An Eruption at Pentecost Festival 09-06-2019

An Eruption at Pentecost Festival 

Acts 2: 1 – 21;  John 14:  8 – 17, 25- 27

Volcanoes erupt and in the process shape the world around them. God’s creation is dynamic. Volcanoes are a dynamic part of creation and we humans are also part of the dynamic nature of creation.

The eruption of ‘tongues’ at that Pentecost festival in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago was significant. It might have been just a small tremor or a rumbling to the Jerusalem crowds, but what erupted that day went on to shape Western society and influence the wider world. What happened that day led to people from every corner of the world following Christ Jesus.  On that day the Church was born.

Let us pause and wind back the clock of history and see what information we can glean that will help us imagine what happened that day. Jesus had been crucified. Three days later Jesus’ closest followers went to the tomb and found it empty. Then in a number of ways they encountered Jesus, not in a dream or vision, but in real time. The only concept that helped them understand what was happening was the concept of resurrection. There was a belief then that God would raise the dead at the end of time. The raising of the dead to life was called resurrection. It was not about resuscitation but being raised to life eternal. Jesus had been raised from the dead. He is alive. 

Those followers were a small group of about 30 men and women. Jesus’ resurrection appearances brought them together. They sensed something dramatically new was happening. They continued to wait together meeting regularly for worship, prayer and the fellowship of eating together. Jesus had told them to wait until God’s Holy Spirit had empowered them. They waited. They waited obediently. On the first day of the Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot, they were together worshipping God. Then it happened. The picturesque language of Luke’s account – wind and fire – helps us imagine the moment.  Jesus followers – all of them women and men – were deeply moved. They broke forth with a burst of ecstatic sound. It seemed that they didn’t know what the sound meant, but the Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the Passover and stayed for the Shavuot heard spoken the languages of the regions they had come from. 

Let us pause again. What is this festival? It is the spring harvest festival of the ancient Jewish people called Shavuot. It is celebrated 7 weeks and 1 day after the Passover. The 7 weeks and 1 day make 50 days. Fifty days in Greek is Pentēkostē.  That is where the name Pentecost comes from. Fifty days after Jesus’ crucifixion at the feast of Shavuot Jesus’ followers are blessed with the Holy Spirit. All this information is in the Bible in Deuteronomy (15:9), Leviticus (23:16) and Numbers (28:26).

The other important information is that Jerusalem’s population had swollen enormously during this festive season. The Jews had been scattered throughout the Empire. In their local regions they would have had to communicate in the local language and in Greek, and at the same time keep up their own.  These Diaspora Jews, as we call them, made the effort to come to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem at least once in their life-time. Many of them stayed over for the Shavuot festival.

Now we can see what God is doing. Jesus’ folowers had learnt to wait and their obedience was honoured. Then on the first day of the Shavuot festival the crowds had begun to gather again around the centre of Jerusalem and the Temple.  At this critical point a group of Jews burst out into ecstatic praise of God. They were lost in the ecstasy of the moment, but unbeknown to them many of the visiting  Jews recognised what they were saying. This phenomenon had erupted in their midst and a crowd gathered. A few cynics assumed they had, had too much wine for breakfast. Possibly those cynics were locals who didn’t recognise that the ecstastic sounds were other languages. Peter preached and he explained what had happend. The rest is history …  and we are here today.

There is much we can learn from this eruption of the Holy Spirit.

Firstly, the Promise of the Spirit is fulfilled.  Jesus had told his followers – men and women – to wait until the power of the Spirit had come upon them [Act 1:8]. Then Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, said to his disciples; “I will not leave you orphaned” [Jn 14:28]. Then later Jesus said to them; “When the Advocate (Helper) comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” [Jn 15:26] At Pentecost that promise was fulfilled.

Secondly, the disciples obediently waited. Their waiting was an active waiting. Real waiting is active rather than passive inactivity. Those disciples waited worshipping, praying, reflecting on the Scriptures and sharing food together. They learnt that God’s timing is better than theirs.

Thirdly, they were together united in Christ Jesus. The strength of the Church is its unity and its weakness is its disunity. Our historic disunity was over theological disputes keenly felt and some disputes were over secondary matters. Luke makes a strong point about their unity writing,  

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place [Act 2:1].

We read that after that Pentecost day the disciples gathered together fellowshipping by sharing a meal.  I think we have lost something in our Western churches where our individualism drives us home to our private and family affairs rather than together around a meal.  I think we have too few shared meals, and I must confess that I have failed to promote our meals together.  So I do point a finger at you, but I also have three pointing back to me, to my embarrassment.

Fourthly, their unity included females. That is not surprising to us, but it would have been surprising to them. In the Temple there were separate worship spaces for Gentiles, women, Jewish men and priests.  Women in those days were not treated as equals, even if the Jewish culture showed a greater respect for women than the Roman culture. The gender inclusivity is a sign of the last days. Joel’s prophecy is a good indicator of God’s intention in this regard where God says through the prophet: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. [Joel 2:28,29]  That prophecy is a classic statement of inclusivity for the Holy Spirit will not make distinctions according to our social demographic conventions.

Fifthly, this phenomenon showed the relationship of ecstasy and preaching.  The ecstatic utterances of the followers of Jesus attracted the attention of the pilgrims. The hearers were amazed and stopped to listen.  The preaching was essential to understanding what was happening. Ecstasy that is not accompanied by reason and explanation can be harmful. I was a young Christian in the South African Church in the early 70’s when the Charismatic movement erupted in the Churches. Initially it was disruptive in a negative sense. Some of the first expressions of the Spirit’s blessing led re-baptisms and spiritual arrogance. Both were destructive to the Church. But then God the Holy Spirit did something more.  Significant church leaders and theologians declared that they too had been baptised in the Spirit. They too spoke in Tongues, but they brought a gracious reasoning to the movement. In the end what happened was the Church gained a healthy enthusiasm, a prayerfulness and Bible study.  But even more important worship styles changed. People became freer raising their hands in worship and even dancing. This was a real blessing because such practices were natural to our African brothers and sisters in Christ, but not to the ‘whites’.  The movement of the Spirit brought a practical expression of unity in worship that helped bridge the racial divide.

Finally a word on ecstasy in worship.  Have you ever been ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’?  Have you ever experienced being so close to God that God’s love overwhelms you?  You become immersed in this love to the point where you lose sight of sense and time.  You are moved so deeply.  It results in a moment of elation and euphoria.  Such moments are precious. We may think that such personal feelings shouldn’t be present in our worship.  They should.  Only last Tuesday morning during prayer time I had such a moment: just ‘lost in wonder love and praise’ of God. I think it is important to let go and let God love us. 

Is the phrase, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’ ringing a bell with you? I hope so!  It is the last line in John Wesley’s wonderful hymn; Love divine all loves excelling [TiS 217].  The great church leader of the English revival in the late 1700s was quite prepared to let go and let God love him. 

My prayer is that we might all let our guard down a little

and revel in the presence of God in our lives.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  09/06/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Easter Eruptions Continuing 02-06-2019

Easter Eruptions Continuing!

Acts 16: 16 – 40; John 17: 20 – 26

Just a few days after the level of danger had decreased regarding the Sinabung volcanoe in Sumatra (Ind.), a massive explosion was reported on Saturday, May 25th.  There are a number of active volcanoes around the world.  I counted 10 earlier this week.  There are some 1500 volcanoes and a number of them in Australia. The vast majority are dormant. 

Now you needn’t worry or have a sleepless night worrying about the volcanoes as there are watchers who have the knowledge and equipment to read the signs. But their warnings don’t always register with us. When the eruptions come we seem surprised. Sudden volcanic eruptions are deeply disturbing.  In fact any kind of sudden eruption is disturbing.

