December 3, 2021

The Great Compliment: you are the salt of the earth! 02-10-2016

The Great Compliment: you are the salt of the earth!
Matthew 5: 13 – 20
I am proud of this church. You have a reputation for being friendly, generous in spirit and welcoming. Last week a number of the folk from the U3A art exhibition spoke of your welcoming and generous spirit. The exhibition seems to have been a success. Your response to those who exhibited added flavour to the occasion, thank God for that and God bless you.
Jesus paid his followers a great compliment naming them the ‘salt of the earth’. He paid us (you) a great compliment, as ‘we are the salt of the earth’.  In the ancient world salt was highly valued. From time to time salt has been used as a form of currency. The word salary (salarium) comes from Latin word for salt (sal).  The Romans had a little jingle, Nil utilius sole et sale  – “there is nothing more useful than sun and salt”.  Salt was valued for its preserving, purifying and flavouring capacities.
Salt is composed of sodium and chlorine.  It is essential to our health; body cells must have salt in order to live and work. It is a purifier; it has antiseptic or germ-killing properties. It is a preservative. It adds flavour to many foods. And it is estimated that there are more than fourteen thousand uses for salt.
Salt is a purifier. No doubt its glistening whiteness has encouraged such a connection.  
According to historians, salt at one time had religious significance and was a symbol of purity.  The association of salt with purity leads to the ability of salt to make things pure.  Salt cleanses and heals. We use salt solutions to cleanse wounds. Saline solutions are used in swimming pools. Salt has antiseptic and germ-killing qualities.
Jesus gave his followers this cleansing and healing role. We are to have an ‘antiseptic’ role in the world. The act of loving our neighbour is partly a cleansing and germ-killing exercise. Love is the ‘antiseptic’ that kills hate and the purifier of untruth. That is what Christian love achieves: the destruction of hate and the restorer of truth.
Salt is a preservative.  In a time when there was no refrigeration, canning or freeze-drying, salt was used to conserve food. Salt continues the life of foods well beyond their normal use by date. No wonder it was so highly prized. No wonder it, in certain periods of history, had a currency alongside that of precious metals. It would be better at times to have salt in your hand than gold. 
To liken Christ’s followers to salt is to say that they act as a preservative in society. The implications are that Christians will conserve what is good, maintain what is good and sustain what is good. The Christians’ witness in word and deed today builds a foundation for the future. We know that it is easier in some company to do good than in other company and visa versa. We know that values and beliefs are such that certain things are either permitted or not. 
Salt adds flavour:  Its absence weakens and limits our health. Its presence adds value and flavour to our living.  Food without salt can be bland. An appropriate amount of salt enhances the flavour. We don’t add salt to taste salt; we add salt to enhance taste.
We know that salt melts ice.  Christ-like love melts human icy-ness between people bringing reconciliation.  Unfortunately Christianity has been a depressor of joy at times.  Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted so much like undertakers.”  Robert Louis Stevenson once entered in his diary, as if he was recording an extraordinary phenomenon, “I have been to Church today and I am not depressed”.
The Church has been at the cutting edge of care for the sick and compassion for the poor adding hope and comfort to those in need. The church has been the main purveyor of music in the Western world for many centuries.  The Bible resounds with music and song in praise of God.  Scholars note that the mark of the first Christians was their joy – a joy that let them face persecution with love, hope and joy. Paul wrote and commended the Colossian Christians for their faith, love and hope. [Col 1: 3-5] A thankful person adds sunshine to the conversation and Christians are to be thankful and full of praise in all circumstances [1 Thess 5:18]. In so being Christians add positive flavour to life.
Salt is a sign of Friendship.  Among some peoples, salt is still used as a sign of honor, friendship and hospitality. The Arabs say ‘there is salt between us,’ meaning ‘we have eaten together, and are friends’ (The World Book Encyclopedia, 1978, 17:69).  This notion of salt as the seal and sign of friendship and agreement is expressed at a number of points in Scripture.  There are more than thirty-five references to salt in the scriptures. The Old Testament mentions covenants sealed with salt.
You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt. [Lev 2:13]
All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the LORD I have given to you (the priests), together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt forever before the LORD for you and your descendants as well.  [Numbers 18: 19]
Do you not know that the LORD God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt? 2 Chron 13:5]
Jesus’ great compliment plays an important part in his revolutionary message. Jesus introduced a revolution in religion. When Jesus goes on to talk about his followers being light in the world and that our lives should be superior to the behaviour of the Scribes and Pharisees, he is introducing revolutionary thoughts.  The Scribes and the Pharisees were the interpreters and exemplars of the faith. And the faith was expressed by following a strict code of behaviour commonly called a ‘holiness code’. It governed every part of life including the bedroom, dress, the kitchen and life in general.  E.g. The strict orthodox Jewish wife moves to a separate bed when she menstruates. Some Jewish homes have two kitchens to keep certain foods apart. A ‘holiness code’ is common to most religions. Christians have them. You will remember the churches that didn’t permit dancing or consumption of alcohol or the wearing of lipstick. I was with a Scottish colleague of mine on Tuesday. He told us that when he was younger he was talking to a member of a conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church. He mentioned that he had had a cup of tea with a certain minister the Sunday before.  The woman exclaimed, ‘you had tea with Mr … on Sunday. Wasn’t it cold.’ You see their particular brand of Presbyterianism banned work on a Sunday, which included boiling a kettle for tea. The woman was horrified that this revered minister had taken tea on a Sunday with with my friend.
I would like to point out that a ‘holiness code’ can strengthen one’s faith and can build up a community. I do not doubt its benefits. But it can be practised in such a way that it is controlling and stultifying. That is what Jesus found.  A ‘holiness code’ may ensure our identity in such a way that it excludes others. Jesus wanted his followers to go out into the world and live by grace and be salt in the world.
The parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 [vv. 25-37] illustrates this well. When Jesus explains what it means to love your neighbour he uses the example of a Samaritan. Jesus contrasts the Samaritan, a non-Jew, with a Priest and Levite who fail to love their neighbour. [Lk 10: 29-37] The Priest thought the man lying on the side of the road might be dead.  He knew that if he touched a dead person he would be ritually impure and be prohibited from doing his duties for seven days [Numbers 19:11]. So he avoided the man. The Levite might have had safety concerns, for thieves sometimes set up a decoy like that, and he quickly moved on. The Samaritan had the courage to love and was generous with his wealth. The Samaritan to Jesus is the example of what it means to be the salt of the earth, not the religious rule-keeper.
The great danger is that when a people feel threatened they retreat into a defensive position. The problem in holding strictly to a code might help you keep your identity, but it also builds a wall between you and others. Those Jews who slavishly followed their holiness code have kept their identity but largely remained isolated. Jesus wanted his followers to take God’s Word to the world. To do so he set them free from a slavish following of law and gave them an understanding of grace – love given freely to others – so that they would be salt and light to the world. That is precisely what they did. And the first Christians grew and influenced those around them. They grew and influenced the Greco-Roman society until the Church became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
What lessons can we learn from those first Christians? When we are threatened by violence, terrorism, countless refugees we tend to build walls of defence in one way or another. Today tribalism, nationalism and protectionism are on the rise. Unfortunately this approach will imprison us and destroy our sense of being part of the world. There is the lesson – the challenge. We are the salt of the earth. Our task is to cleanse, preserve and flavour life about us. If we don’t we will become useless to God, ourselves and others.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  02/10/2016

