they best seen as being intended to shape our thinking and inspire us?

 But there is a second question and one we may well wish was not raised. Assuming we are inspired, what are we doing or at least going to do that is different?

Today we have two stories that have more than a little of the hint of the unbelievable. For me their value is because both stories touch on genuine insight into the human condition. It is a very human failing to pretend to ourselves that there is no foe and no fear we will not face – yet in reality when the challenge seems significant or when danger begins to threaten, our first instinct is to do anything to make the problem go away. The message from each of the situations we are looking at today seems to be that if instead we face the problem, there is always the possibility that situation might be answered in most unexpected and positive ways.

First the calming of the sea…

I am told (I assume correctly)  that the lake referred to as the Sea of Galilee can be prone to strong sudden winds and I would imagine, particularly in those days, the traditional old style fishing boats would not be particularly seaworthy or safe in such conditions. I guess from the story that the fishing boat chosen as the vessel for the disciples trip would not come anywhere near any modern certification for sea-worthiness. We have reason to suspect from the discovery of the remains of boats from that time, that it would have been an open boat, too low in the water to cope with large waves and with its planks held together a combination of caulking with pitch and in all probability with nails of doubtful quality and lashed cords.

 This time Jesus had asked his disciples to attempt something a little more risky – particularly at night – and that is to set out for the other side.

So now as the wind rises and as the waves mount, these men – some of whom appear to have been seasoned fishermen – panic. This is more than a passing danger. Too far out to turn back they awaken Jesus.    In the story the disciples are angry that Jesus is sleeping instead of sharing in their situation. Then as quickly as it came – apparently in response to Jesus’ words – the storm dies.

The disciples bewilderment – and we might guess perhaps even their shame for their previous panic – leaves them with the question. Who is this man and does he really command wind and water to obey? Please note in the story it is an unanswered question left hanging and we too are left with the same puzzle.

I know that when this story is debated, the first thinly disguised rhetorical question from the critics is typically: could Jesus really control nature? For the record, I often align myself with such critics because I am definitely not a Bible literalist, but on reflection surely this is not the real point of the story.

True we could explain it away saying one of the standard weather observations is that a storm quick to rise is often quick to pass, so we might well believe that such a storm would die of its own accord, whether directed to do so or not. Yet for me the real issue is that Jesus is described as showing calm in the face of the storm to the point of sleeping while all about him was panic …..and ultimately, however it happened, we learn his calmness wins through.

Some here today may have seen the essence of that same calming miracle when for example an experienced paramedic arrives at the scene of some terrible accident – and seemingly oblivious to the panic and confusion of the worried onlookers, quietly and firmly takes control of the accident scene and before your eyes you can see everyone begin to relax.

But don’t forget there is a second story.

In this much older story we have the Israelites are drawn up in battle formation with their traditional enemies the Philistines facing them. Probably neither side was particularly looking forward to the near certainty that many would not survive to the end of the day. Then a possible way out….. As was sometimes the custom for survival an alternative was put to them. Send out a champion to do battle with our champion and decide the result by proxy. The only catch was that the Philistine champion was a fearsome prospect. In such circumstances would you have offered to be the challenger? I know I wouldn’t. Although I would like to think I would step up if I saw some thug making threats, in reality I am not sure I would be brave enough.

Goliath of Gath was indeed described a giant. If the story is to be believed (despite what I assume is exaggeration), then Goliath was a fearsome giant indeed…… a claimed nine foot tall, if I have the arithmetic correct. But when Goliath was strutting his stuff in front of Saul’s army and no-one was prepared to fight him had you spotted another detail. King Saul himself had been also described as something of a giant among his people, according to the Bible measuring seven foot.

The fact that Saul, possibly the only one who might have had a chance against the Philistine giant, was also chicken, must have seemed on the one hand to be understandable, but on the other, acutely embarrassing to the Israelites.

That the shepherd boy David was prepared to step forward in his place, armed only with a sling, was not only unexpected and brave, it was also an event which in the Bible account was a turning point in the fortunes of the two men. From that point on, David, the giant slayer who had been armed with nothing but a sling, saw his fortunes increase while Saul, for all his impressive appearance, saw his status begin to diminish in the eyes of his followers.

Of course both of these stories miss something if we focus on how believable they are. I suspect more than a few here today would have reservations yet even if they are a true record then, as historical accounts, they would only instruct as one- time events. If on the other hand, we can also see their parable-style symbolic meaning, then we can notice a more contemporary aaplication.

It is not only disciples in a boat facing the terrors of a storm or soldiers on a past battlefield who can know fear or panic. Each one of us sooner or later is bound to know great sorrow or moments of panic if we are to truly live. To love is, ( sooner or later), to risk the loss of at least one close to us. Accidents do happen. It is not just earthquakes and fires that can catch us unawares. The dangers we may unexpectedly face may vary greatly but moments of danger there most assuredly will be. To believe that facing these moments squarely, armed with nothing more than the assurance that we can find a way through and knowing that nothing can separate us from this mysterious relationship we call the love of God gives a meaning to life which points to hope.

So what have we noted that might change our individual styles of behaviour?

We read that the disciples panicked when the waves rose, yet discovered there was something about the strange nature of Christ that could calm them despite the worst the storm could offer. Perhaps the symbolism intend to show that when the panic inducing situation faces us,  we too might find for us the storm abates when we turn to what in our life’s journey we have found Christ to mean for us.

We read that when David encountered the horror of the Philistine giant Goliath he was able to prevail using only the skills he already possessed. Clearly the war between the Philistines and the men of Saul is long since over. Yet there are still untold bullying situations where we find people who matter to us being threatened by forces beyond their strength to overcome. Might it be that we too can find within our own feeble resources the skills to be champions on others’ behalf.

I am reasonably certain that none of us will command the weather as here Jesus is implied to have done, nor should we expect some David to appear on our behalf to kill the giant who threatens others, yet I believe we each have potential to contribute to peace in the midst of our personal storms, or for that matter, are probably able to put ourselves on the line when called to do so.

Some storms have nothing to do with water… and some who face the storms or the dangerous enemies on behalf of others are not found in the pages of the Bible.  Remember back to one of the bravest in our time who knows exactly what it is to put her life on the line is that extraordinary Pakistani schoolgirl (Malala Yousafzai)– and subsequently at age 17 made it as the youngest ever Nobel Peace prize winner.

She was honoured for standing up against those who used force to stop girls in Pakistan from getting an education. After receiving many death threats she continued publicizing the cause for girls’ education and even survived a Taleban assassination attempt. She refused to let the danger prevent her message getting through and continued publicizing her message in every forum she could reach right up to the United Nations.

The literalist quest to put every effort into establishing historical certainty of the more extraordinary Bible stories may well be beyond the reach of the best of scholars. Nor is there a clear answer to the disciples’ question. “Who is this man?” And what is more, living a life based on facing challenge head-on and meeting those tempest problems of doubt and worry can ultimately carry no guarantee. What we do learn from Jesus however is that just as Jesus was able to instill eventual trust in his disciples, others too have found in Christ a peace that can speak to all manner of storms and challenge. The real test will be for each of us to discover our own personal encounter with the one whose boat we claim to share.

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(Note: In these sermons, since there is now a complete lectionary set, I often rework the sermon from three years back. Since I have been assured that some read the sermons to stimulate their thinking, it would be helpful to new visitors if readers would leave their own suggested comments, illustrations or alternative interpretations for others to consider).

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Lectionary Sermon for June 13 2021 on Mark 4 26 – 34

It is not often we can say Jesus told a parable which turns out to have a special particular relevance for our time. This time it happens to be the part of today’s mustard seed parable many miss.  Today the gospel lectionary includes the story of the mustard seed. Let’s think for a moment about what is most often said about the parable then turn to the more interesting teaching from the story.

I have heard a number of critics take the fundamentalists to task by challenging the accuracy of Jesus mustard seed story. If we are honest we can at least see the critics have a sort of a point.  At the very least, if we are assuming Jesus should be up-to-date with modern science he most certainly had it wrong when he reportedly talked of the mustard seed being the smallest of seeds. What’s more, it most certainly is not a seed that grows into the most mighty shrub. Orchids and a host of other plant forms whether they be from flowers, shrubs or trees have much smaller seeds, and yes, there are very many shrub and tree species which totally dwarf the humble set of shrubs classified as the mustard.

Yet surely when Jesus told this parable, the truths he was trying to convey were never intended to stand or fall on the scientifically accuracy of the parable.  The much more interesting point then becomes what can we learn from the nature of the mustard as Jesus told the story..

When for example Mark said Jesus drew attention to the humble beginnings of the mustard, he may well have been hoping his readers and listeners might at least later remember that from Jesus’ first teaching something more significant …a new form of faith would grow.

As many botanists would tell you even today, seeds are indeed only dimly understood and although each year the scientists discover more, there seems always more to discover about each tiny part of a small seed, especially the parts carrying all the genetic information to grow a shrub big enough for birds to nestle in its branches. Life itself is infinitely strange.

Certainly for most of us that seeds have this dramatic potential to grow into something complex and wonderful is essentially beyond our current understanding, no matter how much we might think we now know about chromosomes, DNA and gene expression. It should also be a little humbling to realize that it is not just those who follow the Christian faith that can find a faith analogy in a seed.

You may have heard the Chinese story which, by tradition, was first told by the Buddha. There are different versions but one story goes something like this.
…….Once upon a time there was a mother whose son became ill and died. The mother was beside herself with grief. Unable to face living with the heavy burden of sadness, in desperation she went to a wise man.

The wise man listened sympathetically, thought for a moment and said.
“I think the answer to your problem will be a special kind of mustard seed. What you must do is this.

Find some home where they have not known the grief you have experienced, then collect a mustard seed from the garden and bring it back to me. I will then show you how to deal with your grief.”  Strange advice the woman thought….but on the other hand….. he is known to be a wise man, so she set off on this unusual quest.

The first house she chose was that of a rich family, a huge house with large well kept grounds. She explained her quest to the woman who answered the door. Is this by any chance a house where there has been no such grief as the grief I have experienced in losing my son? The woman who had opened the door, burst into tears. “You couldn’t have come to a worse place. Grief? Let me tell you about grief.” And she began to explain the total tragedy her family had suffered over recent months.

The woman who had lost her son listened, amazed that someone so rich might have encountered such disaster. On the other hand she thought to herself, perhaps my experience makes me the sort of person who might understand. So she stayed a while, consoled the sad rich woman, then when the rich woman appeared able to cope a little better, off she went on her journey again.