You may be wondering why I have started this sermon talking about volcanoes. Why start with volcanoes?  Well, I was reflecting on the texts set for this Sunday, especially the lengthy story about the Philippian jailer. (I have extended the reading to get a fuller picture of the situation.) The readings suggest that the Holy Spirit is bursting forth everywhere.  I thought of Easter when Jesus rose from the dead.  It was like an eruption bursting forth from the bowels of the earth.  The Resurrection was an eruption of energy that empowered Jesus’ despairing followers. Jesus’ Resurrection disrupted the normal tasks and expectations around his death. Jesus was dead and dead means dead – no more earthly life.  But Jesus erupts – he bursts onto the stage of life upsetting the normal process. We well know how it works! A death occurs followed by grief and mourning and then there is the slow adjustment to living. Not with Jesus. His resurrection was like an eruption. It was sudden, unexpected and life changing. In fact it changed our perspective on death itself.

Now we think that things would return to normalcy. They did in a way. The disciples gathered for worship, prayed and fellowshipped around the meal table. Then the second eruption – Pentecost! We’ll reflect on Pentecost next week. What followed Easter was this burst of energy in the life of the Church.  The Church was then persecuted and it scattered throughout the known world. Little groups of Christians gathered in many towns well beyond the borders of Judaea and Galilee. Travellers, merchants and Apostles had spread the Gospel. Today we have an account of Paul and Silas travelling through the lands and towns of what we know as modern day Turkey. But the text tells us a number of things. The first thing we are told is that though the disciples of Christ made plans to work systematically through the southern towns of Asia Minor their plans were interrupted by the Holy Spirit.  We read that the Spirit had prevented them from ministering in certain parts and had directed them through a vision to go to Macedonia. All we are told is that the mission of the Church was Spirit directed. We can conclude that the Spirit’s direction was more adventurous and strategic than their mission plan. So they went to Philippi and Thessalonica.  

The second thing we learn is that they were open to the Spirit’s direction. In my life I have had to wrestle with my conventionalism and conservatism and the call of God. I have also found that I have let my life be dictated more by the regular chores of ministry than bold new plans. I would think that the disciples’ willingness to hear the Spirit and respond is a challenge to us all.

Thirdly, there were quite a few small eruptions in the life and witness of the Church. The Holy Spirit caused these eruptions. They went to Philippi and encountered challenge and opportunity through two women. Firstly Lydia, a Gentile and a wealthy merchant. Her wealth and independence is significant. She received the Gospel of Christ and welcomed Paul and Silas to her house. Her house becomes the home-base for the church. It became what we call a ‘house-church’. Then there was that eruption of the Holy Spirit in the incident of the slave girl, who followed Paul and company declaring that he was the ‘servant of the God Most High’ [Acts 16:17]. It was an eruption of sorts. The slave girl disrupted the mission.  The slave girl’s owners falsely accused Paul and Silas. The issue was about her owner’s loss of income.

Paul and Silas were wrongfully imprisoned. However out of what seems a bad experience emerged healing and salvation. An earthquake caused Paul, Silas and other prisoners to be freed from their imprisonment. This greatly frightened the jailer. He would be held accountable. He decided to ‘fall-on-his-sword’.  Paul stopped him assuring him they would not escape. The Gospel was preached and the jailer and household became Christians. Paul and Silas’ suffering became the pathway for more grace and blessing. 

Now we can see the Holy Spirit’s direction of God’s mission in these stories found in the book of ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. The Holy Spirit directed Peter to go to the wealthy and powerful Roman Officer, Cornelius. The Spirit convicted and blessed Cornelius and his household. Then the Spirit directed the Apostles to Macedonia where more households became Christian.  The success of the mission was due to the Holy Spirit.  That is another lesson the Church must remember.   And so we read that Lydia, the wealthy Gentile merchant, became a Christian. We are told that the ‘Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying’ [Acts 16:14]. Lydia was baptised with her household. We can confidently assume that the Holy Spirit blessed her and her household as the Spirit had done with Cornelius. Likewise the Philippian jailer and his household turned to Christ Jesus and were baptised. This was followed with a fellowship meal [Acts 16:33 & 34]. 

There are things we learn from these stories of our Faith.

Firstly, the Holy Spirit directs the work of the Church.  Good examples are the stories of Cornelius the Roman Officer, Lydia the seller of purple and the Philippian Jailer. Listen to what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit according to the Gospel of John.  When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.  Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for I will send the Holy Spirit to you. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  [John 15: 26; 16: 7, 13]

Secondly, the Church’s success is not dependent upon our cleverness or hard work:  it is dependent upon the Spirit and our obedience to the Spirit.

Thirdly, we see the importance of table fellowship. This is significant.  Conversion to Christ Jesus means a restored relationship with God and with God’s people and the earth.  So table fellowship became an expression of the Faith. The meal table is an intimate occasion leading to a deeper communication with others. Food and drink lighten the spirit and embolden the conversation. Here lies another lesson for us. Christianity is not about my personal salvation, but about my belonging to the community of God and the world.  

Now the Christian fellowship goes far beyond our human fellowship, which is largely based on common interests and common background.  Of course it is easier to meet with people like ourselves.  But see what God the Holy Spirit is doing here.  Lydia and the Jailer represent the margins of society.  A Gentile woman merchant would have been on the margins of society in those days. The Roman ex-soldier jailer lives on the margins between the authorities of society and the prisoners.  We can also assume that Lydia and the Jailer had little in common that would have brought them together.

Fourthly, the Gospel is for all – both the powerful and the wealthy and those accepted and not so accepted by the conventional society.  The Gospel transcends human divisions and status roles.  The Gospel declares that God accepts all and searches out both the rich and the poor. 

From these stories in Acts and we see the Holy Spirit bringing together Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, powerful and powerless.  That is what Jesus was doing in accepting the Pharisees, his fellow Galileans, the Samaritans, women, tax collectors and lepers into his life. He broke the conventions of his society in doing that.  He broke the conventions that prohibited the unclean, such as menstruating women and lepers touching others. He broke the conventions regarding race and religion.  That all happened because the love of God and the Spirit of God poured through his veins erupting into this world in life giving actions.

Finally, the eruption of the Holy Spirit in our lives turns things up-side down.  The Spirit speaks the truth of God and the truth sets us free [Jn 8:32].  That is an eruption of liberation and grace in our lives. New energies burst forth and change for the better takes place.

Our challenge today is to twofold: to listen to, then follow the Spirit’s guidance.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  02/06/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Such Love 19-05-2019

SUCH LOVE

By Geoff Serpell

From a magazine sourced from 7th Day Adventist called “Signs from the Times”, a Kim Peckham wrote that you could be dead by now. That is, if you had lived 100 years ago. She says we are living so long now that we can receive greeting cards from Centrelink saying, “Happy one hundred and first birthday, and here’s another cheque. If you live much longer, we’ll be a fiscal wreck” The card comes with a gift pack of cigarettes. If you were a baby girl in 1850, you couldn’t expect to live past 40. She also wrote if you go back to ancient times, the average life span drops to 28 years. During these times banks were very reluctant to give anyone a 30-year home loan. That is why most people then lived in tents. Life insurance companies disqualified you then for drinking water.

The point I want to make is, what are you doing with all that extra time? Let us return to this later.

Judas went out into the night; it was very dark! The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was now a certainty.

We have moved beyond this year’s Anzac Day during which the ABC covers the dawn service, Melbourne Anzac Day march to the shrine, and the services conducted at both Gallipoli and at Villers-Bretonneux in northern France.

William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible, states that “The greatest glory in life is the glory which comes from sacrifice”. The supreme glory belongs not to those who survive a war but to those who lay down their lives. Lawrence Binyon wrote: 

“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.”

It was the obedience of Jesus which brought glory to God. Jesus gave the supreme honor and glory to God because he was obedient even to death on a cross.

The full and final triumph of Christ, after dying on the cross is of course the resurrection and ascension. Jesus laid down his farewell one and only commandment recorded in John’s gospel, to his disciples as he washes their feet. Time then was short. He walked a lonesome road. The disciples must love one another as he had loved them, even including Judas.

What does this mean for us and for our relationships with each other? Soon I will invite you to share with the one next to you, how you came to have your faith. When did you accept Jesus as your lord and savior?

Jesus loved his disciples selflessly. His one desire was to give himself and all he had for those he loved.

  • His love was given sacrificially. Even to that cross.
  • It was given understandingly. Jesus lived with his disciples; he knew them through and through.
  • He loved them forgivingly.   All the disciples from Peter down, denied Him and forsook him as craven cowards. He forgave them! 