Humanity’s Rescue 25-09-2016

Humanity’s Rescue:  Creation 4.
Genesis 6: 5 – 8, 11 – 14a, 7: 1 – 5, 8: 1 – 12, 20 -22, 9: 8 – 17
This world needs people of faith to save it from self-harm.
The story of Noah and the great Flood is not a unique story. We have learnt that there is a common story about a great flood that happened long, long ago in many people’s mythologies. There is also geological evidence of a great flood or floods around the world. Ancient peoples tried to make sense of the Flood and interpreted the events through the lens of their belief system.
When the Hebrew people were taken to Babylon in 586 BC they were confronted by stories of a great Flood and the Babylonian interpretation of that Flood. Whether the Hebrew people already had their account of the great Flood or not they reacted to what they heard. Scholars believe that the current Biblical account of the Flood and Ark are a result of Hebrew theologians responding to a wider set of questions about the violent degeneration of humankind. This violence did not correspond to their belief that God had created a good world. Their response is unique and in accordance with their belief and experience in one God the Creator. Today I wish to show how this story of a cataclysmic flood addresses the human condition of sin and God’s response.
The story of Noah and the Flood goes like this. God decided to punish the earth with a great flood because people were so wicked. But there was one person God trusted. So God told that person to build a large boat and that he and his family plus two of each kind of creature were to get on the boat when it started to rain. When the flood subsided all in the boat were saved and life began again. But after the flood humanity’s relationship with God and all creatures was different.
Of course we love to tell this story to children as it provides such a visual picture. There’s Noah, the huge wooden ark and all the animals. Finally there is the rainbow showing that God was working with us again.   The unavoidable process of telling this story to children reduces it to a simplistic and an absurd story leaving more questions than answers.
The main themes of the story in Genesis 6 through to 9 are the depth of humanity’s wickedness, God’s resulting anger and resolve to destroy everything, followed finally with God’s change of mind and new implications for creation.
Humanity’s Wickedness. After the last sermon someone said to me that I had painted a picture of all humanity being sinful. Yes I had. The rebellion or disobedience represented by the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden leaves us in no doubt that all of us are sinners. By that I mean we have broken our connection with God and creation by asserting our own will. The letter to the Romans makes it quite clear that we have all fallen short of the glory of God [Rom 3: 23]. This means that we need God to rescue us from our self-wills and destructive ways that cause so much sadness and strife in the world. It means that we can never take our eyes off Christ Jesus, the one who is the true image of God; otherwise we slip into our destructive human ways. This is a profound truth we ignore at our peril.
My reading of history tells me that there are times when humans fall into a way of being that hideously violates and destroys others.  What is strange in such histories is that a few lead the way and the rest of the group or nation quietly let it happen. Some even pretend that they don’t know that it happened. History shows that a cultured, intelligent and educated people have the capacity to be entirely evil.
I recall listening to one of our past prime ministers telling us how he and a friend were reminiscing about their fathers. The story went that one of the fathers had got up from Sunday lunch on the farm and said to the other, ‘Let’s go hunting.’  Hunting they went and at the end of the day they returned saying they had got one or two.  They weren’t talking about kangaroos or birds. They were talking about black fellas! These men were pillars of the community. They produced fine sons.  At least one of the sons was outstanding. Let us not pretend that that was not part of the Australian scene. The reality is that our silence on evil is tantamount to agreement with it. Having spent much of the day walking around Buchenwald concentration camp near the town of Weimar, Germany, I recall the black and white film of the allied forces liberation of Buchenwald.  Buchenwald was a Nazi concentration camp for murderers, communists, gypsies, homosexuals and Jews. It was not too bad a place. That’s if you measure badness on the number of deaths in that camp.  Only 80,000 inmates were murdered and burnt there from 1936 – 45. Interesting to note that 58,000 were killed in the last 12 months of the war. You don’t have to dig deep to see that in this beautiful German forest was a hideous place of fear, hatred and death. It was conducted by a highly intelligent and deeply cultured people. The liberating commander witnessed the horrific sight of the surviving inmates of Buchenwald and immediately sent soldiers to fetch the town folk of Weimar. They were shown the camp and its horrors. Many Weimar citizens pretended they did not know about it. But how could they not know? Weimar was so close to Buchenwald camp that the stench of burning flesh could not be mistaken.
Our greatest sin may not be what we have done, but what we have failed to do. That is why we need to live in humility and with forgiveness. Without humility and forgiveness, which forms the beginning of transformation, our lives will be part of the wickedness of humanity.
God’s Anger.  Genesis 6 tells us that when God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” [Gen 6: 5-7] So God resolved to flood the earth and destroy what God had created, except he made an exception with Noah and the Ark.
Now we find it hard to stomach the notion of an angry God.  Our Sunday diet is about God’s love, forgiveness and grace. Let’s ask ourselves a question. If I had created this world as a good place for all and I looked on the world today, what would I feel? What would you feel? How many of you would feel happy or content with what you had made?  How many of you would be angry?  I must confess that I look at this world and I know I did not make it, and I am saddened and angry.  I am angry at our stupidness and wilfulness. The people who make a difference encourage me, but I am angry at the level of hurt, brokenness, and exploitation. So why shouldn’t God be angry with us? Unlike us, God made a good thing – a truly good world. So why would we be surprised to read of God’s anger?
What this story tells us is that God is angry at our behaviour – really angry. But what God does with his (sic) anger is uniquely God-like. Human anger leads to punitive and retributive justice: God’s anger leads to regenerative justice.
The Flood story shows the depth of God’s anger at our sinful selfish behaviour. God was prepared to destroy the whole of creation. Has not many an artist looked at their work and decided it is not good enough and destroyed it. It is perfectly reasonable to think the Supreme Artist would think the same. Now God’s anger is important, because it tells us that God has standards and will not compromise them. God’s anger tells us that God cares about this world. One is not angry because they don’t care. It is because God cares that God is angry. What is important is what God does with the anger. In the end, and every time in the Bible we read of God’s anger, God does something that is gracious. God acts to forgive and rescue the situation. God acts to right the wrong. No clearer example of God acting to right the wrong is the Cross of Christ Jesus. This is why we can talk about Grace.  Grace is the undeserved love of God extended to us for our redemption and transformation. This is the first implication of the story of the Flood. There is the possibility of rescue and restoration presented to humanity.
Secondly, the story of the Flood marks the end of the harmony between humans and God and the whole of creation.  Whereas in Genesis 1: 27-29 the animals and humans share the same table of food – the plant life – and live in harmony now it is all changed. Humans have destroyed that harmony.  Animals now live in fear of humans, because humans have become meat eaters [Gen 9: 2].  Now God allows humans to eat the flesh but not the blood. Blood represented life for the ancient Hebrew. God is the life-giver, so the blood belongs to God. Though humans may now eat flesh they are still accountable to God about how they do so. This is another implication of the story – the harmony between the creature and the human is broken, but humans are still accountable for how we treat animals.
Thirdly, God’s graciousness is expressed in the promise of keeping the seasons until the end of time. The seasons and the productive nature of earth is God’s gift to us in God’s forbearance and love.  This is the third implication.
The final one I will mention this morning is that humankind’s relationship with God has changed. We are now in need of restoration. So rituals of forgiveness and renewal remind us of our need to remain humble and thankful to God.  It is through humility that we open ourselves to the transforming love of God in Christ Jesus. It is through thankfulness with the help of the Holy Spirit that we maintain our relationship with God. Worship in song and prayer are essential to our well-being as God’s creatures.  This world needs people of faith to save it from self-harm.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  25/09/2016

