The Power of Forgiveness 18-08-2019

The Power of Forgiveness

(2 Samuel 19) Luke 15: 20 – 32; John 20: 19 – 23

 

Can you imagine a world where every person, every community, nation and tribe work on payback?  Can you imagine a world that harbours every grudge and grievance and demands justice? Justice without mercy is not true justice, it’s just payback. Payback emerges out of the wells of anger and revenge. 

On the other hand mercy – kindness and forbearance – springs from the waters of love and humility. Forgiveness and mercy offer us a way that allows relationships to start again. Solzhenitsyn stated that our capacity for forgiveness distinguishes us from the animal world.  I would say that to forgive or to apologise is the beginning of becoming truly human.

In Shakespeare’s play the Merchant of Venice, Portia disguised as a lawyer, tells Shylock that justice without mercy is not justice. When Shylock asks Portia to explain why he should show mercy to Antonio, Portia responds [Merchant of Venice, Act 4:1, lines 185f]:

The quality of mercy is not strained,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

… Though justice be thy plea, consider this, 

That in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy.

Portia reminds us that mercy and forgiveness benefits both the giver and the recipient. She points out that justice alone will not bring reconciliation. Shakespeare has spoken well through Portia.

These truths are at the heart of the Gospel and the Bible. Jesus’ words to his disciples in the Upper Room on the evening of the day of the Resurrection are so relevant today. John tells us that Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” [Jn 20: 22,23. Cf. Mt 18:18]  Now what does this mean – if you retain the sins of any, they are retained?  

Is it not true that when someone offends us we feel a degree of resentment if not anger?  If we don’t forgive the person these feelings don’t disappear: they merely reside in the inner recesses of our mind.  While we think that we have dealt with our feelings we have not. We have merely pushed them aside for the moment. Those feelings continue to quietly corrode our thinking and being. They can make us physically unwell and they certainly harm our spiritual well-being. In other words the sin is retained. Now if I have been offended by X and I don’t deal with it, a wall is erected between us. Every time I see X we may be quite sociable but we don’t get close and there is always that unspoken thing between us. You see, if I do not forgive X I retain X’s sin against me. That is what Jesus is getting at. I retain the wrong done to me and that forms a barrier. However if I forgive X then we are set free to relate to each other. Jesus’ commission is very relevant to both our private and public lives. So what is the forgiveness process?

Firstly there are three recognitions that need to take place. 

Recognition one is that we hurt each other by our thoughtless remarks, selfish acts, our wilfulness, prejudices and fears. Something small can become something quite large. There are those hurts that are big, but even the little ones can grow. The ugliness of insults, our looking after ourselves at the expense of others and the greed that takes more than we’re entitled to causes deep rifts, hurts, and injustices. Unless we take time to forgive we will merely construct a deep pits of resentment and anger, shame and guilt. The hurt continues to grow.

Recognition two is that we need help to forgive. Forgiveness is never easy, neither is it simple. We need to humbly admit that we need an exemplar: someone who can show us how to forgive. It is in Jesus that we find the compassion and humility that makes forgiveness possible. More importantly Jesus has already forgiven us and begun the process for us. 

Recognition three is knowing that retaining a feeling of  unforgiveness is bad for us.  When we have been hurt by someone’s thoughtless or selfish behaviour the hurt turns to anger and resentment. Such feelings become cancerous. They can ruin our well-being.  Likewise when we have hurt and offended someone we experience guilt and shame.  Shame and guilt affect the way we relate to people. Then we are the ones needing forgiveness.  We need to forgive and to be forgiven for we are sinners. 

The steps of Forgiveness. 

The first step is to acknowledge the offence and its affect on us.  Don’t pretend either to yourself or the person who has hurt you that it “doesn’t matter”.  It does matter. 

The second step is to be prepared to forgive.  This is the hardest step. The forgiveness begins with our willingness to forgive. I once prayed for three weeks everyday to forgive someone who had really angered me at work. I finally reached the point of forgiveness. There was never reconciliation as there was no opportunity to meet with the person. However I was set free from the anger and resentment and found I could relate in a meaningful way with that person. The willingness to forgive together with God’s help to forgive set me free. 

Thirdly, if there is the opportunity to do so, approach the other and tell them that their action has hurt you. If that person either denies it or defends their action listen, but avoid an argument.  Just reiterate that you were offended by their action and leave it at that. If you have begun the forgiveness process in your own heart your anger and resentment will not be increased by their rejection of the fact that they have offended you. You go away and take it to God again and pray that you can forgive them. The forgiveness process is only completed when the offender says sorry. If they do we graciously accept their apology.

The fourth step is reconciliation.   Reconciliation only takes place after the offender says sorry and the offended has forgiven them. That is the beginning of reconciliation.

Some notes on the process. Reconciliation is not always possible. So the most important thing to do is to forgive them and ask God to help you take away the sense of injustice you have suffered.  Secondly, the worst thing we can do when someone says sorry is to say, ‘Oh it doesn’t matter’. It does matter. Furthermore to say to someone who has apologised to you that it doesn’t matter is to make out that they are silly to think they have hurt you.

Victor Hugo’s drama Les Misérables provides us with a wonderful insight into what forgiveness is and is not. It is a wonderful insight into the blessing of forgiveness and the damage of unforgiveness. I say forget this sermon and watch Les Misérables, or better still read the book.

In Les Misérables Hugo tells the story of Jean Valjean, a French prisoner sentenced to a 19-year term of hard labour for stealing bread. When Valjean earned his release he was a hardened and an angry man.  In those days a convicted criminal had to carry identification and when he arrived back in France no innkeeper would have him stay in their premises. After a few days a kindly bishop took pity on him. Valjean that night settled down in his room waiting for the bishop and his sister to go to sleep. Then he got up and stole some silverware.  The next morning three policemen brought Valjean with the stolen silverware to the bishop’s residence. They wanted the bishop to identify him and confirm the theft. Instead the bishop responded directly to Valjean with,  So here you are! I’m delighted to see you. Had you forgotten that I gave you the candlesticks as well? They’re silver like the rest, and worth 200 francs. Did you forget to take them?”

To everyone’s surprise, no less to Valjean himself,  the bishop declared Valjean innocent, and no less Valjean himself.  The bishop fetched the candlesticks and gave them to Valjean saying; “Do not forget, do not ever forget, that you have promised me to use the money to make yourself an honest man.

This amazing encounter pregnant with grace changes Valjean’s life. He is reformed. But a detective, Javert, who knows only justice, stalks him. He pursues Valjean and when Valjean saves Javert’s life, Javert finds no corresponding forgiveness and jumps off the bridge into the river Seine. Hugo has written a novel about forgiveness and justice.  It stands as a literary monument to the power of mercy and forgiveness and the ruination of unforgiveness.

Remember God has already forgiven us and set us free in Christ Jesus.

Remember God the Spirit is with us helping us deal with the friction and fracturing of life.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  18/08/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

John 20:19   When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Importance of Our Stories 11-08-2019

The Importance of Our Stories.

2 Kings 2: 1 – 2, 6 – 14;  Mark 1: 4 – 12, 21 – 27

It is our custom after Sunday worship to have lunch watching ‘Songs of Praise’. I find it relaxing and worshipful after preaching. Last Sunday’s ‘Songs of Praise’ told the story of St John’s Ambulance.  I was reminded again of the importance of stories and how they can encourage, inspire, and nurture hope and faith in us. 

The St John’s Ambulance story reminded me of one of the major contributions Christianity has made to Western society and that a good thing is never lost. 

St John’s Ambulance is a modern dynamic charity founded in 1887, but did you know that its heritage goes right back to the 11th Century?  The story runs like this. In about 1020 A.D. St Mary of the Latins’ Abbey in Jerusalem established a hospice for pilgrims. In the second half of the 11th Century a lay Benedictine monk came to the St Mary’s abbey. His name was Gerard and he became known as the Blessed Gerard.  Gerard was put in charge of the small hospital. During a period when the Christians were driven out of Jerusalem Gerard was permitted to remain. The hospital survived and when the 1st Crusaders regained control of Jerusalem the hospital expanded under Gerard’s leadership. He established more hospitals along the pilgrim way. Gerard established the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John in Jerusalem, whose task was to care for the sick pilgrims. The order grew and spread throughout Europe and Britain.   During Henry VIII ‘s reign the monastic orders were dissolved.  On 7th May 1540 the day on which the Order of St John was dissolved in England the last prior of the Order, Sir William Weston, died. It was said that he died of a broken heart on hearing the news. However Sir William had failing health at the time. 

