May 16, 2021

The Joy Of Persecution 26-06-2016

The Joy of Persecution.
Amos 5: 21 – 24; Matthew 5: 1 – 14;
The 8th beatitude speaks of the blessedness or joy of being persecuted.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” It seems bizarre to speak of persecution, people reviling you and uttering all kinds of evil, as a reason to be joyful.
The questions I pose today are: Have Christians been persecuted? Why will we be persecuted? Why should we be joyful when persecuted? 
Have Christians been persecuted? We have all heard stories about Christians being persecuted by the Romans. The Roman Emperor Nero was the worst. He hanged Christians on posts, covered them in tar and then lit them using them as human torches. Then there are the stories of Christians being thrown to the lions. However the persecution of Christians in the first few centuries was not constant and they enjoyed relative peace. We should also note that the Jerusalem Jews persecuted Christians as well.
When Christianity became an official religion of the Roman Empire Roman persecution ceased, but not persecution in general. Down through the centuries the Church has been persecuted. After the Roman Empire ended there were many persecutions of Christian in Persia and the Middle East. And there were persecutions or wars between Western and Eastern Christians.  Let me take a few notable moments in history that will illustrate the extent of persecution.
The French revolution in 1789 led to the de-Christianisation of France.  Clergy were deported and those who refused deportation were killed. The property of the Church was taken and desecrated. It was a battle between the Cult of Reason, the new ideology of the French Revolutionaries, and the Cult of the Supreme Being, Christianity.  The persecution of the Church eventually ceased in France, but I put to you that the Cult of Reason still is the enemy of the church resulting these days in ridicule and marginalisation rather than martyrdom.
In China during the 17th Century,  Christianity was banned for a century. It led to the martyrdom of many Chinese Christians. 
During the 1600s Christians fought Christians. And Christians sometimes persecuted minority religious groups.  During the 1600s Japan’s new leadership banned the Church and persecuted Christians.
In 1828-61 Madagascar prohibited the practice of Christianity and Christians were killed if they refused to recant.
When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence was attacked resulting in the public execution of clergy and extensive re-education programmes for Christians.
In 1917 the Mexican Revolution resulted in the Catholic Church’s religious orders being outlawed, worship outside of church buildings banned and the Church’s right to own property restricted.
Pope Benedictus XVI stated that Christians are the most persecuted group in the world today. Today much of the persecution of the Church is taking place in Muslim countries. However we should understand that this might be due to the perception that Christianity is a Western religion and the persecution is an attack on Western culture.
Why will we be persecuted? My brief survey of the persecution of the Church illustrates that Christians have always suffered a degree of persecution for their faith.  What is it in the Christian faith that makes people attack it?
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”.   Jesus is saying that it is the righteousness of the Christian church that makes it vulnerable to attack. He is also saying that righteousness is the only legitimate ground for describing an attack on us as persecution with its resulting blessedness. What is Jesus getting at? We tend to take righteousness to mean someone who is holy – morally good. NO!  In the Bible righteousness describes the relationship we have with God and God’s world. Righteousness describes the way we live our lives by loving our neighbour and being just. We should never confuse ‘loving our neighbour’ with liking our neighbour. We may like them but remember for Jesus our neighbour is the person we don’t know who may be of another religion or culture or race. Loving our neighbour wants our neighbour to have justice.  Now, the Greek and Hebrew words for righteousness are the same words that translate into English as ‘justice’.
Let us consider two examples where righteousness means a right relationship with God and also justice. Remember a right relationship with God always includes a right relationship with others and creation.  Our reading from Amos of chapter 5 verse 24 reads:
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Here we have our English concepts of justice and righteousness linked together in one sentence. They are also linked by the image of water. Justice is expected to roll down with the power of water and our relationship like the constancy of a life-giving stream. They are two beautiful water images: justice is a powerful force like rolling water; and the righteousness a gentle healing relationship like a constant stream of refreshing water.  We may see them as distinct but they were seen by the Hebrew mind as inextricably linked because the same word in Hebrew can be translated as just or righteous as we find in Nehemiah chapter 9 verses 8 and 33 respectively, where the same Hebrew word is used but is translated in verse 8 as righteous and in verse 33 as just. The same word is used to describe God as righteous and just.