We are asked to approach our life and each other with his focus on love.

The kind of love with which we are to love one another is the kind of love with which Jesus loved his disciples. Today the media does not promote: “God First”, it doesn’t even promote “others first”. We live in a world that suggests our needs and our wants must be met first.

Jesus’ love for his disciples and friends was like the love of a father, the Heavenly Father, to whom he taught them, and us, how to pray. He referred to his disciples as brothers. He identified himself with people who were hungry, thirsty, naked, or a stranger or in prison. These examples of friendship, of fatherly love and brotherly love, from Jesus, he commands of us too.

May I indulge myself by sharing with you a mini testimony?

I was a regular attender of both Sunday School and Church during my childhood and during my teens.

During my three month’s service in 1957 with the Army at Puckapunyal, I had a few wake-up calls to deal with away from my sheltered homelife.

My interest in the fairer sex had been awoken and I found that dancing was a good way to meet. “Tinder”, the on-line dating service, was not around in those times.

With all the good fellowship I experienced at Hampton Methodist church, I still had a few things to come to grips with, some unsettling things at home and a workplace in a bank with a less than inspiring atmosphere.

The Billy Graham Crusade came along in, I think 1959, in Melbourne and whilst attending with my mother and sister, I stood up and committed myself to Christ. Later at another crusade, I volunteered as a counsellor at the MCG.

I thus had a personal savior in Jesus Christ and ever since have endeavored to do His work ahead of my own interests. 

Jan and I have both just read “The Billy Graham Story” by John Pollock.  We picked the book off the bookshelf in the middle room. There is always some great books and good CD/DVD’s there. Between 1949 and 2003, Graham addressed more than 83 million face to face, it would be another billion he reached on TV and radio. 3 Million came forward as inquirers at his crusades. In 1954 he had audience with Winston Churchill, and he was friends with most American Presidents during his lifetime. Queen Elizabeth granted him an honorary knighthood in 2001. He passed away recently in his late nineties.

Our 2019 Friendship book reading for April 27 wrote of Graham, “he said we need to learn to say, ‘I was wrong; I’m sorry.’ And we also need to reply, ‘That’s all right; I love you”.  When we learn that lesson, we might also begin to spread this attitude further afield.

How did you come by your faith? Would you like to share with someone next to you, say 2 minutes each how this came about?

We give Jesus the glory for he showed us how to love. We praise Him who loved his mother and father, brothers and sisters, and friends and into relationships even with those who were his enemies.

How are we to show our love and also our faith with others?

As senior parents and grandparents as well as great grandparents too, who among us do not wish to eventually leave this world a better place? Somehow, we mothers and fathers need to lead our children and grandchildren to making Jesus as their best friend.

For this to happen we and indeed everyone needs to stay kind and aim to encourage each other to be kind and caring for each other.

With 25 million of us in Australia, one act of kindness by each other every day equals 9 billion acts of kindness a year.

Jesus opened the way of life for us to follow Him out of the shadows of death into His marvelous light. Glory to Him indeed.

To assist us to become evangelistic, here is a prayer based on our Psalm today, from Eddie Askew, at the Leprosy Mission I wish to share with you: –

Lord, pressed by my own busyness

And self-created doubts,

I lose my grip on you.

The clouds draw in and shadow me.

The mist wet blankets me in billows of uncertainty.

My doubt shouts out for reassurance

And comes echoing back empty handed

Yet still you’re there.

Your presence patient and dependable

And in its magnet field

I turn again to find you. 

True north

By which I orientate my life

And praise returns.

 Amen

“God is Like”

Great Expectations! 12-05-2019

Great Expectations!  

Acts 9: 31 – 43; John 10: 22 – 30

George Bernard Shaw said of Charles Dickens’ notable novel, Great Expectations, “All of one piece and consistently truthful.”   Great Expectations is the story of the growth and development of the orphan, Pip.  Through all the misery and suffering, Pip endures and good triumphs over evil. The theme of good defeating evil connects with us.  I believe hope and expectation are essential to our being.  

Our readings address the tensions in the early stages of the Christian Church. All was not plain sailing. Storm clouds surrounded the followers of Jesus. Persecution on the one hand and natural sickness struck the Church. Disappointment and failure touched the early Church;  sickness and death touched the Christians in Joppa west of Jerusalem. When a significant disciple died the church sent for Peter! They had great expectations of him.

First a little bit of background. After Pentecost and the initial miraculous expansion of the followers of Christ Jesus they were persecuted. The main persecutor of the Church was Saul of Tarsus who became the Apostle Paul. During this time many Christians left Jerusalem because of the persecution.  After things had settled down and the persecution fizzled out Peter, the leading disciple, went on a pastoral visitation of the Church. Our reading today finds Peter in the region of Lydda and Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. Here two healings take place: the healing of Aeneas and Tabitha. Now Tabitha’s name means gazelle in Hebrew and in Greek dorcas.  In this story the woman who dies is called by both her names – Tabitha and Dorcas. We are provided with quite a lot of information about her healing. We are told that Tabitha was a respected Christian who made clothes and was generous with her wealth and talents using them to look after the less fortunate.  Tabitha is the first female to be described as a disciple of Jesus. She was an example to others [Acts 9:36].  She was a leader.  We are told that Peter was summoned. Two men were sent to summon Peter to Joppa. Tabitha had died. He arrived and listened to the story about Tabitha and was shown her handiwork. He then asked all to leave the room and he prayed. Then Peter turned to Tabitha’s body and commands; “Tabitha, get up!’ Tabitha opened her eyes and sat up and Peter took her by the hand. 

We might remember the healing of Jairus’ daughter by Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel account Jesus was approached by one of the leaders of the synagogue, Jairus [Mk 5: 22].  Jairus’ daughter was sick. Jesus went with Jairus but on the way he was met by Jairus’ servants who reported that the child had died. But Jesus said she was merely asleep.  Jesus went on.  On arrival he entered the child’s room, prayed and then commanded her saying; ‘Talitha, get up.’ [Mk 5:41] We can see a number of parallels between the healing of Tabitha and Talitha. I want to suggest that Peter was modeling his ministry on the ministry of Jesus. That is a natural thing to do.

The miraculous healings in Acts are important.  (By the way the word miracle describes an extraordinary event that is not explained by rational or scientific laws.)

1) The healing of Tabitha and Aeneas were for the growth of the Church. I say that because they were public healings and they blessed others.

2) These miraculous healings led to others following Christ Jesus.

3) The healings were the work of the Holy Spirit not Peter. 

4) The Christians had high expectations of their leaders.

5) Peter is obedient to the call of the Church.

6) The Lord is the director and healer here, not Peter.                                                             

The Jews that surrounded Jesus in the Temple had great expectations too. They were expecting God to send a Messiah/Christ figure who would drive out the Romans from Judea. Their question as to how long Jesus would keep them in suspense has possibly two meanings.  It could be that there were Jews who genuinely wanted Jesus to confirm who he was so they could finally decide; and there were those who wanted to trap him into claiming to be the Messiah. Those genuinely wanting to know whether Jesus was or was not the Christ were hoping and expecting the Christ.   Those who wanted to trap Jesus were also expecting the Christ, but they saw Jesus as a false Christ.

Jesus answered them; “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” [Jn 10:25,26]  Jesus’ answer reminds us that we know through faith not simply through some physical demonstration or reasoning of the mind. It is the eyes filled with faith that see and understand.  Strangely this is not some irrelevant spiritual truth to scientific humankind. It is a practical reality. In everyday life we see and understand because we have a belief about the things we look at. We see what we expect to see. Our knowing is influenced by our believing and vice versa.

The first great miracle of the Jesus-movement was that people came to see that Jesus is the ultimate revealer of God.  The miracle included seeing the truth that love leads to freedom and the truth sets us free. The miracle was that people found that the gentle way of Jesus – love – was the answer. The miracle was that they saw that being in Jesus’ company was where God’s kingdom is.

The presence of God is a powerful liberating feeling.  It was only the other day that someone shared with me how wonderful it was that through all their major decisions in life they had experienced God’s presence. They told me that with great sensitivity and meaning. I was deeply moved by their brief but powerful testimony. This is what David was expressing in psalm 23; the Lord’s my shepherd I will not want. Such experiences are miracles too.