It was in 1887 when British society was going through the upheaval of industrialisation that the order was revived in a different form. Concerned about the health of people and the lack of any health scheme for basic health care a group of Christians remembered the order of St John. They resolved to ‘resurrect’ the order of St John using its ancient medieval insignia.  They established a voluntary program training people in basic first aid and offering it freely to all people. They took on a uniform and the insignia of the ancient Order of the Knights of St John.  Their ministry prospered and now it is part and parcel of our society. Today we benefit from the basic first aid training of St John Ambulance. 

I was immediately caught up in this story. The story spanned many centuries. It showed how the Church has always played its part in wider society. It showed how the Church has shown the world how to care. I uncovered how a careless world will destroy some good, but the good will not go away. 

The story encouraged me.  I was buoyed by its success and I delighted in this ministry that continues today.  I was also encouraged by the fact that this ministry filled a needy gap.  It showed the Church at its best. It uncovered the truth that our current day concepts of nursing and hospitals have their roots deep within the Christian Faith.  Certainly Roman society had little time for nursing. It is confessed by Roman doctors that when the plagues came they escaped to the country. The plagues thrived in the cities where sanitation was less than elementary. Densely packed housing had streets with a central gutter in which all was thrown.  We have evidence from the writing of the famous Roman doctor, Claudius Galen, that during the plague doctors left the city and the sick were put out in the street to die. What happened during the plagues was that when a person got sick they were placed outside in the street and left to die. It was a matter of survival as it limited the infection and /or contagion.  

There is plenty of evidence that Christians, motivated by the sacrificial love of Christ for the world, would care for the sick. Christians cared for each other and for their neighbours even at the cost of their own lives. Jesus inspired them. They believed if Jesus had suffered for them they should suffer for others. It is a fact that basic nursing such as keeping someone at an even temperature and hydrated will help a sick person survive.  The Christians became known for their ministry of care for others.

We forget that nearly all of our compassionate structures in society like nursing and care for the aged and dying have their roots in Christianity. Christians emerged in the Roman Empire as people who loved others. Another pagan’s testimony to the love of Christians for others, even those outside their own group, comes from Emperor Julian who hated Christianity. Julian wrote a letter, which we have to this day, to the high priest of Galatia in 362 A.D. stating that ‘pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graces of the dead’. He also wrote that ‘the impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people lack aid from us’.  Julian tried to drum up support for pagan charities and pagan compassion for the less fortunate. Julian’s motivation was embarrassment and competition, whereas Christians were motivated by the Christ, crucified and raised.

The St John Ambulance’s tradition stands firmly in this early Christian ministry of nursing.  There is little evidence of such nursing-care taking place in the Greco Roman world.  After the fall of Rome and the growth of Christianity, the monasteries of the Church became places offering the basic social services to all.

We should tell this story to others.  It might make them think about what they take for granted. It might make them realise that it isn’t the basic goodness in humans that taught us to care. Our hospitals are not a result of humans naturally thinking of nursing others than their own. In the past, the family did nursing. It was the Church that began to organise it motivated by Jesus’ command to love and his life. 

The story enlightened me.  What I found instructive and helpful in the story was that at the closure of the Order of the Knights of St John although all came to an end, the seeds of charitable nursing were not lost.  Those seeds germinated amongst the people and in the hearts of men and women inspired by the Christ. Finally those seeds geminated afresh and blossomed into the movement of St John’s Ambulance. 

We live in times when we are saddened by the diminishing size of our congregations and the closure of our church buildings.  It is sad, but it is necessary to close these buildings. We no longer have the resources to keep them open. There seems little we can do against the current tide of rejection of the Gospel of Christ. We face a very different society today.  However it is not simply that society is against us, it is a question too of the Church losing its cutting edge. We have turned our Faith into something personal.  We don’t easily move to sacrificial giving and we appear confused about what we believe. Sadly in times like these, and the Church has been through similar times, we fall into conservatism and traditionalism.  We naturally want to return to the good old days, but that is not possible. We want the organ played and the old hymns sung – for whom? Tomorrow’s church?

What I found helpful was being reminded of the truth that the Church belongs to God. God will revive us. Most likely in a way that is very different from what we can even imagine.   Equally the revival may not be in our time. But I found great encouragement in being reminded that the Knights of St John had been revived after 300 years, albeit into a different form. 

The story of St John’s Ambulance provides for us in the first place, a story that demonstrates to our society what the Church has given to our western society and indeed to the wider world.  The Church has been a strong source of inspiration and action towards making our society a compassionate and caring society. It could be said that we have taught the world to care and now many think they can do it without the inspiration of the Triune God.

Secondly, the story of St John’s Ambulance provides encouragement for us. It tells us that our faithfulness will be rewarded. It tells us that this is God’s world and God will act for the betterment of it.  We can live with hope that is grounded in the past actions of God that remind us of God’s transformative mission for today.

The story provides us with inspiration, encouragement and hopeful vitality.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  10/08/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / Www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Heaven’s Food & Heavenly Company 04-08-2019

Heaven’s Food & Heavenly Company 

Mark 14: 22- 25;  Acts 2: 37 – 42; 1 Corinthians 10: 14 – 18

Is 

Napoleon won his victories by concentrating his forces with unexpected speed. But this meant forced marches for his soldiers, living in the country where supplies soon ran out. Lack of food meant much illness and many casualties. ‘An army marches on its stomach’ he said, and offered a prize of 20,000 Francs to anybody who would invent some way of preserving food. A Parisian chef won the prize with a plan for a process of bottling food previously heated. Later in London the method was improved by substituting tins for glass bottles (the beginning of the canning industry). The manufacturers kept the French name boeuf bouilli, so the English soldiers called it bully beef. [Drinkwater, Quotes & Anecdotes p.216]

Jesus gave us food too. He knew we needed it. Its similarity to Bully Beef is that it is containable and transportable. Here the similarity stops. There are stories of Christians celebrating Holy Communion in countries that persecuted Christians. In Stalin’s Siberian labour camps Christians hid Communion wafers in cigarette boxes and celebrated Communion deep in the mines. In China a Chinese priest, who worked as a lowly market labourer selling soap, wrapped the consecrated wafer in linen and then placed it inside the soap wrapping. He had a method of letting his parishioners know when to come. They met him ostensibly to buy soap, but in reality they were collecting the ‘host’. Then they would go home and gather in small groups and celebrate Holy Communion.

It was not the material food value that mattered, it was the powerful spiritual truth that was important. The elements of grape juice and bread spoke of the ‘blood’ of Jesus shed in absolute love for us, and the bread spoke of the nourishment of his being and teaching for our living.  

Holy Communion has always been a special time.  I don’t know how to explain or articulate that truth, I only know for me and others who have told me their stories, that it is holy moment. At Holy Communion God meets us communicating sacrificial love. Secondly, it is the risen Lord Jesus who is the host at the table.  We give thanks to and worship not only a sacrificed Christ, but also a risen Christ. 

The symbolism is simple yet profound.  We come forward and humbly stand or kneel – I prefer to kneel – with head bowed and hands cupped to receive. Our physical posture tells us that we are recipients of God’s Grace – God’s love in action.  We don’t thank those who have served us because they are not the hosts who are providing the food; they are merely the servants who serve in the name of our Lord. They have prepared themselves to serve us by first receiving the heavenly food of the Body and Blood of our Lord.  We receive the bread and wine in thankful silence or with a quiet – ‘Amen’.

The other method of receiving Holy Communion is sitting in the nave. There symbolism shifts. Firstly, for practical reasons, we have to take the elements from the paten and tray of communion glasses, but we now hold them and wait until all have the elements. Then we all eat the bread together and then take the grape juice together. That symbolises our unity as God’s people – one loaf and one cup for one people. 

In some mysterious way these actions coupled with our faith quickened the heart and build up our faith.  Our consciousness of the others about us is heightened. We are no longer looking at our fellow Christians but receiving heaven’s food for us. Ironically it is in that moment when we are most conscious of communion with Christ Jesus that we become more aware that we are a community of believers bound together by Christ Jesus and the Spirit. To my left and right kneel, stand or sit my brothers and sisters in Christ – my eternal family.

This now takes us to the second profound effect of Holy Communion – we are a community. It makes sense doesn’t it? Jesus didn’t give us a cafeteria to go to, he gave us a table with a meal for all. So not only are we receiving our ‘heavenly food’ but also we are celebrating our community. This is the where the fellowship of the Church begins – at the Lord’s Table.

