Saturday, 22 April 2017

Living on the first day of the week

This week an interesting question has been raised within our Australian context, what are Australian
values?  The moment the question was asked the debates began about what Australian values might be and whether trying to define them was opening the door to racism.  As interesting as this debate may be for us trumping that insular kind of nationalistic question the gospel that we read today asks a more pressing question to us as Christians.

The question that comes to us today from the gospel of John is as simple and as complex as this, “Are you living on the first day of the week?”

“Are you living on the first day of the week?”

In John’s gospel we are told that the disciples were gathered in a locked room on the first day of the week.  Now the first day of the week is Sunday.  It is the day of resurrection.

Many of us tend to think of Monday as the first day of the week but in the Scriptures the first day of the week is Sunday.  Sunday is the first day of the week: it is the day of resurrection, the day Jesus first appeared to his disciples.

As Christian people we do not celebrate our faith and rest in God’s presence on the Sabbath, which is the last day of the week, the seventh day – Saturday.  No, we celebrate our faith on the first day of the week, on the day that Jesus rose from among the dead.  The first day of the week!  The first day of the new creation. So the question for us as Christians takes us beyond our nationalistic interests and into a deep existential question: Are you living on the first day of the week?  This is the first day of the new creation.

It is true to say that those disciples in that locked room were not yet there.  Though they were living, as we all do, in the context of the first day of the week – but they were not yet really alive.  They were not yet able to accept the news that they had received that Jesus was really risen from among the dead.

They were on the first day of the week but they were not yet really alive to the first day of the week.  It was not until Jesus came and stood among them and declared God’s peace, “shalom”, that they began to wake up to their new reality – it was in Jesus presence that they came to realise they were living on the first day of the week, that they were living in the now of the new creation.

In this new reality of Jesus’ resurrection there were implications for what it meant for them to be alive, to live as resurrection people.  I want us to reflect on three of these implications – three principles of being people who live of the first day of the week.

The first of these principles is that they were to be a people of peace.  When Jesus comes and says ‘shalom’ Jesus is declaring the ‘shalom’ of God, just as the high priest would have done on the day of Yom Kippur, the festival of atonement.

Jesus was saying to the disciples, and to us, that as people who live on the first day of the week we have been reconciled with God.  God has established mercy and peace and forgiveness.  This act of God is at the heart of the community of life in this new creation.   God’s way is a way of peace which reconciles us not only with God but with each other for often our failures to live in the light of God’s love are failures to live loving one another.

If we are to be people who live on the first day of the week, who are recipients of this declaration of God’s peace, we are called to be peacemakers.  In our relationships with family and friends, in our connections with people that we find difficult to get along with, and with the people who have wronged us personally we are to be peace makers.

So often, as humanity, our behaviour is the opposite of this, we are war mongers and power seekers.  As we listen to the news and hear the sabre rattling of world leaders, as we see the conflicts unfold around the world we see anything but peace.  God’s response to the violence of human beings, of the powers and authorities, is not more violence but in Jesus to accept the way of the cross.  The resurrection and the declaration of God’s ‘shalom’ speak to us and remind us that the violence and death we would perpetrate against one another, and God in Jesus, is not the last word.

To live on the first day of the week is to live as people who know this peace and share this peace of God by how we live.

This brings me to the second principle of living as people of the resurrection on the first day of the week.  Jesus breathes the Spirit on the disciples and says to them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

In the past this passage has been associated with the power of the confessional and the right of those who sit in the apostolic succession to absolve or condemn the sins of individuals.  However, forgiveness and mercy are ultimately God’s domain. So what does this mean? What is Jesus naming here when he gives this authority to the disciples?

For me the power of forgiveness or the refusal of forgiveness fundamentally shapes our lives.  When we forgive others and find reconciliation life and relationships can be rekindled, but when forgiveness is withheld or not accepted the consequences can be drastic and dire.

On a personal level when we fail to accept forgiveness we can carry feelings of guilt and anxiety and depression that make us feel worthless.  And when we fail to forgive others we carry grudges of pain and hurt sometimes through the decades as we harbour ill feelings about a long past hurt or incident.  Community is lost and love goes missing.  If you retain the sins of any they are retained.