I think you may have already guessed. The next house was exactly the same. A nice house on the outside yet another real story of unhappy experiences – and once again she left but only after helping as best she could. And then on to the next, again a house visited by grief – and the next.

But here is the curious consequence. Gradually – imperceptibly she became more and more focused on the task of helping others and more and more forgetful of her own unhappiness.

She had started with a quest for a seed – a mustard seed and her journey brought her to the point where though her grief was still there as a memory – something else was growing in its place.

Something else Jesus’ parable might cause us to reflect, is that life is basically precarious and left to itself although the seed may have great potential, not all mustard seeds grow in the same way. Some seeds fail even to germinate and sometimes the shrub is tiny and misshapen. Again the kingdom of heaven image seems apt. The seed may be a gift with unexpected miracle to be released but I guess those of us who take on the role of gardeners can also have our part to play, which after all is what we do when we accept the challenge to follow in Jesus footsteps.

Unfortunately, because not everyone is keen on growth that takes unexpected turns, there is also a form of gardening which produces what Leslie Brandt once referred to as “bonsai” Christians. You probably know that a bonsai tree is a miniature version of a larger tree which is deliberately altered by cutting or tying its tap root so that it can be a small, decorative addition to a cultivated garden, rather than the tree nature intended it to be.

In terms of Christians I guess the tap root analogy is the one that allows continued direct contact with the main teachings of Jesus. A bonsai Christian then is one who would prefer to function without the challenge. Given a call to mission, the bonsai Christian would prefer to return to the comfort of the familiar music and listening to familiar prayer. The bonsai Christian will seek the setting of the rich wooded pews, the carved Church furniture, the sonorous organ, – or perhaps seek the modern entertainment style worship of the large crowd and technologically savvy preacher who knows how to work the crowd. A religion perhaps that pampers and comforts has an attraction for the bonsai Christian rather one than challenges and even provokes. Yet is this really what we are born for?   

This brings us to the part of Jesus’ story which seems to be written for our time.  Just think of all those nations missing out on COVID vaccines! For those of you keeping up with international news you might have noted that in the UK Boris Johnson is encountering real embarrassment at present and the UK government may be defeated in Parliament.   The reason is that the UK government over recent years has been giving 0.7 of one percent of its budget to helping less wealthy countries ….for example aid to refugees in Yemen and other places where famine and war are producing starvation.    Prime Minister Johnson’s government want to cut this aid to about 0.2 of one percent.   But before we accuse him of refusing to offer Christian aid let us ask ourselves the embarrassing question about how much our Government spends on essential aid to those who don’t share our religion or race.   

The mustard seed must be allowed to grow. This growth may not leave us undisturbed. Like many of his parables there are also strange twists, and parts we might miss if we do not look closely enough.

For example, the part where Jesus refers to the variety of birds sheltering in the branches can be taken as first glance simply as an indication of the size of the mustard shrub, yet we should also remember that the variety of birds was the standard code of the Pharisees for referring to those who lived as foreign neighbours to the Jews. I suspect this would be an awkward subject in Israel at present since the Palestinians have now lost most of their land in the carve up of Israel which started in 1948    More embarrassingly for us is look at our own history in New Zealand and ask how much land was appropriated from the Maori by those claiming to bring Christianity to this country.  I am not certain it is always a mustard seed faith being shared

For the early Christians, many of whom were Jews, this would have been a significant and even disturbing teaching. In view of the way in which, even today, there is much prejudice expressed towards those of different faiths, the mustard plant giving shelter to the birds of the world is a salutary reminder. Just as Jesus on a number of occasions found ways to highlight the potential of gentiles and Samaritans, perhaps in this age of belligerent religion we too should be acknowledging the potential for encouraging a nesting place for those who do not share our background and faith.

I guess for many of us, our start in the kingdom may have been as small and insignificant as baptism as an infant. Yet don’t forget Jesus saw potential in the tiny form of the mustard seed. After all, Jesus saw the potential in some remarkably unlikely followers who, as his first disciples, found themselves entrusted with the next stage of growth. It might it be that, with the help of this parable, we too may see that despite our humble small beginnings we too are needed as the kingdom continues its mysterious growth. AMEN

(Regular visitors to this site would have noted that lectionary sermons are frequent reworked and updated. Because the writer is limited to his own reading and experience, additions, corrections and different viewpoints are always welcome. Feel free to respond to each sermon in the comments box below.)

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Lectionary sermon: 6 June 2021 Year b, Mark 3 :20 –35

In the real world it turns out that a good proportion of we (who like to think of ourselves followers of Christ) have tended to fall away when we are called upon to live out the gospel.   Søren Kierkegaard, the poet philosopher from Denmark (and one who was critical of the established Church) put this in the form of a question and answer.   His question:  “Why is it so difficult to believe?”  then his answer: “ Because it is so difficult to obey.”  Jesus message after-all was reportedly very basic.   We are called to live a message of forgiveness, of acceptance, tolerance – and give preeminence to the expression of that mysterious term “love”.  

 I don’t think we have to look too far before we encounter many who talk as if no-one in their right mind would risk position and authority to really focus on actual needs of those at the bottom of society. There also seems a common distrust of those who put what seems like way too much time into the genuine care for the welfare of the socially unacceptable or for that matter in helping  the so-called dregs of society.

This risks carrying through to our political values.   The so-called Right Wing parties seem to have an attraction for those focused on personal wealth and often are those who set aside the concerns of those who are not privileged.  The catch is that this can unintentionally cast all such in the role of the friends of the rich apparently ignoring the needs of the poor.  Would this have been much different back in Jesus’ day?

In today’s story from Mark we find Jesus himself, busy teaching and living his message.  At least some of his family reportedly arrived to tell him it was about time he returned to his family responsibilities and to tell him to return home.   Our impression then is that at least some in the family thought Jesus was losing it.  These days we would probably say family members were trying to get Jesus sectioned.  

Don’t forget before this incident Mark presented us with a story which has Jesus facing a man with a withered arm. At least according to tradition, Jesus should not have attempted healing on the Sabbath. Jesus, true to his own teaching, had seen the man’s need as being more urgent than Jesus’ need to conform to expected behaviour. Instead he offers help.  I guess in a way this also explains Jesus’ rather dismissive attitude to family when other more pressing matters were taking his attention.

So was Jesus anti-family? The crowd was gathered around him, he was preaching to them and some came to him with a message, your brothers and mother are outside and they wish to see you. And what does Jesus say? , “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about on those who were sitting around him Jesus said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35).

As far as Jesus was concerned, to show commitment to following his way was more important than family conventions.  Jesus was reported as showing a similar focus in Matthew 8:21-22: Here it is: “Another of the disciples said to Jesus, “Sovereign, let me first go and bury my father. But Jesus said to him, Follow me; and let the dead bury the dead.”

This is not to imply Jesus had a callous disregard for family. In other places Jesus honours family responsibilities.. For example Luke 2:39-52 tells how Jesus as a child respected his parents and remained subject to them. There was reportedly another incident where Jesus rebukes his mother for something she wants him to do but goes ahead and does it anyway. The fact that his mother was reportedly still on the scene in the reported description of the crucifixion and that Jesus commended her care to his beloved disciple suggests that Jesus had never given up on family obligations.

So if Jesus still cared about his family, what is he really on about when he suggests those in the crowd are his real family?

Families are sometimes peculiar in real life. At worst they can become enclaves of power and self-protection and even hate. You might for example be able to think of family dynasties that get into politics or gain excessive wealth. Families can become extremely inwardly focussed. One of the reasons why the gap between the rich in the poor can so easily widen is because families give so much attention to looking after their own.

Of course a parent cares about the start in life their child gets. If the parent happens to be rich and can buy the best education at the best school it is normal for a parent to think first and foremost of their own child. Many would argue that if you want your child to make his or her way in the world and you happen to own a large business why not start them with a management role and even a house and car. Is it any wonder that to start an unhelpful or alternately a useful family connection might either condemn you to a life of a loser caught in poverty or alternately support that ensures your path to riches and power? Can I suggest that if we had a society where the driving force was focused on care for neighbors, our extremes of wealth and poverty would be far less?

One of the most difficult lessons in following the Christian path is to realize that our loyalties must extend further than to our immediate circle of close friends and family. Jesus’ message is not so much that we forget our care for our close family as it is we should widen the family circle to include those who are our neighbours and even those for whom we find we have little in common. That Jesus could find the equivalent of family connection with a happen-chance collection of a crowd then is modelling for how we too should approach the neighbour, the stranger, the one who at first sight appears to have a totally alien way of life.

For many of us, we have to live in the uncertain divide between Church and the world. The world daily confronts us with genuine problems where the focus can easily become myopic and inward centred. A port strike where the workers focus on their family and the need to preserve rights – while the owners of the port concentrate on the need to maximize profits for their family of share holders. It takes a very special sort of negotiator to genuinely worry about the needs of the other.

It is understandable that we direct our politicians to focus virtually exclusively on our own interests, which of course is why the people in some third world countries find our attitudes to be callous and unfair. However for those of us claiming to follow Jesus there is always an uncomfortable question in the background. If we are following Jesus, can we turn a blind eye to the needs of our foreign neighbour, or can we get away with assuming all is well when our prayers make mention of the disadvantaged only when we are safely isolated from our neighbour in Church on a Sunday?

The focus on ourselves causes us to miss seeing the others’ viewpoint. Those who don’t have a relative slowly dying in pain can be thoughtless in imposing rules about preserving life at all costs. Those whose daughter has not been raped or whose wife is not carrying a child diagnosed with the certainty of birth with dreadful brain problems can be much more self-righteous about being anti-abortion than those who not only can relate but are even forced to relate to those facing unpleasant reality.

Some of the issues are highly charged with emotion. There is now a body of research for example showing that homosexuality is not a free option for some. Since there is some research showing a discernible brain structure difference between those who are known to have homosexual behaviour and heterosexuals – and since we also now know that certain environmental backgrounds can increase the likelihood of homosexual behaviour, it then seems less acceptable to condemn someone for adopting a form of living not shared by a majority in the community.

Behaviour outside our own family or circle of understanding is easy to condemn.
I see in today’s scripture a genuine revolution in thinking that is at the heart of the gospel.