Holy Communion not only feeds us but reinforces that we are one large family – a fellowship of people so the biblical writers could say; So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. [Eph 2: 19 – 22]  The imagery is so powerful.  We are God’s children, a family and members of God’s household.  We form together the bricks of the spiritual temple of God. As we bond together in Christian love we form a temple where God is present.  Here together God meets us and dwells with us. That is why worship is so important. Our fellowship is rooted in these truths:  founded on the work of Christ Jesus, blessed by the Holy Spirit, joined together we become God’s temple. This is a spiritual truth with practical implications. We have not met together because of some common interest. We have met together because we belong together in Christ.

This is why Paul could write to the Corinthian church and say; God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. [1 Cor 1: 9-10]

The story of ‘The Rabbi’s Gift’ speaks about fellowship and how it might be sustained. I offer it to you for encouragement.

There was a famous monastery, which had fallen on hard times. The buildings were tired, numbers down, and the worship space1/4 full. A handful of monks carried out the duties with heavy hearts.

On the edge of the monastery grounds in the woods an old Rabbi had built a rough hut he used for retreats. When the Rabbi walked in the woods the monks would whisper, “The rabbi walks in the woods”. They seemed encouraged by his prayerful presence.  

Then one day the Abbot said he was going to visit the Rabbi. As he came to the door of the hut the Rabbi was standing there. They embraced like long-lost brothers. In silence they stood smiling to each other. Then the Rabbi motioned to the Abbot to come in a sit at the rude table. On it was the opened Scriptures. They sat there in the presence of the Book. Then the Rabbi began to cry. The Abbot could not contain himself. The two men sat crying their hearts out. Then after a while the Rabbi lifted his head and said;

“You and your brothers are serving God with heavy heart. You have come to ask a teaching of me. I will give you a teaching, but you can only repeat it once. After that no one must ever say it aloud again.” The Rabbi looked straight at the Abbot and said;  “ The Messiah is among you.”

The Abbot left without a word. On his return he gathered his monks and told them what had happened and said; “One of us is the Messiah.  The monks wondered what it meant, but never spoke of it again.

As time went by the monks began to treat each other with a very special reverence. There was a new wholehearted human quality about their lives, which was hard to describe. They lived as people who had finally discovered something. They prayed the Scriptures together as people looking for something. Occasionally visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks.

In time people started returning, the community grew in significance, and young people offered for the ministry.

By then the Rabbi no longer walked in the woods. 

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  04/08/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Hope, Prayer & Promise 28-07-2019

Hope, Prayer & Promise.  

Psalm 85;  Luke 11: 1 – 13

Is 

“What oxygen is to the lungs, such is hope to the meaning of life,”

stated Emil Brunner a significant 20th Century German theologian and pastor.  We cannot live without oxygen and life without hope is meaningless. Hope is as important to us as oxygen.  That’s quite a claim, but the secularist and the religious agree that without hope there is despair. 

Of course we all understand what hope is – that is, until we have to define it. There is hope and there is hope. I want to talk a little about hope but not at the level that ‘Bill’ and ‘Sam’ were speaking of hope.  Bill asked Sam, “Have you ever realized any of your childhood hopes?”  Sam responded, “Yes, when my mother used to comb my hair, I often wished I didn’t have any.”

How full of hope those first disciples were. There they were travelling around with this exciting preacher who carried the presence and wisdom of God with him. They sat at his feet and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” [Lk 11: 1; Mt 6:7]  No doubt Jesus’ praying inspired them.  Jesus did teach them to pray. He gave them a simple prayer that captures all for which we ever need to pray. I once read that the Lord’s Prayer, as we call it, is the prayer we should first pray or the prayer we should finally pray. It is appropriate to use it either as a blue print for our prayers or the prayer that we use at the end to ensure that we have covered all things. We could say so much about the Lord’s Prayer but this sermon is not about it.  It is about the relationship of hope to prayer and the relationship of prayer and hope to God’s promises.

Now it is not clear what comes first – hope, promises or prayer. It doesn’t really matter. But we can be clear about the fact that hope, prayer and God’s promises are inter-connected in our life’s journey.

Firstly, let us talk about ‘Hope’.  Hope is a very important ingredient in being human. Nothing can be achieved without hope. Though not all psychologists agree that hope is an emotion it is very much like an emotion [James Averill 1990].  Hope affects the way we perceive things, the way we behave, and it motivates our responses to events, especially in the case of adversity. It seems that all humans have a degree of hope and the level of hope has much to do with our early nurture and experiences. Andrew Fuller wrote; ‘Hope is one of the principal springs that keep humankind in motion’.  

 

Christianity has seen hope as one of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. However we want to understand the nature of hope and what its source may be, but we cannot deny its presence for all of us.  Emil Brunner spoke of hope as one of the ways in which what is merely future and potential is made vividly present and actual to us. Hope is the positive, as anxiety is the negative, mode of awaiting the future.

 

Secondly, what is the relationship of hope to prayer? Is there a connection between hope and prayer? Hope is the belief, that there is a better way, a more positive outcome and that God wants the best for us.  Prayer is practicing our hope. Prayer springs out of a hope that there is more to life. Simply put, prayer is asking God for something; and, hope is the faith that God will answer. Hope is the confidence we have in God’s promises.  Prayer is the conversation between God and us. When we are in sync with God’s principals and commandments, our prayers become aligned with God’s purposes. It is important to align our desires with God’s will. Thus prayer is more than voicing our wishes and requests – it’s about developing our relationship with God. 

Thirdly, our hope and prayers rest upon the foundation of God’s promises. The prophet Jeremiah expresses this truth in chapter 29 verse 11 where he writes; For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.   In Hebrews 10:23 we read; Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.   We can now say that the ground of our hope is what God has done through Christ Jesus and the evidence for our hope is the Spirit confirming in our hearts that we are God’s children.

If we turn to our reading we will see how hope, prayer and promise work together.  The disciples in hope request a lesson on prayer. Jesus teaches them what prayer is. The Lord’s Prayer is the classic model for prayer. It covers all that is needed. It begins  – “Our Father, your will be done, forgive us our sins as we forgive others and give us our daily bread”.

Luke tells that Jesus after teaching the prayer encourages his disciples to pray persistently.  The importance of persevering in prayer is that we develop an understanding of what we are asking and of God’s will.  The point is that we often ask for things that are not necessarily the best for us.  Through persistence in prayer we develop our relationship with and understanding of God. We learn what God’s will is and pray accordingly.

Luke makes the point that God intends us to have the best as Jeremiah suggested when he said God has plans for our welfare and future.  But Luke adds something very significant.  God, Luke says, will give us good things just as a parent wishes to give their children good things. But Luke makes it clear what is best for us. God will give us the Holy Spirit.  That’s a ‘wow’ thing.  God wants us to have far more than what we ask. God wants us to have the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and thereby we will be empowered and strengthened.  Remember that we’re in a relationship with God and God’s Spirit is essential to building up that relationship. It is not so much about God giving us what we want, but God giving us God’s–self.  You know it is more important about having someone who loves you through thick and thin, than someone who likes you and gives you things. No wonder Paul could say that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And again says; it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts [Rom 8; 2 Cor 3]. 

Finally a story of how hope sets us free from the things of this world. 

In 79 AD, the city of Pompeii in southern Italy was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Less well known is another town, Herculaneum, which was also destroyed. This town was a popular first century resort until that day Mount Vesuvius exploded and buried it under sixty-five feet of solidified mud and lava.

Excavations of Herculaneum have revealed a wealthy town and like all towns had smaller blocks of tenement houses for the workers. In one of the smaller houses in a back room was found a cross that appears to have been hidden.  There are three nail prints that suggest the cross was covered.  We also know that there were persecutions in Italy. It is probable that the people of this home held a house church here in this ordinary house. 

It tells us a story. The archeologist sees this cross and knows that Christians lived in this home. They were poor and possibly isolated from the pagan community. So the cross is of some general interest as it is part of the first archaeological evidence of Christianity in Rome before AD 79. The Christian sees this cross and begins to understand a great deal about this room and its occupants. There was hope in this tiny room; hope in the midst of what must have been a very meagre existence. There was hope that raised the hope of the few who lived or gathered there. There was freedom from the gods that filled the lives of so many people with superstition and fear.  The cross symbolised the knowledge that one is loved. These were people who believed that the ultimate meaning of the universe is life-nourishing love. They believed they were not alone. They believed that there was a future with God. They lived in hope that gave them an inner strength to rise above the superstition, fear and drudgery of the common life. 

