November 26, 2022

Going where you are Looking 07-08-2016

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

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

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

A Gift Received: A Gift Given 17-07-2016

A Gift Received: A Gift Given
to receive God’s gift is to pass on God’s gift
1 Samuel 1: 1a, 2 – 28.
God’s gifts are to be passed on. They are to be shared until others have as much of the gift as we do. They may even have more of God’s gifts than us in the end.
This is completely opposite to what we commonly understand about gift giving. You give me a gift and it is mine to do what I wish with it. What is given to me is mine. I might let you share it, but it is to come back to me. The gift received is a gift possessed.  A child loves to receive a gift. They reflect our natural instinct. ‘What is mine is mine’, they say.  Nevertheless we encourage them to share.  We encourage them to give. When we analyse our gift giving we realise that it comes very close to being an exchange of similar priced goods. When we receive a gift we feel obliged to return a gift.  But it is not the same gift. It is same only in proportion to the one received. A larger gift might embarrass our friend. This gift-giving thing is problematic. It’s not wrong,  just problematic. We find it hard to accept another’s gift without wanting to do something in return. So on the one hand we treat gifts as ours to keep and do what we like with it, and on the other hand, we find it hard to receive a gift. 
The subtle and fundamental difference is that God gives us gifts that we cannot reciprocate with any equality. All God asks of us is to pass the gift on. God wants us to receive the gift and give the gift to others that they might benefit from it as well.  As much as our wisdom indicates that it is better to give than receive, we are very good at ensuring others don’t just give but receive back as well. I wonder if we don’t need to learn a little more about just receiving gifts?  But let us press the pause button on these musings and turn to our story.
She left him there for the LORD. [1 Sam 1: 28]  How moving is that? She, Hannah, left him there for the LORD.  Yes, it is Hannah who leaves her newly weaned child in the sanctuary with Eli the priest. This is Hannah’s first born. This is Hannah’s first child after years of being childless.  God’s gift to her of a child she gives back to God.  Of course she had promised that. She is keeping her side of the bargain. This must astound us. Would we do that?
Let’s us remind ourselves of the story again. Hannah is one of two wives of Elkanah. She is much loved by Elkanah, but is childless. Now for a woman to be childless in those days was a great shame. It lowered her status. A woman in our Western world up until the 19th Century would have had a diminished status outside her father’s or husband’s status and the children she bore. Certainly for the landowners having a son was essential, otherwise the property would go outside the family. How much more in ancient times, as in some parts of the world right now, did a woman’s status depend on her being married with children? Hannah is childless. Naturally the ancient text blames her – the Lord has closed her womb [v.6]. They knew nothing about the importance of the sperm’s motility or the timing of impregnation.  It was not a man’s fault but a woman’s fault that she was barren. But the story has a certain charm. Elkanah says to his disappointed and saddened Hannah, “am I not more to you than ten sons?” [v.8] Elkanah loves Hannah as his double portion given to her to sacrifice at the Shiloh sanctuary indicates.  Hannah does not lack her husband’s affection. She lacks the one thing that gives her status and dignity – a child and in particular a son.  As a childless wife she has little worth in the eyes of her society.