This does not of course mean anything goes. Jesus says for example that those who do the will of God are his sister and brothers. Some of those will be literal family members. Let’s not forget that our conventional labels dont count for much. The label of family member or club associate or even Church affiliate is not what gives the automatic recognition of the place in the Christian group or family. More important is the adoption and practice of those values that Jesus values so highly. The values and actions of tolerance, or compassion, of concern for neighbours, of love for those who are different – these are the things that bring us to the point where we can call ourselves members of Christ’s family.

This would greatly help our appreciation of other religions. The trouble with a religion of course is that we notice the best in the theory of our religion and the worst in the practice others’ religion. This is no contest. So for example, instead of noticing the vast majority of peaceful Muslims, we are encouraged to notice the Islamic fundamentalists, the suicide bombers and ISIS terrorists.

This does not excuse us when we contrast these things with Christianity as a religion of love. The irony is that the Islamists notice the warlike attitudes and modern day Crusades of the Christian nations to Islamic countries with their invasions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the horror weapons of white phosphorus and depleted uranium, our side’s exploitation of oil. Can we also see the Islamic view of the Christians apparent lack of charity, which offends against Zakat …one of the five pillars of Islam. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we found more ways to talk and share with those we see as our traditional enemies in faith?

In Jesus day some of the problems were a little different than those we face today. In Jesus day it was normal for parents select their children’s mates. Women were property and had no freedom in choosing their partners. Jesus may not have entirely removed that tradition but he did at least elevate women from property to persons to partners in ministry. His empathy to respect and honour little children may now seem relatively commonplace but in the record we see Jesus moving towards many of the freedoms we take for granted today.

Unfortunately although many parts of society have improved, the underlying problem of self and family circle focus are still with us. Yet Jesus’ words remain waiting our response. Those who do the will of the one Jesus called Father are Jesus’ real brothers and sisters. Is that us?

We get a clue how this might be recognized in practice from Paul. According to Paul, whenever the Spirit of Jesus comes into your life, the first evidence is your love for people. In Paul’s words: “The fruit of the Spirit is love.” (Gal. 5:22).

This then becomes our test. If we are indeed in tune with Jesus’ idea of family, when people look at our lives and our interactions, is this fruit of love in response to the faith we claim to follow, the behaviour they will see?

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LECTIONARY SERMON (Trinity Sunday 30 May 2021;John 3 1-17)

 Does faith only come from the Bible?

I read something the other day that made me smile.  A comedian called John Fugelsang said “I’ve come to view Jesus much the same way as I view Elvis.  I love the guy, but the fan clubs freak me out”.

Well, here we are – this in Church – in effect a Jesus fan-club.   Like most Churches in South Auckland, we have a congregation of largely mainstream Church members yet that doesn’t guarantee that we all automatically know the best parts of what our faith has to offer – or – more importantly, actually  find the best way to live our beliefs. 

Which brings us to Nicodemus…Here Nicodemus was, a recognized religious leader – yet strangely puzzled to see how Jesus fitted into his life. 

OK then, since today is Trinity Sunday How does the Trinity change how we live today?? We now live in an age when telescopes can probe the depths of space, looking back in time to many millions of galaxies, many with their million upon million of stars. Many of these stars are hugely larger than our home Sun and each at mind numbing distances from where we live. In that setting, do we need to change our idea of a kind of creative being which  somehow we may insist is like a human Father, yet one sufficiently in control to be creator of the entire universe?.

To believe that same Father being is concerned primarily with one species living on the surface of what, compared with the entire Universe, is but a tiny speck of a planet, is not as easy idea to sell. That this super-human type God should somehow be equivalent – in fact more than equivalent but actually mysteriously at one with a human type son – and also at one with an even more mysterious Spirit that can influence the human species in peculiar ways stretches credulity, Don’t forget the minds who first shaped the Trinity were much more limited in their understanding of creation than we are today.

I want to suggest another way of approaching this mystery. If we start instead with our perspective as humans and our need to relate to our setting, and particularly to one another within that setting, a more useful question is: how does the Trinity idea help in our present journey? 

Forget for a moment what lies beyond this world. For now our overriding concern should be with the world we inhabit. Think our environment, how it affects us and how we need to look after it , and in particular, how faith should affect our relationships with those who share our immediate communities and our setting in the wider world.

To have a relationship with creation is partly captured as a metaphor when we talk of God the Father. The notion of a Father should highlight our dependence and sense of obligation. To portray Jesus as the Son reminds us Jesus’ teaching is too important to ignore. To love as he first showed love for others is to capture the essence of the gospel. And the Spirit behind these relationships lifts the Christian journey to something above rules and regulations…God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – three metaphors which together open up some of the possibilities for the relationships we need.

Perhaps we need reminding that contrary to popular opinion the Trinity was not clearly defined by the Bible.

If you look at the emerging ideas about God we find in the pages of the Bible, one puzzle is why the notion of a Trinity was so late in its formation. It is true that the Trinity was hinted at by Jesus, although in all honesty, even here we cannot be sure that that was written in an objective sense since the gospel writers were recording their accounts years after Jesus had done his teaching, and were writing at the very time when the Trinity was only beginning to be discussed and formulated. A further complication is that Jesus seemed to be anxious not to have the perception of himself conflated with the idea of God. “Why do you call me Good?” He is recorded as saying, “Only my Father in Heaven is Good.”

So then what should we make of this idea of three in one. We get one clue when Matthew and Paul start talking of the persons of the Godhead. The Greek word meaning person they choose to use is the same as the word used to describe the masks worn by actors in Greek plays. The highly stylised Greek dramas would identify different types with different masks – yet it was always clear to the Greeks at least, that the mask was only the outward label. By using the mask term for person we get a hint that these are only the outward signs of the complexities underneath. Focusing on the mask would not be expected to tell you everything about what lay underneath.

Another clue comes from the timing. Virtually nothing about the Trinity was written up to the time of Christ, yet in the time after Christ, it dawned on his followers that here was a life that enlightened the other parts of the faith.

Historically all the new understandings of what it means to talk of God came from times of crisis. When the Jews fled from Egypt, when the Kingdom started to show signs of breakdown, when they were under siege or appeared to have wandered far from their religious and cultural roots – that was when the prophets spoke. The oldest writings in the Bible reveal a very rudimentary notion of what God meant.

In the early years the Jewish God was seen as just one God among many tribal competing Gods. At one stage on their journeys the Hebrews even carried this tribal God in a litter and when Moses presented his ten commandments there was frank acknowledgement of the other Gods around them – hence the commandment – you shall have no other Gods before me. When Isaiah is described as having an encounter with God, the plural “Elohim” is also used. As the experience accumulated – the idea of God began to grow.

This is not to say that whatever creation meant to the Jews meant that the reality behind creation itself was any different to what it is today. The Jews’ perceived world was simply very much smaller than it is to educated people today. To the Jews there could be no perception just how vast or old the Universe is – or what wonders there were at the atomic and sub-atomic level. So their God was accordingly limited by their understanding. As their experiences and crises accumulated – so their perceptions of God began to change and grow.

In times of stability and ease, there is of course no need to rethink ideas. But think for a moment what was happening at the time of the birth of the Christian Church. Those early Christians were experiencing a time of total upheaval and change. The traditional Jewish faith had rejected Jesus, perhaps because they found his challenge to be threatening. This basically meant that many of Jesus’ early followers had few supporters and no community structure that could help them. Even the Jewish Religion of the time was under siege because an unsuccessful Jewish uprising against the Romans resulted in effect in the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem – which resulted in the Diaspora – the scattering of the Jews from Israel.

Then too, the Christians needed an understanding that reflected their reality that they not only needed continued guidance, but that Spirit of Guidance could not be interpreted for them by some established hierarchy of priests working with tradition because each of their fragmented groups were virtually on their own. The traditional belief of the Jewish understanding of God the Father may have been basically unchanged at the time – but suddenly the teachings of Jesus and the notion of life constantly seeking a spirit of wisdom and an awareness that God was continuing to act for them needed discussing and formalizing.

The formula they eventually decided upon is what we now call the Trinity.
The actual formulation was not finally sorted to the majority satisfaction till the fourth Century when the crisis of the time was a bitter dispute – on a regional basis – of competing beliefs about the nature of Jesus. Although the Trinity took many of its ideas from isolated texts in the Bible – eg from the Baptismal formulation in Matthew, don’t forget there were many disputes in the first few Centuries about what was the nature of Jesus. Was he a wise prophet, the Son of Man, the Son of God – or God Himself? We should also remember that even today, although the mainline churches still maintain the fourth century formula, Christians are not agreed in what it means to say the three persons of the Trinity are the same in essence.

The Unitarians famously insist that the Trinity has no real meaning for us today and insist on one God. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) insists that the three persons of the Godhead are separate beings, with one purpose rather than being one in essence. The Binitarians claim two persons but one deity and – and it is clear there are others as well.

Some contemporary Christian scholars now talk of the Trinity as an idea that was appropriate for its time ie 4th Century AD – but one that needs further development to take into account modern understanding. One problem I referred to earlier is that just as science has revealed a far vaster universe of unbelievable grandeur and complexity, the notion of what was formerly thought to be a creator God with human like characteristics becomes increasingly inappropriate.

Our Church leaders are not simply outdated when they talk merely of an inspiring and helpful intellectual idea. Thinking of the Trinity as a sort of academic religious formula of mystery would of course be next to useless. Remember the whole point of introducing the formula was to elevate the teachings of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit to a point where they would provide trusted guidance for decision making in often difficult situations – of the sort faced on almost a daily basis by those in the early Church.

Leaving it as an academic formula with its inherent problems is more akin to a character in Alice in Wonderland believing six impossible things before breakfast. On the other hand treating the Trinity as something to be lived, takes Christianity from being a sort of spectator sport to one where we too can respond with confidence to the guidance we find in the words of Jesus as capturing the essence of a human expression of God – and trusting to the mysterious Holy Spirit to go with us into new territory.

The next bit I am less confident about expressing in public. I want to say signing up to Jesus’ way is not only intended as something to be experienced and lived….in my view at least, it should be a work in progress. We might do well to remember that the notion of the Trinity was established post Jesus and in fact a process only taking shape at least a hundred years after the last of the books of the Bible had been written. It was established to meet the changing situation – and here is the important point….the situation has continued to change. As the situation changes should we not rethink whether or not our understanding might also need revising?