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  28/07/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Which ‘spirit’ leads you? 21-07-2019

Which ‘spirit’ leads you?

Amos 8:  1-12;  Luke 10: 38 – 42; Galatians 4: 1 – 9

Is 

I hadn’t been at Tyndale House for more than three weeks when my brother came up from London to see me. It was my first time in the UK. I will not forget his initial remarks as he entered Tyndale House. He said, ‘this place has a peaceful – a holy feel about it’. He had recognised something about Tyndale House while standing in the entrance hall. The spirit of the place hit him. Tyndale House is a Biblical Research Centre in Cambridge UK and independent of the University. It is a place of studious quietness and where conversations were mostly about one’s area of research. It did have atmosphere. The place had its own spirit.

Now I imagine you can identify with the notion that places have a spirit or atmosphere. Entering a place of worship will have a different ‘feel’ to a university campus, railway station, airport, or food hall. But having said that it is very difficult to articulate exactly what we mean when we say this place has a spirit. To speak of the spirit of something or someone is to speak of the prevailing tendency, animating principle, dominating characteristic, and soul of that place. So to speak of the spirit of Tyndale House in Cambridge one would be speaking about its animating principle as study; its dominating characteristic as the search for truth and understanding; and, its essence as quietness and respect. The combination of all those things amount to its spirit.

We can legitimately talk about the spirit of other things.  The spirit of an international airport terminal is unique. It would be characterised by busyness, anxiety, boredom and relief, if you were at the end of the journey.  You couldn’t describe the airport as a peaceful or inspiring place. 

The other important thing to recognise is that the spirit of a place or the environment affects us for better or worse. Entering a place of worship as opposed to a busy transport terminal will have a different effect upon us.  

I want us to reflect on these matters today as the Bible often speaks both indirectly and directly about the spirit of the people, culture and environment.  The warnings in the Bible about worshipping other gods and following the ways of other cultures are about the effect of the spirit of such places. We don’t ponder this truth very much, but the Scriptures remind us of it.  Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, encourages the Galatian Christians not to turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits [Gal 4:9]. The elemental spirits refer to two aspects of life.  At one level the ‘elemental spirits’ are the ‘ABCs’ of life: the basic conventions of society, of socialising and of cultural practices. They refer to the forces that shape our lives socially, psychologically and politically. At a deeper level they refer to the spiritual forces of cultures and religions. We might say that today in our Australian culture the elemental spirits might refer to our culture’s values and beliefs. Such values and beliefs help us up to a point, but they also confine and restrict us. We have social conventions about being nice to each other, which at best help us socialise and at worst prevent us from speaking or acting the truth about things.  The simple greeting, “How are you?” followed by ‘I’m fine” can be problematic. When I greet someone who is very sick I am careful how I greet them. You see “How are you?” can be construed as a request for a health report. ‘How are you?’,  generally just means ‘good to see you’.  Our response, ‘Good, thank you’ is really saying … something like, ‘Good to see you too!’ Our little conventions are not without their difficulties.

However there are bigger issues.  We find streams of cynicism in our culture preventimg us from seeing the positiveness of life or the good in certain people. The force of these things is such that we get caught up in the cynical conversations and hide behind the polite conventions of our society. The material idolatry drives us to making money even at the expense of others’ well-being.  In recent times we have seen examples of this in our financial institutions. Cynicism spawns doubt and distrust.  For all the good things about our country – and there are many – we struggle to achieve ethical financial behaviour and our personal well-being is undermined by a strong negativity which spawns depression. This spirit of our culture is not Christian, yet we can be enmeshed in it. The point I want to make is that our culture is not Christian – it may be influenced by Christianity or a religion, but that is not the whole box and dice.

Paul responds to the clash between the elemental spirits of the Greco-Roman culture and the Spirit of God in Galatians. Paul presents his readers with a choice: the choice of following the ways of the world or the ways of God. That choice is just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. We Christians confuse many of our culture’s conventions as Christian. For example, God calls us to responsible selfless love for others, whereas our culture calls us to insist on our rights. Christians are called to love and our culture calls us to be tolerant. Tolerance is a good thing but love for our neighbour is a far finer thing. Our conventions of social niceties can prevent us from speaking the truth about our faith and belief in God. Think of how many times you have avoided talking about your faith because of the social expectation of friends.  Maybe we follow the spirit of our culture so closely that we don’t even realise that we are doing it!

Paul encourages the Galatian Christians to be led by the Spirit and not to be self-indulgent. Christians are to live by the Spirit and produce the fruit of gentleness, kindness, joy, peace, patience and self-control [Gal 5: 16, 18, 22].  The prophet Amos warns the people that selfish behaviour and exploitation of the weak will lead to their destruction. Amos warns against following the spirit of materialism in his society. Materialism and the love of wealth always clash with the Spirit of God. [Amos 8:1-2].

The story of The Two Brothers provides a simple account of what life might look like if we are led by and live by the Holy Spirit. 

“Two brothers worked together on a family farm. One was unmarried and the other married with children. They shared what they grew equally as they always did – produce and profit. But one day the single brother said to himself, You know, it’s not right that we should share the produce equally, and the profit too.  After all, I’m all alone, just by myself and my needs are simple. But there is my brother with a wife and children. He has much more responsibility than I do.

So in the middle of the night he took a sack of grain from his bin, crept over the field between their houses and dumped it into his brother’s bin.

Meanwhile, unknown to him, his brother had the same thought. He said to himself, It is not right that we should share produce and profit equally.  After all, I am married and I have my wife to look after me and my children for years to come. But my brother has no one, and no one to take care of his future.

So he too, in the middle of the night, began taking a sack of grain from his bin and sneaking across the field to deposit it in his brother’s bin.

And both were puzzled for years as to why their supply did not dwindle. Well, one night it just so happened that they both set out for each other’s barn at the same time. In the dark they bumped into each other carrying their sacks. Each was startled, but then it slowly dawned on them what was happening. They dropped their sacks and embraced one another.

Suddenly the dark sky lit up and a voice from heaven spoke, “Here at last is the place where I will build my Temple. For where people meet in love, there my Presence shall dwell.”

Think of that – every time you selflessly love another, God is present building the Temple of God.

Living by the Spirit ultimately means that we will put aside pretences, set aside appearances and hear the silent cry for help. Being led by the Spirit means that we will go where we are needed and care about the truth.  Living by the truth we will see the new possibility, embrace God’s promise and listen with a gracious ear to all that is about us. 

Sadly the tale about Martha and Mary provides us with a picture of the difference between being led by the Spirit of God as opposed to the spirit of convention. Martha set about caring for Jesus’ needs.  Mary set about listening to Jesus. We are not sure what Jesus needed most – a cup of tea or a listening ear? Both were attending to Jesus. Martha spoilt it by complaining. In her complaint she showed her dependence upon conventions and some jealousy of Mary. Jesus’ response suggests he found more strength in being listened to. Maybe Jesus needed to be listened to more than Mary needed to hear Jesus? We will never know completely, but the tale does remind us that there are two ways: the way of the world and the way of God.  

What ‘spirit’ is leading you? By what ‘spirit’ do you mostly live? 

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  21/07/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Holy Spirit: 14-07-2019

The Holy Spirit – Sermon by Anneke Oppewal 

 Readings: Genesis 1: 1-5; John 1: 1-5;  

Matthew 28: 16-20

When Peter told me he was doing a series of sermons on the Holy Spirit with you I was excited and daunted at the same time.

I’ve always had a bit of an awkward relationship with the whole idea of the Holy Spirit personally and it was always a bit suspect in the Church I grew up in. It conjured up images of raised hands and ecstatic scenes I, and the Church I come from, didn’t want to be identified with.

A little bit, once a year, on Pentecost Sunday was fine, but for the rest we mostly made sure to steer well clear of it as much as possible. We were more focused on Jesus, as a friend and companion, our saviour and Lord, and the Father, creator and sustainer of the world around us.

I guess we didn’t quite know what to do with the Holy Spirit, and even less with the related concept of the Trinity that seemed even more confusing and hard to understand.

In our scriptures the Holy Spirit is on the scene from the very beginning. It is God’s Ruach to use the Hebrew word which has a difficult to translate

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meaning, but means something like breath or life essence that is said to be hovering over the waters from before creation. It is this Ruach, this essence that is said to be present in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, it is what descends in the shape of a dove on Jesus at his baptism, it is what Jesus promises his disciples will stay with them and work with them after he has gone, it is what he breathes onto his disciple when he meets them after the resurrection in an upstairs room in Jerusalem.