So Jesus is saying we will be persecuted because of righteousness. That is, we will be persecuted because we follow God, love our neighbour and this world and we stand for justice.
Why should Christians not be surprised if they are persecuted? Why shouldn’t we be surprised?  In fact, should we not be surprised that we are not being persecuted?
To say we worship God is to remind others they don’t.
To put God first in your life means others, who want to be first, will be second.
To say Jesus is Lord means that presidents, prime ministers, politicians, kings and lords of this world are second.
To put others first is offensive to a culture that puts the self first.
To stand for justice exposes those who take advantage of the weak.
At the very least Christians are annoying when Christians honour God first and practise selfless love for others.  When one analyses the persecution of Christians one finds at the centre of the persecution is a power struggle between God’s way and the World’s way. So the early Christians would only worship Christ Jesus as Lord and Roman citizens were expected to worship Caesar along with other gods. When the French Revolutionaries persecuted the Church it was a battle for the supremacy of reason over faith. This struggle continues to take place in the Western World today where in subtle and not so subtle ways the church is silenced by claiming that religion is a private matter and not a public matter.
C.E.B.Cranfield, a NT scholar wrote: It would be surprising if Christians were not persecuted for their very existence is an affront to human self-centredness, a reminder of the absolute claims that God makes upon people’s lives and that so many want to ignore and forget.
Why should we be joyful when persecuted?  I am hoping that you will already see the blessing of persecution. If you have been persecuted for standing with the marginalised and against injustice, you have given hope to those people. The Christian stand for justice by brave men and women has led to healing, reconciliation, justice, dignity and freedom.
Secondly, it is the way of our Lord Jesus. To suffer persecution is to know that one is being faithful and walking in the steps of Christ. In 2 Timothy 2 we find these words:
11 If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him … . There is glory in being identified with the suffering Christ Jesus.
Yes, my friend, Christianity is a strange religion. It is profoundly practical in its daily practice. Christianity calls us to live a life of selflessness so that others may have a sense of self-hood. Christianity as a religion invites us into a relationship that makes us partners in the company of the blessed who strive in Christ’s name to make this world more blessed. Christianity is a movement to bless the world. It is a movement to introduce true humanity. This is our calling – to proclaim the righteousness of God.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  03/07/2016
In saying all this I do want to acknowledge that at times Christians have deserved criticism and reprimand, but then those Christians have not been ‘righteous’ in the sense that Christ Jesus is talking about in this beatitude.

The Promises of Baptism 19-06-2016

The Promises of Baptism.
Matthew 3: 1 – 15;  Romans 6: 1 – 11
Christ Jesus commanded his disciples to follow two rituals – Holy Communion and Baptism. Baptism is important but often neglected and misunderstood. Let us reflect on it a while.
It might be good to begin with the story of a pastor baptising in the river one Sunday afternoon. A drunk happened to stumble upon the baptismal service. The drunk walked right down into the water and stood next to the Preacher. The minister turned and noticed the old drunk and said, “Mister, Are you ready to find Jesus?” The drunk looked back and said, “Yes, Preacher. I am.” The minister then dunked the fellow under the water and pulled him right back up. “Have you found Jesus?” the preacher asked. “No, I haven’t!” said the drunk. The preacher then dunked him under for a bit longer, brought him up and said, “Now, brother, have you found Jesus?” “No, I haven’t Preacher.” The preacher in disgust held the man under for at least 30 seconds this time, brought him out of the water and said in a harsh tone, “Friend, are you sure you haven’t found Jesus yet?” The old drunk wiped his eyes gasping for breath and said to the preacher; “No preacher, are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Baptism isn’t where you find Jesus; it is where Jesus finds you. Baptism is what we do when Jesus has found us. Baptism happens when God has knocked on the door of our life, so to speak, and we have opened that door to God. Baptism acknowledges that we are followers of Christ and are beginning a transformed life with Jesus.
Some questions might help us understand what has taken place this morning.  Why was John baptising? Why was Jesus baptised? Why do we baptise infants? What happens in baptism?