Hannah carries her suffering to God. She bargains with God. ‘Please give me a son and I will dedicate him solely to you’, she bargains with God. [v.11] This bargaining with God is not uncommon in the Bible. We find Jacob, Abraham and Moses bargaining with God. It is not uncommon with us. Who of us has not asked for something and offered something in return to God. We’ve used the language of ‘if you give me this I will do that’.  Bargaining with God is neither right nor wrong. It is part of the spiritual journey with God. It reflects our desperation and helplessness in the face of great adversity. It reflects the graciousness of God who journeys with us, leading us into God’s future.  To bargain with God is not the problem. The problem lies with our integrity with which we approach such bargaining. The wrestling with God is a legitimate part of the spiritual life. The wrestling and the argument with God is what helps us grow in our understanding of self and God. The problem with our wrestling with God is that we are so one sided in how we see things, and so unclear about the nature of God. By all means wrestle with God, but don’t rush to conclusions. Take time to take counsel with those who have gone before you.
Take Hannah’s example. She enters the sanctuary. She did not absent herself. She knelt and prayed. Her prayers were formed out of her deep pain, embarrassment and sense of loss. She was a loved woman, but in the eyes of her society she was worthless – a barren woman. She couldn’t really articulate her prayers. We never can when we pray out of deep despair.  So she moves her mouth but the words do not come out – at least not sensibly.
She is misunderstood by Eli, the head priest at the sanctuary. He misreads the situation. He interprets her inarticulate mumblings as a sign of drunkenness. Hannah rightfully protests her innocence. “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.  16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”  Eli in hearing her story blesses her. [vv. 12-18]
When we listen to each other’s pain we often stop at sympathising with the other. In sympathising we reiterate the situation. That is helpful only to a point. It is the blessing that is important. If we conclude, as Eli did, with God’s blessing and offer our prayers, which we will undertake on their behalf, the person will feel supported and encouraged. Sympathy is good, but not good enough.
Eli’s blessing transforms the situation. Hannah went away in a better frame of mind. She went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer. [v. 18]  Hannah had the priest’s blessing. What’s important is the part the blessing plays in Hannah’s situation, not the psychology of it. We see in this story that our ministry to others involves our blessing. And we have a right and a responsibility to bless others in God’s name. Ironically we may curse others by our silence and the withholding of God’s blessing. To say to someone, ‘God bless you’, is a gift to the other.
Hannah bears a son. What joy! She does not return to Shiloh for four years. I say four years because that seems to be the normal period it took to wean a child in those days. It was far healthier to breast feed into third and fourth year of a child’s life in those days. 
So from her breast she takes her son and gives him to God and into the care of Eli. When she had weaned him, … . She brought him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh; and the child was young. 26 And she said, “Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the LORD.  27 For this child I prayed; and the LORD has granted me the petition that I made to him.  28 Therefore I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD.” 
This story of Hannah is the beginning of the greater story of God’s great priest-prophet, Samuel, who guided God’s people and anointed the first kings of Israel. The great prophet-priest had a great mother. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had learnt the profound truth that to receive God’s gift is to pass on God’s gift to others.  God who is the creator of all things and the giver of all things gives to us blessings and gifts, which we are to return to God by sharing those gifts with others.. The underlying truth is that this world is not ours, but God’s. This world is not ours to take for our pleasure, but to use for the glory of God. If we could only live, even a little by this, we would be a much a richer community – a much a richer nation.
When Hannah gave her son, Samuel, she gave the nation of Israel one of its greatest prophet-priests. She gave God’s gift to her to the people – to the people of Israel and to us. Samuel is part of our story too. Hannah is remembered because she passed God’s gift to her on to others.
What are we doing with the gifts God has given us?  Are you a little too nervous to ask God for God’s gifts, because you don’t really want to share them?  No matter how small God’s gift to you is, once shared it will be a blessing to others.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  17/07/2016