In other words: The Holy Spirit is a concept and a presence that is there from the beginning and keeps popping up all through the bible.

But if you feel a little awkward, confused or not entirely sure around the concept of the Holy Spirit or the idea of the Trinity that is connected to it, you are definitely not the only one. It took the Church a couple of centuries to figure it out and find words to define it, and when it did what it came up with in the creed was, and is, more often than not, not experienced as very helpful by many.

I guess that is simply because when we start talking about the Holy Spirit or the Trinity we are trying to find words for something that is very difficult, if not impossible, to define or fully grasp. And perhaps that is the entire point of the exercise, that we discover, when we try to define God, when we try to find words for who and what God is, that we discover that when

we move a little deeper, there are no words that adequately describe or define God. That there is more to God than we can ever grasp or say.

And yet we try, and have tried, as Christians, to say something about what is the essence of God, about our core understanding of God in that concept of the Trinity, saying that God for us is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in equal measure, one yet three, three but one, with the Holy Spirit, at least in our teachings, equal to the Father and the Son, giving expression to what God is together.

Christian doctrine, our faith, says that God can and will be experienced in three main, and very different ways.
As Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, Father of Jesus Christ and of all creatures.

As the Son, saviour, brother, example, guide, a man of flesh and blood who lived our life, suffered our death, and is alive today, walking beside us, now, guiding and caring for us still.

And as Spirit, as breath, movement, energy, inspiration, comfort and a powerful intangible presence that is way beyond what we know or define.

Putting it like that may complicate things, but it also creates room for us to have different experiences of God and relate, at different times and in different contexts to God in ways that are not always the same but may vary, wildly. It means, it tells us, that what we

know of God, what we experience of God, how God may reveal Godself to us, does not necessarily have to be the same all the time. There is room for difference.

God speaks, reveals and relates to us in different ways. As Creator/Father, as Son/brother and as Spirit/ energy.
It may not be a coincidence that these three ways of God relating to us, coincide with the three ways of us being in the world according to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.

He says we all are an ‘I’, a person, an individual that relates to itself. We are aware that we are, individuals, entities, defined and differentiated from what is around us. We are also a you, an entity, and individual, defined and different from others that always are in relation to others. Our ‘I’ not really fully known or knowable until we are, until we encounter others and become a ‘you’.

I am an I, but when I become a you because I relate to another person something is added to who we both are. Me knowing you and you knowing me adds to each of our knowing ourselves and our being known by another.

Confused? If I lived on an uninhabited island all my life and never met anyone but myself I would never learn to speak, express, think, or be as much and as

deeply as when I am there with another, or more than one, other. We get that, right?

But then we are also infinitely more than that. There is a whole host of things that go into us, defining and shaping, forming and transforming us from birth that make us who we are, makes us all into unique individuals. Family, culture, climate, food, people we meet, experiences we have, things we see, gazillions of things that go into us, shaping us, consciously or unconsciously and make us who we are, as an ‘I’ or as a ‘you’.

In God, according to the Trinity, we find three matching ways of being. God as person, an individual entity, creator, sustainer, independent, distinct, different from us, the one from whom all else flows forth and comes back to. God as other, as someone who relates to us and becomes defined in relationship.

God as we encounter him in Jesus, fellow human, as someone we can relate to, enter into relationship with, that mirrors us and invites us to mirror him, a you that meets us as equal.

And then there is God as can be encountered in so much else around us, in our experience of nature, in music and in beauty, in smell and taste, that lives in our gut and touches us in the wind that caresses our skin, that we can hear sometimes in the gurgling

water of a brook or in the wind, stormy, gently or even quietly moving around us on any given day.

God meeting us at all three levels of our being and awareness. As our essence, our ‘I’, as a friend, as a ‘you’, and in so many other less easily definable ways that keep us alive, enliven and inspire us, touch us and change us even where we are may not be consciously aware of it.

What the concept of the Trinity tells us if we look at it in this way is that God can be experienced and encountered in every aspect of our being and relating, deep inside the core of our own being, that part of us that is away from others, our deepest, secret, core self, as well as in and through the part of us that goes out and encounters, relates and connects and is shaped by the connection with others.

As well as what is in and comes through the whole wide world around us that shapes and forms us from birth, consciously, or unconsciously.

God deeply embedded and present in all of that, actively interacting with every part of us, even the most deeply hidden, even the most remotely influential.

We can experience God as creator/parent, we can experience God as saviour, brother, friend, in and through others, and especially and specifically in and

through Jesus. We can experience God as Spirit, mystical, mythical, less tangible, like breath or wind, comfort or glimpses of something other beyond us and all of that is God, in equal measure. There is no hierarchy, it is all, legitimately God.

One of the more practical implications of that for us and how we relate to the world around us is that we know that God’s revealing of Godself is not limited to what we know or understand but is much broader than that. At the end of Naidoc week for instance in that context we may bring to mind how the pre-amble to the constitution of the Uniting Church acknowledges that before Christians were here, before that particular, Christian understanding of God came to these shores God was already here in other ways making Godself known to people, connecting and relating to people. It for instance also means that built into our understanding of God is the idea that we may not know everything there is to know about God and that others, outside our religion, may have answers and revelation we don’t have and can learn from.

In the concept of the Trinity we confess a God who is seeking to encounter us, seeking relationship and connection on every level of our being. Loving and caring for us in all these different ways, inviting and invoking in us ways to bring us closer to that pure love that is at the core of God’s being, God’s expressing and God’s encouraging.

God as Father, the creator that loves the world into being, that sustains the universe that seeks healing and wholeness for the world and its creatures, who holds all that is in his hands somehow.

God as Son, encountering us as a fragile human being, another sharing our life’s journey with us, choosing to be present with us in the sticky, messy, tangled reality of human existence and sharing in it with us, making himself available in flesh and blood, in tangible, relatable ways, in people, in a person, just like us.

And God as Spirit, undefinable, intangible, moving around, among, inside and outside us, at work to make a difference, to move us and all of creation, sometimes with a groaning that is too deep for words, toward a closer synchronicity with what is God’s.

Inviting us, calling us, challenging us to move over and produce fruit from what God has seeded in us for ourselves, for others and indeed for the world: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, peace, justice, wholeness and healing so the world can be transformed into Christ’s.

To let ourselves be fed and nurtured, to open ourselves to be connected on every level of our existence to God, through nature, through creation, through Jesus, and through a myriad of other, less

definable, less tangible, but still ultimately valid and sometimes surprisingly different ways. For the sake of a world where Love, healing and justice comes to reign more and more in all of creation.

Amen. Blessing:

May God keep you and hold you, may you find Christ walking beside you guiding and leading you in life, may the spirit fill you with energy, joy, insight and understanding of what is of God inside you and all around you so you may be nurtured into a caring, healing and flourishing existence where God can be at work in, through and for us in a myriad of ways. Father, creator, son, brother, Holy Spirit, breathing energy and love in and through our lives. Amen.

What the Bible says about ‘Sex’! 07-07-2019

What the Bible says about ‘Sex’!

Leviticus 18: 1 – 24;  Romans 1: 16  – 27

I had a strong sense that I should focus on a growing concern I have. Every time I switch to a news commentary programme on TV or talkback radio the subject comes up.  Well, it seems like every time and the same claims are made. The insulting denigrations of the Bible are uttered. And what the Bible doesn’t say is trotted out as something that it does say. It concerns and annoys me that a half-truth becomes a full truth resulting in belittling the Bible.  I’m referring to the alleged claim of Israel Folau who has stated that homosexuals will go to hell.

I put up a post on my ‘Facebook’ stating that the Bible doesn’t say that homosexuals are going to hell; that the Bible doesn’t understand the concept of homosexuality;  that I am saddened by the silence of Church leaders on this matter and it has nothing to do with religious freedom.  In the four passages of Scripture in Leviticus [18 & 20], Genesis [19], Judges [19] and Romans [1] hell is not mentioned in connection with sexual acts between same-sex people.  Now we can easily dismiss the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and Gibeah in Judges 19.  They are not stories about homosexuality, as we know it today, but about the custom of heterosexual men raping men as an act of terror. We call that buggery and it is not uncommonly used as a weapon of terror in war zones even in our time. 

