Let’s hold in our minds for a few minutes the image in our newspapers and the internet over the last fortnight of those 21 Coptic Christians about to be beheaded on the beach. I want us to bring that frightening image today into conversation with todays gospel text:
It begins with Jesus questioning his followers ‘who do people say that I am?’ To which they reply ‘John the Baptizer’… ‘Elijah’ and ‘One of the prophets’. Then Jesus says ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And Peter replies, ‘You are the Messiah! (the coming King, the one who defeats the forces of evil in the world and brings in God’s reign of peace)’. That’s what Messiah meant.
And Jesus immediately and sternly tells them to be silent and not to tell anyone about him.
Interesting response! Why do you think Jesus is not interested in their publicity? Surely he would want people to know that he was the Messiah!
Perhaps the very next verse makes it clear. Verse 31:
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering… and be killed”.
He is a messiah who brings God’s reign, not through military victory but through suffering.
I am struck by the contrast between their Messianic hope… and Jesus own understanding of his calling and his future?
“He said all this quite openly.”
On the one hand he hushes up all talk of being Messiah. On the other hand he ‘quite openly’ talks of the suffering he is about to face.
And then he rebukes Peter in the strongest possible language:
“Get behind me Satan! For your mind is not on divine things but on human things”
Your messianic ideas are human rather divine.
Peter, who advocates for a violent divine response, a conquest; Peter is here the tempter (Satan). This kind of a Messiah… who takes on evil in the usual human way, with violence (fighting evil with evil) represents Jesus greatest temptation.
‘Then he called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”’
The ISIS publicity photograph with the men in orange about to be executed and the men behind with their faces hidden by black balaclavas had a subtitle (do you remember what it was?) ‘The People of the Cross’.
No doubt those who posted that picture on the internet, the PR branch of ISIS, think of the sign of the cross in terms of the crusaders with their swords or the Americans with their bombs
It’s a profound irony, presumably lost on the PR men, that the ‘people of the cross’ in that picture are the ones who look, not like crusaders or American soldiers, or New Zealand soldiers, but like Jesus… like Jesus who won his victory over evil, precisely by going to his public execution… like the guys in orange overalls… for them that was the victory
Can you see Jesus in that picture? Can you see God in that picture? I’m told that in the video of the execution, the Coptic Christians can be seen mouthing the words ‘Jesus Messiah’ and the words ‘Jesus is Lord’ – the words that the Christians challenged the Romans with in the first and second centuries.
Taking up the cross for them is not taking up arms (like the crusaders, or the Romans who carries banners with crosses on them). Taking up the cross is a moment in which they come face to face with the force of evil in the world and, in the name and way of Jesus, confront that evil with their suffering and even their death.
Jesus is at his clearest here.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life.”
”…to gain the whole world” … Even if the whole world is at stake… if the life of the kingdom is lost in the process, then the process is not Jesus’ process and those who undertake it are not followers of Jesus.
He couldn’t be clearer really. The life of the reign of God, has one point of access… and it’s not a violent revolution or a military conquest… it’s suffering, and possibly martyrdom.
Not because Jesus loves suffering. Not because Christianity somehow romanticises suffering. Simply because if you are to face evil without merely escalating and perpetuating the evil, you will have to be prepared to suffer and possibly die.
Lent is the time of year when we contemplate Jesus, the man who gave his life for others and ultimately for us. Why? Most deeply because his life was not his own to possess. As he received it constantly from his Father he gave it away to others.
‘Then he began to tell them that the Son of Man (true human) must undergo great suffering’
We are not just talking about any kind of suffering. The suffering Jesus is talking about is the price of social non-conformity – suffering at human hands, suffering in opposition to the evil powers in the world. So in confronting this world he gives his life into the hands of his Abba, into the silence … that’s the shocking thing, Abba is silent… but in trust and hope for Abba’s resurrection. In trust that love will be victorious in its own way.