Just as this impacts on a personal level we see the same to be true of communities and ethnic groups and races and nations.  Hurt and hate develops into war and violence.

Let us not be naïve.  Forgiveness is not an easy business.  The cost of God’s shalom is seen in Jesus death. Remember his word from the cross, “Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing.”  Our inability to accept this forgiveness and to forgive others destroys the peace that God declares in Jesus’ resurrection.

To live as people on the first day of the week is to live as forgiven and forgiving people.  When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he taught them to say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  This is a fundamental principle to live by if we are to live as resurrection people.

So, if we are living on the first day of the week we are people grounded in and shaped by God’s shalom, God’s peace, and by the knowledge we are forgiven and that we are called to forgive others.

I want to skip through to the end of the passage to after the declaration of Thomas which affirms another truth of living as people on the first day.  Thomas declaration is that we who live as people on the first day recognise Jesus properly as “my Lord and my God”.

With this in mind it is the last statement of the passage which informs the third principle I want to elucidate for living as people on the first day of the week.  “Through believing you may have life in his name.”  As people of the resurrection we live life in his name, in Jesus’ name.

The words of Peter's letter are helpful to us here as he reminds the people that they are people of new birth who have a living hope.  As the disciples are awakened from their state of denial and ignorance and doubt to belief in Jesus’ resurrection they are transformed.  Jesus breathes the Spirit on them and they are born from above. It is what Nicodemus had been told by Jesus in the 3rd chapter of John’s gospel.

Something fundamental has changed in their relationship with God and the disciples’ become aware of this new reality in their own lives.  Their life is to be define by the peace and forgiveness of God and how that changes their view of the world.  In living life in Jesus’ name the disciples are invited to encounter the outcome of their faith within this life, just as Peter will later write in his letter. The salvation of their souls and ours is not something to wait for but is to be encountered now – just as Jesus prayed, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

So, this is the third principle of living as people on the first day – to live life in Jesus’ name experiencing and celebrating the faith and salvation we are already encountering.

The question the gospel is asking is an important one, “Are you living as people on the first day of the week?”  This is more than a choice to live by a set of values but is an invitation to live in the light of the resurrection of Jesus.  We might wonder about how good or bad Australian values are, depending on who defines them and how, but for us as Christians the question that should occupy our thinking is not a question of which Australian values we choose to live by but whether or not we will live as resurrection people.  Do we live as people who know God’s peace, people who are forgiven and who are forgiving, and people that through new birth live our life in the name of Jesus and even more interestingly in Jesus.

Just as the disciples were woken to this reality so too this good news is before us – Jesus is risen, God’s peace is declared, his Spirit is breathed on us, we are forgiven and we are invited to living life in his name.

Are you living on the first day of the week?  It is the day of the resurrection.  It is the first day of the new creation.  It is the day on which we celebrate.  Christ is among us in the locked rooms of our hearts and minds, let us believe and celebrate with the disciples our resurrection life and with Thomas declare our faith in the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday: Leaning In

For those of us who have gathered around the table this night we already have a sense of Jesus importance in our own lives.  All of us here have an understanding that Jesus life has made a difference and that by gathering tonight we seek to transport ourselves back to that moment when Jesus shared the last supper with his disciples.  We do so not simply as an act of remembrance but as a way of personally connecting with the resurrected and living Lord.  We pray that through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus becomes present to us as we share.  His presence comes close.

So we contemplate this story tonight, this story we know so well, I want to focus on one aspect of the story, one scene.   The part of the story that I want us to hone in on is the moment that the disciple whom Jesus loved asks the question, “Lord, who is it?”

To set the scene.  Jesus has already washed the disciples’ feet.  We have seen Peter indicate that he is unsure why this is occurring.  Peter doesn’t understand and in response Jesus tells him that he is not going to understand until later.  And even though Jesus goes on to explain his actions, even though Jesus explains why he has done it, there is still a level of confusion lingering in the air.

Alongside this there is already the fact that Jesus has named that he will be betrayed.  “One of you will betray me,” says Jesus.  And he is deeply troubled in spirit, this is what we are told. That Jesus is deeply troubled.