Humanity’s Renouncement: 18-09-2016

Humanity’s Renouncement:  Creation 3.
Genesis 3: 1 – 24 
I changed the title of this sermon to ‘humanity’s renouncement’.  I thought it served the topic of Genesis chapter 3 far better than ‘restoring humanity’ as previously advertised.
What does Genesis 3 say to us? In the old language and traditional theology it’s the story of the ‘Fall of Man (sic)’. It is the story how a man and a woman fell out of favour with God by asserting their wills against God’s. It was an act of disobedience. It’s what we call ‘sin’.
This ancient Hebrew story about the origin of humankind and ‘sin’ is frustrating and simultaneously insightful. First of all I am frustrated how the snake appears as the crafty animal when I would give that appellation to a monkey or fox. Why the poor snake? It is harmless. It spends most of its time sleeping. If it hears us it slither away. If it does strike us its because we have surprised it. That’s why the canny bushwalker will be careful where s/he walks and simultaneously make a noise. The likelihood is that the first walker will not be attacked but the second, because the first walker disturbs the snake. So why the snake? Is it because we are frightened of a creature that slithers and slides silently and carries within it a poison that could kill us?  The second problem with this text is the role of the woman. Clearly she is the cause of every ill of humankind. I won’t go there except to say it seems that a man confused by the mystery and power of a woman wrote this interpretation. Thirdly, God’s rule about a tree in the centre of the Garden seems absurd. Rather silly isn’t it.  There is enough to dismiss this story.  Clearly I don’t take it literally. However these three objections I raise are minor points to the story. The germ of this story lies in the relationship between God and humans.  The Bible is about relationships and in particular ours with God and how that affects others.  The interpretation and insight I will offer to you is supported by the stories that follow Genesis chapter 3 – the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and the tower of Babel.  Each one of those stories is about our relationship with God and God’s with us.
Genesis 3 tells us something very important. The story uses traditional images. The slithering snake represents slyness and sneakiness. The tree is a rich metaphor for life, family relationships, or other things that are explained by a root and branch system.  The tree in the Garden of Eden represents life and knowledge in god-like proportions.  In Genesis 2 verse 9 we read that the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And a few verses later humans are told not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good … , for they (you) shall die. [Gen 2:17] This story is to be taken for its message not its detail.
The plain meaning of this story is the Word of God. This story is full of imagery. What happens is that this man and woman, representing humanity, decide to know about life and death, good and evil.  They choose to go against the wisdom of God, and in doing so they become aware of themselves.  They see their nakedness, they uncover their fears, they unlock their jealousies and close the gates to a life of harmony with nature and God.
The man and woman cover their bodies as they recognise the nakedness of their fears and jealousies. They must cover themselves. That is, they must not let people see their true self with its fears and insecurities. This means they are alienated from their very selves. You know we are like that. We have our masks and pretences that hide the real self not only from others but also from ourselves. Then the man and the woman hide behind trees so God cannot see them! Yes, we too have our ways of running away and hiding from God.  Ours are a tad more sophisticated. Some of us are very clever and hide behind our knowledge, always keeping the question going with more thinking so we don’t have to act. We’re still working it out. Our intellectual rumination justifies our inaction. We hide from God by never stopping to think about God. Our busyness is the excuse for our lack of commitment to God.  Or we hide from God by our organisation. Our well organised services and controlled liturgies ensure that we remain in control. Of course our pretence of nice social behaviour helps protect us from the prying prompts of the Holy Spirit. Our alienation as humans is most evident in our putting the blame on others.  All this is symbolised in the man and woman sewing fig leaves to hide their nakedness, their hiding from God in the forest and when confronted by God the man blaming the woman and the woman the snake. Oh, what a common human scene. The man says to God,  “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”   The woman replies, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”  [Gen 3: 12,13] I love the man’s response for it implies that it is really God’s fault for giving him the woman!  Do you see that in these actions and exchanges we see humanity’s deep seated alienation – our separation from God and others.  No wonder when we reject God we end up as alienated people fearing and fighting each other. Read or listen to the media through this lens and you will see Genesis 3 re-lived. This is an alienated world. ‘The Asians are taking over our land, we’re being swamped by Muslims and its all the fault of these illegal migrants!’ This talk, this alienation, leads to tribalism. Tribalism is the death of the community of humanity. We’re in great need of redemption. Tribalism is the death of community. Yes, if you eat of this tree you will die.  The Bible is right.  All this leads to a spiritual death.
The Genesis 3 story of the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden tells us that humanity asserts its will against God and in doing so renounces being created in the image of God. Consequently humanity experiences alienation.  The assertion of my will against God and others is a declaration of wanting to be the-god-of-my-life.  I want to be in charge. This assertion lies deep within humanity. Genesis 3 begins to tell the story. The following chapters build upon this foundation of humankind’s assertion of self and alienation.  Cain, the tiller of the soil, kills Abel, the sheep grazier. Again reading that story literally doesn’t help us understand the issue that there is tension between two brothers. This tension has to do with their rights to the land. One works a designated piece of land and sows crops. The other grazes his flocks across the land. In the story of Cain and Abel we find the story of our lives about the boundaries we want to keep, preserve or extend.  It is a story about the boundaries that we refuse to acknowledge and respect. It is the micro-story of the world’s macro-story about control over the earth’s resources.
The story of the Tower of Babel reinforces this point and the metaphor almost becomes a literal description. Earth is where humankind lives. Heaven is where God is. Humankind, through a new technology – the discovery of bricks and mortar – build a tower that reaches heaven. The Tower of Babel story is about humankind’s desire to be one with the gods. We want to get to heaven by our own resources. This same wisdom prevails today. The people who built the tower of Babel thought they were clever enough to reach heaven. Today we believe our scientific knowledge and technology will provide all the answers.
Right now we live in a time where our marvellous knowledge base, our incredible technology and amazing new scientific discoveries are empowering us with knowledge, technology and power to do things as never before.  It is wonderful, but for one thing.  At this very time in history we face these two enormous challenges to our existence from Global Warming and the massive Displacement of Peoples.  I speak of ‘displaced people’ describing those people who have been forced from their normal dwelling place. Refugees are displaced persons who have crossed the border of their homeland.  How many displaced persons are there in the world today? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimate that in 2015 there was an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world, who have been forced from their home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.  54% of refugees came from Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan.
For all our scientific and technological development we cannot improve on our human relations. In our country mental health is an issue. For all our wealth, knowledge and technology we are unable to improve our relationships and quality of life.  At least we fool ourselves that our lives have improved by the fact that we can buy more things. We’re too proud to acknowledge the wisdom of holy Scripture that tells us that our pathways to self-autonomy and self-assertion will lead to death: the death of the human spirit; the death of our community structures; and, the death of our wealth and health.  The whole issue at stake in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is our relationship with God the Creator and the rest of Creation. All else is really the supplementary story expressed at times in poetry or metaphors that defy rational explanation.  We’re created in God’s image to be good stewards of the world, proclaimers of God and God’s justice for all. When we assert our wills we renounce our status as bearers of God’s image.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  18/09/2016

Humanity’s Responsibility: Creation 2 11-09-2016

Humanity’s Responsibility:  Creation 2.
Genesis 1: 26 –31; 2: 4 – 25  (Psalm 121)
Created in the image of God carries two responsibilities.
Something happened at last Monday’s Taizé service.  We came to our time of meditation. We had read Psalm 121 and had received a short reflection on the psalm.  I began to meditate noting the time as I usually do. As leader I manage the 8 – 10 minutes of silence. What happened next was that I was caught up in Psalm 121 where the psalmist highlights that God who cares for us God the creator of the world.  My mind instantly turned to being created in the image of God.  I saw that God was all-sufficient for our needs. These weren’t new thoughts. I have taught and preached these truths for years, but at that moment the truth of being made in God’s image was irrevocable. I was God’s creation and God was all-sufficient. This knowledge has been strongly with me this week. You see I have been a little anxious of late. I don’t know what the best word is to describe how I have been feeling, but anxious is sufficient for the moment.  In Monday’s meditation I was convicted of God’s sufficiency for me.  Now there is another side to this little epiphany I had. I came back to my surroundings got up and lit a taper and prayed. Normally we sing O Lord hear my prayer after lighting a taper. The pianist was a bit slow. I looked at the pianist – she shall remain nameless – and I struggled to get her to lead us in song. I was getting that look. Unbeknown to me I had truncated our usual 8-10 minutes time of silence to 1 minute.  It took a good few minutes of the service before I realised what had happened.  I had been completely lost with the Holy Spirit for a few seconds.
I tell this story for two reasons. At one level it reminds us that we can knowing about God is not the same as knowing God.  We can know the things of God and yet not allow the Spirit to weave them into the fabric of our lives. That blessing came to me last week. I can just thank God for it. The other lesson for me is the recognition of what it means to be in the image of God. To bear the image of God means we are close to God. In being close to God the light of God’s love strikes us and reflects off our lives. When light, heat or sound strike a surface they are cast back, unless that surface the light strikes is dull, rough or absorbent. When light falls on an object the object is lit up and reflects the light. Sometimes the reflection is a likeness and an image. This physical law has much to teach us spiritually.  Reflection depends upon the quality of the surface. A bright, smooth and even surface will produce a clearer reflection. Correspondingly an uneven, dull and absorbing surface will reflect poorly.  The other thing to remember is that an object that reflects no light cannot be seen.  Now transfer these general laws of reflection to our relationships.  If we don’t reflect the affection of others, if we don’t reflect or return their conversation, we won’t be seen. There is a difference between seeing a person so not to stumble over them, and seeing a person to engage with them.  The reality is if we reflect the attention we receive from others then we will become healthy social beings. If our surface of our lives absorbs all attention and holds on to what comes our way and does not return the social interchange, then we will have a very limited set of relationships.
All this of course applies to our relationship with God. If we simply don’t reflect the rays of love that come from God then we will not be.  If we simply absorb God’s blessing and do not reflect that blessing then we will have no relationship with God or with God’s people. At best we will have a very limited relationship. So it is important that we keep the ‘surface’ of our lives clean, smooth and reflective so that we reflect the image of God, are seen and are a blessing to others. God’s love will light us up when our ‘surface’ – our life – welcomes God’s light and reflects it. 
Our first responsibility as humans is to do our part in preparing ourselves to be present in the presence of God.   Our first responsibility is to nurture our relationship with God. In some sense my experience last Monday night is an example of preparing oneself to receive and reflect God’s light. Although I was leading that service I was also entering into it and opening myself to the possibility of God healing me.
The second responsibility we humans have is to care for creation. The two Creation Stories in Genesis make that abundantly clear.  The words dominion, subdue, till and keep the earth along with naming the creatures of the earth tell us so.  Now the Bible uses words and concepts that do not resonate with us. We live in a democracy and Biblical writers lived with rulers. The Bible uses the concepts that relate to a king’s rule. However they understood that a king had the responsibility to ensure peace, prosperity and blessing for his subjects. Of course there were and are bad selfish rulers as also with democratic leaders, but the assumption in the text is that the ruler will create well-being for the people. So it is easy to understand that our God-given responsibility is to be stewards of the earth.
This becomes clearer when we reflect on humankind’s dominion, subduing and naming of the animals and plants. Our relationship with animals provides a helpful example of what this might mean. In thinking about this I recalled my holidays on the farm. My mum would send me up to my bachelor uncle and his mother’s farm. I loved it. I played cowboys there.  I was given a horse and told to roundup the heifers in the big paddock, which was small by Australian standards, and take them to the watering stream in the neighbouring paddock. On one occasion he was training some young oxen to be draught animals. That was a struggle. The oxen didn’t like the yokes, the pulling and the shoving.  Remember these young oxen were powerful beasts. I recall once being told to keep the oxen back while my uncle was giving medicine to some of them. One large Africander ox moved forward. The beasts horns where about five foot wide. I don’t want to exaggerate. He came towards the line separating the two groups. I waved my hands to no avail. So I put my hands on his horns to push him away. His head was down. He simply lifted his head and me too. So I let go very quickly. I wasn’t going to move this animal easily.
Well the subduing of the young oxen in training continued. A couple of oxen lay down and wouldn’t move. My uncle had an interesting technique. He simply clasped his hands over the nostrils until they got up gasping for breath. During those weeks that span of 16 oxen began to work as a team. A relationship between humankind and creature had developed. It was a relationship of cooperation, of protection, nurture and produce. I could see then in many other incidents that my uncle cared about his animals’ welfare.  I don’t think it was simply the dollar factor. Something more complicated. One thing is clear that the Creation Stories in Genesis are not a licence to exploit and destroy this earth for our own good.
These two Creation stories in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 – the first follows a more scientific pattern of development the other very human-centric – provide us with a clear understanding of our relationship to God and to nature. We have a responsibility to both. We cannot escape our responsibility for the world.
This takes us to one of the greatest issues facing us today – Global Warming.  Global warming is not a cataclysmic disaster like a bushfire or earthquake. It is hardly perceptible to us. Unless we are looking at temperature charts over the past 100 years or so, or viewing aerial photographs of the Arctic and Antarctic ice coverage over the past 50 years, which visibly demonstrates the enormous reduction of ice, we will hardly discern it. And again people want to argue that humans have not caused it. I think we are blind or just disingenuous to think that the world’s human population expanding from 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion in 2012 with its corresponding expansion of technology and resource consumption has not impacted on this planet, let alone the scientific data that demonstrates the effect of greenhouse gases.  It is our duty to discuss it and do what we can. It is our God-given responsibility to address this issue.
I invite you to sing the following song written by Victorian born, Dr Norman Habel, and Professor of Biblical Studies, Hear this earth mourning.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  11/09/2016