For us new shades of meaning must come as human responsibilities to other people and understanding of nature itself changes.    What lie beneath the masks symbolizing the trinity now invites responsibility for our day-to-day ethical problems far removed from those facing the early Church.

The challenge is to take the essence of Jesus teaching and apply it to today’s new situations: like facing the problems of mercy killing the terminally ill and long suffering in hospital, like dealing with the myriad of foreign religions and caring about those with entirely different backgrounds to ourselves. Don’t forget we now face new responsibilities for problems of distribution of resources in a finite world. What should we do about COVID – about depleted soils, genetic engineering, nuclear power, over population – the list is almost endless.

This brings us to what I see the real question about the Trinity to be. Either as a metaphor – or as reality, if we are indeed inspired by the idea, surely we should be planning to do different things because of our understanding?

Because our circumstances and understanding change the Trinity seems very likely to be a work in progress… so a homework question. Have we reached a personal view of the Trinity that changes our life?

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Lectionary sermon for May 23 2021 Pentecost (Year b) on John 15:26-27,16:4b-15 (and Acts 2:1-21)

The Israelites resembled many tribal groups in their fascination with stories of life-changing events and mysteries.  It is not surprising that now, down through the ages, stories of many nations’ key events have been embroidered and celebrated by more than just the Israelites.   

Many of the changing memories of past faith and tradition-based stories are understandably difficult to reconcile with contemporary discoveries in science, history and archeology.  Nevertheless sometimes the surviving codes and symbols conveyed by the stories still seem important to convey feeling, identity and a sense of belonging. This is why, like the parables in the New Testament, to focus on the accuracy of the “reporting” is to miss the point.

The story of Pentecost as recounted by Luke is certainly one to test literal credibility, but at the very least we need to know why the account of Pentecost signified a change of direction for the early Church.  Remember the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers now found themselves without the physical presence of Jesus.  An additional problem was that for the majority, being driven from Israel along with the rest of the Jews in the aftermath of the unsuccessful revolution against the Romans, many would have found themselves reluctant refugees, desperately looking for a sense of Spirit even as they were struggling for their own acceptance in unwelcoming communities.

 If we remember that like many to whom Luke was addressing his story, the question about Pentecost then becomes –  not – Do you accept the truth of the details of the story of Pentecost as recounted by Luke? – but the more interesting question – How does the story of Pentecost  make a difference to the way those like us (who were not there) to sense the spirit behind their faith?

Think back to the setting…   The Bible scholars here will no doubt remember that many years prior to Pentecost being adopted by the fledgling Christian Church,  Pentecost had started out as a Palestinian harvest festival.  It was then later modified by Jews searching for a way to remember the key event in which Moses was thought to have received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt Sinai.  It was set aside to be celebrated fifty days after Passover.   Passover was intended to celebrate the event when in about the year 1300 BC the Israelites were led out of Egypt by Moses.   Just for the record the word “Pentecost” is from the Greek word for fiftieth.

Here in today’s story from the book of  Acts, Luke describes how it was that Pentecost also became a festival for the followers of Jesus.    As Luke saw it, Book of Acts, Ch 2, verses 1-21 …..  The disciples were gathered in a room. Next there was a mysterious sound of wind that filled the whole house – then as if that wasn’t enough, tongues of fire appeared, separated and came to rest on the shoulders of each one….and finally the tricky bit… Suddenly the followers of Jesus were able to speak in languages so that observers from lots of different nations were each able to hear their own language in their own tongue.

Those familiar with Old Testament stories will no doubt have found in that Pentecost story some familiar symbols.  For the Old Testament writers, wind and fire were portrayed as God’s calling cards. Remember God spoke to Moses via the burning bush. For Ezekiel the dry bones in the valley were restored to life by the mysterious four winds.   Should we also remember back to the spirit of wind moving over the waters to create life in the Biblical story of the creation?     And wasn’t it the whirlwind of fire that lifted Elijah aloft in a helicopter-like chariot of fire?

At a more prosaic level Luke may have been only too aware that fire would have been a current concern for many of his audience particularly since the Romans would have recently effectively sacked and burned much of Jerusalem.   

But all of that doesn’t tell us what Pentecost now means for us in a more everyday world.   The Church has used this Pentecost account in many different different ways.    Some churches seek to replay the event each Pentecost  Sunday.

When I was still an undergraduate at University I once attended a Pentecostal service to see what it was all about. The congregation responded to the words of the visiting preacher by standing, arms in the air, swaying and babbling what seemed to me to be strange sounding words. I too became carried away by the emotion and joined in swaying, waving and babbling. Then suddenly a baby started crying in the front row. The annoyed preacher suddenly abandoned his effort to demonstrate speaking in tongues with “Lady, get that baby out of here!”

I cheerfully concede that few preachers, Pentecostal, conservative or liberal would have responded that way way but at the very least this incident reminds us that (should I add “hopefully”?) one important outcome of worship is not so much that the Pentecostal worship act in church follows the right formula, but rather that those present are thereby inspired to live the teaching of the one whose Spirit we claim to seek..

Another caution occurred to me from my study about Pentecost.   I was particularly struck by reading how, many years ago, one of the Medici family who was a then prominent Church leader in Rome,(and also happened to be a bit of a showman) staged a memorable Pentecost replay.   This churchman decided to treat the congregation to complete stage effects.    He organized for the sound of wind – then arranged for flames to come down from the ceiling.    It was quite a show .   According to the account I read, some of the actors playing the part of the disciples, had their clothes catch on fire – and although they emitted loud noises it might have had more to do with the Church then catching on fire – and some of the wooden houses nearby also burning.       I suspect he was not invited to repeat the act again the following year.  

The question I want to ask about acting our Pentecost is one I believe all Christians need to answer for themselves.   Luke’s story of portraying Pentecost suggested the tongues of fire and the consequential speaking in tongues was an experience that reduced barriers between people.    How do we get on – as a people signed up to Jesus, when it comes to those who are very different?

As it happens although Pentecost in the early Church is not directly mentioned in the four gospels of the New Testament but at least John refers in several places to the Spirit. For example in today’s gospel reading we note Jesus saying he will leave a comforter with us to help out his followers even if if it should be that they were being persecuted?

When at the beginning of John Chapter 16 Jesus was saying “they will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” This was of course a direct reference to  what John would have now known to be  Roman persecution of both Jews and Christians.    We might also note the implication is that the place where the action takes place would not be in the synagogue or place of worship. For our generation where there is a temptation for Christians to see our main focus as being what happens in the Church building it is also a reminder that, the activity of whatever Spirit Jesus is describing, it finds its real meaning in the challenges we meet in the sometimes confusing and sometimes even scary everyday world.

Although Jesus makes reference to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (or Advocate) – in today’s gospel passage this is most certainly not encouragement for some holy withdrawal from reality…and nor does it invite expecting the resurrected Jesus to somehow perform magic to take away the threat or even to do the work on our behalf.

The power of the magic and mystical has always held some attraction. We might note for example there is a company in the United States called Paraclete that manufactures and sells bullet proof vests! I see little evidence that the Holy Spirit provides protection from bullets as the followers of many Christian martyrs through the ages will no doubt attest. Yet this is not to say the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with our coping with adversity. John records Jesus as giving examples of the threat being real. In summary he appears to say, “I will no longer be there to act on your behalf, but the Spirit will help you find the words to say and the actions to take”. Please note, he did not add …. “and thereby you will avoid pain or real danger.”

You may recall that in last week’s New Testament readings about the Ascension, Jesus’ removal from the scene is emphasized. The two “angels” (or at least men in white) who were said to be present when Jesus disappeared asked the disciples, “Men of Galilee, Why do you stand looking up?” (Acts 1: 11) Whether this was recorded as a symbolic or actual event, the clear implication was that it was no longer appropriate for the disciples to continue looking for their help from Jesus in heaven. Their immediate tasks and challenges were tasks very much grounded in what we might now call “the here and now”.

One of the current serious issues facing much of the Western world at present is very much down to earth in the unequal deal offered to whole populations. While our country is chasing the policies that will continue to keep us near the top in luxury and peace,  the poor are very much still with us.   Internationally there are boatloads of starving refugees desperately seeking anywhere they can land to give them a start in life. The rich nations certainly don’t see them as neighbours in the sense that Jesus advocated. Each time we have a budget it is fair to remind ourselves that our true beliefs are revealed in the policies we demand. Socialism?… maybe, capitalism? – maybe …. but it is fair to ask which form of government most closely reflects the Spirit of Christ.

To leave Christ out of the equation would for example be to focus entirely on one’s own immediate needs and only give token concern to the needs of those others less fortunate. Is this what others might see in us.

Each time we have an election we hear outrage expressed by the left about the plight of the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Those among the rich seem more concerned about their taxes going to help the unemployed. The thought that all of us should be primarily concerned not for ourselves but for our neighbours, rich or poor doesn’t seem to come into the discussion.

How very different is the focus of those dominated by the Spirit. In one of the alternative readings suggested in the lectionary for today ,1 Corinthians Ch 12 verses 3 -13, Paul explains that there are different gifts of the Spirit, but the point is that each is designed for the common good and not by implication for personal advancement. The fruits of the spirit are similarly easy to discern. Love, joy, kindness and generosity should indeed be discerned in gifts of the Spirit, for the genuine Spirit we seek is the same Spirit which was shown to be expressed in Jesus – and now which must be expressed in those who claim to follow.  Objectively, in what way do we show in our living we reflect something of the Spirit of Christ?

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Lectionary Sermon for 16 May 2021 (Easter 7 b) on John 17: 6-19

The Judas effect The recent “unreasonable uprising” by the Palestinians and subsequent response by the Israelis – or perhaps the recent Islamic bombing of women and children in Afghanistan are just two of a long line of events to act as a focus for our righteous Western outrage.   Am I the only one that can remember that each time Palestinians protest their loss of territory, more Palestinians that Israelis die in the following dustup. And for that matter, do we remember that before the US was being told they were unwelcome in Afghanistan a few years back the unacceptable villains in Afghanistan were the Russians attempting to impose military enforced order in Afghanistan?

And let’s face it over recent times there is normally no shortage of those lining up to condemn acts of outrage.

There is something almost therapeutic about great villains.

 Mind you, it is awkward that villains are not always easy to identify. No-one appeared to have noticed the Christchurch mosque attacker until he started shooting.  Didn’t even Adolf Hitler in the period prior to the Second World War have many admirers in the West. Henry Ford, Charles Lindberg the US aviator, the humourist P G Wodehouse, even King Edward VIII were among many thousands in the West who had many good things to say about Hitler in his early rabble rousing days.