We also come into the presence of Jesus who is deeply unsettled – it is a confronting moment for us.  Jesus who is our Lord, our friend, our teacher, our healer, our saviour, our prophet, our priest, our king – the one whom we follow is deeply troubled. More often than not our expectation is that Jesus is in control, that he is a clam of assuring presence, but here on this night we find Jesus is in a state of distress, he is out of sorts.

So, as we come on this night we come with this sense of confusion confronted by the possibility that we do not understand and that we are not as in control as we might like to think and that God himself shares in the distress and disorientation of our lives.

It is in the context of all of this, the confusion of the disciples and the clear distress of Jesus, that Peter indicates to the disciple that was sitting closest to Jesus to ask Jesus a question. ‘Lord, who is it?’

Now as we picture this moment I want to revisit with you a couple of things about sharing meals in the ancient world and meal etiquette.  The first is this.  That seating arrangements reflected status and relationship, it was not just as random roll of the dice.  The more important you are the closer you get to sit to the guest of honour or the host.  This reminds us of the special relationship that this disciple has with Jesus.  John tells us that it is the disciple that Jesus loved.  The person had a privileged position, he got to sit next to Jesus.

The second thing to think about here is that the meal table was probably low to the floor.  The disciples would have been reclining on the floor, possibly resting on their elbows with their legs stretched out behind them.  This little detail helps us understand how Jesus might have been able to move around washing the disciples’ feet.

So it is in this position stretched out on the floor that Peter indicates that the disciple whom Jesus loved should ask Jesus the question, “Lord, who is it?”  If you can imagine the disciple leaning in to Jesus to ask this question, who is it,’ it is more than likely that there would have been a deeply intimate moment of connection, including physical touch.  I have come across commentaries and seen pictures that have the disciple with his head on Jesus chest or shoulder as he leans in to ask the question.  He leans physically into Jesus.

It is a deeply intimate and emotional moment as the disciple asks this terrible question – who is going to betray you Lord.

Now, of course, we have already heard the narrative and we know what happens next.  Jesus dips the bread into the cup and shares it with Judas and Judas goes out into the night to do quickly what he must do.  Yet the question of who betrays Jesus should never be limited to a finger pointed out the actions of Judas.

We know that the other disciples desert Jesus and hide.  They deny Jesus, Peter denies Jesus! They doubt his resurrection. They remain in confusion and darkness.  And we who know this story know that we too betray God and Jesus in our failures to follow as closely as we ought and to live as we should as God’s people.  We are also confused by the world we live in and life and death and suffering.

This is the moment in which we find ourselves as we gather on this night and the thing on which we reflect tonight that moment of intimacy between Jesus and his beloved disciple.  A moment of intimacy leaning in on Jesus’ breast amidst the confusion of life and troubled Spirit of God that is within him.

In my mind the good news is that we are one with that disciple on this night.  That we who have gathered are invited to lean in and come close, to be intimate, with our questions of life, with our troubles and to know that God in Jesus is deeply troubled and distressed for the suffering and injustices of life.

We can lean in and ask Jesus personal questions about issues that plague our minds:  why have I suffered so Lord? Or why does this friend or family member struggle so much?  Or how do I continue believe in this secular society? How do I keep going when I find life so pointless?  We might also ask question of our life in the world.  Questions about chemical weapons, questions about bombings in Coptic Churches, questions about terrorists acts and refugees and starvation and suffering and evil. Our troubling questions are matched by Jesus’ troubled Spirit – God is with us as we lean into that intimate moment. 

In Jesus, God is with us, this is our hope and our faith and God’s Spirit in Jesus is troubled by the confrontation with confusion, suffering, betrayal and death.

We know that this is not the last word on these matters and we will be sharing in communion soon as a remembrance of this night but also the promise of the feast of the coming kingdom.

Yet before we do this I want to invite you into a few minutes of silence. To take the opportunity to lean into Jesus’ presence, just as that disciple did, so long ago, and as you do so to silently ask a question or maybe more than one of Jesus and to feel his troubled Spirit close to yours.  Maybe there will be an answer but if not maybe Jesus that feeling of intimacy as the Spirit of God comes close will bring some comfort in the face of the confusion and troubles of life.