Why was John baptising? John and his disciples didn’t happen upon the idea of baptism while swimming in the river Jordan on a hot day. Baptism was already around. It was practised as a symbolic act of a new life.  The water was symbolic of cleansing and washing the old life away.  Water refreshes and renews us and so it had that meaning as well. So baptism signaled a new person, a new name and a new identity. By the way in baptism the water was either poured over you or you were immersed in the water.
John takes baptism and morphs it into something slightly different. He wasn’t calling people into a new faith. He was calling people to turn from their apathy, selfish life and their indifference of God’s ways to a new commitment to live a godly life.  It was a baptism of repentance. Repentance means turn-around and face the right direction.  So John’s baptism was an act of humility, commitment and identification with the coming Christ / Messiah.
Why was Jesus baptised?  Jesus and John were cousins. John preached about the Christ coming – God’s anointed. John was challenging people to prepare themselves for the Christ. Then Jesus comes along and says I want to be baptised. John says to Jesus it wasn’t necessary for him to be baptised. John recognised that his cousin, Jesus, was already special. What he understood we aren’t told. But he must have thought that Jesus was ready for the Christ, or that he was the Christ. John wouldn’t have been sure, but he was sure that Jesus didn’t need to be baptised. But Jesus wanted baptism. So John baptised Jesus. We can only conclude that Jesus came to be baptised, because he wanted to humble himself before God the Father, signal his commitment and obedience, and affirm his identification as the Christ for us.
Baptism became the ritual that publicly marked the life of a person who had humbled themselves before God, made a commitment to follow the Christ and took on the identity of a Christian.   It was a ceremony that God had found them and they had responded to God.
Why do we baptise infants? It is a fact of life that children copy their parents, borrow their values and behave like them. At some point all parents have heard their children play games and stopped to listen with amusement and a little embarrassment. Why? Because they hear themselves.  Sometimes it will be amusing and other times embarrassing. And we know that we have a little of our parents in us. There are periods of our lives when we furiously deny we are like our parents. We even work hard not to be like them, but there is always a little bit of them – their beliefs, values, mannerisms and behaviours  – in us. Zoe is part of you. She will share your values and beliefs. At first she will just copy you and then she will tweak them. So right now Zoe is your child in a very profound and deep sense. She is dependent upon you to mirror the way of being human in this world. She is your child and she is part of all that you hold dear, love and cherish in life. So she is a Christian-child. She is not a child of a non-believer or a child of some other religion. She is your child. She shares your values and beliefs and will borrow your ways of doing things.  This is why Paul could write to the Corinthian church about marriages between Christians and pagans and says that their children are holy through the faith of one or both parents [1 Cor 7: 14]. From the beginning the disciples baptised family units. Children and servants were baptised with the key family adults when they became Christians. The story of Cornelius the Roman officer, who summons Peter to explain who Jesus is, illustrates the point. Cornelius and his household were baptised [Acts 10: 47,48].
The Church has been baptising children and infants from the earliest times of the Church.
The baptism of a child is about the parents humbly acknowledging God, affirming their commitment to God to nurture this child and above all recognises the child’s new identity.  Zoe is a Christian child who will one day, pray God, accept the Christ Jesus as her Lord.
What happens in Baptism? Well there is the human response that we have largely been talking about. But let us now turn to the important aspect of God’s action in baptism.
Baptism is about God’s grace – God’s free and undeserved gift of love to us. Listen to the liturgical statement in the early part of the ceremony again.
Baptism is Christ’s gift.
It is the sign by which the Spirit of God
joins people to Jesus Christ
and incorporates them into his body, the Church.
In his own baptism in the Jordan by John,
Jesus identified himself with humanity in its brokenness and sin;
that baptism was completed in his death and resurrection.
By God’s grace, baptism plunges us into the faith of Jesus Christ, so that whatever is his may be called ours.
By water and the Spirit we are claimed as God’s own
and set free from the power of sin and death.
Thus, claimed by God we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit
that we may live as witnesses to Jesus Christ,
share his ministry in the world and grow to maturity,
awaiting with hope the day of our Lord Jesus. 