In conclusion let us return to the political realities of our picture… And in this context I want to say just one thing. For us this morning in worship the question of what we as New Zealanders ought to do is not the first question. We are not first of all New Zealanders. At our baptism we are marked first of all as Christians. We are first of all followers of Jesus. Our duty is not first of all to John Key or any government, it is to Jesus Christ in whom God gives us our life and our identity.
I’m just back from a Consultation on Climate Change organised by the Council for World Mission (CWM) in Nadi, Fiji. Here’s a poem that came to me one stormy humid day in the splendid isolation of the Novotel Hotel.
Ordering gopher wood.
Till the will of God
Or the ancestors,
Like a wall of liquid sound,
Between the waters above
And the waters below
Only to sink
Beneath the coral soil
The jagged green hills
Steaming from every orifice
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Matthew 13:33-37
If we were to sum up our readings for this first Sunday in Advent, I would say they are about living with the end of the world and living on the brink of something new.
I wonder what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘on the brink’? Do you think of disaster? Do you think of base-jumping? Do you think of going through a door way to an unknown situation.
Our Psalm comes from the Exile…
Jerusalem, the past, the nation, all their ideas about God and their place in God’s purposes for the world… are in tatters. A world has ended. Its the end of the world.
It’s a bit like the crucifixion of Jesus. The future is lost… but the past too looks like nonsense… All that stuff they used to say and think about God. It looks like stupidity at the end of the world.
The Psalm is desperate:
Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.
This is the true meaning of Advent… Desperation. Waiting… but not like those sitting at a bus stop filling in time … like those at the end of the world. Living in exile from our past… trying to work out what to think about our future… singing our mournful ‘o come, o come, emmanuel’.
Lawrence Moore has, I think, described our exile and our advent situation most clearly. He writes:
“The Christian Church – at least in the hi-tech, consumerist west – has had its day. Its best years are in the past. The old answers no longer work. The gospel appears to have little or nothing to say that sounds as Good News to the increasing millions who have either had nothing to do with Christian faith or who have quite deliberately voted with their feet and left. A look at trends and statistics shows that Christian faith is something for old people, so that ministry appears increasingly to be about hospice care. People are turning not to Christianity, but to other faiths and spiritualities for answers. And those churches that buck the trends are increasingly simply the exceptions that prove the rule. Church has had its day. It is more and more a museum piece, showcasing a past that is bathed in the golden light of nostalgia. That is why people who come back to Church at significant times in their lives (births, marriages, deaths, national events) want Church to be church as they remember it.”
“We need to be realistic and work to kill off residual optimism. Unless we do, we will not take seriously enough the crisis we are in and will be unable to respond appropriately. I am not saying that there aren’t signs of hope. I am not saying that this is the story of every church. Yet, if we look beyond the immediate borders of our own localities, we cannot avoid the fact that there is a clear, alarming pattern. … However good our immediate situation may be, we do not and cannot live in glorious isolation from what is happening to the Christian Church more widely. Church as we know it – and spend huge amounts of money, time, commitment and energy on it – is dying. Whether it is right in the forefront of our consciousness or not, most of church life in the west is about survival. And that is not what we’re here for!”
Those are strong words… and yet I think he is right … even if no one wants to hear it. We are not here to survive. We are here to give ourselves away in mission and to pray with the Psalmist: Restore us Lord God of Hosts; let your face shine that we may be saved.
Jesus too is preaching at the end of the world. This is what we struggle grasp. And the main reason we struggle to grasp it is because we think he is referring to the end of the physical world … and of course 2000 years later we know that the physical world hasn’t ended. Jesus says this generation will not pass away before these things happened. That generation did pass away. So if he was talking about the physical world he must have been wrong… And that’s not a good look for the church.
But New Testament scholar N T Wright argues, rightly… I think, that although Jesus uses metaphors from what we call ‘apocalyptic literature’ about a physical end of the world and a judge who comes down from the sky… they are precisely that ‘metaphors’ for something else.