So close your eyes and lean in.  Lean in and come close to Jesus, just as he has come close to us in the power of the Spirit, and know that in Christ all shall be we

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

John's Gospel was written about 60 years after Jesus's death and resurrection.  It was two generations
since Jesus had died and risen again when John decided to record the events of Jesus life.  John's Gospel is different to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  There is a theological reflection a spiritual edge in his writing.  All of the stories that are written carry through themes and underlying messages.

So it is, that when we encounter the story of the Samaritan woman at the well we are not simply encountering a story of Jesus’ life we are encountering theological a reflection about who Jesus is and what he was doing. We are encountering a reflection about the community that John was part of and the people that formed community. He is trying to give them messages that are going to help them in their faith.

The fact that Jesus may have met a Samaritan woman at the well is secondary to the way John relates the story.  It has no doubt been embellished and enhanced to help bring a theological and spiritual message home to the people John is writing for.

There are three major movements, in the story, that I want to talk about this morning.  I have titled the first movement ‘revelation’. It may not be revelation per se but there is revelation about the identity of the woman and her significance. The second movement of the story is a movement of ‘proclamation’ with Jesus doing some teaching about the nature of worship and the relationship between Jews and Samaritans.  Then, the third movement of the story is a response. In this response there is a witness: the woman does something with the information and the encounter that she has had with Jesus. 

Overall the movements have a very similar to what we see in our image about the movement of liturgy at the front of the Church: revelation, proclamation, and witness.  Gathering, listening and responding.

So let us turn them to the first of these three movements: the revelation.  It is a revelation about who the woman is and information about her.  She is a Samaritan woman, and she remains anonymous, we are not given a name. She also comes to Jesus in the middle of the day.

Last week I preached on Nicodemus. This is an important connection to make because she is the next major character that we encounter in the story of John.  The significance of noting this is because she is almost the complete antithesis, or opposite, of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a lawyer, a teacher, someone respected in the community, someone probably who has some wealth and some power.  He is male, a Jew and he comes to Jesus in the night.

The woman is female, she is a Samaritan, she is left anonymous, she is also possibly of questionable character (although this is never made completely clear), and she is probably uneducated.

The contrast between the woman and Nicodemus is the contrast between a Jew who is on the inside of the group and a Samaritan as someone who doesn't belong to the group.

It is probably, two generations after Jesus, that within John's community there would have been people that where non-Jews for whom this story was important.  They would people to John is appealing at this point.  He is giving them validation in their place in the community.  The earliest Christians were a sect of Judaism.  By the time John is writing a deeper rift is beginning to occur and no doubt questions about the relationship between Judaism and the followers of Jesus needed answering, as did the place of gentiles, and probably even Samaritans in the emerging Christian sect.

So what else do we find out about this woman? Well she doesn't really seem to understand the conversation about the living water and her need for the living water.  This is what Jesus is offering, ‘living water’.  This symbol of living water is very important because it points to cleansing and life and renewal. 

At the beginning of John's Gospel we are told that Jesus is the life of the world. He is the water of life and he gives the spirit of life through his presence.  Jesus is offering life to this woman but at this point she is not really sure about what this means.  Jesus takes the conversation on a tangent, he asks her about her husband.  Now Jesus may have been a prophet knowing about her position and her multiple husbands. We shouldn't jump too quickly to a conclusion that she is a bad person but what we should see is that Jesus is holding up a mirror to her and saying this is your life, this is what your life is like, and so do exposing things about her reality.

In begin confronted by Jesus she begins to see the truth of who she is and she also begins to suspect something of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is offering.

In this first movement of the story things are being revealed.  The woman begins to realise that she not only wants the living water but that she needs.   This is the water that we all need and I think that part of our initial encounter with Jesus is a confrontation with who we are as well.

In entering into the Christian faith we are called to look at the truth of our own identity and life – warts and all.  For John’s community and us imperfect people we find Jesus offering living water – cleansing and life – water our predicament in life might be.