These are the promises of God expressed in formal liturgical language. This ceremony contains rich promises and refreshing gifts.
We can illustrate the gifts and promises of Baptism by imagining that a very rich Uncle of Zoe’s has handed a million dollar cheque and says that this is for her education and health. Wow, you think, this will be a great help. You’re overjoyed. You invite friends to share in your happiness. You place the cheque in a safe place. The busyness of life comes and you do nothing about the cheque. You don’t deposit it or act upon it. Time drags by and all the excitement of the moment becomes a distant memory. Indeed the benefit of the gift is lost because of your inaction. You recall the moment, the excitement later, and recognise that if you had acted appropriately things could be better, and may have been entirely different.  But you never used the gift. You never deposited it.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  19/06/2016

Synod 2016 Highlights

Synod 2016 Hi-Lights.
Proverbs 8: 22 – 31, 9: 5,6; Colossians 1: 15 – 20; John 1: 1 – 5
 “Peter Whitaker, Moderator, appointed by the Presbytery of Port Philip East and I live on Bun Wurrung country.” That’s how we had to introduce ourselves every time we got up to speak in the plenary session of Synod.  This year Synod agreed to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters’ request to acknowledge the 1st custodians of the land on which we live.  Our Church takes very seriously being an inclusive and multi-cultural church.
Our daily devotions were led insightfully and devotionally by the Rev. Eun-Deok (David) Kim, a Korean minister. Our recognition of our multi-cultural nature as a Church led to all Bible readings being read either in Korean, Samoan, Tongan or Chinese and in one instance a Korean woman read in Spanish. The English translations were on the screen.
Instead of a normal sermon, I thought I would share some of my insights and some of the key issues facing our Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania. It was a five-day synod for the states of Vic & Tas and the next one will be in eighteen months’ time.
One of the key marks of the Uniting Church is its stand on Justice.  We have a unit called JIM – Justice and International Mission. This is a well-resourced unit within the Synod Office that works to raise awareness and challenge the injustices in our nation and the world. The following resolutions were passed –
urging State Governments to ensure proper support for refugees.
high lighting the issue of Labour Trafficking and exploitation of overseas workers (Tongan workers receiving only $10 per week for fruit picking in Shepparton!).
urging governments to address alcohol related violence and the implementation of the NSW Government’s successful programme in this regard.
to tighten up Payday lending and Lease Contracts for Household goods.
ensuring that Medicare ( remains under public ownership.
requesting stricter controls on ‘Virtual Currencies’.
calling for a fairer taxation system that assists the most economically vulnerable.
calling on Federal Government to negotiate in good faith the Timor-L’ester Maritime Border dispute.
There were many more resolutions passed concerning aged care (UCA AgeWell), membership of committees and organisational structure.
Our main business was the Major Strategic Review (MSR) team’s proposal. Following the debacle of the Acacia College collapse the Synod resolved to undertake a review. A team has been working on this for three years. They produced a seventy-page document, a mission statement with identifiable core values and the process to establish a new structure that would serve the mission statement that reads –
Following Christ, walking together as 1st and 2nd Peoples,
seeking community, compassion and justice for all creation.
At least twelve hours over this 5-day Synod were spent on this matter alone. We met in groups of 12-15 people, in table-groups of 6 – 8, in the plenary session, with a team co-ordinating the responses and refining and defining the content of our discussions. Finally we arrived at a resolution to embark on the action to review our structures in the light of the mission statement and core values. The deadline is 2018.  By 2019 we hope to have a balanced budget for Synod and Presbyteries. We should not under estimate the fears and uncertainties of such a resolve. Some positions will go. There will be, hopefully, a major revision of our structures. And the Church stands to be better prepared to handle its current decline in membership and accommodate its smaller membership. In this discussion the concern for a balanced budget was ever present, not that the MSR promoted the changes on financial grounds.