One thing I really hate is the idea that some people (fundamentalists for example) read the Bible literally while others don’t. No one reads the whole Bible literally. And no one reads the whole Bible non-literally (or metaphorically) either. It’s nonsense. Each part needs to be judged on its own merits depending on what the writer mean. So when Paul calls his the Christians at Corinth to love one another he is talking quite literally and we should understand it literally. When he asks them to bear one another’s burdens he is using a metaphor and it should be understood metaphorically.
Tom Wright says, when Jesus talks of cosmic disasters in the heavens he is using the metaphors of a particular tradition to dramatise the significance of the situation his disciples were facing… a situation which is for him and for them like the end of the world.
At the beginning of today’s chapter of Mark, Jesus is in the temple and the disciples are impressed by the grandeur of the temple building. Herod’s temple… built as a kind of Roman way of pleasing the Jews and a sign of their faith under Roman rule … a sign of their world … a world that Jesus finds so deeply frustrating… a people who have lost their way. …
And so Jesus replies to the oohs and aahs about the buildings with the comment. ‘Not one stone will be left upon another’. This is the context for understanding these metaphors. In other words, this world will end… ‘there will be wars and rumours of wars… we are entering a time of crisis… you will be persecuted. Jesus is being quite literal here. Jesus has a very specific end of the world in mind and its not the physical universe. But in verse 24 (at the beginning of todays reading) he changes gear into ‘apocalyptic poetry’ about the sun darkening signs in the heavens and a ‘Son of Man coming in clouds’ is a dramatic way of saying that the powers of the social world are unravelling… and God will act. Talk of “gathering his elect from the four winds” is the language of hope… but, again not literally referring to four winds. We know that… and Tom Wright argues… so did Jesus.
So what is Jesus saying that might be relevant to us today … when a certain kind of world is also ending for us.
(1) “The end is nigh”… In some ways I think it would be easier for us all if there were some kind of catastrophe to mark the end of Christendom for us… but I suspect not… church in 20 year’s time will continue to be tolerated as a curious habit for certain groups of consenting adults… whether it be little groups of people singing the same old hymns and doing the same old things. Like what Moore describes as a sort of ‘Christian train spotters” society … or on the other hand whether it be large commercial mega-churches who have perfected their advertising techniques and designed the perfect ‘buzz experience’ for each new generation of young people. In other words church will fade away with no one noticing that the groups that still call themselves church no longer have much to do with what Jesus was on about, no longer look much like Jesus. They will be, if they are not already, just another product on the entertainment market. There is a way of being church, which is our equivalent of the Jerusalem Temple with its large stones. And I think Jesus would invite us to see the writing on the wall. Many of us have known this in our bones for some time now.
(2) don’t cling to the current situation … Jesus is saying to his disciples, there will be a regathering ‘from the four winds’, so don’t look back… the whole world you now know will crumble… ‘heaven and earth will pass away’ so to speak…. but God’s work in the world is bigger than all of that… bigger than the familiar old church that you know, the familiar old way of worship, the familiar old minister you listen to on Sunday morning. For us I think that means… God’s work is bigger than the powerful old church of Christendom at the centre of society with public authority. It’s time to let go of that world. v20 Jesus says, ‘And if anyone says to you at the time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah! or Look! There he is!’ – do not believe it.’ Prophet’s will come claiming to be the Messiah with the solution to restore this world to you… to bring all the young people back to church (perhaps). The Temple had became a sign of the failure of the people of God in Jesus time – a religious industry – Jesus staged a protest throwing out the money changers. In the same way the powerful church, in our time must like Jesus abandon itself to live in solidarity with the poor and needy and marginal of our world. When the church becomes a powerful institution focussed on its own growth and self-preservation – a religious industry – it has begun to lose its way. The end is nigh.
(3) And here’s the third thing Jesus is saying. Watch! v28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near”. That’s the point… in spite of all the loss and devastation… ‘Summer is near!’
Three things: (1) The world of Christendom is ending. (2) Stop clinging to the past. (3) Watch and be alert. Temples and church’s will pass away, but God has not, and will not abandon the way of Jesus Christ. The future of Jesus Christ will come and catch us by surprise if we are not alert to it.