As the conversation continues to unfold between Jesus and the woman Jesus goes on to proclaim the coming hour and the worship that will take place in that hour.  This language of the coming hour is a code or symbolic language about the end times.  The future that God promises.

In this future the mountain that the Jews worship on will be made obsolete just as will the mount that the Samaritans worship on. “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”

Once again it is hard for us to appreciate and understand this statement.  The Samaritan’s had set up their place of worship at Mt Gerizim almost 500 years before Christ, just after the Babylonian exile.  The temple had been destroyed but the Samaritan’s still saw the Mountain as sacred.  The temple at Mt Gerizim had been set up in opposition to the Temple in Jerusalem.   

For the Jewish people God’s very presence had been associated with the Holy of Holies in the temple.  Jesus words which speak of worshipping in “spirit and truth”, or as another translation puts it “in the Spirit of the Truth’’, points at future where the differences between the Jews and Samaritans is dissolved and that the location of worship is less about a place and more about a person.

To worship in spirit and in truth anticipates the pouring out of the Holy Spirit which joins us to Jesus own life and worship, and to his claim that he himself is the truth.  A claim which will come later in John’s gospel.  For John’s community and for the early church generally this story helps bridge the gap between followers who were from other backgrounds, not only Samaritans, and also to help release any Christians of Jewish background from the need to go and worship at the Temple.

Worshipping in Spirit and Truth was worshipping in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  What is even more surprising is that Jesus infers that this worship is not simply something that lies in the future but is already present.  He proclaims, “The hour is coming, and is now here”, in his presence and in his presence through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus transforms our offerings to true worship.  Our faith and our prayer is that very same Jesus is present now with us through the power of the Holy Spirit as we worship and as we listen for God.  We worship in Spirit and in Truth and the living water is poured into our own lives.

This leads me to consider the response of the woman to this whole event and hear I am skipping over Jesus interaction with the disciples.  The woman witnesses to Jesus and shares her encounter with Jesus with the people of her village.

It is a rather strange proclamation. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  There is an ambiguity to her proclamation which at the face value appears to revolve around Jesus knowledge of who she is more than his claim to be the living water – even his identity as the Messiah is left hanging.

What is even more remarkable than the ambiguity of her proclamation is that we are told that because of what she said some of the people came to believe in Jesus! Her proclamation basically was he told me everything about myself and then a question as to whether or not Jesus might be the Messiah.  There is no skilled presentation of the scriptures, there is no flashy course, there is no absolute certainty.  What there is, is a simple statement that Jesus has helped her know herself.

In an era when we find that people struggling to commit to faith and at a time when it feels like  every five minutes a new program or course seems to come out to help people get to know Jesus I find the simplicity and ambiguity of the Samaritan woman’s witness astounding.  Jesus helped me to know who I am, maybe he is the Messiah.  The belief that the villagers took on about Jesus was simple at best and could only come from them being born from above as was suggested to Nicomedus.

I know personally I sometimes struggle to find the right thing to say when people ask about my faith or when I am trying to share my faith.  For me there are certainly some things in the woman’s witness that we can take heart in.  Firstly, when God is at work through our sharing then anything can happen.  And secondly, simply sharing what knowing Jesus means to you and how it has changed your life would seem to be more than enough for God to work with.

Of course, we hear too that Jesus comes to stay at the village and more people come to people through his teaching that he is indeed the Saviour of the world.  So maybe when we don’t seem to be making headway on helping a person come to know Christ bringing them into Christ’s presence in a different way might help.

For many in John’s community the witness they would have had concerning Jesus would have been simplistic, second and hand and maybe even a bit ambiguous.  Such imperfect witness is superseded by the work of the Holy Spirit who alone can open the eyes of people to God’s love.

So for John’s community, and for we who have gathered here this day this is a story of hope.  Revelation: Jesus knows the truth of who we are and holds up a mirror to us.  Proclamation: to worship in Spirit and in Truth moves us beyond the limitation of the locale of Mt Gerizim or Temple Mount in Jerusalem and into relationship with God in Christ and through the Spirit.  And Witness: sharing the faith is simply telling the story of Jesus that we have experienced in our own life – God can do the rest.