The Urgency 03-07-2016

The Urgency.
2 Kings 5: 1 – 14;  Luke 10: 1 – 20
A father tells the story of how his teenage son had become seriously ill. For weeks he had been going to doctors and a specialist, all of whom had been puzzled by his symptoms. Finally he is recommended to senior specialist who put an end to the speculation. ‘Take him to the hospital at once,’ he said. ‘We’ll operate tomorrow.’ The specialist had discovered a brain tumour, which was removed with great skill and without lasting damage. Had they waited much longer it might have been too late.
Something of that mood hangs over Jesus’ sending out on a mission 35 pairs of disciples. The sense of urgency bleeds through the sentences.  Talk of a plentiful harvest and a few workers heightens the urgency to gather the harvest in before it is to late. The imagery of lambs and wolves conveys the potential danger. The travelling light and the purposeful journey suggests there is no time to waste. The simple and decisive instructions to stay in one house instead of wasting time changing hosts leaves little doubt that the mission must be undertaken effectively and efficiently. The situation for the people is filled with risk. The warning is dire. This passage percolates with urgency.  Jesus has instructed his disciples to give the message and the warning so that people can be saved from a terrible disaster.
We will no doubt feel uncomfortable with this passage. The lectionary editors left out the uncomfortable verses 12 – 15 about judgement. It is not surprising.  The lectionary editors do that kind of thing. I think they are motivated by a desire to domesticate the Bible. They like to portray the picture of a ‘loving God’. It is not the first time I have come across the lectionary editors sanitising the Scriptures – leaving out the hard bits. This is one of the reasons why I sit loosely with the lectionary. I think the lectionary editors left out the verses about judgement because they believed people shouldn’t be frightened into following Jesus.  I contend that they have missed the point of this passage.
What is Jesus thinking about when he says to the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum that unless they change their ways they will suffer? Generally speaking Jesus doesn’t frighten people into following him. Mostly we see Jesus gently confronting, firmly shepherding, lovingly listening and pastorally responding to us at our point of need. So what is this bit about judgement and its frightening warning?
To understand this account of the mission of the 70 disciples we need to rewind the story. Jesus came at a time when the people of Galilee and Judaea were looking for God’s Christ. They assumed that the Christ would be a great military king like King David, who would bring justice. They wanted the justice that would right the wrong and let the Jewish people rule themselves. Not surprisingly there were people who claimed to be the Christ – God’s king who precisely followed the script of military revolt.  However Jesus comes as God’s King and is a different kind of King. He comes and includes the Samaritans using a Samaritan traveller as the example of God’s most important law – ‘love your neighbour / enemy’.  Jesus comes to Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the symbol of peace, not a warhorse.  Jesus comes and dies sacrificially for the people.  This is the type of king Jesus is. He is totally counter to the general view that God’s king would be a military commander.
Now just before Jesus sent out 35 pairs of disciples Jesus had asked his disciples who he was. He was near Caesarea Philippi [Mk 8: 22-31]. [Look at a map of Galilee] Now Caesarea Philippi was about 30 kms from the three small towns of Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin that nestled at the northern end of Lake Galilee. Mark tells us that Jesus ministered in this area.  Jesus knew that his fellow Jews were restless and agitating for a revolution against the Romans. They wanted to correct Samaritans beliefs about God. They wanted punitive justice. They wanted to punish the Samarians for the wrong way they worshipped God and to throw out the Romans. They didn’t want peace – they wanted justice and believed military force would provide it. This wasn’t Jesus’ way. Where they wanted justice to get peace, Jesus said peace gets true justice. Jesus could see that a military uprising against Rome would not work.  Jesus knew that any uprising against the Romans would be ultimately brutally stopped. Jesus’ comment about ‘fire coming down from heaven’ is not meant to be taken literally but as a metaphor as to what would happen. Indeed some 35 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus there was a significant uprising in 66 – 73 CE/AD. Initially it was quite successful.  The Jewish rebel forces crushed the Roman Syrian army and massacred 6000 Romans. This shocked the Roman leadership, who sent in Vespasian with four legions and auxiliary troops. They crushed the rebels in Galilee – that’s where Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were – and destroyed Jerusalem and theTemple. 
The most reasonable interpretation of the 70 missioners in Galilee was this deep and urgent concern of Jesus regarding the possible outcome of military revolt. Yes, they were proclaiming that the Messiah had come, but they were also showing a new way of being faithful to God. Hence his disciples were to go with a message of peace. Jesus’ foresight was justified as history proved. So the urgency and the imagery of judgement is not about getting people into heaven, but about getting people to see that God’s way brings a lasting peace for all. As I have repeatedly said, Jesus’ peace brings true justice. By the year 316 CE the Roman Empire took Christianity as its main religion. It was a battle that Christians won not by military might but by the power of love. You see justice doesn’t bring peace, but peace brings justice. 
Of course this understanding of this text has immediate relevancy to the way the Coalition of the Willing entered Iraq. But what else can be learned from this text for us today? The themes of urgency, danger, purposeful and effective ministry seethe through this mission. We can identify the following points of relevancy for us today.
There is one team divided into smaller teams and it is about teamwork – not individuals – in ministry. It is also about ordinary people, not specialists working together.
The resources are limited – a few will do much. It is the Gideon principle.
They are to travel lightly, untrammelled by many acquisitions. Is there a message in this for us?
There is danger. As I have said before, Christianity faces the persistent opposition of atheistic secularism that wants to marginalise religion in the Western World.
The key is peace.  Where there is peace there will be peace. Where there is a will for peace there will be justice. But many don’t want peace. They want a justice that enforces the right and punishes the wrong doer. They want justice without forgiveness and reconciliation. We see this in our world and society.
To stay in one house is to concentrate on the task not a side agenda. Don’t waste time and get distracted from your ministry and mission.
Spelling out consequences is part of Christian mission. Stating clearly what you see as the implications of one’s actions is a necessary part of ministry and mission.
The Sender, Christ Jesus, encourages us and gives us the power to act and a vision to guide us.
The 70 missionaries were amazed! They saw people change. They saw the power of God overcome the power of evil.  They were encouraged by Christ Jesus’ belief in them.
But Christ Jesus adds a further word of wisdom.  Don’t rejoice in the achievements, but in the fact that you are God’s partners.  Why? Well so often I have heard Christians talk about their ministry. It isn’t their ministry. It’s God’s ministry. It is the work of God the Holy Spirit and it is the power of the name of Christ Jesus that brings success. I have heard Christians carelessly talk about healing people, or leading people to God – I slip into that careless language myself. It is not our accomplishment. It is God’s accomplishment. Christ Jesus says to us; “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  What we must rejoice in is that we have been made partners of God and we are on God’s team.  We rejoice in our membership of the Body of Christ Jesus and that Christ Jesus knows us.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  03/07/2016

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