I recently wrote a paper on the theology of marriage and concluded with my own variation on the Serenity Prayer. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall reading such things but don’t know where, so it may be that this is not original and I am channeling a distant memory. But I reckon this is a definite improvement.
God, grant us the serenity
To accept the things we cannot change
The courage to change the things we can
and the wisdom to know that we probably don’t know the difference
And that you are, nevertheless, not limited by our incapacity.
Preached at Coastal Unity Parish on the Feast of Christ the King, 2014
Matthew 25: 31-46
Jesus paints fascinating pictures. Pictures of a world about to be interupted, about to be shown up and caught by surprise. In this section of Matthew he talks about bridesmaids who are caught unprepared. He then talks about those who hide their resources in the ground rather than using them for the kingdom. And today he paints this grand image of the King’s judgment. We call it ‘The Sheep and the Goats’ – and I don’t know about you but that phrase still sends a shiver up my spine.
If there is a common background to all of these stories I think it is Jesus’ profound sense that we are called to action and to constantly expect the arrival of God’s kingdom at any moment. However long it might be till all is revealed and judged and healed. And we never know how long it will be! But however long it might be we are told not to settle … for the long haul but to live in a less than settled manner, anticipating the surprise of God’s arrival.
And so the nations of the world are gathered before the King, as Jesus tells the story. For his Jewish audience of the time, I suspect many of them felt pretty good about that idea. The word for ‘nations’ (ethne) is the same word we sometimes translate as Gentiles. This is the judgment of the Gentiles. Jews breathe a sigh of relief… perhaps… at least until they learn how the king goes about making his judgement and populating his kingdom
In the forefront of the grand scene is the Son of Man – some translators choose the simpler translation, the true human, or even just ‘the human being’… the Human Being, who is also the King of the whole world with ultimate authority, separates out the nations one from another… Sheep, goat, sheep, goat… like a farmer in the yards drafting.
Some are fit for the kingdom of God and others are not… Literally, and I stress this is the simplest literal translation, some are destined for a ‘period of life’ and others for a ‘period of correction’. There are two important words here that have often been translated overdramatically. Firstly the word ‘aionios’ is sometimes translated ‘eternal’ but basically means ‘a period of time’ – it can be a long period of time – but a period of time is the simple translation. Secondly the word often translated ‘punishment’ is better translated ‘correction’. The Greeks had another word ‘timoria’ which Matthew could have used and which specifically meant punishment – but he didn’t. The word used here ‘kolasis’ means correction or even rehabilitation – it’s a gardening term originally used for pruning trees.
So lets be clear about his great picture of judgment… the gentiles are gathered so that the truth might be known… who has been made fit for the reign of God (for a period of life) and who needs a period of rehabilitation.
So now that we have that out of the way… let’s ask the big question… Where is God in this story? The last few Sundays we have been asking this question. We found God sending people out into risky situations in vulnerability. We found God at work in villages opening doors and setting tables. We found God throwing feasts… and calling us to throw feasts. And now we find God in two places. Where?
Two places: God is judging. God is the judge – telling the truth to those who can’t tell it to themselves.
Listen to the surprise of both the sheep and the goats. We didn’t see you Lord? When were you in prison and we visited you? When were you sick and we cared for you? Both the sheep and the goats are ignorant of God’s place in the world. They cannot imagine the King of all the world in such a place. They need this moment of revelation. God’s judgment tells us something surprising. It tells us the criteria by which we are judged and it tells us where God is in the world .
God is not simply the judge in this story. We also see God in all sorts of places (similar places perhaps)… God is the stranger, God is starving, God is thirsty, God is in prison, God is naked. If you are looking for God… look no further than the most vulnerable member of your community. The nations of the world have God’s of all kinds… but their God’s have this in common. They are not to be found among the destitute and the naked, among the trash of humanity, among the enemies of the state in their prisons.
In this vision the judge of all the earth is himself the victim of all the earth. The nations are judged by their victims.