The miracles in the Church have encouraged faith and expectation. But today our Christian life is so tame and we expect so little. For example in the devotional aid, Love to the World, the author’s interpretation of the miracles of healing is very different from mine. I sense that the author does not accept that the miracles took place as told in the Scripture. The reality is that if we do not expect great things from God we may fail to see the great things God does.  I sense that many in the Church no longer believe that God can miraculously answer our prayers and change things.  If we have no expectations of God we will not see much and possibly doubt what does happen. In each of these instances in Scripture prayer was at the foundation of the dynamic change. I would encourage us to pray expectantly and look for God’s actions.

Let me tell you a story.  I might have told you this before, but it is worth telling again. I was a young minister and one of the members was suffering with blood in her urine. Her kidneys were enlarged. They had been X-rayed. She asked for prayer. I prepared and found a suitable passage of Scripture – some verses from the first chapter of Mark. I went to visit her about 5 p.m. on a Monday. I gathered her family and read Mk 1: 29ff and then prayed laying hands on her head. I noted that during that prayer her body ‘jumped’.  There was no reason for the sudden movement. Afterwards I went home had my tea and went to shower before going to an evening meeting. While I was in the shower Gillian came to me saying that Dallas, the woman for whom I had prayed, had phoned and reported that she had stopped passing blood. I thanked God, but I then thought – forgive me I was brought up in a very chauvinistic culture and am a critical thinker – women do exaggerate! I’m embarrassed by what I thought, but I must confess it.

Well the next day she went to her doctor. He seemed surprised at the turn around. She was x-rayed again and her kidneys had returned to their normal size.  He asked her what had happened. She told him of the prayers for healing. His response was telling. She was on medication. One could expect that the medication had finally worked, but the doctor seemed surprised at the speedy result. When Dallas had finished telling him of the prayer for healing and the immediate effect she experienced, he knelt down with her in his surgery and thanked God.

It was not the only time I have seen things change so suddenly and our usual explanations do not stand up. At times like that I sense I’m in the realm of miracle.

I pray that God the Holy Spirit may encourage us to have greater expectations of our Lord God than we might have now.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  12/05/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

God’s Salvation More than a Peaceful Life 05-05-2019

God’s Salvation More than a Peaceful life.

Acts 9: 1 – 20; John 21: 1- 19

Today I want to offer you some of my musings  (my pondering / my reflections) on suffering. I am not offering any definitive theological explanation.  My musing arises from what I have noticed in the Bible – almost between the sentences.  They are the things I see that we often read as secondary to the main story. In one sense they are secondary! For example, take the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. We note the blinding vision, the fear of Ananias when asked to go and heal Paul and the amazement of the people that this prosecutor of Christians has become the Christian proclaimer.  But did we notice what God said to Ananias about Paul? God said; “I am going to show him how many things he is going to have to suffer for the sake of my name.” [Acts 9:16 NTW*] Yes, God chooses Paul to be the prime apostle to the nations and kings – and the children of Israel [Acts 9:15].  However God knows that Paul will suffer for the faith.  From the very beginning of Paul’s call to follow Jesus suffering is forecast.  I wonder if this understanding that the call of God involves suffering helps Paul understand that to suffer for the Gospel is a great honour.  Paul saw his suffering as a sharing in the suffering of Jesus.  In Paul’s letter to Timothy he says; “I was made a herald, apostle, and teacher for this gospel; that’s why I suffer these things.  But I am not ashamed, because I know the one I have trusted, … [2 Tim 1:11-12].   

When you heard the story of Jesus’ appearance by the seashore of Lake Galilee to seven disciples did you skip over the same point?  We have heard John 21: 1 – 20 read and preached many times. It contains that wonderful encounter between Jesus and Peter where Peter is given the opportunity to renounce his three-fold denial of Jesus with a three-fold declaration of love. There is also the miracle catch of fish in the story. You might be surprised to know that many hours have been spent and much ink ‘spilt’ deciding the significance of the number 153 of fish caught. One scholar tells of an incident in his lecture theatre. The students had debated the meaning with no satisfactory conclusions. There are none. Then one quiet student said. ‘My hobby is fishing and fishermen count fish!’  That’s what fisher folk do.  But how many of us have heard sermons on or thought about verse 18 and 19 where Jesus says to Peter; “I am telling you the solemn truth.  When you were young, you put on your own clothes and went about wherever you wanted. But when you are old, you’ll stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you up and take you where you don’t want to go.” He said this to indicate the sort of death by which Peter would bring glory to God [Jn 21: 18-19]?  Church history tells us that Peter was crucified for his faith in Christ. When he came to be crucified he asked to be crucified upside down as he felt unworthy to be crucified exactly as Jesus had been.

Jesus said to Peter follow me, I have an important task for you and you will suffer a painful death for what you do for me.  Do we expect to follow the Truth and witness to the Truth and not be challenged, ignored or rejected? To tell the truth is usually uncomfortable for others. Suffering for the Faith is to be anticipated. And it is an honour to suffer for the Faith. Writing to the Philippian church Paul says; “Yes: God has granted you that, on behalf of king Jesus, you should not only believe in him, but also suffer for his sake [Phil 1:29]. Our love for our neighbour  [Mt 22: 34-36] ultimately leads us to empathy for the needy. To care for others is costly. Christianity is about care, compassion and costly service.

The first thing I want to say about suffering is that suffering is part of the Christian life. We can’t expect to be a follower of Christ Jesus and not suffer at all.  If we have never suffered any rejection at all for our faith and if we have never given to others to the point that it begins to hurt then maybe we have never witnessed for Jesus?

The second observation I have made is that as you mature as a Christian and grow in compassion for others, you encounter another level of suffering.  We see that in Jesus. Luke tells us that after the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday Jesus came near and saw the city and Jesus wept over it [Lk 19: 41].  Jesus could see that the stubbornness of the Jerusalemites would end in great suffering and disaster for them.  He was deeply saddened.  Jesus was moved by the suffering of others and healed and fed the crowds even when he was tired [Mt 14:14; Mk 1: 40-41].   We are called to carry the burdens of others and mourn with those who mourn  [Gal 6:2; Rom 12:15].   To love always carries the potential for suffering.

Our compassion leads us to empathise with others. The evil of the bombings in Christchurch and Colombo deeply saddened me. I am saddened by the loss lives, by the grief and suffering of those left to mourn,  and by the hate and anger that so blinded the perpertrators. Can one begin to understand how hate and anger imprisons? I am saddened by the growth of fear.  Grief, hate and fear must be redeemed by the love of God or else the downward spirals of grief, hate and fear continue.  God calls us to be with each other.  Florence Nightingale said; ‘My mind is absorbed with the sufferings of humankind. Since I was twenty-four there never has been any vagueness in my plans or ideas as to what God’s work was for me’.

My third observation about suffering is our response to suffering.  Just to be alive means there will be things that cause pain, disappointment and sadness. Some of that suffering relates to the natural changes we experience in our bodies. This suffering is inevitable. Some suffering is caused by tragic accidents, unjust behaviour and bad personal and political choices. Many examples spring to mind: the unexpected illness or accident, the stages of life, ageing, the evil acts of others and our desire for punishment. I can’t overlook the terrible outcome of collateral deaths in war. Western weapons have destroyed the lives of civilians.

 

There is so much unnecessary and undeserved suffering in our world.  What do we make of all this?  Clearly some suffering we encounter is a result of either our personal or political bad choices. None of us escape being part of that. I immediately think the suffering caused by Apartheid and quickly move on to the equally racist treatment of Aboriginals.  And I am not that naïve to think that racism is limited only to the few.

How do we respond to all this?  Respond we must!  In fact no response is in fact a very definite response. No response means one is indifferent and we don’t care. But Christians are expected to care if they love their neighbour. 