Yet once the evil is identified and the tide has gone the other way, there is a rush to condemn. This way whatever has gone wrong may be directed entirely at the identified sinners and our own sins can be quietly overlooked for the time being. I heard a second hand dealer in war memorabilia, after a trip to Bavaria, say that it was intriguing that although virtually every family in Bavaria had contributed in some way to supporting Hitler, that it was his impression as you travel around the Bavarian villages today that no-one is prepared to admit their family had anything to do with Hitler.

To many, Judas Iscariot is a villain in the same mould, now one of the most talked about apostles and definitely the most reviled, yet now remembered as one who has no characteristics admitted to be in common with the rest of us.

Many stage magic tricks rely for their illusion on drawing the attention of the audience towards an obvious distraction while the real action takes place elsewhere. It seems to me there is an analogy here with what I would like to suggest should be called the Judas effect.

So what is it we see when we look at Judas? The popular wisdom about Judas as the evil betrayer of Jesus, would have us think that here is a man who should never been chosen as a disciple in the first place. He, who after all that had happened, presumably despite Judas seeing the goodness and wisdom of Jesus, he then betrays him for thirty pieces of silver to the High priest and the Sanhedrin and later, naturally as we would expect, overcome by his feelings of guilt at the enormity of his crime, we find him facing a richly deserved end.

Yet all is not quite as it seems. For example in Acts Ch 1 verse 18. We read: “With the reward he got for his wickedness Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out”. Then it says in verse 19: “Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this so they called the field in their language ‘Akeldema’, that is, field of blood”. Everyone in Jerusalem?… Well , perhaps not quite.

Matthew in Ch 27 of his gospel claims that Judas was so upset he returned to the Priests and having failed to get them to take back the money, threw the money down at their feet and went out and hanged himself. In Matthew’s version it was the priests who used what they called “blood money” to purchase the Potters’ field for use for the burial of foreigners. I will leave it to wiser scholars than I to work out which account (if either) is the more likely to be true.

Perhaps in the interests of accuracy in scholarship I should even add to the confusion by reminding you that a Gnostic gospel called the Gospel of Judas written about the same time as the other gospels not rediscovered until around the 1970s,  portrays Judas almost as a hero and gives an alternate version saying that Jesus himself had encouraged Judas to betray him to fulfill scripture. The Gospel of Judas also claims that Judas had a vision that the disciples would later persecute and stone Judas.

We may well see a deliberate sinner when we look at Judas, but Jesus finds something else. There is an interesting phrase in Jesus’ reported take on Judas in today’s gospel reading. He said “None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (John Ch 17 verse 12 b). Perhaps then Gospel of Judas might have contained a grain of truth and perhaps too, Judas had no real choice in his action.

It is certainly in line with the modern psychological finding that circumstances and background have far more influence on our decision making than we care to admit. For some, we now know that they are clearly predestined at least for the high probability of actions we often call sin. Think about it. The child brought up after being born with foetal alcohol syndrome, the child born with extreme autism, or the one born into a crack house or P lab. Are we really surprised that those have anti-social tendencies?

Then there are those born into a family where a particular society view of those considered to be enemies is frequently expressed. Is it any wonder children can be recruited to be suicide bombers if they are indoctrinated from an early age? Is it a judgment on them or us that society requires them to be condemned and punished to the full letter of the law?

This is relevant to those who wish to walk the Christian walk because it suggests we need to be very careful before condemning others for their actions. Modern psychology and brain chemistry show how a variety of factors beyond personal control influence actions, so the enjoinder “Judge not lest you yourself be judged” has support from science as well as religion. We might note in passing the Calvinists take a similar line in that they suggest that from what Jesus said about Judas in today’s passage that he had little say in it because he was predestined to betray Jesus.

It should also give us pause for thought that Jesus invited this same Judas to join the disciples, and that he was clearly trusted in that there is a verse reminding us that Judas was delegated to look after the disciples’ money. Perhaps he would have made a good parish steward. One Gospel story about Judas hints that he had a liking for money. You may well remember where Judas questions the wisdom of Mary Magdalene wasting expensive perfume on Jesus, yet is this so very different from the similar arguments are frequently heard when Church money is being discussed at Church leaders’ meetings? We would never have found ourselves in such a situation – or would we?

Some commentators have suggested that Judas’ surname suggests he was part of the Zealot rebel movement which might have meant he had an additional reason for abandoning Jesus in that the Zealots were trying to mount armed rebellion against the Roman invaders, and from what we read of Jesus, he was equally determined to tread a path of peace. I seem to remember that when George W Bush took America into the now unpopular war in Iraq there was almost universal support in the West for the violence considered at the time to be just. How many I wonder, remembered at that time they were also following one who had said: blessed are the peacemakers? Are some of the supporters of the US invasion of Iraq now even having second thoughts?  Maybe we are not so different from the Zealots after all.

Unfortunately the rush to judgment is a human characteristic. Other scholars remind us that, whatever the reason for different writers portraying Judas in different ways, that in all accounts, because Jesus was betrayed to Jewish authorities rather than to the Romans, this has provided an unfortunate excuse for picking on the Jews down through the centuries on the grounds that through their ancestors’ actions, as with Judas’s act of betrayal, they are judged to be killers of Christ. For the anti-Semitic thinkers (which at times encompassed whole populations), that Jesus himself was a Jew and that the other apostles were also Jews appears to have escaped attention.

Defending Jesus memory with acts of persecution in this way with a myopic eye-for-an-eye mentality is curious in that it is almost opposite to what Jesus taught. It is almost as for those expressing anti-Semitic thoughts of outrage, that the declaimed views about Jesus have virtually nothing to do with following his teachings.

It is true there is no way that circumstances are likely to bring us to a direct betrayal of Christ, or at least not in the same way as Judas is reported to have done. Nevertheless there are reminders in this reading that we too might get tempted into another form of betrayal to Jesus message. Remember the reading starts with a Jesus talking of the need for obedience. The implication is that it is obedience to the way and acceptance of the message rather than the way of the world which presumably includes Judas’ natural preference of improving his lot that characterizes what a true follower is intended to be.

This then raises the awkward point that perhaps we too should ask if we ever give priority to improving our lot ahead of our intention to be loyal to Jesus’ message. The status commonly associated with success in the Church may not always sit well with Jesus’ words. The corollary to this is that obedience is actually not normally associated with successful leadership in the conventional sense. It is rather those who operate as servants who put obedience as a guiding principle. What does this tell us is required of us in our day to day dealings with others?

The Judas effect may draw our attention towards Judas’ sin and cause us to overlook our own weakness. Ultimately however, the description of what happened is not where the real action should take place. The important action takes effect when we realize that accepting Christianity is not so much a passing acknowledgement of the stories of the Bible, but rather a genuine attempt to follow the teachings of the one at the centre of the story.

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Lectionary Sermon 9 May 2021 Easter 6b on John 15:9-17

GETTING DOWN TO THE BASICS

Normally in past times of crisis – whether it be war, pandemic, or economic collapse or impending political upheaval, we might have expected an upsurge in those turning to religion for last resort help.   Is it just me or are many now seeing traditional church as inadequate as a refuge against the current challenges?   If so there are probably many reasons. 

 However for me two reasons stand out.   At least in my home country (New Zealand), as far as I can tell, most of the immigrants in the past came from relatively few nations and most from lands where traditional Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and/or Roman Catholic Churches were the leading repositories of social and religious guidance.  Since the Second World War there has been great diversification of immigrants and with it many versions of religious groupings none of which seem to have universal appeal. The new-comers are understandably uneasy surrounded by what they see as threats to their traditional religious practice while a good number of us find ourselves remaining increasingly lonely in churches which were appropriate for an earlier setting.    The Churches were in effect designed for the previous generation of immigrants.  Is it surprising we find ourselves looking about at aging and diminishing congregations.

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The second issue is that science and technology have edged ahead in their practical value and at the same time reshaped society.   The ever present problems of the health, welfare and security of the people are no longer the preserve of Church leadership.  While many new immigrants often show a strong religious affiliation to any of a number of religions from their own past home nations , typically the new groups express concern about arriving in a community where there seems to be growing secularity.  Perhaps we would do better to check our wider community to identify those who are missing out on needed assistance and if the Church cannot provide this, put the needy in touch with those who can.

So for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, how is it working out?


If we forget for a moment our own view of our own particular brand of Christianity, it is hard not to notice that the disparate sub-groups, all claiming to follow Jesus, behave very differently in living out their religion. And it becomes a fair question. So in general do you think his followers are noticed as living Jesus’ message?  If it comes to that… more to the point…. are we living that message?

Look around. Which group would others see us as representing? Some are very religious and put their emphasis on acts of worship. Some Church groups are struggling to maintain buildings and staff and have little energy left for practical mission and are not necessarily noted for providing welfare assistance to the wider community. Some are very caring and visit the sick, care for the refugees and the poor and stand up for the rights of the oppressed. Is that us? Others are extremely judgmental and rather than seeking ways to help those who are strangers to the community try to reinforce their own sense of belonging by expressing disgust at those who don’t share the same set of beliefs and values.

Surrounded by a group of approximately like-minded Church members we might feel comfortable in our attitudes to scripture and assume our faith is affecting our day to day living in a positive way. Yet are we are consistent with Christian teaching in the way we treat those outside our circle of faith?   I want to suggest that just as those closest to Jesus needed to be pushed out of their comfort zone in following their master, perhaps we too should be vigilant that we are not becoming too complacent in the living of our faith.

Yes, I know that if we are relatively regular in Church attendance sooner or later we are bound to encounter many of the standard stories of our faith. And yes that may be as good a place as any to start the Christian life.

But I guess the real question then becomes: how are we goingin developing our own faith action stories in our own lives? And perhaps even more pointed: are our attitudes and actions helping others understand the gospel?

Studying the Bible, and hearing about Jesus and the adventures of his disciples may inspire us but surely that can only take us so far towards living the Christian life. Sooner or later we have to decide for ourselves which parts of our faith are important enough to give direction to our life’s journey, and it is good to pause every now and again to ask ourselves if this journey is working out in a positive way for ourselves and those who are influenced by our decisions.