So drink of the living water, present now, be transformed by Jesus within you and share the good news that Jesus may indeed be the Messiah, the saviour of the world, with all whom you meet.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Is it true?

Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

We just heard two readings from The Bible, one from Genesis and one from Matthew.  Then we sung that song “Ancient Words”.  Ancient words ever true, changing me changing you.

The song implies that the words of the scriptures can change the way we view ourselves and the world in which we live and in this we are also transformed.  It is certainly true for me that the words of the scriptures shape how I live and how I understand the world.  They shape my life.

But there can be no doubt that there are significant questions about the Bible and how we use the words of the Bible to shape our lives.  Each week as part of our gathering we spend time reflecting in some depth on passages from the Bible trying to listen for God speaking to us and making sense of these ancient words.

The story that we heard from Genesis today is great story to begin to introduce both the complexity of the Bible but also its relevance to us.  Most people can probably tell you who Adam and Eve are, and many can tell you the story, but how do we deal with it?

Over the past 5 years I have had the privilege of teaching Religious Instruction across the road at Ironside State School.  I always choose to teach the senior group grade 6, or before the change in education grade 7.  The story of Creation from Genesis, and of Adam and Eve is often one of the first stories we deal with.

Every year when we are discussing the story of Adam and Eve a student will put their hand up and ask this question.  “But is it true?”  Is it true? Often I respond by asking, “What do you mean by true?”

I ask this question because often what is student is asking is “Did it really happen?”  “Were Adam and Eve real people?”  They are trying to apply a pseudo-scientific or pseudo-historical approach to a spiritual story.

Did Adam and Eve really exist is not the most important question that this story raises for us?  It raises questions about personal responsibility and accountability, it raises questions about temptation and evil, it raises questions about God’s place in our lives. 

To help the students understand this I often do the following and I am going to ask you to participate as I do with them.

Can I ask you to put your hand up if you have a brother or sister?  Now think about that person and consider this.  Has there ever been a time - any point in your life - that you blamed them for something that you did wrong or at least were part of? 

I know that I have sought to deflect responsibility for my actions on to my siblings.  I have also experienced the same in other settings.  Has there been a time at school that you blamed a friend?  At work when you diverted responsibility to a colleague? 

Is the story of Adam and Eve true?  If this is one of its teachings then yes it is true.  It is true in all of us that we are all like Adam and Eve.

But let’s take this a little deeper and look at the serpent.  What was the serpent?  Where did it come from?  There is a tradition within the church that suggests that the serpent is the devil although Biblical the case for this is not really that strong.  What we are told in the story is this “the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.”

The Bible does not really explain the origins of evil and temptation beyond this but if we ask the questions that arise they are found to be true.  Do we encounter inexplicable times of temptation in our own lives?  Temptation to seek something for ourselves ignoring the possible consequences this might have for others?  Temptation to deliberately put others down so we look better?  Temptation to seek to be above God and others?  And do we encounter inexplicable evil in the world?  When we look upon the behaviour of people around the globe are there times you simply cannot fathom the evil that is perpetrated?

Is it true?  Does the story confront us with the mystery of evil and temptation that we encounter in our own existence?  Yes it does, it is true.

And this temptation leads us into the biggest temptation of the story.  Do we seek to be like God?  Do we as humans seek to be God?  We supplant God with ourselves?  The history of the last 500 years of human thought in the West, and possibly even longer, has been the sustained attack on the concept of God.  There has been a shift of God from the centre of human life to humanity as the centre of existence.  It is all about us, or even more scarily in this individualistic era, it is all about me.

Such is the impact that this has had on the world that a geologist and chemist have defined the era in which we now live as the Anthropocene.  Our obsession as humans with our place at the centre of existence has moved us from being stewards of God’s garden of creation to its exploiters.

Did Adam and Eve really exist as individuals, for me this does not seem to be an important question because Adam and Eve exist in each one of us!  The story is true.

But this is only part of the bigger story of God’s love for us.  When I prayed the prayer of confession I shared with you a reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans which reminded us that Jesus came to set things right between us as human beings and God.