Now our Christian faith doesn’t provide answers for everything, rather we are to work out each situation. Jesus’ response to why a man is born blind provides us with a very good principle. The disciples of Jesus ask if the man born blind sinned or his parents sinned [Jn 9: 1f].  Jesus says no one has sinned and goes on to say the suffering can give glory to God.  We must be careful about thinking that suffering is a good thing. What Jesus is saying is don’t keep looking for the reason but live your life in a way that it glorifies God.  Now as a pastor I have received much blessing at the bedside of a sufferer and those close to death. Their faith, their positivity and their generosity of spirit speak of the compassionate and companionable God they worship. I’ve observed how medical and nursing staff have been blessed by the suffering person’s positivity and generosity of spirit. Paul, who suffered much, reminds us of giving thanks in all situations [1Thess 5:18].  The person who is full of praise is a person who is passing on the blessings of God to others.  I firmly believe that in the face of suffering the best we can do for ourselves and for others is to place our faith in God and praise God remembering that death is not the end of our life, but the gateway into a new relationship with God.

Suffering will give us the opportunity to express our faith, to practise compassion and to experience the deeper meaning of life.

In closing I offer this quote from Rollo May the existential psychologist.

Suffering is nature’s way of indicating a mistaken attitude or way of behaviour, and to the non-egocentric person every moment of suffering is the opportunity for growth.  

People should rejoice in suffering, strange as it sounds, for this is a sign of the availability of energy to transform their characters.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  05/05/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The First Easter Morning 21-04-2019

The First Easter Morning

Luke 24: 1 – 12;  Acts 10: 34 – 43; 1 Corinthians 15: 19 -29

Reflection 1. Luke 24: 1 – 12

With a few strokes of the pen Luke tells us all we need to know about that first day of the week – the women go to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body, the stone is rolled away and there is no body. On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body [24:1-3].

If you read the accounts of that first Easter morning according to Matthew, Mark and John you will find differences. One can dwell on the differences but what is consistent in all the accounts is that women go to the tomb, they find the stone rolled away, there is no body to be seen and Mary Magdalene is mentioned as one of the first women to see the empty tomb in each account of the Gospel.  Then Peter is the first male to witness the empty tomb although in John’s account of the Gospel John gets there first.  That’s the consistent picture – women first, stone rolled away, no body, with Mary Magdalene and Peter named in every account. 

What do we make of this?  Firstly, let us clarify that the women came to dress the body of Jesus with spices on the 3rd day after the Crucifixion because there was no time after the crucifixion. The body of Jesus had been hastily placed in the tomb in the late afternoon of that Friday. The next day, which began at 7 p.m. on the evening of Friday, was the Sabbath and nothing could be done. So they came to do their duty and do the right thing with Jesus’ corpse at dawn on the third day.  That is our Sunday. Mary Magdalene seems to be the leader in that activity. The second thing I noticed is that it is a very busy morning. There are lots of people involved. It seems that a number of women were involved such as Joanna, Salome, Mary mother of James and others. Then we have the disciples. Certainly the 11were there and were the first males to hear that the tomb was empty.  I suspect there were others like Mark, the writer of the Gospel according to Mark, and some others.  That suggests to me we have too many witnesses first up to develop a conspiracy about the resurrection of Jesus.

Thirdly the morning is filled with wide ranging emotions. Grief and sadness would have hung heavily in the air with the women on the way to the tomb and the men gathering together. This is followed by amazement, surprise and fear.  The stone rolled away and the empty tomb would have evoked surprise and fear.  The news that the women bring is met with doubt and denial. Their experience of angels or strange men telling them that Jesus had risen would have sounded bizarre at first. Luke possibly gets it right when he writes; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened [24:11&12]. That first Easter morning began with grief and sadness and ended with surprise and wonderment.

Today, how do we find ourselves? Are we still at that first Easter morning stage of surprise, uncertainty, disbelief and desperately hoping it is true? Or do we live by the truth of the resurrection?

Reflection 2.   Acts 10: 34 – 43

Time passes – how many months are uncertain – and another revolutionary event takes place. The revolution is not of the same magnitude as the Resurrection, but it is another big U-turn. The disciples – men and women – had experienced a number of resurrection appearances. There were many of them. Paul says that Jesus appeared to about 500 at one time [1 Cor 15:6]. Then there was the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them and blessed them.  The followers of Jesus had no doubt that God had raised Jesus from the dead and that God had blessed them with the power of the Holy Spirit. But they were all Jews. The movement remained essentially Jewish.  The Law of Judaism was still followed. Then Peter had a vision in Joppa about eating unclean things. He was disturbed by the vision. Then Peter received an invitation to go and preach to a gentile family: the home of a Roman military officer. He does and he preaches the Gospel.  This preaching gives us the content of Gospel. Let us hear it and notice how Peter begins. 

The reading of Acts 10: 

Peter has briefly recounted the story of Jesus beginning with the baptism by John through to the Resurrection. Peter tells the Roman Officer, Cornelius, that the resurrection was witnessed by Jesus’ followers, that they had eaten with him and that the prophets of old had pointed to Jesus. The punch line is that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name [Acts 10:43]. The revolutionary event is that here is a Jew in a Gentile’s house preaching to the Gentile’s household and while Peter is preaching the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his household just as the Spirit had come upon the disciples at Pentecost.  From that day on the followers of Jesus knew that God was receiving Gentiles just the same way as God was receiving the Jewish followers. The Gospel of Jesus is for the world.  

We just take it all for granted today. We gather in our comfortable place and often take God’s forgiveness and the Spirit for granted.  What would happen if we really sort the forgiveness of God and the Holy Spirit’s full blessing?

Reflection 3.  1 Corinthians 15: 19 – 29

In each reading the Resurrection comes to the fore. Paul writing to the Corinthian church makes it quite clear how important the resurrection is. The Resurrection is ‘not just for this present life’ [15:19]. Paul paints this big picture that once Christ Jesus has destroyed evil and the power of death then the correct order will be restored. This means there is an ongoing battle against evil continuing. Using the metaphor of war there is a point in time of every war when the war has been won and what follows are a series of mopping up battles. What we understand is that Jesus defeated evil once and for all, but we are involved as Christ’s agents in completing that task.

 Paul wanted the Corinthian Christians to understand that following Christ is not about this life only, but being part of God’s universal plan to bring all things under God’s loving control. Being a Christian means we are part of a big movement against evil. However in that process God equips by developing our Christian character and empowering us with gifts.  That is what the study group has been looking at. So when we talk about God blessing us – and God does – it doesn’t mean that God has blessed us just for our own sake God blesses us to be a blessing to others.  So we experience God’s help in our personal lives, but that is not where it ends. As we are blessed we also grow. As we grow our ministry becomes more effective. As we learn to love our love becomes more of a blessing to others. That is why we have these commands to love one another; to love our neighbour; and, to witness to the work of Christ Jesus.  Christianity is not about me personally but me being part of the people of God. If I am not part of the people of God then I am not part of Jesus the Christ, or at best I am an immature Christian needing to grow. 

We have a future that goes way beyond our death. Our earthly death is merely the beginning of a new relationship with God and an entering in the purposes of God more fully.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  21/04/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Politics Influence Judgement: Good Friday 19-04-2019

Politics Influence Judgement: Good Friday

John 18: 28 – 19: 20

John’s Gospel provides a lively account of the trial of Jesus. It reveals the enormity of evil and the splendour of love.  It reflects the complexity of truth telling and the dark art of compromise. 

Today’s sermon is more like a re-telling of John 18: 26 through to 19: 42, which is set in the Common Lectionary for today. I will add commentary and be political. So let’s go.

We pick up John’s account of the Gospel of Jesus just after Jesus was the arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. He had been betrayed by one of the twelve disciples, Judas.  The night is dark, soldiers boisterous and the atmosphere poisoned with betrayal and fear.  Jesus is taken to the Jewish court – the Sanhedrin. It was made up of priests, Pharisees and Sadducees. We know for certain Peter followed and gathered with the guards and spectators in the courtyard. There Peter denied knowing Jesus three times before the first morning cock crow. Betrayal and fear were joined by denial, but at least Peter was there. The others had run off.