It is actually quite easy to lose one’s way when it comes to Christianity.   Sometimes the arguments over the details of interpretation and what the earnest-minded and even the fanatical might call the basics of belief, draw attention away from something Jesus claimed to be at the heart of his message. I may have it wrong but as far as I can tell the message Jesus emphasizes is essentially a call to relationship.

Remember his two key commandments. Love God – and love one’s neighbour.  The relationship commitment has two parts.  First is to embark on a life-long journey to seek that mysterious creative and elusive “God” force which draws us to journey with a sense of wonder, and the second, to find and then use a human setting for the awakened sense of love and compassion. Without this commitment to Love, as Paul so eloquently put it in chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians, we are nothing.

Jesus is very clear about the attitude required for this commitment and, according to the gospel accounts he himself was prepared to die for this principle. In our reading from the gospel of John, we discover Jesus telling his disciples that they are to love, but not just love in general, they are to love as he has loved them. Although that sounds straightforward, to find meaning in his statement we must first be sure we know how Jesus expressed his love.

Before we reflect on how Jesus loved the disciples, we might pause and think for a moment as to who the disciples were. According to all four gospels, the disciples were most assuredly not clones of Jesus. Loved they may have been but they were not all portrayed as particularly loveable. Peter for example comes across as impetuous and, at least before the Crucifixion, when it came to the crunch, even cowardly.

There were those who were ambitious vying for places of honour in heaven, and of course the largely illiterate majority who are portrayed as slow to understand Jesus’ message.  Perhaps we should not forget to mention the potentially dangerous Judas. In short as a group, none were obviously worthy recipients of Jesus compassion and concern. Certainly a clear majority are recorded as deserting Jesus at the very time he most needed them.

For all their potential problems, Jesus did not appear to have gone out of his way to choose as followers those like himself. The implication then is that by talking of love for one’s fellows (as Jesus himself had shown love), was not a prior requirement of those who would be disciples. Jesus commitment with his disciples was one to those who happened to be close-by.

Dr Liz Carmichael from Oxford University, herself one who committed her efforts to working with the afflicted, saw this radical Messianic friendship of Jesus as: “Making friends with people who are not my sort”. Or perhaps even in Bishop Desmond Tutu’s words “an enemy is a friend waiting to be made”.  So a political question…  Does that mean we are not representing Jesus if we want to keep refugees at a distance?   

Would a Christian nation do that? Not all of us have the confidence to commit ourselves to strangers, but there is nevertheless, for most of us another form of relationship thrust upon us by force of circumstance. “You may choose your friends” goes the adage, “but you can’t choose your relatives”. If, as the history of Christianity’s saints suggest, it is possible to commit one-self to those who might even have a different view-point or different culture, then how much easier should it be to share commitment to those whose connection is that of a relationship by birth.

Loving those who circumstances bring our way could only help a fractured and uncertain society. In practice we should be truthful with ourselves and admit while John records Jesus as making the ideal of love key to his message, few if any of the saints were able to achieve this ideal in all aspects of their lives.  This means while clearly it is an ideal worth striving for, it is probably best understood as a goal rather than as a prerequisite for the Christian journey.

Ethics is inevitably situational in practice because we cannot know in advance what the calls upon the best of our intentions are going to be. Crunch situations find us out. “Greater love has no man than this, (the saying goes) that he is prepared to lay down his life for his friend” said Jesus. Today can we widen it and say “ he or she” …and “his or her”.   The catch is that in the real world we have no knowledge of whether or not such a dilemma is going to confront us and still less how we will respond in practice.

We do know that such situations are uncommon. The one who dashes into the burning building to save a trapped child, the one who responds to the call for help against the armed assailant, or the one who swims out in treacherous surf to the drowning swimmer are inspiring but rare examples of Jesus’ injunction, but in the same way the disciples were found wanting when the soldiers came for Jesus, the truth is that we do not know how we would be found in such circumstances.

We know from history that the practice of prayer and Bible reading would not automatically equip us for such an occasion. The small percentage of clergy prepared to stand up against unfair provisions for families, or the few who speak up against inhumane Government policy, or show leadership resulting in tolerance for unpopular minorities suggests that even Church position is no guarantee of loving and sacrificial attitude.

Nevertheless Jesus places this ideal squarely before us so what should our response be? If we are to take his message seriously perhaps the most sensible reaction is to make a determined effort to begin by shifting our first loyalty from ourselves, to those around us. Of course we can never be certain that our commitment to others is going to win through when the unexpected arises, but it does seem to me that until we see those about us as worthy of attention, worthy of sympathy and worthy of sacrifice we have not begun to understand how to honour those we claim to love.

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Lectionary Sermon for 2 May 2021, Easter 5b (The True Vine) John 15: 1-8

TRUE VINE OR GRAPES VIA “SPIT THE PIPS”

If we reflect on the nature of Christianity today, the best we might say is that we are a mixed bunch.      Certainly, anywhere up to one fifth of the world’s population would probably call themselves “Christian”, but remember that many of these will be nominal Christians at best.  At a recent Church service I encountered a final blessing which made me stop and think.  It finished with the words:  “May we be blessed as we bless one another”.   It seems a fair trade but as practising Christians do we really bless others in our thoughts and actions?

Reflect on the following.   Surveys of prison populations in Western countries invariably seem to come up with a majority of inmates categorizing themselves as Christian.   Large scale surveys of ethical behaviour rarely find much difference between Christian and non-Christian behavior. Self described Christian nations are rarely markedly charitable and few nations give a significant portion of their GDP to the assistance of disadvantaged regions.  

“Blessed are the peacemakers” yet the 2000 or so years since Christ have not been particularly marked by Christian pacifism and we would have to admit that many examples of torture and genocide have been carried out in the name of Christ.   Most of the combatants on both sides in both World Wars were self-identified Christians. If you think the Crusades were a bad advertisement for the followers of Christ, just pause for moment to reflect on all those wars between the Catholics and the Protestants, or reflect on the forced colonization of South America and much of Africa.

Of course this is only one side of the story.     Think of those Christians who started our education system, the hospitals which were often Christian based, and many of the reformers who were motivated by what seems a genuine real faith.  

With perhaps up to three years of the Jesus ministry to generate the original events and memories on which the gospels were based – and a few decades of telling and retelling the stories before they were recorded, we are fortunate that virtually all the material selected is sufficiently fresh and vivid to stand the test of time. John, for example, has picked up on a number of metaphors Jesus is said to have used. Each one of these is related to potential human experience. I am the true vineI am the waythe truth and the life, I am the light etc. Today’s gospel picks up the striking image of Jesus as the true vine.

If we go back a little we can presume that Jesus is addressing this to his disciples, those who had already chosen to follow him.  The grapevine was an image well known to the Jews. The historian Josephus (who is the main non-Christian historian who provides independent evidence for Jesus) describes the Temple in Jerusalem as having golden decorations on its entrance archways with human sized depictions of grape clusters on a grape vine. In another place the scriptures referred to the Jews as God’s vine-stock damaged by captivity in Babylon and brought to Israel. The prophets also captured this image and Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel and the Psalmists all used the same metaphors of the Jews as part of the vine – and of God as the Vine dresser.

In John the image is expanded and the new branches on the vine are apparently taken to mean the Gentiles who are now also part of the picture.

The bit about the non-fruiting branches being destroyed may even have been partly John’s addition because he was writing at a time between 85 and 115 CE when the Temple had already been destroyed and the Jews driven from Jerusalem. Certainly some of the reported comments about the Jews are problematic in that Jesus and the disciples were Jews and such passages were later used as an excuse for prejudice against the Jews.

True that to think of Jesus as the true vine is only a metaphor, yet metaphors can remind us of truth that we may prefer to overlook. For example, it may seem a minor point but a vine that is grown for fruit production is only cultivated for that one reason. If it does not produce the fruit it has no other purpose. Thus for those who believe that the purpose of Church is getting together for worship, this may be to miss Jesus’ point. It may even be worth reflecting on how those in our community might view the “fruit” being produced. A grocery or fast food shop has a discernible purpose for a community. If our local Church were to disappear tomorrow it is worth asking why it would be missed. What good fruit is produced there?

It is true that any metaphor can be subject to unwise interpretation, but if nothing else using a true vine is good gardening practice. At worst, the lazy naive gardener might plant fruit trees and grape vines by the process best known as spitting the pips. That grape you have just tasted might well be the best you have encountered, but as any gardener would tell you, the chances of taking the seed from that grape and getting it to produce the same version of grape with the same characteristics is almost impossibly small.

The standard practice is to select the good fruiting vine with great care and having identified the one required, take cuttings from that vine and graft them onto separate root stock. Simply being in the same vicinity as the well grafted stock won’t do it. Joining a congregation where there are warm and active Christians doesn’t mean that all who are associated with that congregation will have those same characteristics. Each individual shoot must be considered separately

If we look back over the last two thousand years we see all too often it has not always been Jesus’ teaching with his central principles of compassion forgiveness, peace, justice and acceptance which has always been at the center of the expression of Church, but rather sometimes it is as if there is a graft to power, position, local custom, exclusivity and religiosity. The clue – as with viticulture – is to see what fruit has been produced.

Families are linked automatically by relationships put in place by happen-chance of birth. You may not always like your cousin or brother or aunt but there is a tie which is there as of right by birth. This is not so with a faith. In the case of the vine of Christianity we should not be linked to the family tree as of right, because the sap of life for those attached to Christ is in effect the flow of love and compassion. Nor for that matter, are we linked to the vine by self-labels like being born again, like being evangelical, or liberal or conservative. The real fruits of faith are seen more in our attitudes to one another than in our statements of faith.

If the flow is interrupted, the relationship becomes suspect and the fruit will not be acceptable.

If the branch is not productive or if it begins to die, horticultural practice suggests it should be excised. Here it is not clear if Jesus was talking about the person or the characteristics of a person or even if his words should apply to whole communities. The reality is, if we are human, we will have human failings as well as human gifts. Our faith communities are unlikely to be exempt. In this observation Jesus is saying no more than we know to be true. Not all parts of the vine produce good fruit – and not all dimensions of human behaviour are acceptable. What is more debatable and which even seems at odds with other things Jesus said, is his reported statements about destruction and burning of the parts which have been cut.

The notion that the humans themselves might be cut off, rejected and burned does not fit in with other parts of Jesus actions and teachings. In other places for example, he accepted sinners and those who had no right to be accepted. However since he seems to acknowledge that even among the faithful we should expect there will be those who will have attitudes and behaviour which are contrary to the principles he taught. It follows that such behaviour and attitudes should be corrected.