Synod also had a mini lecture on the myth of sexual offenders. We were reminded that 90% of offenders of 6 – 17 year  old persons are family members or acquaintances of the victim. That is the victims know their perpetrators. It is not strangers that we must fear mostly but those we know and befriend. The reality of sexual offence against minors is that it has not diminished and is a serious cultural problem still to be resolved. The overall message is that we need to be vigilant – always vigilant.
An observation of mine concerning leadership in the UC, is that there is the number of very able young women in our Synod. And we have a parcel of significant young men offering leadership as well.
The Synod employed a ‘court jester’. The court jester in literature is the one that makes you laugh, but also tells the truth. The court jester tells the truth against our lies, the truth of our vulnerability, the truth of our pain and the truth of our love. Our court-jester was the Irish poet and theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama a Corrymeela Community leader. Words cannot capture his insights expressed with a strong Irish brogue in poetic form. He lifted our spirits, helped us laugh at ourselves and helped us see ourselves in our pain and struggle with God.
Pádraig led us into silence and silence followed other moments during Synod. They were brief – a minute or two. Silences became very important to the gathering. It made me reflect on our worship and fellowship time on a Sunday.  Sometimes the busyness of our Sunday gatherings is like the busyness of our lives. We need to stop and listen. We need to listen to God, others and ourselves. We need silence in our lives.
One of the delights of Synod was the half-hour theological reflection on four of the five days of Synod. Rev. Dr Sally Douglas led this reflection. She was energetic, enthusiastic and a very good communicator. She has recently completed a doctoral thesis on Woman-Wisdom that has been published.  She presented her learned insights arguing that Jesus was worshipped as Woman-Wisdom. We read this morning from Proverbs 8 where Wisdom is presented as a female and was present at the beginning of Creation. Wisdom is part of God. We read in our Bible that the character of Wisdom has a strong similarity with the words that describe Jesus. In fact, Jesus is closely associated with Wisdom in some of the extra-canonical literature – the writings that did not get into the OT and NT. There is no time today to present the argument. However Sally made two very important points. Firstly, it is clear that Jesus was seen as divine from the earliest of post-Crucifixion-Resurrection days.  Jesus was not seen merely as a man – a great teacher or social justice agent. He was worshipped and seen as a saviour in the same breath, so to speak, as God. The really stunning thing about this is that the first Christians, who were Jews who worshipped only one God, ended up speaking of Jesus and God in the same breath. [See Colossians 1: 15-20; Phil 2: 5 – 11] Secondly, Sally demonstrated quite convincingly that Jesus is seen through the lens of Woman-Wisdom.  Sally invited us to reflect on what this might mean for how we see God.
It is true to say that some folk found the teaching so new that they couldn’t make sense of it. It is also true that some simply dismissed it.  You know that I have spoken about the ‘femaleness’ of the Holy Spirit. You also know that I am reasonably acquainted with the literature of early Christianity, and some of you have become aware of it in our recent series on NT historical background. And you have seen some of the evidence for the recognition of Jesus as more than a man and as one-with-God.
I want to pause and share an insight I had while Sally was speaking. Early in my ministry at Leighmoor I preached a series on the Prodigal Son. I showed a copy of Rembrandt’s painting of the father receiving his prodigal son. I pointed out that Rembrandt had given the prodigal son’s father one female hand and one male hand. The insight that came to me is that to be fully human we need to incorporate the fullness of femaleness and maleness in our being. Scripture tells us that we have been created in the image of God, but we humans have ‘fallen’ from the image of God. Is it possible then that to be fully human we need to have both femaleness and maleness in our being?  I am not speaking of female and male sexuality.  Our age has sexualised our being human far too much. I am speaking of femaleness and maleness in the sense of incorporating holistically those characteristics of male and female as protector and nurturer respectively in the one person.  It would follow that if Jesus is fully human then he would both be our protector and our nurturer.  What I am seeing is that when considering who Jesus is, it is not too difficult to see that he represents our full humanity of both female and male.
In closing I will leave you with a quote from Julian of Norwich.  Julian was a 14th Century mystic who wrote on love. Our worship leader, David, used this quote on the last day of Synod.
The greatest honour we can give God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.
I invite you to reflect on this, or something else the Spirit may be saying to you, for a few moments.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  12/06/2016