In this vision the True Human… who judges us all… is not just a God who is theoretically in favour of the hard done by… not just a distant philanthropist. He is one who in his flesh and blood, gets naked with the naked, is imprisoned with the prisoners, is thirsty with the thirsty, and a stranger in his own country hanging out with its outsiders, with its immigrant community.
This is a God not holding onto property rights on Godness… who moves out of his rights and towards the least… who gives himself with complete abandon to those in need… and whose ripped open body on a Roman cross sends up a cry of protest against the world.
And those who enter his kingdom, whether they know it or not… are his followers. They too move out from their upward mobility and visit the prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and provide hospitality for the strangers and refugees.
If you want to get political… you just need to remember that this is the judgment of the nations (not just individuals). Nations are being divided one from another on the basis of how they have responded to their most vulnerable. Nations will be judged not on how they have encouraged their citizens to be upwardly mobile out of poverty, but on how they have created solidarity among citizens (even downward mobility) that reflects Jesus self-abandonment for the sake of his weaker neighbours.
Its not just that the rich are being encouraged to look after the poor… but even the poor are called to follow Jesus towards the poor, the sick to care for the sick, prisoners to visit other prisoners. It’s not just a redistribution of resources its a way of being human. All of us need it if we are to be part of God’s reign.
Our downwardly mobile God, stands in judgement on us both as upwardly mobile individuals and nations. This truly human judge who has abandoned himself for our sake… comes says Jesus to surprise the world… both those who know and those outsiders, those gentiles who don’t know … and to surprise us all with the truth that God has been ahead of us all along… living amongst the victims of our society and that’s where we will continue to find God.
That’s the problem with reading this story and taking it seriously as God’s word to us today. We can no longer plead ignorance. We are being given eyes to see God and we have been given a way to walk to eternal life.
Thanks be to God.
Hi everyone… I’m just back from five days in a strange country. It goes by the title of the General Assembly of the PCANZ. Now I need to write about it in order to move on. Otherwise it will possess me.
Some of the nicest people I know are New Zealand Presbyterians. And spending five days with them is always a delight. There was probably more celebration than anything else. It was richly multicultural with a deep bicultural vein running through it all. Our leader (moderator) for this particular jaunt was the passionate and poetic Andrew Norton. Music was a delight – lifting the roof on several occasions. One particularly spine tingling performance by a Auckland Chinese choir of a piece called Lord Have Mercy will stay with me for a long time.
The Keynote Speaker was Steve Taylor. He was the other highlight of the gathering for me. Both his insights and his means of communicating were equally memorable. His theme was “Hospitality: Your Place or Mine?” He reflected on receiving hospitality at “their place” based in the sending of the 72 In Luke 10 and then on hospitality at “our place” based on Luke 14 and “throwing feasts” and finally on Luke 19, Jesus constant cross-cultural engagement, drawing on the short movie “The lost thing”
And yet the contrast between the celebration/keynote addresses and the debate couldn’t have been more extreme – from the sublime to the ridiculous at times. The subjects up for debate varied widely from internal ecclesiastical matters to broader socio-political matters. If you were there and I miss out something you feel was important, please don’t be offended. These are just the things that stick in my memory.
I will summarise some of the more internal decisions that I can recall:
- We agreed to allow congregations (north of the Waitaki) to upgrade their buildings to 34% rather than 67% of NBS
- We agreed to a system which will to free up some of the significant wealth of the PCANZ tied up in buildings for mission projects (Who could disagree with this?)
- We declared ourselves a “cross-cultural church” (What else could we be with a gospel of “reconciliation”?)
- We agreed to change the model for representation at the General Assembly to one based more on the individual members within a Presbytery rather than on congregations. (This seems to be inconsistent with the idea that the congregation is the fundamental unit of our mission and that membership is first of all in a congregation and only secondly in the PCANZ, therefore not transferable. There may well be an issue for further theological reflection here.