The Jewish court questioned Jesus about his work. Jesus pointed out that his ministry has been an open book. There was nothing done in secret. Many could tell them what he had done. Jesus is slapped about the face and sent off to Caiaphas. Jesus provided no incriminating responses for there were none to make. Caiaphas then took Jesus to the house of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.  But Caiaphas and company would not enter the Governor’s residence. The Jewish rules stated that for a Jew to enter a Gentile residence would render them ritually unclean and unable to worship for 24 hours or so. They wanted to celebrate the Passover that evening. How contradictory? How untruthful?  The Jewish authorities want to honour God and do the religiously correct thing, but they were happy to eliminate a perceived enemy of their religion collaborating with the unclean Gentile, who incidentally was their sworn enemy.

Pilate goes out to them because Rome had made compromises with the Jews. They were the only group within the Roman Empire who had won religious independence. Some small compromises were made with them to keep the peace. The Jews had proved to be very troublesome. In fact they were the most troublesome ethnic-religious group in the whole empire.

The ensuing conversations between Pilate and the Jewish leaders and Pilate and Jesus revealed the Jewish leaders’ real intent, and the innocence of Jesus. The Jewish leadership wanted the Roman administration to execute Jesus, so that the people wouldn’t blame them or defile the religious practices. Jerusalem was a political boiling pot. The Jews had never become Roman citizens. The religious leaders had made compromising arrangements with the Roman occupiers. The population at large expected God to rescue them. Part of the population wanted to bring that about sooner. It is not surprising that some 38 years later the Jews effectively chased the Romans out of Jerusalem.  The Romans regained the city after two years of fighting and destroyed the temple in AD 70. Not surprisingly Pilate spoke to Jesus about whether he was a king. Evidently the Jewish leadership must have spoken about Jesus claiming to be a king.  Jesus’s response to Pilate made certain things clear. Firstly, he would not talk about himself as king as others do.  Secondly, his kingship comes from God; otherwise his followers would have defended him using the world’s methods of violence. Thirdly, Jesus said that he had come to ‘give evidence about the truth’. 

Two issues stand out – kingship and truth. Pilate’s response was that Jesus did not present a problem. The Jewish leaders had other ideas. They threatened Pilate by saying that if he did not execute Jesus they would tell the Emperor that Pilate had refused to punish a man who claimed to be king.  Such a claim was treasonable and punishable by death. 

The truth is twisted through these compromises and manipulations that political power held onto. To retain power each party played the game of compromise using half-truths. The religious leaders wanted to retain power. Pilate wanted to ensure his position of power as Governor. Rome and the Jewish leaders made their little compromises too.  Jesus is the supposed pawn in this dark game of holding onto political power using untruth, fear and compromise.  However Jesus was there by choice, confronting this evil with truth and love, because he not only spoke the truth but also was the truth. And he did it for love’s sake. Jesus was there because he knew that perfect love alone could destroy this evil.   Jesus is absolutely right that his kingdom is of heaven: that is, Jesus is the king of God’s Kingdom.  In this scene we see not only the darkness of human desire for power and human willingness to tell half-truths and compromise but the struggle between two fundamental ways of being: God’s way and fallen humanity’s way.  Jesus represents God’s way and Caiaphas and Pilate represent the way of the world.

Jesus did not die because of some spiritual truth contained in the notion of personal forgiveness of sins. Jesus died to destroy by love the fundamental flaw in humanity where power is held onto at all costs and where fear and love of power drive our actions.

Jesus’ death was brought about by untruth, compromise and the desire to retain power. Throughout we see compromise of standards creating political arm-twisting. This whole exercise lacks any sense of truthfulness.

Jesus was a threat to the Jewish leaders. He was popular. Some people thought he was the Messiah sent to free the Jews from Roman rule. That was troubling in itself. But there were other things even more troubling. Jesus had threatened the Temple organisation. His teaching and practice strongly implied that the people did not need the Temple. Jesus’ teaching threatened the power and control of the Jewish leadership. His teaching undermined the sacrificial system.

Let’s unpack this a little more. If Jesus took people away from the Temple system the economy of the Temple and Jerusalem would suffer. There were so many animals sacrificed and so many people involved in the Temple sacrificial system that many people would be out of jobs. Now you know how important jobs are, don’t you? Jobs are everything! Well, that is true. But do we need to retain jobs just for the sake of jobs regardless of the cost to the wider benefit of society and the nation? The Jewish leaders couldn’t see beyond their own needs and desire for power, so they didn’t even see the issue.  

Now we are reading this Scripture in the context of our own political context of an election.  Do you see some parallels?  Think of the leadership issues and the unquestionable desire for power.  Think of the political parties and their desire to rule or play an increased influential role in the political arena. Do you not see the desire for power, the use of the half-truth, promises made on projections of future incomes rather than a firm budget, and compromises made to ensure that our party would benefit and be in power?  Must we have jobs regardless of the cost of those jobs to the future and the environment?  I can see how at the local level the Adani coal mine will benefit business during the start up period with much work provided, but once established the highly automated mine will require far less workers and there is the cost to the environment and our children’s future to consider. I can see how the Jewish leaders could see that Jesus’ teaching would dramatically change the economy of the temple, but at what cost would this be? Well we know. The Jews lost city and temple. We have the benefit of hindsight. 

Politics is the art of the possible they say and compromise and half-truths are the tools.  No wonder Pilate asked to Jesus who said he had come ‘to give evidence about the truth’, “What’s truth?”  Exactly, what is truth when our political system is played using fear, half-truth and compromise? We’ve dealt with half-truths about climate change. We are currently presented with ‘we’ll make health care more affordable’, ‘more jobs’, lower taxes and the ‘economy is better than before’. The world economy is growing very slowly and the Australian economy is not too badly off, but we need stronger growth to be able to provide more jobs and pay for an improved health system and lower taxes. None of the main parties are offering us a better country if we vote for them, just we will be better off as individuals. To be honest not all will be better off and we should be mindful of the weak for they need as much care if not more than the strong.

Jesus was killed because of the desire for power and the use of untruth, fear and compromise. Jesus the Truth confronted the untruth and overcame it through the sacrifice of his life, because he knew that only the Truth expressed in love would save the world. The Cross of Christ is not about personal salvation but about the salvation of the world – this world – and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  19/04/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

The surest way up is by stepping down 14-04-2019

The surest way up is by stepping down.

Isaiah 50:  4 – 9a;  Philippians 1: 27 – 2: 11

The surest way up is by stepping down seems contradictory.  In this day and age when ‘my rights’ and ‘me first’ dominates the social and business landscape it collides with our culture. Jesus of Nazareth taught us the value and usefulness of humility.  Humility is not highly prized in our society today and we in the church struggle with it. It’s hard to believe humility opens doors and empowers! 

 

This Palm or Passion Sunday we will focus on the Philippian’s reading. The NT scholar Ralph P Martin says that Philippians 2: 6 – 11 “is the most important section in the letter and surely the most difficult to interpret. … Nevertheless, there is at least one thing that calls forth almost universal agreement. It … constitutes a signal example of a very early ‘hymn ‘of the Christian Church.” [Phil p. 99f] That’s right it is a hymn – a song of praise – from the very early days of Christian worship.

This ‘hymn’ is significant in what it says about Jesus. It is one of the earliest pieces of writing going back to possibly 10-15 years after the death of Jesus.  This hymn precedes the writing of the four Gospel accounts. Yes, it is earlier than those precious documents.  It is a piece of writing that contains some of the earliest theological statements about Jesus.  It is written in the form of a ‘hymn’ and therefore it is an example of early worship material, possibly recited or chanted. Its content tells us that from an early stage Jesus is seen as one with God and one who is above all of creation. 

Now this ‘hymn’-  Phil 2: 6-11 –  is important for two reasons.  Firstly it tells us that from a very early stage in the life of the Church they were worshipping Jesus. There have been some who have argued that the notion of Jesus as one with God – a divine person – is  a much later understanding.  This piece of Scripture flies in the face of that view. From the earliest times Jesus was seen as unique and one with the Creator God. That understanding is revolutionary as the Jewish people firmly believed in One God only. The first Christians were Jews and saw Jesus as the Messiah – the Christ. Jesus the Christ was inextricably one with God.