The reading from Matthew is just one glimpse of how Jesus did this.  Instead of succumbing to the serpent as Adam and Eve do Jesus says no to Satan.  He resists temptation.  This is part of Jesus mysterious and gracious journey through life restoring us in our relationship with God.

He lives, he dies and he is raised from among the dead as a sign of God’s love for us despite our faults, our foibles and our failings.

This is the good news not that we love God as we should but that God loves us even when we fail to love God.

As people who gather each week to hear the scriptures and reflect on them we come to listen for this good news but also to think about how we might live in response to this good news.

In Jesus’ resistance of temptation he says three things that can shape our imperfect response.

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Worship the Lord your God and serve only him

Each of these statements can become an invitation for us to live our lives again with God at the centre.  Recognising that though we fail like Adam and Eve by the free gift of God’s love we are drawn into Jesus’ life and we are drawn into being his followers.

Is the story of Jesus temptation true?  My sense is that it is true that Jesus resists Satan and that through him we rediscover whose we truly are and who truly are.

Ancient words ever true, changing me changing you.

Can we be changed by the words?  Possibly not on their own.  But can we be changed by the God who speaks to us through them?  Can we be transformed by Jesus who walked amongst us?  Can we become followers of Jesus and be shaped by his love for us?

For me the answer is yes, and for many of you no doubt the answer is the same.  For anyone here who is still searching my invitation to you is to remain open minded and join in the journey of faith and discover that God is already with you. Amen

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Untameable Mount of Transfiguration

When I discovered that the reading set down for today was the story that we have come to know as
the transfiguration the first image that came to my mind was the well-worn and defined path that goes from JC Slaughter falls to the top of Mt Cootha.  For those of you who have walked on this path you will know that it is well signposted, it is wide, and for the most part quite smooth. In parts there are steps and handrails. 

As you come close to the top of the mountain you leave the forest walk to traverse the last few hundred metres on the side of the bitumen road and then on to a cement path to the shop where you can buy an ice cream or cold drink.  Clearly the journey to the top of Mt Cootha was not always like this. It is only through our human intervention and inventiveness that we have domesticated the mountain and made the journey easier for ourselves.

What has all of this to do with the story of the transfiguration? 

Just as we have sought to domestic the walk to the top of Mt Cootha so too when we hear again the story of the transfiguration, and in a sense follow Peter, James and John up the mountain with Jesus, it is not an untraveled road.  There is a well-worn path of centuries of theology, historiography and spiritual reflection on the story.  Even if you are hearing your first sermon on the story it is a story that has been and is filtered through the theological teachings and insights of the preacher.

For me this reality of the domestication of this familiar story is emphasised by the association of this story of the transfiguration with Mt Tabor.  Whilst none of the scriptural stories say where the transfiguration occurred a tradition developed suggesting it was at Mt Tabor.  This became more strongly cemented, around 200 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, with the great theologian and thinker Origen claimed that this was where the transfiguration took place. 

However, there are more than a few reasons that this may not be the place it occurred. There are two key ones that I want to mention.  Firstly, the long distance of Mt Tabor from Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus and the disciples were 6 days earlier. And, secondly, the fact that it is known that there was a long standing Roman fort on the top of the mountain at the time.  Despite these issues which put the location of the event into question if you go to mount Tabor today what you will see is this –church of transfiguration.

Any attempts at an historical reconstruction of the event or theologising of the moment can miss something that is entirely vital and confronting about what occurs.  In Douglas Hare’s commentary he puts it quite simply, “For modern readers, the story of the transfiguration is one of the most difficult in the New Testament… its content is so otherworldly that it is hard for us to accept its historicity.”  The story, as well worn and domesticated as we might try to make it, takes us to a mountaintop where something occurs that we have absolutely no control over and is completely foreign to our common experience.

Christ is transformed! Moses and Elijah appear! God speaks from a cloud!

There is nothing ordinary here.  There is nothing that can make this any easier to believe.  There is nothing that we can domestic about a Christophany or a theophany – and I admit to using these theological words deliberately precisely because I want to emphasise the foreignness of what is occurring.  It is not only the foreignness of an event in the disciples’ lives when Jesus identity is confirmed but the foreignness and mystery of God becoming present in the span history as in and through Jesus God reconciles the world with its Creator.