The Leviticus and Romans references certainly aim at same-sex intercourse. Not surprisingly the act is condemned. That has been true right up to the end of the 20th Century. However by the end of the 20th Century many Western countries decriminalised homosexuality as we had come to understand that homosexuality is not a matter of choice but a natural sexual orientation for some of the population. A simple test is to ask yourself if you chose to be heterosexual. What homosexual people choose is to declare what they have known since their awareness of sexuality. They have had to struggle against the conventional wisdom of a heterosexual society.  That is, if your gender is male then you are sexually male and vice a versa. Today homosexuality refers to a same-sex oriented person desiring a relationship with another of a similar orientation,  just as heterosexual people desire heterosexual relationships. 

What is the Bible talking about when they refer to same-sex coupling? We can’t get away from the fact that such an act was taboo, but still the references in the Bible are specific. The references in Leviticus [18:22; 20:13] and Romans [1:27] are respectively about ritual cleanliness for worship and eroticism.  Leviticus 18 is all about how God’s people should behave and keep themselves pure to worship God. In the opening verses of Leviticus 18 God’s people are told not to behave like the Egyptians and the Canaanites. In Canaan the popular religion was the worship of fertility gods. Part of the fertility cult’s worship involved sexual acts which were both hetero and homo-sexual. They also conducted sexual acts with animals. The context is a wild erotic culture.  It is a step too far to conclude that this is a condemnation of homosexuality as we understand it today.  It is a condemnation of fertility cult practices.

Romans 1 also condemns same-sex relationships and sex with animals! The context is about seeking erotic experiences [See Plato’s ‘Symposium]. Let us hear what Scripture says. In Leviticus we read; You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion. [Lev 18:22,23]  In Romans we read: Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. [Rom 1: 26,27]  To simply conclude from these texts that God condemns homosexuality is a step too far.

Notice too, that hell is not mentioned. Such behaviour taking place for fertility cult rites and erotic experiences is condemned along with touching a woman with a menstrual flow and child sacrifice.  What I find interesting is the list of sexual activities carrying the death penalty in Leviticus. Yes, same-sex sexual activity carries the death penalty for both and equally so for a man who lies with his daughter-in-law, his father’s wife, or his mother-in-law or an animal. In each case both the man and the woman or other person or animals are to be put to death. Adultery carries the death penalty! We also read that a man shall be excommunicated from the community if he uncovers the nakedness of others and if he lies with a woman who has her menstrual flow [Lev 18:20]. If we are going to jump to literal conclusions about one thing shouldn’t we include the others?

Adultery in the Bible is rightly condemned because it is an unfaithful and a selfish act. However the Bible is a complex book and we cannot avoid the episode of adultery and murder committed by David with Bathsheba. For all of King David’s dastardly acts he remains a revered Biblical figure.  And there is that instance of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Jesus says to those who would stone her – the Law at that time allowed this and I am not sure where the man was – those who are without sin can throw the first stone. No one dares to pick up a stone and Jesus sends her away with just a word not to do it again [Jn 8:1-11]. It seems that Jesus wasn’t ready to respond to the letter of the Law, but rather to respond with grace and mercy. 

I hope you can see three things here.  Firstly, these references refer to a very primitive time in the development of God’s people where faith in the One God was corrupted by fertility cults, which encouraged eroticism.  Secondly, we are not talking about homosexuality.  Thirdly,  ‘hell’ is simply not mentioned in connection with these instances implying no eternal punishment. 

The second issue is the silence of the Church. In the current public conversation Church Leaders have been silent. I am mystified as to why they haven’t come out and at least modified or corrected what Folau has said and what the media promuilgated about homosexuals going to hell.  Is it that the media decided not to publish the voice of the Church? Or, is it because the Church leaders don’t care or don’t understand the issues? 

The third issue is the matter of religious freedom.  It seems that one group in the Church wants to claim the religious freedom to make hurtful and offensive statements.  This is worrying and we should pay particular attention to what the Government will do.  The last thing we need is a law that permit hurtful comments erroneously based on religious beliefs. 

Finally, a word about God’s Judgement. Firstly, we all will be judged. No one will escape judgement. God has always set up standards to meet and it is logical that we will face some form of assessment regarding our response to what God expects of us.  Does that mean we will get a score-card and those who fail go to some eternal punishment? I haven’t a clue. No one has. But I strongly suspect it won’t be like that. What I do know, partly because the Bible tells me and secondly because I have experienced it, is that God will forgive and give us life if we sincerely turn to God.  I know I am saved by faith in Jesus, not by my own doing. My salvation rests entirely upon the gracious love of God in Christ Jesus. I understand that a merciful God will judge all both the person who has accepted Christ Jesus into their life and those who have rejected Christ Jesus or don’t know him. 

As I said, I don’t know more than that.  However I do know from Scripture about God ‘s judgment. Psalm 30: 5 tell us that God’s anger lasts but a twinkling of an eye, but his mercy endures forever.  I know that Jesus judged the tax collectors to be worthy of his company. The Jewish population saw tax collectors as traitors and thieves because they collected taxes for the enemy.  I know that Jesus judged that the untouchables like lepers and women with a flow of blood could be touched, that a woman who had five husbands and was living with another man was worthy of his company and conversation, and that a woman caught in an adulterous act was treated with mercy. What is worrying is that Jesus reserved his harshest condemnation for religious leaders who were legalistic in their application of God’s law. What is worrying is that Jesus expected much from his followers and we need to see we love our neighbour.

With respect to hell, the following insight came to me this week.  We have a choice to either enter eternity either in a spirit of thankfulness to God, or enter eternity with a spirit of regret because we did not trust God. I am not at all convinced by an eternal fiery damnation, but I am entirely convinced that God is merciful and that God in Christ Jesus was crucified and raised because of an overwhelming and indescribable love for the likes of me.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  07/07/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The Untapped Power! 30-06-2019

The Untapped Power!  

2 Kings 2: 1 – 2, 6 – 14;  Mark 1: 4 – 12, 21 – 27

Power over other people, power over nature, power over supernatural forces and power over oneself – such is the four-sided goal of humankind.  It is quite amazing how much energy and cleverness goes into these pursuits. In contrast we feel so lost when we have no control. Powerlessness devitalizes.

Our Bible texts tell us that Elisha wanted the power of Elijah and got it.  Jesus is described as a man of authority and power.  In the brief extract from Mark’s account of the Gospel the authority and power of Jesus is clearly recognised by the crowds. Jesus demonstrated his authority and power in his teaching and the exorcism of evil spirits [Mk 1: 21 -27].  The Gospel according to Mark has numerous examples of this. Jesus had the authority to forgive sins  [Mk 2:10] and the authority to drive out demons [Mk 3:15]. Mark gives us a very interesting insight into Jesus’ power in the story of the woman with the haemorrhage. When she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and she was healed, and he felt the power go out from him [Mk 5: 28-30]. Jesus’ authority and power amazed people.

This instance of the woman being healed and Jesus feeling the loss of power begs the question; ‘What was the power that Jesus had?’ The Gospel writers, Mark, Matthew and Luke, each tell us that the Holy Spirit descended upon him when he was baptised [Mk 1:10; Mt 3:16; Lk3: 22]. They tell us that the Sprit directed and sustained him in the wilderness [Mk 1:12; Mt 4:1; Lk 4:1].

Now Mark does not refer to the Holy Spirit often, but he says enough to make it clear that the Spirit is working in and through Christ Jesus. However Mark is speaking indirectly about the Spirit when he refers to Jesus’ authority and power.  What we find in both the Old and New Testament is that when the Spirit works in the servants of the Lord they have an authority and a power. Jesus’ authority and power is a sign of the Spirit being in him. 

We witness the presence of the Spirit in others when we sense they speak with an authority and power that is healing and energising. We recognise the Spirit in ourselves when in doing the Lord’s work and we feel carried or strengthened to a point where we are surprised. 

However we may not always recognise the Spirit at work amongst us because the Spirit’s work is to point us to God and Christ. The Holy Spirit’s work is partially hidden because the Spirit never points to herself. We know the Spirit by her work not her person. We identify the Spirit by looking for the Spirit’s effect upon us. That is, we are looking for those mysterious little nudges that move us to do things. We might call it our conscience but it is more than that. We experience the Spirit when something strikes us about the Bible or something is said about God.  The Spirit is working within us when we are moved to be thankful to God, feel blessed in worship or convicted of wrongdoing. The Spirit is working in us when we sense our need for God.   