The second significant thing about this text is how Paul uses it to encourage humility.  Why did Paul value humility? There are many reasons.  The teaching of Jesus captured in the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that humility is a top-tier virtue. Jesus taught; ‘Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.’  Yes, the meek – the humble – shall inherit the world.  Jesus was seen to be humble. In fact Philippians gives us a beautiful picture of Jesus’ humility.  [Phil 2:6-8]

Though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,  but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

And Isaiah’s prophetic words about the ‘suffering servant’ echoes in the background.

The Lord GOD has opened my ear,  and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward.  I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. [Is 50: 5,6]

Neither can we avoid John’s picture of Jesus in the Upper Room sharing a pre-Passover celebration where Jesus takes off his outer robe, takes up a towel and bowel of water, and washes the disciples’ feet [John 13: 4]. That too is a beautiful picture of Jesus’ humility. Jesus never came to lord it over us but to serve us. One can neither escape or overlook the humility of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.

This ‘hymn’ that Paul uses to illustrate humility to the Philippians was known, otherwise why would he have quoted it a length.  He doesn’t quote it to teach about who Jesus is, but it is quoted to encourage the Philippian Christians to practise humility.   Paul writes to encourage the Christian community, living in a Roman city with many different religions and superstitions, to practise humility. The church in Philippi was small and threatened.  Paul wanted to build up the community and his main emphasis was on Philippian Christians continuing to build upon their faith in Christ Jesus, their fellowship in the Spirit, their kindness and compassion for one another and for a unity of love and mindfulness of each other. Paul said to them, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus [Phil 2: 2-5].  Paul could see that the fellowship of the Church was stronger and more effective when the church really looked after each other with a selfless love. Unity is not so much about believing the same things as showing love for one another. I know folk who come here for the first time speak well of our acceptance and friendship. The key to a strong fellowship is people who put others first.  It is that spirit of humility that enables us to love one another selflessly.

What is the power of humility? Before we look at humility’s power let us note what it is not.

 Humility is not about letting people push you around, nor letting people ‘walk all over you’. Humility is not constantly sacrificing your own interests, nor avoiding conflict for the sake of being nice.

Humility is more about emotional growth. Humility means that one does not have to put oneself above others. Humility means that everyone is your peer. Humility means you are neither the least important nor the most important person.

If we consider how humility works we may see why it is powerful.  Humility grants the humble person complete freedom from the desire to impress, to be right, or get ahead.  A humble life results in contentment, patience, forgiveness and compassion.  

The humble person:   

  • understands individual limitations.
  • appreciates others.
  • respects others and their opinions.
  • listens more and speaks less.
  • withholds judgement over intentions as much as possible.
  • helps and promotes others.

Reflect on these characteristics of a humble person and you will see a strange power in each of those steps.  Others begin to appreciate the humble for their respect, appreciation, empathy and help. As the humble give power to others the power is reciprocated.

Now do not be fooled. Being humble is not about seeking power. There is the story of the grandfather who said that he had been given a medal for his outstanding humility. But, he added,  the medal was taken away from him when he began to wear it.

                        

The key to humility is a healthy self-esteem:  the recognition of one’s own worth. As Christians we gain our worth from being made in God’s Image [Gen 1: 26].  So to let God polish God’s image in us is the surest way of gaining a healthy self-esteem.  Our identity and worth now rests in God. As much as we wish to be appreciated by others, the most important thing is to know that God appreciates us. We are worthy because Christ Jesus has made us worthy.

I dream of many powerful little churches because they are humble little churches.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  14/04/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Putting the Brakes On 07-04-2019

Putting the Brakes On.  Lent 5

Isaiah 43: 16 – 21; Philippians 3: 4b – 14

Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old, writes Isaiah [Is 43:18]. That’s a strange thing to write for a prophet steeped in the history and traditions of the Faith. Isaiah is quoting God.  Even so the question arises as to why God would say this. Surely that is what the people of God do; remember the things God has done in the past. Each Sunday we remember the tradition of the Faith and once a month celebrate Holy Communion, which recalls Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples before he was crucified. Jesus told us to remember the meal and repeat it. What might these words mean – Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old ? This statement is immediately followed with these words. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? [Is 43:19]

I think that if we exchanged the word ‘remember’ with ‘rely on’ it might make more sense to us. What I understand God is saying is that we should not think the future will be like the past.  The future will be new.  Don’t get so locked into the past that all you are prepared to accept is the old way of seeing and doing.  God is doing a new thing. That was the message to the Jewish people in exile in Babylon.  All was not lost. What had happened to those Jerusalem exiles was the loss of their Temple. In those days people thought their ‘god’ resided in the temple. If the temple was destroyed where was their ‘god’?  What God gave these Judean exiles was not a new temple but the Synagogue system that allowed them to worship wherever there were ten men gathered. We take that for granted, but for them it was revolutionary. It was a completely new concept of worshipping. We have no other examples of this in other societies of that time.

This notion of not letting the past restrict our vision of the future underpins Paul’s argument in his letter to the Church in Philippi.  Philippi was a purpose built city for retiring Roman officials and soldiers. It was very much a Roman city. Paul visits Philippi. He is gaoled there and miraculously is set free from his chains [Acts 16:16ff].   The Philippian gaoler becomes a convert to Christ. The other significant convert is a woman.  Paul on arriving in Philippi goes to the Kenides river because he has heard about a prayer meeting held there. There he meets Lydia, a seller of purple. She sounds rather ordinary: a woman merchant with a small material shop. Well, no!  Purple was the cloth for the rich. The process of dying the material purple was expensive.  Lydia being named as a seller of purple suggests two things to us. She was wealthy and she was significant. Indeed the Philippian church met in her home. Scholars generally take it that she was a leader in the Philippian church.

Having said all that about the Philippian church, let us go back to Paul. Paul’s ministry was attacked and especially in Philippi. It seems most likely that Paul was being accused of misleading people because he was not applying the full Jewish Law to new converts. One of the issues was that male Gentiles should be circumcised according to Jewish tradition. Paul’s response is illuminating. Paul claims to be fully Jewish. Let’s hear him again.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection …  [Phil 3: 4b-10a].

Paul’s statement hardly needs commentary. He is saying that the new thing God has done in Christ Jesus surpasses everything else. Now Paul does not reject the Jewish tradition. On the contrary he acknowledges and follows it, but he does not slavishly follow it. He recognises that the way to God is through Christ Jesus and not through the Law. His experience of Christ Jesus determines how he understands the past. 

These two passages are relevant to us. They tell us that from time to time we inevitably uncover new ways of worship and new ways of following Christ Jesus. Sometimes the new ways are significant at other times the new way is merely seeing the Faith differently. These passages are very relevant to us because of the different situation the Church is in today. These passages remind us to be open to God’s new way so we might perceive and embrace God’s future. We need to ask what is the new thing God is doing? I’m not sure, but I am prepared to face it.

Firstly let us reflect on how we hang on to the past. Constantly we are longing for God’s future in the ways of the past. Listen to our conversations. We are so pleased that we have children in our worship service. Part of the pleasure is that they represent the future of the church to many. Well I am delighted to minister to these children and their parents, just because they are children.  But they are not the future of the church, not in the sense that the Church’s survival depends on them. On the contrary, in the 50s and 60s we had children everywhere in the church, but they were not the future of the church. The future of the church lay in the hands of just a few – those people who placed their lives in the hands of Christ Jesus – YOU!  They were both the young and old at the time.  To be even more correct, the future of the Church lies in God’s hands, and God looks to work with the faithful.  God will work with those who repent – those who turn to God.  From a human point of view the Church’s future doesn’t lie with the children in our midst, but with us, our faithfulness and our openness to God’s future.

It follows that if God is doing a new thing tomorrow’s church will not necessarily look like today’s church. Yet the church’s conversation continues to hanker for the re-visitation of the old.  I haven’t been as long in the Church as some of you have been, but I have been in full-time ministry for 51 years. What I envisaged my future would be as a minister is only partly like it actually is. The past only partly determines the future of the Church. The Church’s future lies in God’s hands.  If you have noticed I have gently pushed us to be a little more flexible with our furniture, our music and more adventurous with our technology. I want to change things around so we can experience some small changes. But responses are slow at times, or show passive resistance. I am not claiming what I am doing is the future. But it is an attempt to help us be more open to change, for change is one thing I do guarantee will happen. And it doesn’t help when we see the future solely through the lens of the past. In fact seeing the future through the lens of the past may be the very reason why the future may pass us by.