The image of God defines Humanness 04-09-2016

Receiving humanity? – Genesis 1.
Genesis 1:1 – 2: 3  (Psalm 8)
The Image of God defines humanness!
What is humanity? The 18th Century English poet, Alexander Pope, wrote; ‘To err is human, to forgive, divine.’  Pope is the second most quoted English writer after Shakespeare.  Was he right in saying that to err is human?  We commonly talk like that. We describe our failings as displaying our human nature. The saying, ‘I’m only human!’ is not uncommon. But are we correct with this common definition of being human? More importantly what does the Bible say, or more precisely what do the early followers of God say? Or should we say, ‘What did God say?’
The Bible says that God spoke saying, Let there be light and so began Creation with God’s spoken Word. There is insufficient time to provide a detailed explanation of the Creation stories in the Bible. However we can note that the creation stories tell us two fundamental things:  God created everything and humankind was special. Genesis tells us why God created us, what our task is and how well humankind responded. I essentially read the Scriptures as God’s revelation given through humans to us. That means I don’t take it literally, but I do take it very, very seriously as a statement of truth for us.
The essential truth about humanity is that God created us in God’s image. God says in Genesis 1, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness … .”   So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them male and female he created them. [Gen 1: 26,27]  The words, image and likeness are complementary words reinforcing the sense that we are meant to represent God’s likeness in our living. 
I want to focus this morning on humankind bearing the image of God.
The lens through which we read this Biblical statement will lead to different interpretations. People in Western society, like us, generally read this story through the lens of Western culture’s understanding of identity. We define ourselves as autonomous, freethinking, self-made persons making individual commitments to life. We would say, ‘I am who I am’. On the other hand there are cultures, which are more community minded and see their identity in relation to their community and its people. In the West the individual is valued above the community and in other parts of the world the community is valued above the individual. So Westerners read Genesis and claim that the image of God is in the individual, and other cultures would understand the image to be in the group.
Community played a far more important role in the Bible than it does in our Western culture. The Bible speaks of people being part of a community and in particular the community of God. What is important is the well-being of the community and where the well-being is good so is the individual healthy. The Bible speaks about the person being known by their fruits. In other words the value and authenticity of a person is revealed in how they conduct their lives in relation to other people. In our Western culture we speak of the interior life as the authentic person. The Bible would describe the authentic person as one who lives justly with others and cares for the whole group. Therefore the image of God is borne by the people.
So the first issue we must think about is, how do we understand what it means to be human? Is being human being an autonomous individual claiming our own freedom and creativity; or is being human about how we live together in the community? This is a challenge for us Westerners. Does individuality or community inform our identity?  Autonomous individuality will lead to a higher degree of selfishness and community will lead to a higher degree of communal responsibility. I am not going to comment on our society today. However you might like to reflect on that with others.
The second thing to consider is what we understand by the word ‘image’.  The word image is familiar to us today, but it is used so widely that the meaning has lost its sharpness. Image no longer assumes a likeness to the real or genuine thing. Today, a politician hires an image-maker; a job applicant dresses to create an image; and, a corporation seeks the right image through manipulation of the media. In these instances, image has come to mean the illusion of what something really is. In our desire to achieve a good image we end up distorting the essence of what is presented to achieve the end we desire.
Dr Paul Brand, the orthopaedic surgeon who pioneered a new approach to treating leprosy in India, says that when he gazes at a nerve cell through a scanning electron microscope, he studies the image. He does not look at the neuron itself – it’s too small for that – but looks for a re-assembled image that faithfully reproduces the cell for him to see. In this instance the image enhances rather than distorts the essence of the cell. Similarly, photographers use the word image to describe their finished product. The photographer’s captured image of an object flattened out on paper or a screen may not fully express that object, but in the hands of a good photographer the essence is captured of the object or person.
So what is the image of God? Firstly we must say we want to see something that represents the essence of the being of God. We certainly cannot look like God in a physical sense, for God is invisible to the human eye.  Human understanding of the image of God has changed with our culture’s emphasis or value system. For example, the Enlightenment period understood the image of God to be reflected in the human ability to reason. Pietism identified it as the spiritual faculty in humans, Victorians located it in their moral judgements, and Renaissance thinkers located the image in artistic creativity. None of these explanations have been satisfying.
Yet in three places the NT applies the word image to Christ Jesus [2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; Hebrews 1:3] Hebrews says that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. Colossians simply says; He is the image of the invisible God, as does Corinthians.  What does this mean? How does Jesus represent the image of God? Certainly it wasn’t his physical appearance. What we are told is that people were surprised at Jesus. Some saw in him their enemy, others realised that he had powers beyond their imagination. The only physical description that we have of Jesus is that he was a hunchback. This shocks some because they have formed an Adonis god-like picture of a handsome and strong Jesus in their minds. We don’t put much store by this physical description. In reality such a description should not surprise us, because Jesus wasn’t valued for his looks. Indeed the lasting physical image we have of Jesus is on a cross. That would not have been a pretty sight at all. He would have been naked, battered, bruised, bloodied and beaten.
What did Jesus do and say that uncovered the image of God?  Some saw the image of God in the way he treated the poor, the marginalised, the sick, the lepers and the way he stood against those harmful traditions of the faith. Some saw the image of God in his miracles or powerful life giving words. Some saw the image of God in his painful sacrificial death on the Cross.  Somehow Jesus’ words and deeds of hope and compassion revealed God’s image. In his humility in serving others we see the image of God. In his sacrificial death taking upon himself the sins of the world and destroying the power of sin by love the image was revealed.
It was the revolutionary character of his humility, servanthood and love that revealed the image of God. Christ Jesus sparked a revolution that changed the world through service, compassion and justice. Its in such community minded action and living that the image of God is revealed.
Paul Brand says that as a child he attended large churches and retreat centres hearing the best of the eloquent preachers and wise teachers of the day. But one man stood out for him. Brand writes that it was  ‘Willie Long, a man I encountered in a Primitive Methodist church at a seaside resort. Willie would mount the pulpit in his blue fisherman’s jersey, with its salty and fishy aroma. Yet this uneducated man with a thick Norfolk accent, unconventional grammar and simple faith probably did more to nudge my own faith in those formative years than the entire company of famous men.  When he stood to speak of Christ, he spoke of a personal friend and the love of God radiated from him. Willie Long, of little consequence in the image of men, showed me the image of God.”  [Brand & Yancey, In the Likeness of God. p. 263]
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  01/08/2016