Turning to some of the broader issues we addressed:
- Mr Paul Barber moved that “the GA call on political leaders to commit to active initiatives to promote peace through non-violent conflict resolution and to oppose armed conflict.” The motion was lost.
- Dr Glen Pettigrove gave an inspiring presentation in support of including the Belhar Confession (a significant reformed confessional statement arising out of the struggle against Apartheid and prophetically addressing issues of racism) in the list of authoritative statements of our reformed heritage. The motion was lost. (I heard two arguments in opposition i. this statement could potentially used to support the cause of homosexuals ii. this statement comes from a different context … (i.e. Like all such statements on our list)). For me this was truly the low point of Assembly. The thought that we could reject Belhar for these reasons makes me want to walk away from the PCANZ.
- Rev Dr Bruce Hamill and Rev Anne Thompson presented a proposal to (among other things) request Presbyterian investors and members to divest from the fossil fuel industry (from i. Coal, Oil or Gas Companies listed on the NZ Stock Exchange who’s main business is the extraction and/or production of fossil fuels and ii. the 100 largest global coal companies and the 100 largest oil and gas companies.) The Assembly agreed. This was the high point of the assembly for me.
- Rev Hamish Galloway, in one of two moments when he showed significant and impressive leadership, moved that the group of motions on sexuality, leadership and marriage be addressed by a special commission rather than debate at Assembly. The motion was lost and I added my name to the dissenters.
- A motion in the name of Penelope Stevenson, to uphold a minister’s “freedom of conscience” in relation to officiating at any marriage was withdrawn. I have no idea why this happened and would have liked to know. In anticipation I had prepared the following little speech to offer, but the opportunity never arose:
“Moderator, I support this motion. And in so doing I want to say something about the difference between an evangelical church and a legalistic one (because I believe this debate touches on the heart of what it means to be church). An evangelical church is founded on and defined by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a church has rules… But these rules are merely for the purpose of good order. They are not and ought not be absolute. They are not of the substance of the reformed faith. There must always be room for freedom of conscience and the possibility of conscientious objection to these rules and to any statement the church makes which is not a confession of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If these rules and statements, which are not our confession of the gospel become absolute in this sense,then we have become a legalistic church. If you want to remain an evangelical church and not merely a club, I urge you to support this motion”
- Mr Paul Barber moved a motion to affirm the leadership of “people in gay, lesbian, bisexual, or de facto relationships or in Civil Unions”. Early in this debate Rev Hamish Galloway gave a powerful speech neither supporting nor opposing the motion. He spoke however about the wrongness of this mode of discernment and addressing these issues. He announced that he was putting down his voting cards and leaving the Assembly for the observation gallery. I and 1/3 of commissioners joined him there. Leaving just 200 still debating. There was considerable emotion and the Moderator himself was visibly distressed.
- Three motions to ensure that Ministers “may only solemnise a marriage for the union of a man and a woman” (via special legislative procedure, adopted ad interim) were then presented by Rev Stuart Lange and Rev Martin Macaulay. The word “solemnise” was introduced as a legal term referring to what a state approved celebrant does. During this debate I decided, with some hesitation to return to the floor. However, the moderator was keeping debate to a minimum and I did not have the opportunity to offer the following short speech:
“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is no male and female” (Gal 3:28). Not even the great complementarity of male and female defines the new world of life in the body of Christ. What there is according to the writer to the Ephesians is a practice called marriage which signifies the mystery of Christ’s relationship to the church. (Eph 5:32)… Both a witness to Gods love and a practice in which we learn to love, in all the intimacy of our bodily existence, our nearest neighbour. I oppose this motion because I do not want to deprive homosexual people of the opportunity to share in this witness, this asceticism, this practice in holiness and hope. Jesus made the reform of a range of institutions into an art form. I believe he is calling us to reform our understanding and practice of marriage, not to set it in ecclesiastical concrete. I urge this assembly to remember the spacious love of Christ.”
And so it all ended on Tuesday afternoon with many of us exhausted and semi-depressed (as usual) in spite of all the celebrations and energy with which it all began