In reality the identification of weakness is not automatically followed by instant improvement. The sad truth is that many succumb to a host of addictions and undesirable thinking and behaviour patterns. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for all their successes can also identify many failures. It is all very well to agree in principle to love enemies, to love the poor and fight for the disadvantaged – but in practice it is difficult to do alone.

Perhaps we get a hint of how to at least start becoming a productive part of the vine in Jesus words of encouragement.
I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you bear much fruit. But apart from me you can do nothing.”

Building Christian Community may start with the identification of the theory of Christ’s teaching but as long as it stays with reading and hearing about Jesus and his interaction with those who would follow, it will remain unrealized.

Jesus talks of those areas of the vine not producing fruit. This calls for honesty – and not, as many seem to think, only honesty about the lack of applied Christianity in others. The fruit of the Gospel in our lives will be apparent to strangers, to friends and neighbours and not least, if we are honest,  to ourselves.

What is required is that we actually need to follow Jesus’ example of caring about those who are not necessarily deserving of our care. We need to be peacemakers – not just in theory – but in defusing actual disputes, we need to be identifying and meeting injustice, and above all we need to be serving others. In short we need to be abiding in Christ.

When it comes to identifying the useless parts of the vine, knowing that others are likely to have weaknesses may be a truth – but Jesus’ notion that the vine will have weaker parts reminds us that we too may have weaknesses and maybe what is required is not so much judgment of others, as helping one another overcome our weaknesses. Jesus reminds us that we have to be ruthless in dealing with weaknesses that get in the way of producing fruit. Nowhere does he say only in other people.

Finally I want to suggest that whether or not the metaphors used to help us understand Jesus are going to make a difference will ultimately depend on whether or not we truly believe Jesus’ teaching is for the community we inhabit in the setting of a real world. If there was good news in Easter, it has to be good news for the life we and others live. The true vine produces the fruit. May others find in us the evidence of that true vine.

May we be blessed as others are blest by us.    AMEN

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A GOOD SHEPHERD FOR THE MODERN WORLD

Lectionary sermon for 25 April 2021 Easter 4 b John Ch 10: 11-18

Who exactly is this good shepherd that many Christians now claim they follow?   But before we answer, here is a thought. Perhaps the Jesus concept we think of ourselves living by will be found to be different for each of us.  Our true beliefs will emerge in our actions and our choices rather than what we claim to believe in Church.  If this is the case, the way we hope others will respond to the faith we claim to share may depend more on us than on stories we share in Church.

The shepherd image that Jesus referred to may even mislead us today.

What do we think of when we think of a good shepherd? These days, shepherds in the West might even be thought of as having it easy. Typically there are now all sorts of aids available to make the job relatively straightforward including drones. Most shepherds I have met at least have access to a farm bike, sheep dogs– and the wonderful inventions of barbed wire and modern steel gates to keep the sheep safe when unattended. If it rains the shepherd is usually protected by waterproof gear and can always leave the sheep to it and seek shelter for him (or herself). In the unlikely event of a rogue dog worrying the sheep there is always a rifle somewhere handy. The shepherd often returns to the farmhouse for a comfortable night’s sleep and now-days is often paid above the minimum rate for unskilled workers.


While Jesus is clear enough in likening himself to the good shepherd, religious art of the sort deemed appropriate for Sunday schools has not helped much with the image. When At Sunday school all those years ago I remember a picture of a man clearly of European descent with a beard and a kind expression, wearing a shining white cloak carrying a dear little lamb in his arms while other lambs gamboled at his feet. From what I have since learned, this image could not be more misleading.


For those first Century listeners, the image Jesus uses would have had far more impact. Sheep have notoriously poor vision which is why of course they simply follow the sheep ahead of them. Without the advantage of sheep dogs the shepherd would need to be so familiar to the sheep that they would follow where he led, otherwise they would most certainly starve for the grass was sparse.


The Judean central plateau stretches from Hebron to Bethel – something like 35 miles long and in most places about 15 miles across. This area was not lush grass – more like stubble on the low hills and without a shepherd keeping a constant watch the sheep would wander far and wide with disastrous consequences.


While there were no farm fences, if you walked across this area, every so often you might come across a sheep fold built for communal use, a roughly circular stone wall with a gap to let in the sheep for the night. To stop the sheep wandering out, the shepherd would simply lie across the gap – becoming the gate. If the shepherd was any good the sheep would know his voice, which would be very handy if more than one shepherd had two or more flocks in the enclosure.

 In the morning, the shepherd would call and those sheep who knew his voice would respond and follow him back to the hills where the pastures lay. Gentle he most certainly was not.    Enemies of his sheep might well include wild dogs, hyenas, wolves, and in Jesus’ day, even the occasional lion. There were also rogues prepared to use force to steal sheep. Food could be scarce.

Perhaps rather than thinking of those saccharine sweet pictures of shepherds deemed suitable for the Sunday school, we should instead be thinking rather of the shepherd boy David, with his accuracy with a sling sufficient to bring down the giant Goliath, and who would presumably have had his skills honed firing stones to drive off the wild animals.

Shepherds had a constant fascination for the Jews and although most were cordially despised (more than one modern commentator likening them to used car salesmen or thieving gypsies)  the notion of the shepherd was a constant theme particularly in the Old Testament, from where for example we find the Psalm 23 “the Lord is my shepherd” or Psalm 95 where we find: “He is our God and we are the people of his pasture”. In the New Testament we encounter the word Pastor – which in Latin means shepherd.(see for example Ephesians 4:11)

Where the good shepherd bit comes, is not so much in the loving carrying of the defenceless kid or lamb, but rather in the reaction to genuine danger. The good shepherd then had to be prepared to put his life on the line to protect his sheep. Literally when danger came there would presumably be the choice either to beat a strategic retreat or to stay to fight off those who would steal his sheep. Whether they be robbers or wild animals, the real question would be whether the shepherd would stand his ground. Not all shepherds would be good in the sense that they would put their lives on the line. From the fact that shepherds were considered amongst the lowest class in Jesus day also suggests that bad shepherds rather than good shepherd were probably the norm.


That Jesus would be numbered amongst the good in terms of personal bravery would certainly follow from the gospel accounts. One who was prepared to speak up against powerful authority figures, one who cleared the Temple, one who faced an angry crowd in Judea who made to stone Jesus – then a short time later one who returned to that same unfriendly Judea, does not suggest a timid leader. That Jesus set his face to Jerusalem knowing that death was likely to be his lot suggests one prepared to sacrifice his own life rather than his principles. Jesus was also one prepared to be seen caring about the untouchables in his society, the lepers, the tax-collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan woman, and in the expression of his compassion, that he understood healing was more than healing the body is clear from a number of his interactions.


So much for the straightforward part of Jesus’ intended image. What is less straightforward is when we transfer the image to the present. Very clearly Jesus is no longer physically present, no matter where you are on the theological spectrum when it comes to the resurrection. When people are in danger, Jesus does not appear from the nearest phone box as a transformed Clark Kent or come swooping down on an elastic thread like Spider Man. So if he is really a protective shepherd we might well ask what Jesus means for us today when he is recorded as claiming to be the good shepherd for those who follow.


We can get something of a clue from what happened in the aftermath of the crucifixion. Last week it was Thomas, disappointed and extremely doubtful about stories of the resurrection. Yet it was that same Thomas who found his faith sufficiently strengthened that he went off in his turn to be a shepherd to the people in South India. Paul came later to his faith, initially one who was suspicious of Christianity and prepared to persecute Christians. By his own account, something happened to Paul, transforming him into someone prepared to shepherd the young Church. Through his teachings, his actions and his letters, many had their faith strengthened.

There is something contagious in courage in the face of adversity and a courageous person with a message of compassion may also be seen as an expression of Christ. I am not a Catholic, yet in reading the stories of those who led the way I acknowledge I see many marks of the good shepherd in at least some of the recorded lives of many now called saints. Whether or not others will find in us some of the properties of a good shepherd is not a straightforward matter.

It seems to me that the Jesus only starts to become real for his followers when they realize that they are expected to live out his message rather than hoping others will do it for them.   Rather than turning to our Church leaders to do it all or waiting for a watered down set of goals to work through the ponderous committee structures, perhaps we as individuals need to be those who reach out to those in trouble.

Although the dangers have changed the need for the good shepherds are as real as ever. In many cases the danger comes from the wolves who try to blend in with the flock. The money lenders who prefer to be seen as providing essential social services,  and even the politicians who would rather sacrifice their constituents than face genuine problems of injustice found in unpopular causes. There are for example church leaders who willingly set up committees to deal with immediate issues rather than take the obvious action which might require inconvenience. There are also those who see the Church as a institution separate from the world, and as shown by the issues they embrace they have no genuine interest in the realities of the dangers faced outside the safety of the Church.

Dressing like a shepherd, accepting the appropriate title of pastor, priest or even bishop complete with the bishop’s crook certainly symbolizes the intention to be a good shepherd, but in reality we should acknowledge that many dangers to the vulnerable are not faced by all of those so appointed.

Think of the scandals through the centuries not faced. Those shepherds who did nothing about slavery or its modern equivalent sex slavery, the deliberately unnoticed Pacific victims of the bomb tests, those who not only turn a blind eye to the absolute scandal of the arms trade but condone investment in this area and, let’s admit it, those who for centuries who have been presiding over a building of Church wealth while the refugees are kept out of sight and out of mind in horrendous conditions. The current dangers to the environment, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the structures set in place to ensure the advantages of the wealthy suggest there is still much for the shepherd to do.

Yes, there have been outstanding good shepherds who have turned to face the dangers. Think of Luther nailing his list of Church sins on a cathedral door, those who bravely took on slavery, and those who today are doing the same. . There are those who continue to look about them to see the dangers. Those who sacrifice a comfortable life in suburbia to work in the refugee camps, those who risk unpopularity or worse to expose corruption and those who speak out as modern day prophets should be identified and celebrated as good shepherds.

Something not often understood by townies, is that sheep are not unintelligent, although they most assuredly are short-sighted and vulnerable. The sheep in danger have the wit to recognize the voice of their shepherd because their shepherd has stayed with them and cared. With Jesus leaving the continuing tasks of the kingdom to those like us, the intriguing question will be to discover if those currently in danger will recognize in us those who deserve the title of good shepherds.