In contrast we read about Jesus revealing the nature of God through his profound teaching, driving out of demons, his crucifixion and resurrection, but the Spirit is always pointing us to the Father and the Son.  Grammatically speaking the Spirit is not the subject or the object of the sentence but the verb: the Spirit is the theological doing word. The Spirit is always helping us see the work of God in Christ in the world. The Spirit touches our hearts and minds and leads to God. Our mistake is to overlook the Spirit’s ministry or underestimate it.   

From the Bible passages read today we learn a few things that help us.

We learn that the Spirit’s power is available to do God’s work, not to achieve our own ends.  J. Stuart Holden wrote; God does not invest a person with power for any other work than that of the Kingdom of God. That is very important to remember. 

We learn that God wants us to be powerful.  It is a wonderful thought that God wants us to be strong.  God wants us to have the confidence to speak God’s truth and to act for the good of others.  When Jesus saw that his disciples were anxious about standing up for themselves he said to them; I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict [Lk 21:15]. If we pause in the midst of our anxiety and stop to listen to God we will not be disappointed for God’s wisdom will come. In my early Christian years I recall doing just that – praying for the Spirit’s guidance – and at times being amazed at what I said.

Every Sunday morning we see the Spirit’s work helping us worship. I know that to be true.  I know because there are times when I feel far from being ready and willing to be here, but God honours my faithfulness. I know that the worship leaders increasingly are experiencing God’s strengthening presence.  I also sense that the Spirit works amongst you. Sometimes it might be more correct to say to me at the door, not ‘thank you, Peter’, but one of the following. 

‘Thanks to the Spirit for speaking to me through the sermon.’ 

‘Praise God as the message spoke to me.’ 

‘God spoke to me this morning.’ 

The great joy in my ministry is seeing the work of the Spirit in you and watching your growth and maturity in Christ. 

Jesus’ metaphor of the Vine & Branches found in the Gospel according to John 15 helps us understand the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke of how a vine becomes productive. Firstly, the vine grower looks after the vine by feeding and pruning it. Jesus wanted us to understand that his followers, like the branches or members of the vine plant, only grow and produce fruit if they are connected to the plant and are nurtured and pruned. The analogy is obvious. Jesus is the vine and we’re the branches. We’re members of the vine, that is, members of Christ Jesus.  We don’t have a membership in the vine. We are part of it. It is important to remember our membership is not in an institution but through being a part of Christ’s body on earth. Jesus said to his followers;  I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” [John 15: 1-9]

Now Jesus doesn’t stretch the analogy any further because he wants to highlight the importance of us abiding in him. However it is reasonable to reflect further on this metaphor of the Vine and Branches. The first thing to note is that this metaphor is set in middle of the larger conversation about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in John chapters 14 -16.  Jesus tells his followers that the Spirit will help them follow him and empower them for mission. Secondly, the metaphor of Vine & Branches makes no mention of the sap of the Vine. So we can rightly say, as Jesus does, that the Father is the vine grower and Jesus is the vine, but what makes the vine and the branches work together is the sap. A plant’s sap conveys moisture and nutrients through the plant stem to the tips of the plant. That is what the Holy Spirit does for the Church – the people of God.  God the Father is the Vine grower, God the Son the Vine, we’re the branches and the Holy Spirit is the sap making it all work.  The metaphor of the Vine & Branches extended shows how God works with us.  Without the sap of the vine running through the plant from root to the branch tips the plant is nothing. Likewise, without the Spirit the Church is life-less for it is the breath of God that enlivens the Church. The Spirit is the sap of the Church.

I pray that we might begin to see the thoughts that nudge us towards love and justice for others, the words of heart-felt praise that we utter in worship, and the feeling of belonging we have at the Communion Table are all the work of the Holy Spirit.  I pray that we become like Elisha and persistently seek the untapped power of the Holy Spirit so that we might together stand tall as ministers in God’s vineyard. 

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  30/06/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Life, Promise, Hope 23-06-2019

Life, Promise, Hope!  

Ezekiel 36: 22 – 27, 37: 11 – 14, 24 – 28

Remember Dot-to-dot puzzles? They might help us better understand the Bible’s teaching.  Connect the dots with lines and a picture emerges. The Bible is like that. Connect some of the thoughts scattered through the Bible and a picture emerges, just as we do with ‘dot-to-dot’ puzzles. Let us have a go this morning.

We’ll begin at the second verse in the Bible, Genesis 1:2, where we are told that the Spirit or Wind of God blew over the chaotic waters and there was order. Now we draw a line from that verse to Genesis 2:7 where we are told that God created humankind and ‘breathed’ life into humankind’s body.  The clue here is that Biblical translators take the wind or breath of God to mean the Spirit of God. This tells us that it is God’s Spirit that gives order to creation and life to humankind. Then move a line to Psalm 104, which confirms this that when God hides from us our breath is taken away and we die; and when God sends the Spirit we have life again.

Now this isn’t exactly like a dot-to-dot puzzle but the principle is there. We read a verse in the Bible and forget to see its connection to another verse. When we do make the connection a picture emerges. In this instance the picture being formed shows that God the Holy Spirit is the source of order and life. So if we were to continue drawing lines we would find numerous examples of God’s Spirit empowering leaders and prophets, priests and kings, men and women. In the Bible the belief is there that God is the source and the energy of life and that the wind of God or Spirit is the means.

The Bible abounds with word pictures of the Holy Spirit working. A good example is the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel.   God gives Ezekiel a vision in which Ezekiel views a valley full of dry bones. At God’s command Ezekiel instructs the bones to rise up and then summons the four winds to breathe life into the bodies. This happens.  This is followed by an interpretation that the dry bones represent the exiled Jews.  Although the Jews have been unfaithful and deserve punishment God is going to reinstate them.  God is doing this because the Jews carry God’s name and God by reinstating the Jews will honour God’s name. Observers will say; ‘Look at what their God has done!’  But this is not all. God is not only going to set them free, bring them back to Jerusalem, re-instate their community, and give them a new attitude, but God is also going to put God’s Spirit in them [Eze 36:24-27]. Without God’s Spirit God’s people would neither know God nor have a right attitude. Wow, all that stuff plus God’s Spirit! This is the punch line:  God promises to ‘dwell’ in them [Eze 37:14, 27].  That’s right, dwell in them. This is an intimate action. The Hebrew concept of dwelling with them conjures up the picture of God pitching a tent. God is going to come and live with us.

This imagery is so rich and useful even for us today.  Our lives do go through periods of barrenness – dry periods. When we turn to God and acknowledge our failures and confess our sins God breathes new life into us. God doesn’t simply forgive but restores us with life. Like the cool summer breeze God’s Spirit refreshes us. We must be wary of these spiritually dry periods. They are not necessarily like the disastrous droughts that sweep through this land. They can be, but often the spiritually dry periods are like lean seasons. There are crops but the harvest is poor. The farmers just make do. They scrape through meeting their daily needs and paying the mortgage. Sometimes they are reduced to paying only the interest. Such lengthy dry periods can be devastating both for a farmer and for those associated with them. Likewise our spiritual dry periods look like that. All seems well. We are making do, but there is no energy, no excitement and no renewal. It seems we’re in a holding pattern.  Think, my Christian friends, of such times. You may be in one now. I assure you that I am perfectly familiar with them, but I am also familiar with the breath of God renewing and refreshing me.  I thank God for the renewing Spirit. Of course these spiritually dry periods are not so much that God has moved away, but that we have decamped and moved away from God’s tent.

The dots we have joined together today and the imagery that we have looked at tells us some very important truths.

Firstly, we get from this Biblical picture that God gives us life.  That is, we don’t control life and even less are we the source of our lives. Life is a gift to us.  You may want to say, ‘Peter, aren’t you just playing with words?’  In a sense yes, but the perspective I am providing is important.  Thousands of years ago when humankind reflected on life it was realised that life was a gift; they hadn’t made it on their own.

I remember sitting around the lunch tables on the sailing club’s deck looking over the lake and beyond to the beautiful city skyline. It was a delightful picture on that sunny day, one which I often enjoy. I sat there in silence reflecting about my sailing companions and the Gospel of Jesus. The chatter was energetic. The camaraderie was healthy. I thought,  “These people have no need of God. “They are self-sufficient. At least they would say so. They enjoy reasonable financial well-being, good health, a genial camaraderie and the club is their community. Insurances, superannuations, pensions and social security all ensure they can cope with the unpredictable future. What else do they need?”  These thoughts ran through my mind. Let’s be fair. If you have never experienced the joy of God or witnessed God’s blessing on others why would you want more? If you have never seen anything better than what the secular world offers what else would you hope for? You wouldn’t know any better. But it is interesting how these folk from time to time appreciate that ‘odd religious member’ who conducts the blessing of the fleet or a time of quietness when an unsuspected death eventuates. Religious concepts uttered in the guise of poems or universal concepts touch them. I guess I am trying to say that the thought that my life is a gift rescues me from depending entirely upon myself. To see life as a gift from God rescues us from the ‘aloneness’ of being on one’s own. If my life is my life then I am alone. However if my life is a gift from the Creator then I can never be alone. God’s compassion means God cares.  This is what the ancients uncovered. This is what God revealed to Abraham and Sarah when He called them to leave home.