It is also important to note what Isaiah and Paul are saying. It is clearer in Paul.  Paul had a change of heart. His faith was no longer about a heritage of faith, but based on an experience of Jesus. There is a danger in letting our faith be solely defined by religious practices, traditions, habits and connections. Our conversations focus on family connections to ministers, high profile Christians, and length of service, on choirs or Sunday School.  Note that Paul in spite of his knowledge and experience, he only talks about Christ Jesus. N.T. Wright’s translation of the Philippian letters expresses it well. “I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together (e.g. choirs, council membership, service clubs etc.)! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, … . This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. [Phil 4:6-10]

Our faith begins with our relationship with God in Christ Jesus. And because it is a relationship and not a code of behaviour we are following, there will be changes. Relationships are dynamic and they grow. With growth change is inevitable.  If we are serious with God then we will change individually and together.  To view the future through the lens of the past will only lead to our demise.

I believe God wants us to be open to the new things God is doing. God wants to introduce us to the new! Let go and let God begin God’s future with us now.

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Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  07/04/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Saying Sorry: Breaking the Chain of Hate 31-03-2019

Saying Sorry: Breaking the Chain of Hate  [Lent 4]

2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21; Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11b – 32

73 years ago Avis Gale was born under a Quandong tree near Ceduna, on the edge of the Nullarbor. When her mother fell pregnant while working with a white family she was sent home. A white man had fathered her child, Avis.

As a 7-day old baby she was taken from her mother to the United Aborigines’ Mission at Colebrook Home, some 500 miles away in Adelaide. There she was reared under stringent conditions. If the children didn’t read the Bible they were deprived of food. She was raped and beaten. The Bible made no sense to her. On one Guy Fawkes Night she burned the pages from 30 Bibles. She was beaten with a hose and branded on her leg and told she was going to hell. That didn’t matter to her as she was already in hell.

At 13 she was allowed to move to another hostel run by two women missionaries who had started the first Colebrook Home. They were held in high regard and a couple of stable years followed and she did well at school.  But the pain and anger of the estrangement from her family and the physical and psychological abuse had led to a well of deep anger and distrust in Avis. Taken from her family and receiving a few sporadic visits from a black woman, whom she was told was her mother did not establish any sense of belonging. The severe discipline of Colebrook Home cemented her alienation. Sexual and physical abuse only reinforced the alienation that ran deep within her. She was angry, bitter and rebellious. 

Her understandable rebellious behaviour against the authorities who had stolen so much from her resulted in spells in prison.  In telling her story she says, ‘Once I had a taste of prison it became my home.’ Prison was a sanctuary providing three meals a day and a dry place to sleep. Prison was a place where she felt safe. It was in prison where she was introduced to drugs.

Finally after a complete breakdown she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was there, with the help of a doctor and a childhood friend that she decided not to let the system destroy her. In time she became a manager of a hostel for Aboriginal children who came to Adelaide from the centre of Australia for education.  When the Royal Commission was established in 1995 on the effects of the assimilation policies, which demanded the removal of children of mixed blood  from their Aboriginal mothers, she came forward and told her story for the first time.

Telling her story was highly painful as all the hurts were brought to the surface. Speaking out began to heal her. In time someone gave her a bible. It took weeks before she could touch it. When she read ‘love your enemies’ [Mt 5: 44] it confirmed what she was slowly recognising, that to be fully healed she needed to forgive those who had hurt her so much. She said that when the UCA in South Australia apologised unconditionally for their part in the removal policies it freaked her out. She said she recognised that she too had apologies to make. She also had come to realise that one day she would need to stand before her Maker. So she did make those apologies.

Avis became an active worker in the reconciliation movement working to establish a memorial to grieving mothers whose children had been taken away. She also organised reconciliation days. 

Reconciliation is our theme today. Jesus gives us that wonderful story of the Prodigal Son. That’s its traditional name.  I prefer to call it the Parable of the Waiting Father. * It tells the story of a father and two sons. The younger comes to the father and says he wants his inheritance. This request is deeply insulting. The son is asking for his portion of the property before his father dies. He is treating his father as if he was dead or wishing he were dead. He also wants to leave the family. The wise father knows that his son will never be his if he forces him to stay. So he gives this selfish boy his portion who promptly goes off and lives selfishly and foolishly, ending up in depravity and poverty. This brings him to his senses. He realises that he would be better off as a servant in his father’s home. He goes back home. He has rehearsed his lines as to what he will say.  They are set aside by his father’s unseemly behaviour. He sees his son coming down the road. The father runs to meet his son. That is unseemly. Not what a good father of that day would do. The father breaks social conventions. He offers mercy before repentance. He provides acceptance before recompense.  The son is also restored to his former position as a son, and a party is thrown in his honour, despite his previoius insultingly behaviour to father and family.

The older brother returns from the fields and discovers what has happened. We would all agree that this is unfair. But the father goes out to his older son and speaks reconciling words.  We don’t know the sequel. But the point of the parable is this: there cannot be a family without the reconciliation, which involves the restoring of all relationships. If we don’t get this then we don’t get Christianity. Christianity is about relationships being restored through reconciliation. That is what Jesus was about. Jesus said in his teaching and actions that God wants us to be restored to our relationship with God the Creator and that he Jesus, would be the pathway to that restoration. Reconciliation is about repentance, apology and forgiveness.  Jesus lives and breathes this reconciliation. He identifies with us in his baptism, he practices forgiveness in his ministry, he humbly submits himself in obedience to the will of God the Father and confronts evil with all conquering love.

It is not surprising that Paul says to the Corinthians that the essence of all Christian service is reconciliation. There is nothing more important than binding up broken relationships and breaking down alienating systems and behaviour.  Community is essential to living life well. Isolation and alienation is the death of community. Community to exist needs fellowship and that is the hallmark of the Church.  The Church is a fellowship of Christ-followers reaching out and welcoming others into that fellowship.

We need to practise repentance, apology and forgiveness if we want fellowship and community.  Repentance, apology and forgiveness are each important doing words.  Repentance means looking the right way. From time to time we need to repent, because our focus is on the wrong things.  We need to turn around and face the right way: face God because God is the beginning and end of life. 

Apology is fundamental to our relationships with each other and God.  We never do the right thing all the time. It’s impossible. Therefore it is important to be humble enough to realise that and be prepared to say sorry. Sorry is always the beginning of restoring a relationship. 

Forgiveness is at the centre and that is why Jesus taught us to pray: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. In my experience forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood spiritual actions of life. Forgiveness has a number of steps.  The first step is a willingness to forgive. That willingness to forgive needs to be nurtured. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is part of the nurturing of a forgiving spirit. Recognising our own failures develops our humility.  So when we are hurt the first step is to ask God to help us to forgive.   The second step involves acknowledging the wrong. We don’t just say, ‘Oh that doesn’t matter, I forgive’.   No, if you are really hurt you acknowledge the hurt.  If someone came to you to say sorry, you likewise tell them you are hurt and that you forgive them and thank them for their apology. Forgiveness is not dismissing the wrong and its accompanying hurt. Forgiveness is not overlooking the wrong.  The third step is the act of forgiving having received the apology. Sincere sorrow and genuine forgiveness results in a closer relationship not just an absence of conflict.  If all you have is an absence of conflict you don’t have reconciliation. Fourthly, there are times when we can’t talk to the person and we need to forgive and place our anger and hurt at the foot of the Cross.  That is what God wants of us – to forgive others as God forgives us. There is nothing worse than carrying a hurt in our hearts and minds and letting it fester.

God has reconciled us through the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  God has given us a ministry of reconciliation where we live a life that is forgiven by God and a life forgiving of others.  

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* [I have preached a series of five sermons on this parable in 2011. If you want to you can search our website to read them. If I may say so they are worthwhile as they were based on the reflection of Henri Nouwen.]

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  31/03/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org