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CONTRIBUTED SERMON FOR EASTER 3b

‘Finding the words for it!’

This week the sermon is borrowed and slightly abridged (with acknowledgement) from a different Peddie, my sister the Rev Dr Barbara Peddie,   (currently on secondment to the Presbyterian Church of St Ninians in Christchurch) 

A sermon on Acts 3: 12-19 and Luke 24: 36b-48

We’re still in the season of Easter – the season of celebration. And we’re also in the season of autumn and endings. Later this month on ANZAC Day, much of this nation will remember the tragedies of war and celebrate the courage and commitment of many. Part of that remembering will be to honour those of our own church families who were courageous in their commitment to pacifism. Yes, Easter is the church’s season of celebration, but, just like those early disciples, we celebrate in our own context, with our own reminders of sorrow and hardship. Do you think those early followers never woke up in the mornings and said: ‘if only we could go and have breakfast with our friend on the shores of the lake.’? Do you think they had ceased to mourn in the midst of their new confidence in the good news of the gospel?  

We read the stories about the first disciples announcing the good news, and we know that we’re challenged to be about that same business of announcing and living the good news of the resurrection. Maybe it does when we come together on a Sunday morning. But why do we find it so hard to do beyond these doors? 

We’re not even very good at celebrating Easter. We make much more of Christmas, that unashamedly pagan festival. We ‘do’ Christmas thoroughly, but Easter is another story. After all, we can’t have Easter without Good Friday, and there’s no getting around the realities of death and grief. We can get through Christmas without thinking of the realities of pregnancy and poverty and displacement, but we can’t get round the realities of death.

Our very secular society doesn’t make Easter any easier. Easter, like Christmas means ‘holiday’ –from work and school. It means ‘food’ – Easter buns dripping with butter and rather too much chocolate. Unlike some other denominations, we don’t hold all-night vigils. And we don’t even, all of us, feel that Easter and Christmas are the two great occasions in the year when we must be at church. Recently one of our Korean presbyters said to me: ‘Kiwis are so strange. I have 180 people on the parish roll, and there were only 21 at Church on Christmas morning’. I wonder how many he had on Easter Sunday?  So – what is it about our Westernised society that makes celebrating resurrection so very challenging?

Some of it is, I think, because we live in a highly technological society. We carry with us the weight of the scientific discoveries that have changed our world view so greatly.  It takes some very strange contortions of thinking to think of a world that is physically layered, with heaven, and God, out there somewhere, ‘beyond the deep blue sky’ – as one of my Sunday School choruses had it. We know about the galaxies, and the long history of the very rocks under our feet – and we know rather a lot about the mortality of our own bodies! It’s as if we know another story of creation, and we struggle with the stories of the resurrected Christ. Between us and the gospel writers lie 2000 years of mortality. Our dead do not return.

But this isn’t the way to read and experience the Easter stories. If we try to force the two worlds – that of the biblical narratives and that of our current knowledge into the same mould, we’re bound to come to grief. Somehow we have to find ways to see the truths behind the stories in our sacred books, and they won’t be literal truths.

Those long-ago disciples weren’t primitive people. They may have been unsophisticated and without status in their own culture, but that culture was highly organized and highly intelligent. There’s nothing primitive about the Hebrew scriptures! We haven’t really made so very much progress in thinking since those days.

I don’t find it disconcerting that the evangelists gave varying accounts of the resurrection. You need a vocabulary to be able to share discoveries. Let me tell you a story about some children in Christchurch. There’s a Decile 1A primary school about 1 km from Brighton Beach. The children at that school come from a suburb with the lowest annual household income for our city, and they are so deprived of experience outside their small world, that the first thing the school has to do with new entrants is to extend their range of experience. The Principal took a group of new entrants to the beach. They literally did not have a word for sand. They had never seen it, never been to the beach, never paddled or picked up shells and seaweed. They had no words to describe their day. You need a vocabulary to be able to take an experience into yourself, and make it part of your own life story.

It’s important to tell the stories. But – it’s also important to let the stories speak to us of the truth behind the words. Like a Native American storyteller who always prefaces his stories with the words: ‘I don’t know if this happened – but it’s a true story’, we can say of the resurrection narratives: ‘I don’t know if it happened like this, but it’s a true story.’

Something new happened at Easter, and the evangelists – and the disciples struggled to find the words for it. Apart from Mark, who simply picked up on the fact of the empty tomb and the women running from it in terror and amazement. (The longer ending of Mark’s gospel seems to be a précis of the stories from the other three Gospels!) When you think of it, terror and amazement would be the natural reaction. In the other accounts, there’s a thread running through several of the narratives, where Jesus’ friends don’t recognize him. Mary in the garden had to hear her name spoken: the two sad people trudging back to Emmaus held a long conversation with someone they thought was a stranger until he picked up a loaf of bread at their table and broke it. The friends out fishing talked with a stranger on the beach until he said and did something that brought earlier experiences to life again. It’s as if all of them were too preoccupied with their own grief and too anxious about their own future to be able to think of any other possibility or even to look out beyond themselves.

The disciples and the others gathered in Jerusalem after that Friday disaster had to sort out fact from fiction. What happened? Who can we believe? What comes next? (The same questions that we ask today?) They were immersed in chaos and confusion – fear for themselves – wondering who would be next to go, probably doubt about whether they had been taking the wrong path when they followed the man from Galilee, grief for a dead friend, confusion, suspicion, and the nagging question of what to do now. Their leader was dead and his body was missing. And, Luke says, in the midst of all this, Jesus showed up. What would you do?

It’s not surprising that they needed to be reassured.  ‘Peace be with you’, Jesus said. Calm down, take it quietly, take a deep breath and concentrate. And put your fear to one side. And, Luke says, Jesus asks, in effect, ‘What’s for dinner?’ an overpoweringly ordinary question. It’s as if Luke is emphasizing the reality of the experience of the risen Christ. ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ as some say today. Get with it. We have no way of knowing what happened on a particular day in a particular city to a particular group of people. What we do know, is that whatever they experienced, shattered their mood of despair and sent them out into the streets and marketplaces to proclaim God’s new, here and now, kingdom.

We heard some of that in the reading from Acts. We need to put it into context – as Luke clearly expects us to do. In Acts 2, we have the event of Pentecost, which sent the disciples out filled with holy fire. In the opening scene of Acts 3 Peter and John heal a crippled beggar outside the temple’s Beautiful Gate. Naturally that brought the curious crowds around, and Peter got launched into his second sermon.  This is the same Peter who, only a few days before had denied any knowledge of the man Jesus. In this sermon, Peter repeatedly uses the same Greek word for ‘rejected’ that he had used for that denial.

It’s quite a sermon that this supposedly uneducated fisherman delivers. We need to remember that this is Peter the Jew speaking to fellow Jews about Jesus, who was also a Jew. He is speaking a few days after a major Jewish festival to a Jewish crowd gathered in Solomon’s portico, along the east wall of the temple complex. Try to imagine yourselves as Jews listening to Peter. He’s one of you, and he’s arguing from your own scripture and tradition about one of your own about what it means truly to be Jewish – to be the true people of God. And then try to imagine how you would react.

Luke goes on to say that thousands believed. It was a crowd that had clamoured for Jesus to be crucified, and it was a crowd that now embraced the new belief in the power of faith in the name of the Messiah, God’s Holy One. Luke says ‘thousands believed.’ Luke is an adroit storyteller. It wasn’t the private refusal of Messiah’s gifts that got Jesus killed, but the public rejection of him before Pilate. Peter took the communal life seriously. As the church has always done, even when she gets it wrong. We belong to a community of faith, we don’t hug private beliefs to ourselves.

The challenge to us, in both the gospel account and in the story from Acts, is to take resurrection seriously – to take the challenge of new life seriously. At Easter, God proclaimed a new thing. The old patterns of life and death were broken. It’s like what happens when you turn a kaleidoscope. All the patterns change. After the Easter event, everything in life needed to be reviewed. If God has shattered the bonds of death, then all dying, no matter how tragic and no matter what the cause, is no longer the final word. It’s a totally new approach to the whole of life. And we humans instinctively don’t like totally new approaches to the whole of life. It’s frightening.

We often affirm that God never gives up on God’s people, and God will bring them home rejoicing. But – we would prefer that homecoming to be to something comfortable and familiar and comprehensible. Not to something that completely turns the familiar on its head.

We humans have always tried to limit God – to keep God under control. God should operate within the bounds we have set, and fit into our rituals, and be controlled by rules and regulations and religious practices and Parish Councils and Boards of Managers and Conference and Assembly. God should be under the control of human systems that say: ‘Do this and God will be pleased with you. Otherwise – look out!’

But the Resurrection changed that. God is free – free from religious systems, free to meet us on God’s terms. Jesus said: ‘The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ When we look at the empty tomb, our deeper instinct tells us – even if we kick against the knowing – that any attempts we make to control God through religion are doomed. Our cherished traditions aren’t the last word. God has the last word. The last laugh, if you like. Christ is risen: God is free.

God is on the loose, and God is here and now. The Resurrection is God’s now. Even more than the Incarnation, it’s God with us in an entirely new way. There’s something in the Resurrection story that speaks of a death that isn’t accidental, but required a conscious decision to end what went before, and open the way to transformation. And we have to make that sort of decision – to end what went before, and commit ourselves to a new beginning.

It’s not easy. What communal sins do congregations hold on to, preferring the familiar round of guilt and relapse to the strenuous exercise of new life? How do we respond to challenges to the faith we grew up with? Do we turn our backs, even when the challenges come from God’s own messengers? Are we so afraid of getting things wrong that we ignore any messenger whose name is not in the Bible?

Or maybe some of us are so unfamiliar with the words of the old prophets that we’re not capable of recognizing God’s new prophets. And I’m fairly sure that in any congregation there will be some who like the church so well the way it is, that any newcomers will be seen as threats to the established family of faith. How would Peter’s sermon work on us today?

It’s never easy. But – we live and move in the knowledge that God moves with us. That love is stronger than hate, and that from the destruction of death, new life rises. That is God’s promise to us.

We are called to walk from the darkened hill

to the light-filled empty tomb.

We come seeking surprise and wonder

in the dawning light of Easter Day.

Let us go out with the risen Christ,

and take up the work of the kingdom.

Bless the Lord, O my soul. And bless God’s holy name. And may God bless each one of us and teach us to bless each other. Amen.

(As always, comments and discussion will be welcome.)

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