The difficulty of apprehending and comprehending this spiritual experience on the mountain is highlighted in Peter’s response which is to offer to make three tabernacles, or tents: one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  He is grasping at spiritual and liturgical straws to try to make sense of what he is seeing.  And, moreover, the instruction by Jesus to Peter, James and John not to share this experience until after Jesus’ resurrection.  This seems to indicate that Jesus well knew that the disciples had not quite got it.

An experience of the divine, a personal vision, or revelation, whether is as spectacular as the transfiguration or as ordinary as having an spiritual insight pop into your head, does not mean that you have arrived and that you have all the answers.  The disciples obviously struggled to understand Jesus presence and teaching, a fact which is further emphasised by the stories on either side of the transfiguration.

6 days earlier Peter had hit the nail on the head when he identified that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the Living God.  Ironically, he had then gone on to deny Jesus’ teaching about his death and resurrection.  Jesus call Peter both the rock on which he will build his church and satan.  The contrast could not be any greater!  The gospel writer leaves a long pause in the story and it is not 6 days later until we heat what happens next.

The liminal space between that encounter between Jesus and Peter and the amazing events on the top of the mountain interest me immensely.

We are told nothing about these intervening days.  Is it because of the awkwardness Peter and the other disciples felt around Jesus correction of Peter?  Is it because they were trying to process what Jesus had said about his death?  Were they just a few quiet days where no miracles occurred or nothing of significance was said?  The awkward silence on these days are for me very much about the journey of faith that most of us are on.  Days when we think about whether we have really understood God at all.  Days when we doubt God and Jesus.  Days that we reflect on how we can get our faith so right and so wrong.  Days which seem to blend into our existence and just pass by and before we know it another week has gone.

If this is what was happening before the event of the transfiguration what comes after is even more perplexing.  The disciples are told not to share with anyone their experience. And, based on their track record of getting things wrong or not fully understanding them we might well understand this.  But, then, Matthew goes on to tells us that when the group re-joins the crowds a man shows up and tells Jesus that the disciples had failed to heal his son.  Jesus heals the son and then admonishes the disciples for their lack of faith.

On both sides of the transfiguration are stories that remind us that the disciples’ comprehension of what God was doing in and through Jesus was limited at best.  Even with the spiritual high of the Christophany and theophany the disciples are exposed as having a lack of faith.  If we fast track a bit further through Matthew what we find is that it also Peter, James and John who fail to say awake and pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. 

First and foremost the good news is not about how well the disciples understand, it is not about how well they healed and participated in Christ’s mission, it is not about their faithfulness – and, might I say, it is not first and foremost about our faithfulness and participation in Christ’s mission either.

It is about who Jesus is – the Christ, the Messiah – and about what God does in and through him and continues to do in and through him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our task is not to look at the disciples and scoff at their incomprehension because through 2000 years of history we think we have domesticated the story and have a better faith.  No our task, like theirs, is with humility simply to acknowledge Christ’s presence with us and give thanks to God for what God has done for us in Christ.

Even if and when we have our moments of spiritual closeness to God our theophany, or a moment of revelation we should remember the time on the mountain and the disciples’ response.  The moment of revelation is something that should be accepted as mystery and gift.  It is beyond our control and beyond our full comprehension.  Yes, those moments can keep us going in our faith, they can inspire and incite us to action, and they can encourage to stay on the journey with Jesus.  But they should be tempered by the disciples experience and the more mundane reality that more often than not our journey is through the liminal space, the six days, the moments our lack of faith is exposed, or we are found sleeping in the garden.  Regardless of where we find ourselves the promise of the story we find is Matthew is that in Christ and through the Spirit God remains with us.

I began this morning’s sermon with that image of the walk up Mt Cootha.  We have sought to tame the mountain and we seek to tame the story of the transfiguration.  Yet whether we make the journey up the mountain easy or hard in the end the presence and work of God is not something that we can control.  Like the disciples all we can say is in Jesus, God is with us, and hope that between the liminal spaces of our lives God will intrude into the ordinary existence of our realities and make more clearly known for each one of us the hope of following Jesus.