People Matter: Colossians 5. 28-08-2016

People Matter: Colossians 5.
Acts 19:21- 29, 35 – 20: 4 and 15:36-41;  Colossians 4:2 – 18
People matter. They always do regardless of the organisation or business. People make things work. People make the difference in life. People must come first – their well-being and their gifting. Without healthy maturity and invigorated gifts the community will flounder.
One cannot read Paul’s letters and not get that people matter. This final chapter in this letter to the Colossian Christians is all about people. Ten names are mentioned and some instructions for prayer. These apparently simple greetings carry a rich story. These ten names tell the personal story, the partnerships and the different contributions that form part of the fabric of the Church. Without them there is no Church. It is not unlike our church – your church. The back story of this church is about the faithful lives of people.
This farewell section begins with an instruction to devote oneself to prayer, being alert and thankful. [4:2] The focus of prayer is quite clear. They are to pray for their ministers, who are praying for them. They are to pray that God will open doors, because the Gospel cannot grow without God acting first.  The whole purpose of the church’s work is to make clear what God is doing in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. If this is the reason for the church’s existence then it follows they the believer must work at being thoughtful, gracious and ready to explain their faith. [4:2-6] 
Let us hear these words of Paul again.
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should. Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time.  6 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone. [4: 2-6] 
In this final instruction and encouragement to these young Christians at Colossae Paul reminds us of the important truths of prayer, dependence upon God, the partnership we have with each other and God and the responsibility to make it happen. We must not forget that evangelism is to Church growth as oxygen is to fire. Without oxygen the fire dies and without evangelism the Church dies.
Let the membership of Leighmoor reflect on the teaching of this letter. 
How much time do we give to prayer?
Do we pray that others might come into a loving and transforming relationship with Christ Jesus?
(Or, do we pray more for our own needs?  Where lies the emphasis in our prayers? )
Do we think about making the Christian message clear?
Is our church life more about what we can get than what we can give?
I know I fail on these points. I know that without a focus on what we should be doing we will simply go backwards. Remember our mission statement that we have agreed to in council and in our silence. 
Helping People into a Living Relationship with Jesus Christ.
How much time do we give to preparing ourselves for our conversations with others. Let us ponder this for a moment. Someone has raised in your group or family or friends – some point about Christianity. Do you remain silent? Or do you say I don’t know. Or do you agree with their cynical analysis of the church. What do you say?  You might not be able to respond the first time, but have you ever gone away and reflected on that conversation and thought about how you would respond more positively. Reflect upon those conversations and questions and begin to develop some thoughtful responses. When people tell me how bad the church is I often agree with them.  Often the best way to address these questions is to make an ‘I statement’; i.e. this is what you believe.  My usual response runs like this.  “I know the church and I can tell you how messy it is, but I’m in it because the message and messenger is so great I couldn’t live without the meaningfulness and Christ in my life.”
The writings of Paul have presented some significant metaphors for the Church and not least the notion of the Church being like a human body, where each part works together to make the whole and each part is as important as the other. 1 Corinthians 12 provides us with this metaphor. In these final sentences of the Colossian letter ten people are mentioned witnessing to the network of relationships that go to make up the Church and God’s mission.
Tychicus is a companion of Paul who is entrusted with delivering the letter to the Ephesians. [Eph 6:21]  He is described as a beloved brother and a faithful minister of Christ’s. But most interesting is that Tychicus is entrusted with the task of providing personal news about Paul. To be someone’s ambassador is always a privilege and it speaks of an intimate relationship.
Onesimus, the runaway slave, is a member of the congregation at Colossae! We can read all about Onesimus in Paul’s letter to Philemon the slave owner of Onesimus. Paul refers to Onesimus as a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you, not as a slave [4:9]. That speaks volumes about Paul’s theology and God’s grace.
The three Jewish men are mentioned, Aristarchus, Mark (the writer of the Gospel according to Mark) and Jesus Justus.  Aristarchus shared the dangers and the deprivations of being a co-worker with Paul.  In Ephesus an angry mob attacked Paul, Aristarchus and Gaius. [Acts 19:29]. When Paul was imprisoned and taken to Rome Aristarchus went as his personal servant [Acts 29:2]. Aristarchus was a loyal friend and companion to Paul and suffered with Paul.
The next man of Jewish origin is Mark. Mark is the friend of the disciple Peter and it is believed Mark learnt all about Jesus from Peter. Mark is also believed to be the young man who ran away from the Garden of Gethsemane. So Mark had a personal acquaintance with Jesus. But there is more. We read Acts 13 and 15 that Mark had let down Paul and Barnabus. Later Barnabus was happy to take Mark with them on the Second Missionary journey, but Paul refused believing Mark to be unreliable. But now Mark is with Paul.  Clearly Paul and Mark had been reconciled.  We also learn that Paul sees Mark as a useful member of the team [2 Tim 4:11; Philem 24]. This is what the Gospel is about – forgiveness and reconciliation.
We know nothing about Jesus Justus but his name and that he is a companion and team member.  It would have been a comfort to Paul to have three Jewish Christians with him in Rome, as the Roman Jews were very querulous about Paul. If Paul had only had Gentile Christians he might have found it harder to speak to the Jews in Rome.
Epaphras, was the minister of the Colossae church and also the church in Laodicea and Hierapolis. He prayed and worked hard for the churches he served [1:7,8]
Luke was with Paul to the end we read in 2 Timothy 4:11. He is the beloved physician. Did he dedicate his life to attending to Paul’s medical condition? [2 Cor 12: 7] Luke wrote an account of the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – two books we have in the NT.
Demas is mentioned without comment. He is mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:10 as having left the team.
Nymphas heads the house-church in Laodicea. This reminds us that the church first met in homes and that women played a lead role in the structure of the church.
Finally Archippus is mentioned and a message of encouragement to complete the task he has received from the Lord.
We cannot escape the importance of the diversity of Paul’s team and Paul’s pastoral care for all people. Paul’s pastoral concern is expressed through affirmation, encouragement, warning and instruction. The Pastoral care is based on a clear and insightful theology of Christ Jesus. These ten persons tell us that ministry is a combined effort; ministry is working together and listening to God the Holy Spirit; and that ministry should be done with a high measure of thoughtfulness.
I hope this little excursion into the life of a minster, Paul and his team, has been helpful. May we with thoughtfulness proceed in our faith journey to witness to the wonderful love of God in Christ Jesus for the world.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  28/08/2016

Counterbalance: Colossians 4 21-08-2016

Counterbalance: Colossians 4.

Mark 10: 41 – 45; Colossians 3:18 – 4: 1


People talk about having a balanced life. Sometimes to achieve this you need counterbalance: a force or influence equalling and countering another. We find many examples in life. A counterweight is an equivalent counterbalancing weight that balances a load. The counterweight’s purpose is to make lifting a load more efficient. A counterweight is used in elevators and cranes. The same applies to motor engines. We drive cars that have finely balanced engines. This is achieved by placing counterweights on the crankshaft. Counterbalancing also happens in human history. The Jesuit movement in the Roman Catholic Church counterbalanced the German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, who was successfully attacking the power of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. I am sure we could go on and find many more examples of the usefulness of a counterbalance.