Secondly, God’s promises give us meaning – a reason for living.  God’s promises have rescued us from despair and given us something to live for. That is what a promise does for us. Promises give us something to look forward to. Promises lift our spirits. Promises stimulate and encourage us to move forward. Promises ultimately add to the purpose of living.  God’s promises do that, big time. 

Thirdly, God give us hope.  Hope is so important to us.  Hope allows us to face today’s difficulties and struggles with the possibility of a better future. Hope encourages us not to give up but to persevere. Hope provides the will to get there.  Hope is different from faith. Faith is putting your trust in God, whereas hope helps us imagine a better world and opens the door to new possibilities. Without hope our imaginations would not be stimulated, we would resign ourselves to the present situation and become preoccupied with ourselves.  Hope gives us a future – God’s future. 

Our readings today tell us that God’s spirit rescues us from ourselves, saves us from despair and gives us life. That is why we cannot take the Holy Spirit for granted, let alone ignore the Holy Spirit – she is our life.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  30/06/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

What’s the Trinity? 16-06-2019

What’s the Trinity?

Romans 5: 1 – 6,  8: 12 – 17;   John 16: 12 – 15

I had a chuckle to myself when commencing sermon preparation this week. It is what I read that made me smile.  You see, I find certain Sunday themes rather onerous. They are onerous in two ways. Firstly there are those themes that are just heavy work.  Secondly, there are themes that are regularly repeated and I wonder if the congregation will be bored hearing them repeated. Well, Trinity Sunday is a bit like that. In the first place it is very hard to explain and secondly it is repeated in the same format each year. So, I turned to the Internet and I found the following comments that made me smile.  Preachers said things like this.  Trinity Sunday is my least favourite Sunday in the Year.’ ‘My people would just roll their eyes and tune out if I preached on the triune God.’ ‘I’ll just go with the Peace and Justice theme and ignore Trinity.’  Another protested: ‘How can you not preach on the Trinity? It is the essence of our Christian lives.’  It is also noted that ministers will get a guest preacher in on this Sunday or run with some other diversionary tactic. Well I’m going to run with the Trinity theme.  I have had time to read some rich and meaningful stuff on the Holy Spirit and Trinity, so let’s have a go.  

The first point I want to make is this.  The Trinity has been difficult to understand because of our need to explain things and wrap things up neatly. We sit uncomfortably with mystery. The Trinity is not easily ‘wrapped up’ nicely. Some of the unhelpful approaches have been to define the nature of God in a set of concepts. For example we have the three-‘omni’ words – omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent – which mean all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present. Then there are those other words we use some theologians prefer such as Immanence, Immutable, Impassible and Impeccable. Such words don’t tell us much except that God is aloof and remote. In contrast our experience is that God is personable and approachable.

So how shall we approach this concept of the Triune God?  I’m hoping to throw some light on the Trinity by looking at how we know one another.  Getting to know a person involves some very basic actions. When you get down to the basics of knowing a person something very simple yet profound has to happen. The other person must speak to us in a language we understand, using concepts we can grasp and shareing something of themselves with us.  Of course, we need to do the same.  To develop a relationship that is meaningful we must be prepared to reveal something of ourselves.  This self-revelation takes time. Now there is another important ingredient to knowing another: their words must match their deeds.  For us to get to know another there must be a level of congruence between what they say and what they do.   Their doing becomes as important as their telling. 

To put it simply we know more about the nature and character of God by what God does and how God relates to us than we do by reading a set of ‘big’ words.  We must begin at the beginning. Way back in time, before the nation of Judaism was formed and before there were any holy scriptures were written, there was an understanding that there was one high god – the god of gods.  The story of Abraham and Sarah tells us this. God spoke to them.  God called them to move away from their home to a new place.  That in itself is profound, because the common belief was that gods were specific to a location. This call to Abraham and Sarah meant they had to leave the old ways of worshipping many gods and worship the one God. This was radical thinking. Abraham and Sarah learnt to trust God and as they moved around they learned that God was always present and God that kept God’s promises. That is a revolution in thinking because it meant that God was more powerful than local gods.

So we start with this concept of One God. This we share with Judaism and also Islam. Now we know God must speak to us and also God’s words must be consistent with God’s actions. 

God’s protective and rescuing presence becomes even more evident in the story of the Exodus.  It was not long before those ancient people spoke of God’s Spirit being with them. That is a concept we share when we speak about the spirit of a person. We use the concept of spirit to speak of the non-physical part of a person, which often includes their true self.  We use the word ‘spirit’ to describe the influence, character, mood, energy and meaning or intention of someone.  So we find on the first page and in the second sentence of the Bible a reference to God’s Spirit actively involved in creation.  We read;  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  a wind/ the spirit  (Hebrew word for wind means breath or spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters. [Gen 1: 1; Job 26:13]  The Scriptures increasingly speak of God’s Spirit coming upon people empowering and guiding them. Here are some examples of God’s Spirit working with individuals: 

So the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand upon him. [Num 27:18]  

The spirit of the LORD came upon him (Othniel), and he judged Israel. [Judges 3:10]

When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets met him (King Saul); and the spirit of God possessed him. [1 Sam 10:10]

And when he (God) spoke to me (Ezekiel), a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. [Eze 2:2]

We really don’t have any difficulty in talking about God and God’s Spirit and understanding that we are really talking about one God. We realise that to speak of God’s Spirit we are speaking about a mode or role of God’s being, such as a person being a parent.  The difficulty for us is when we get to Jesus. Jesus is a human but he is uniquely different. Here lies the problem. How can we speak of God and Jesus in the same breath? How can God be Jesus and Jesus be God? It just doesn’t make sense?  It didn’t make sense either to the disciples. They struggled with this. When the first followers of Jesus came to that earth shattering experience of the Resurrection they realised that Jesus was not just a great prophet, a great teacher or even a greater king than King David. They realised that Jesus revealed God as if he were God. 

We may ask, ‘why Jesus’, in the first place? Well God’s self-revelation is not sufficient if it is always through a third party such as creation, a prophet, a written word or an experience. God needed to enter our humanity, but how? Well, the only way to enter our humanity is to become a human. That mystery is precisely what the first followers began to understand about Jesus. In Jesus God was uniquely present.  So when we look at Jesus – what he said and did – we see the very being of God. The Crucifixion became the ultimate moment of God’s self-revelation followed by the Resurrection. 

In summary we can say that we recognise that God is one, that God is known by God’s activity, that God must reveal God’s self, that God’s Spirit moves amongst us, and if we are to understand God fully, God must enter our humanity.

The importance of God coming to us in human form is that God does not overwhelm with his presence. Thus we are left free to respond in love. I’m reminded of that wonderful picture of God gently showing Moses as much as he could bear.  Moses wanted God to show him God’s glory. God said that Moses could not look on his face and live.  However God did something gracious and loving.  God puts Moses in the cleft of a rock and covers Moses with ‘his’ hand and passes by. Moses only sees his back. [Ex 33:18ff] The truth is that while Jesus, through the Cross,  reveals fully the heart and love of God, God’s glory is still partially hidden from our eyes. We still need faith to begin to recognise God’s glory present in the Cross of Jesus. 

The cross above the Communion table will help us understand the concept of Trinity. The Cross tells us all about the work of God. The Cross represents the pinnacle of God’s communication. That is why when I pronounce the blessing at the end of the service I make the sign of the Cross, because the Cross is the work of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The Trinity tells us how God sets up a relationship with us.  The Cross tells us that God comes to us as the Father who sends the Son, the Son destroys the power of evil with perfect love, and the Spirit helps us understand and empowers us.  The Cross tells us that God works with us through these three-modes of being – or ways of being.  

The Cross tells me that God has patiently and persistently searched us out. The Cross tells me that we are loved and that the triune God moves and shapes life.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  16/06/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org