Understanding the importance of counterbalancing helps us understand how we can apply the truths of the Gospel to our daily living. Many feel more comfortable with a simple code of what is right and wrong, but unfortunately life is more complicated. What might be right in one context may be wrong in another. There is the classic case of the commander of a British naval vessel. He had survivors from a torpedoed merchant ship in the water and underneath was the enemy submarine, which had sunk the merchant ship. What does the commander do? Does he let the submarine get away and destroy more ships and lives, or does he destroy the submarine and in the action kill the British sailors in the water? If we trawled through history we might find a few examples of how a few have been sacrificed for the greater good. That’s is not an ethic we should easily adopt. It is a very dangerous ethic.


We don’t have to face such dilemmas, but how we apply the Gospel’s ethical principles of love and justice is not always straightforward. There is some adaptation required. Paul in writing to the Colossian Christians is presented with a difficulty. Paul has commended the Colossians for their faith demonstrated by their love, which is grounded in the hope they have in God’s future. He has argued that as created beings made in the ‘image of God’ they bare the stamp of God upon them, albeit that the image is tarnished. That is true for all of us. It is equally true to say that in some of us ‘the image of God’ is so tarnished we hardly recognise God’s image. If I take the metaphor a little further and say that sometimes the silver is so tarnished that the object looks black, leaving you in doubt if it is silver! I had a case like that the other day. I ended up boiling the object, a beautiful silver Arabian knife and sheaf in water with bicarbonate of soda and a little vinegar. It came up beautifully. I sometimes think some humans could do with a little treatment like that!


Paul reminds us that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we have a pathway to God. Along the road with Jesus the tarnished ‘image of God’ is being cleaned up. The love of God in Christ Jesus transforms us so that once more we bear a restored ‘image of God’. One of the consequences of becoming more like Christ Jesus is that we transcend all differences. No longer do our differences of social status, race and gender matter. This is a wonderful thing that liberates us from our prejudices and fears. I was brought up to believe that black people were dirty and should be kept separate. I don’t think my parents said so and certainly my father said the opposite, but stepping outside the door of our house I witnessed the separation of races and the unequal treatment. I acquired the attendant fears and prejudices. I remember clearly the occasion when my primary school principal said to us grade 5s that we had to work hard so black people didn’t take our jobs. I inherently knew this was wrong, but I couldn’t articulate my feelings. I just knew it was wrong. The obvious application of the Gospel was that a black person was my equal, but the law of the land said the opposite. It took a while for me to get my head and heart around that. There came a point in time when I deliberately and purposefully broke some of the laws of the country through my relationships with Africans.


I wonder what Paul thought? He ended up saying that in Christ Jesus there are no boundaries between us humans, but Christians had to deal with the common ‘household rules’ of the Roman society. Those rules recognised the hierarchical structure of society. The Emperor at the top followed by Senators, the officers of state and finally the household, which was under the husband who ruled over his wife, children and slaves. How did Paul apply the ethic that in Christ Jesus there is no male or female or slave and free? Paul has to help his fellow Christian brothers and sisters apply the Gospel ‘household rules’. Roman society’s ‘household rules’ were commonly found in non-Christian writings of that period. They basically named the husband or man as the head of home whom others must obey.


Paul had no power to change this structure in society, yet he believed that there no difference existed between male and female, slave and free. Christian had to live in their world. How did they do it?


What Paul does in the letter to the Colossians is to counterbalance the hierarchical power-structure of the ‘household rules’ with the lordship of Christ Jesus. Jesus, the Lord of life, balances out the lordship of humanity. Secondly, empowering the female, children and slaves to take responsibility for their own actions counterbalances the patriarchal power of the male. Thirdly, but not least, the coercive power of the male is now counterbalanced by the power of Christ’s love for all people.


Paul makes the point that everything we do comes under the supremacy of the Lord Christ Jesus. What we do is not for ourselves or for the approval of others but for the honour of God our creator. That in itself is an illuminating truth. What a difference we would make if we did this consistently.


Paul recognises that the wife, the children and the slaves have an ethical responsibility. You may say, of course that is so. But I tell you that in the Greco-Roman world women, children and slaves were not seen as having the ability to make such choices. Therefore they were not given the chance. However the Gospel truth says to all marginalised persons that you can choose to behave in a certain positive Christian manner. By giving thanks to God you will end up being joyful in your life. This is a surprising addition to the ‘household rules’ of the time that the marginalised have an ethical choice.


Let me demonstrate these points by concentrating on the ‘household rules’ for slaves.

Slaves are asked to do their best at all times, not only when their master observes them, because God is the final arbiter of our lives. God will reward us according to our responsible behaviour. Therefore God will not commend the slave who obeys only when supervised. Ultimately when the slave comes before the judgement seat of God, like their master, their mistress and even the Emperor, they will be judged by the love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, kindness, humility and patience they have exhibited in this life. Remember Paul has named five virtues with which we should clothe ourselves – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience [3:12]. The fact that the slave did her/his duty when forced to does not count for much. Remember God looks upon our heart and what we do in secret Jesus says. So the slave learns that their true Lord is the Lord Christ Jesus. And it is to Jesus that they are answerable. In fact Paul makes it quite clear in 3:25 that God will judge us all according to our faithfulness and our love to God and our neighbour. Faith and love lead to a peaceful, just and fulfilling life.


If the hearer, remember most people in Paul’s day would first hear this letter read to them, does not fully comprehend that Paul is offering a radical counterbalance to the status quo then the final statement will make it abundantly clear. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven. [4:1]





Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 01/08/2016



The Christian Check list: Col 3 14-08-2016

The Christian Check list: Col 3.
Matthew 5: 21 – 42; Colossians 3: 1 – 17
Check lists are important and helpful. It saves us trying to remember everything. We turn to them to check what is the next thing to do. I use them a lot. I use old envelopes with my checklist of things to do. I use a prayer list in my devotional books. Pilots have a checklist to see if everything has been attended to. Checklists can be like a set of guidelines to ensure that we have covered everything or whether we are meeting the safety standards required.
Now we may think we don’t need a checklist in our faith practice, but we do. Paul provides us with a checklist and also provides us with the pastoral and theological reasons for the checklist. There is a great danger in thinking we don’t need to check our practice. It is so easy to get into a pattern and think that the pattern is enough. We have patterns in the church. We take them for granted seldom reflecting on them. We had that pattern of Sunday school, Confirmation Class and the Confirmation service. We dressed up. It was a big thing. It was like a graduation. In fact many treated it like that.  We were full members and we didn’t need to go to Sunday school any more.  What next? Things changed. Some of us got involved and more of us got less involved and less committed. We were all wrong about Confirmation. It wasn’t a graduation. It was the beginning of being an adult Christian. Confirmation meant we stopped being a Christian-child. 
Now the Christian life is filled with dangers as Paul points out to the Colossian Christians. Those dangers include challenges and compromises. Being a Christian might put us in a position of persecution. Or we could let our culture and our interests distract us and compromise our faith. Losing our living relationship with Christ can be as simple as just falling into a series of Christian habits. We’re comfortable and we just go a long with the flow. In the process we don’t grow and increasingly miss the point of the Faith. Paul knows that we can miss the point and miss out on God’s transforming and healing love. Paul cares and Paul provides us with a checklist.
Paul began his letter to the Christians at Colossae commending them in their new faith that was evidenced by their love for each other. Their faith and love was grounded in their hope of God’s future. God’s future helps us live life today. Brian Wren’s song, There’s Spirit in the Air, expresses the same thoughts in the line living tomorrow’s life today.  God’s future shows how to live today. That’s why we pray the Lord’s Prayer saying, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Paul encourages the Colossians to keep their focus on Jesus. He reminds them who Jesus is. Jesus is the head of the Church, the Lord of Life and Jesus embodies the presence of God as no other person does. So Paul says what John’s Gospel says;
In the beginning was the Word (that’s Jesus), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.   All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. [John 1: 1-3] That’s what Paul says.  Jesus is the co-creator, the Redeemer of the world and he is overall. Not only is Jesus over all life, Jesus holds this world together. [Col 1: 15-20]  Remember last week I said that ’you’re going where you’re looking’. If we’re looking to God that’s where we’re going.
Paul’s checklist in chapter 3 has three instructions and Godly reasoning. He writes; ‘You must put to death earthly desires such as sexual immorality, indecency, lust, evil passions and greed … ‘. [3:5] Then he says we must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. [3:8]  Finally he says they must clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. [3: 12] Paul has mentioned 5 vices, 5 emotional responses and added 5 virtues of the faith. Consider these lists and see their relevance to us today.
We live in a world today where the notion of sexual chastity is basically excluded from our thinking. In the Roman world the common view was that sexual desires should be satisfied. Some religions deliberately included the sexual act in aspects of worship providing temple prostitutes. Certainly it was generally accepted that sexual desires should be placated. In contrast the Jews’ and Christ Jesus followers practised chastity for both male and female.
The 5 vices speak of a self-centred life. These vices are often satisfied at the expense of others. A snap shot of our media, films, entertainment all point to meeting our desires and self-interest. Sexual practice is openly accepted and seems to form a necessary part of any supposedly good book and film. We shamelessly denigrate people. Our politicians turn it into an art form. Our commercial world is largely motivated by personal gain and greed. Our education system unwittingly supports this with the emphasis upon ‘our rights’ at the expense of ‘our responsibilities’.  The Church is not excluded. It has supported our culture’s individualism by individualising salvation.  The church presents the salvation of God as a personal thing when the bible clearly sees salvation as a communal thing.  To be God’s follower requires us to be involved with others in praise and love – in community and service.  It is no wonder that to curb this self-interested pursuit our politicians have enacted laws that limit the amount of slander and vilification we may make against others. Yet there aresignificant people who want a freedom to say what they like.
The Christian response contrasts with the world’s. Sexuality is to be enjoyed in the context of a respectful and faithful relationship.  Self-love is necessary insofar as we look after ourselves so we can serve others effectively. There is a truth in the second commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.  It is a fact of life that we cannot truly love others unless we have learnt to truly love ourselves. The whole Christian ethic is that we are blessed to be a blessing to others. Our being is interwoven with the being of others.
Paul strongly warns Colossian Christians to actively keep the faith. His warning should be read against Jesus’ dramatic teaching in the Sermon on the Mount
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. [Mt 5: 29f]
Paul provides us with the theological reason for this teaching.  We are created by God and stamped with God’s image. But that image is tarnished – impaired. God has come in Jesus to renew that image. Now if we don’t allow God to renew that image we will separate ourselves from God. We will lose what is rightfully ours – a living, liberating and healing relationship with our Creator.
Paul reminds us that God is transforming, renewing and refreshing us. So why would we slow that process down through self-indulgence. Why would we forgo the delight in being one with God? We stand to lose the precious gift of true peace. The point is this, when we are being transformed by God we rise above our passions, petty difference, our insecurities and we recognise that we are all the same before God. Our renewal in Christ means we lose those distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and elitism. True peace is based on justice, equality, humility and forgiveness. God alone gives us that.
Finally let me try explaining how our Christian lives are threatened by our vices and self-centeredness with a personal story. It is a story that throws a little light on the struggle and the dangers of the Christian life. It involves the interplay between God’s Word in our lives and our self-interest.  It was the second year of my ministry. That year I was preaching and studyiing the Sermon on the Mount. I had been making some hospital visits that afternoon. I returned to my car and reversed out of the car park and over swung bumping the car next to me. My heart sank. And then it kicked in. The first thing I did was to look around to see if anyone had seen me. Yes, that’s what I did. There wasn’t anyone in sight. Then there was a voice. It seemed so audible. The golden rule was quoted: Do unto others, as you would have them do to you. Yes, the words of Jesus came to mind.   I straightened my car put on the handbrake and looked at the damage. Again there was no one around. There was no way I could enter the hospital and hope to find the person owning this car amongst the hundreds in the car park. So I did the next best thing. I pulled out a calling card and placed it on the windscreen with a note confessing my deed. It is very hard to attach something to a locked car. The person never called. I wondered if they saw the card and threw it away without looking at it. Or they didn’t see the card and it blew off on their way home. Or they chose not to follow it up. But I remember it well. I remember to my shame the immediate reaction of looking after my own interests first and then the voice of Christ calling me to act responsibly.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  14/08/2016

Going where you are Looking 07-08-2016

Going where you are looking: Colossians 2.
Colossians 2: 1 – 23
Robert Louis Stevenson’s, Treasurer Island, is a great tale. At the centre is a mysterious map with secret codes directing the treasure hunter.  The path to the treasure is strewn with many dangers.  That’s the stuff of many adventure tales. Strangely Stevenson’s tale may help us understand the Colossian letter. There is the mystery of Christ and the great treasure of knowing Christ, and the Christian path is strewn with danger especially if one doesn’t strictly follow the map.
Paul virtually uses the image of a treasure map in chapter 1 verses 25 – 28. He speaks of the Word of God being hidden for ages and generations, which is now known to us through Christ Jesus. Jesus has unlocked the treasure chest so to speak. Paul wants the Colossian Christian to understand the mystery of Christ Jesus, so they can enjoy the hidden treasure. Now you may be wondering what is hidden and what is the mystery?
The first Christians lived in a world of power and influence. There was the Emperor’s absolute power. The Emperor disposed those who opposed him. They were stripped of their clothes, naked they were whipped and nailed to a cross to die slowly. What a demonstration of power.  In this context Christians were saying that Christ Jesus has destroyed the power of this world and is Lord of all creation. Yes, all of it – the Emperor as well. Christ Jesus is Lord!  That s eemed absurd to non-Christians. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians saying that the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing and the power of God to those who are saved [1 Cor 1: 18]. Paul recognises the absurdity of the Christian claim. Even today the notion of the Cross is foolishness to the wider community. Some religions find it utterly insulting to say that God died on the Cross, because God doesn’t suffer as suffering belongs only to humans. Sadly some Christians try to explain the Cross away and focus on some other aspect of the Christian story.  For some it is the teachings of Jesus and for others it is justice.
Now these thoughts really take us back to our text.  You see the Colossian Christians were being distracted. Yes, they had demonstrated their faith in Jesus through their love for others, which was grounded in their hope in God’s plan.  That was the theme of last week’s sermon based on Colossians 1.  But in a few places we saw hints of the Colossian’s faith being threatened. Now in chapter 2 it becomes quite clear.  In verse 8 Paul warns them not to be captivated by false philosophies that take them away from Christ Jesus. In verses 16ff he warns them against following pagan practices, religious rites and Jewish food laws that lead them away from Jesus.
There is always a risk that Christians will be distracted by their culture’s values and beliefs. For example, the Colossian Christians were distracted by their Greco-Roman culture’s view that one needed to escape from this world to the perfect one above, through ascetic practices such as strict food and drink laws.  This is not surprising. Indeed even today some very sincere Christians are being distracted by our world’s materialistic, individualistic and rationalistic beliefs and values. And other Christians shelter behind strict rules or unreflected understandings about gender orientation.
Now Paul argues that any reliance on their culture is wrong. His argument is that Christ Jesus meets all our needs because:
the fullness of God dwells in Jesus [2:9; 1:19];
Christ Jesus is the head of all powers and authorities [2:10; 1:17];
when we accept Jesus God accepts us and we become part of Christ and God the Holy Spirit begins the transformation of our lives – we are forgiven and God looks upon us as forgiven / reconciled [2:13;  1:20];
we are no longer of this world but belong to God’s world [2:20]; and
we share in the Resurrection of Jesus [2:12].
Because Jesus is Lord and Creator of all and we share in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we are not subject to anything else.  We are only subject to God who has revealed himself in Jesus [1:15; 2:9]. This points us to the amazing freedom we have in Christ Jesus. In following Jesus we enter his life and his life transforms us.
Consequently Paul asks this question of the Colossian Christians: If with Christ you died  to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? [2:20].  So why did they? The same question to us would go something like this. ‘If you have accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord and Savour, why do you continue to trust the things of this world?’  And why do we? At times I am disappointed and surprised to find Christians thinking they are not ‘good enough’ for God. They don’t take seriously the forgiveness of God, nor their new status as an adopted child of God [John 1: 12].
Now I have been speaking about  .  The treasure is Christ Jesus himself, in whom all the treasures  of wisdom and knowledge exist[2:3].   That little song, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these shall be given to you, says it all.  
In Colossians chapter 2 Paul re-iterates the importance of looking to Jesus only. He writes; For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for all who have not seen me face to face.  I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself,  in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. [2:1-3]
Now Paul’s point is extremely valid. I want to use the metaphor of steering-with-your-head to illustrate that truth. I want to suggest to you that you are going where you’re looking.  I’m going to show you some pictures of motorcyclists and cyclists. [I feature in one on a blue motorcycle.] Notice where the rider’s head is pointing when turning a corner.  In our first picture we have a top world class motorcycle racer cornering. His head is pointing away from the apparent direction of his motorcycle. Now you might think he is looking at something on the side of the track but he isn’t. He is looking where he wants to go. By keeping his eye on where he is going he pulls the motorcycle through the corner and stays on the track. Notice in the second picture the rider’s chin is in line with his left shoulder and that is where he is going. His direction is almost 75 degrees to the left of where the motorcycle’s wheels are pointing.   If he were to look anywhere else he would miss the corner. Given the speed he is travelling it would be disastrous if he missed the corner, even by a small amount. He would crash out of contention.  The direction of the head is so important when riding a two-wheeled vehicle.  The direction of the eyes is crucial to executing the corner. That is true of driving and anything else I would add, but it is acute when you are travelling at speed on a two-wheeled vehicle. So in looking at these pictures we see the importance of focussing on where you are going, because you are going where you’re looking.
There is a profound spiritual lesson here. When we take our eyes off Christ Jesus we stand to miss the corner. When we look elsewhere we will miss the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus doesn’t call us to follow him because he wants to control us but to set us free to be our best – to be God’s person. In all those pictures of cornering at speed the discipline is not about restriction, but freedom to enjoy the thrill of riding at speed.  Christ calls us to follow so the restoration of ourselves can begin to take place. Christ Jesus offers us freedom from the enslaving attractions of this world’s values and beliefs that tell us the lie that we are in control of life and our destiny, that wealth means health and that there is nothing more to this life  but to indulge ourselves.  Remember Jesus’ words :
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. [Luke 12: 34]
Friends, you’re going where you are looking.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  01/08/2016

Faith, Love and Hope in Christ 31-07-2016

Faith, Love and Hope in Christ.
Luke 10: 25 – 37; Colossians 1: 1 – 14
The letter to the church in Colossae provides us with a marvellous insight into Christian Faith.  The opening paragraphs contain a rich lode of spiritual gold. They contain the treasure and truth of the Christian life. Understand them, apply them and you have the Christian Faith.
One way of seeing these opening verses is through the metaphor of a new plant in your garden. You’ve been given a new plant that you are told will grow and multiply and make your garden beautiful.  You trust your friend and put into action what is suggested, motivated by the hope of a prettier garden. You plant it and nurture the plant. It grows and multiplies slowly but surely. And truly it does beautify your garden. The plant bears the promised fruit of delightful flowers that enrich your and others’ lives. We have trusted our friend, planted their gift and with hope we anticipated what it would do. We were motivated by the hope of a beautiful garden our reliable and loving friend promised us.
Paul’s letter to the Colossian Christians is in the style of letter writing of the day, but with significant differences. His greeting contains a blessing and an assurance from God, which is guaranteed by him being an apostle – one who is sent from God. Then Paul offers a prayer. Firstly, he starts with thanksgiving.  Secondly, he prays for the Colossian Christians asking God to nurture their growth in ‘wisdom and understanding’ [v.9].  His thanksgiving prayer uses three key words – faith, love and hope – that are found elsewhere and especially in that famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, the hymn of love, which is the favourite for marriage services. So let us consider this text by focusing on faith, love and hope. Let us do so by noticing their relationship to each other and their order.
The order of the words, faith, love and hope, presents us with an insight worthy of our attention. Paul writes; we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. [Col 1:4,5] The logic of the order and the grammar tells us an important truth about the Christian life.  It tells us that our Faith in Christ Jesus is expressed in Love and based on the life, death, resurrection and future of God revealed in Christ Jesus.  So the Christian life is a life of faith expressed through love for others. The Christian life is grounded by the hope that whatever may happen our future rests with God. Let us reflect on each of these three key words faith, love and hope.
Faith in Christ.  The common meaning of ‘faith’ is that one believes in something or someone and that faith orders your life to some extent. When we speak of someone’s faith we are speaking about their orientation. They have faith in that or this. They believe these things. It is helpful to distinguish between faith and belief. Belief refers to a set of ideas or statements about someone or something. Belief is an intellectual process. It resides in our head. We can articulate our beliefs. However do we have faith in our beliefs?
I want to draw a distinction between faith as a set of beliefs and faith as trusting and living. Faith can refer to a set of beliefs we have or faith can refer to what we trust in. Belief is an intellectual process and trust is an emotional commitment.  You might believe that someone can do something, but do you trust them to do it?  Once we move from faith as a set of beliefs to faith as trusting in those beliefs we have moved up gear. When we start trusting someone or something we enter into a new relationship with the person or object.
The letter to the Colossians does not speak of the recipients’ faith about Christ Jesus but their faith in Christ Jesus. The preposition ‘in’ is significant. It expresses the sense of entering into something, being involved and a follower. I might believe that Jesus is the Christ, that he died and he rose from the dead and is divine, but it does not necessarily mean I trust Christ Jesus; that is, I live my life by Jesus’ standards. What distinguishes faith as belief and faith as trust are the consequences of my belief. And that is precisely what Paul focuses on here – the consequences of the Colossian Christians’ faith.  Paul has heard about their faith in Christ and their love for others.
Love in Christ.  Love is not seen here as being separate from faith in Christ. Faith and love are inseparable. Paul acknowledgement of the Colossian Christians’ faith rests on the fact that lives bear the fruit of Christian love.  He isn’t thanking God for them being members of the Church in Colossae, but thanking God for the fruit of their faith.  In verses 4 – 7 Paul twice refers to their love and mentions they are bearing the fruit of the Gospel. 
The gospel … is bearing fruit among yourselves … .   This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. … he has made known to us your love in the Spirit. [Vv.5 – 8]
Faith describes my life from the perspective of its orientation. When I talk about my beliefs I am talking about my orientation; that is, what matters to me and what drives me.  Love describes my life from the perspective of its effect on others. Love is necessary to Faith as oxygen is necessary to breathing.  You can’t breathe without oxygen neither can you be a Christian without loving others. The 1st letter of John makes it quite clear when the writer says; Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. [1 Jn 4:7,8] These words challenge us. When I say I am a Christian does my attitude to others confirm that claim?  Do I love others?
Hope in Christ. Paul writes; we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. [Col 1:4,5] Hope is not an extra addition to the first two concepts, but an important part of the parcel. Hope is the foundation for Faith and Love. Why is that so? Firstly, let me offer a word of caution. There is no evidence that this letter suggests that being a Christian is all about going to heaven one day. As we study this text, and I propose to preach on the text of Colossians over the next four to five Sundays, you will see that this letter is concerned about living life in the community now. (By the way you can follow the sermon series on the Leighmoor website and you can join the study group at Leighmoor.)
Hope acts like a vision or goal statement. We have an imaginary picture in our mind of achieving something. It may be a professional goal or a sporting goal or travelling goal. That picture of the future goal tends to direct our living today. We start preparing ourselves. We construct our living and actions around that vision or goal. In effect we make plans and take action. God’s future is like that too.  God calls us into God’s future. God’s future is not heaven beyond this world, but heaven coming down to earth. Heaven for me is really like God’s ‘control tower’.  The Lord’s Prayer tells us that we will do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.  God’s future is about living in peace. God’s peace is not the absence of war, but the wholeness of life where there is reconciliation between enemies, forgiveness, care and justice. God’s future is life without chains and exploitation. God’s future is without violence and fear.  God’s future pulls us into God’s future. We are drawn to it and it is drawn to us. Let me try explaining it this way.
Our culture tells us that everything happens by cause and effect. The notion of ‘cause and effect’ is that the past pushes us into the future. We would conclude that certain things happen in the past that bring us here. Now there is some truth in that.  But God comes to us in Christ Jesus and changes that around. Christ Jesus calls us to follow him and through his love, his forgiveness and his acceptance of us. God’s future blessings are received now. We live as being accepted by God. We live as people already forgiven. We live as people who are living lives, albeit inadequately at times, that reflect God’s future.  Every time we stop to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgiveable we are bringing God’s future into the present. So where there is a loving community of Christ followers there is peace and justice, compassion and acceptance.
Our hope in God’s future pulls us into God’s tomorrow where love for each other abounds and faithful relationships endure.
Faith can only be real when we Love, and love can only survive when nurtured by Hope. Faith, Love and Hope work together to create God’s tomorrow. Men and women of God know that when we fail to love we fail our God. When we fail to love we dishonour Christ Jesus.  From time to time we will fail, but by the mercy of God we can be forgiven and renewed.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  31/07/2016