Monday, April 2, 2018
Sunday, March 18, 2018
I think if Jesus had been running for political office and we had been on his campaign team, there would probably have been times when we would have taken him aside and said, “Lord, you need to be more careful what you say to people. Take that rich man who showed an interest in following you – he would have made a very useful member of our team! But why did you have to challenge him right from the beginning to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and come and follow you? Why couldn’t you have introduced that subject more gradually? And what about the man who told you he wanted to follow you, and you said, ‘Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but I haven’t got anywhere to lay my head?’ Why couldn’t you have kept that information from him for a while? If you had, he might still be with us! If you keep shooting yourself in the foot like this, Jesus, you’re never going to get elected!”
Today’s gospel reading is another example of this sort of straight talk from Jesus. In the Gospel of John it comes right after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. He and his disciples have come to Jerusalem for the Passover festival; Jesus has climbed onto a donkey and ridden in procession through the city gates like a king coming into his capital, with his disciples waving palm branches and the crowd cheering and shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). It must have been an impressive sight.
And so we come to today’s gospel. Why don’t you look it up with me?
It begins with these words: ‘Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (12:20). Greeks? What were they doing there? Passover was a Jewish festival, celebrating the ancient story of how God had set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt. It was the most nationalistic of all Jewish festivals; in this story, Gentiles were the enemy, and you wouldn’t expect Gentiles to come as pilgrims to participate in it.
But here’s the thing: all over the Mediterranean world in New Testament times, there were little pockets of Gentiles – Greeks and Romans – who had become attracted to the religion of Israel. They were disillusioned with the Greek and Roman gods and they were hungry for something more, something real. In the faith of Israel, they found the story of one true Creator God who wanted his people not only to worship him, but also to live a moral and ethical life, and many of them found this attractive. So they adopted parts of the Jewish religion - they joined in the worship of the synagogues, and tried to follow the commandments – but without going all the way and being circumcised, which was more of a challenge to them! These people were known in New Testament times as ‘God-fearers’, and they were fertile ground for the Christian message as the missionaries took it out into the Gentile world.
What’s this got to do with us today? Well, I sometimes think we live in similar times. For generations our society has been offering traditional idols for our worship and satisfaction. Advertisers have been telling us if we just buy their products, we’ll be happy and healthy and young forever. Politicians have been promising that if we just elect them they’ll build the new Jerusalem and we’ll all be happy together. National leaders have demanded our allegiance and told us we’re either for them or for their enemies. We’ve been told that if we just worship the idols of money and possessions or fame or success or beauty or youth or popularity, we’ll find the satisfaction we’re looking for. But we haven’t found it, and more and more people are beginning to question these popular idols. More and more people are looking for a spiritual dimension to their lives. Some are even willing to name that spiritual dimension as ‘God’. They may not be ready to join an organized church, but they’re coming to believe that without God there are no ultimate answers to the questions they’re struggling with.
However, there are barriers they face. Christianity’s been around for a long time so they don’t expect to find anything new and relevant in it. Church has all kinds of puzzling traditions that are precious to the insiders but very confusing to outsiders. There are words and phrases we use all the time that people just can’t wrap their heads around. And there’s the fear factor, too; I don’t know if church people are really aware how scary it is for someone who hasn’t been to church for years – if ever - to cross the doorstep. These are just a few of the barriers spiritual seekers face if they’re going to look for answers in the Christian church.
The Greeks in today’s Gospel reading faced some barriers, too. When they got to the temple they would have found themselves relegated to the outermost court, the court of the Gentiles. Gentiles were forbidden from getting any closer to the God of Israel, on pain of death. And this court was where all the money changers and animal sellers plied their trade, so it wouldn’t exactly have been a quiet place to pray.
But then along comes Jesus. Perhaps the Greeks have seen his procession into the city with the crowd around him. Perhaps they’ve heard about his miracles and his teachings, and they want to know more.
So they come to one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip of Bethsaida. ‘Philip’ is a Greek name, and Bethsaida is an area of Galilee where a lot of Gentiles live, so perhaps these Greeks feel a sense of connection to Philip. They go to him and say some of the most beautiful words written in the gospels: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21).
I love it when people say that to me! Perhaps not in so many words, but the meaning’s clear: “I want to learn more about Jesus! Why do you think he’s so special? Why do you follow him?” Of all the jobs I get to do as a Christian, that’s the one that thrills me the most – helping people get a clearer picture of Jesus!
But Philip isn’t quite so sure about their request - we aren’t told why - so he takes it to Andrew, who has a reputation for introducing people to Jesus. In fact, the first person he introduced to Jesus, his brother Simon Peter, has already become the leader of Jesus’ band of followers. True to form, Andrew has no hesitation; “Let’s go and tell Jesus about it”, he says.
Spiritual seekers need their Philips and their Andrews – someone who can help them get to know Jesus better. Usually it will be a friend – someone they know and trust.
Michael Peers was a student in Ottawa in the late 1950s; he had been raised in a totally non-Christian household, but he had a growing curiosity about God. A student friend invited him to a service at a local Anglican church; Michael was attracted to what he saw there, and eventually he decided to become a Christian. He went on to become a priest, and in 1986, like Simon Peter, he became the leader of the band of Anglican followers of Jesus in Canada – the ‘Primate’, as we call it – a position he held ‘til his retirement. But it would never have happened if his student friend had not invited him to church. Michael had his ‘Philip’ or ‘Andrew’, and he often told that story in gratitude for what his friend had done for him.
Back to our Greeks. At this point in the story, if Jesus had been a fisherman and we were giving him advice about reeling in a fish, we might have said, “Go gently, now, Jesus – don’t jerk the line too fast, or you’re going to lose your fish”. In other words, “Don’t hit these Greeks with a bunch of demands right off the top. Tell them all about how you’re going to enhance their lives. Keep the issue of the cost ‘til later, when they’re already on the hook and just about landed!”
But Jesus is incapable of doing that; he’s honest and straight in his expectations of those who want to follow him. You can never accuse him of hiding the cost or making the small print too small to read. Follow his reasoning with me here:
He starts by telling the crowd what’s ahead for him. At first it sounds good: he says in verse 22, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. But then as he goes on, we become uncomfortably aware he has a different definition of glory; his glory’s all bound up with his suffering. He uses the illustration of a grain of wheat falling into the ground. It looks as if the farmer’s throwing it away; it falls into the soil and it’s buried there, which is a kind of death; you think that’s the end of it. But a few days later a shoot springs up, and then a plant, and the plant begins to bear fruit, and suddenly the grain of wheat that died has multiplied.
Jesus is taking about his death on the Cross. He’s going to be rejected by the very people he came to save: the world will throw him away and bury him. But three days later a new resurrection shoot will begin to appear, and then the message will go out, and people will begin to turn to him. In verses 32-33 Jesus says, ‘“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”. He said this’, says John, ‘to indicate the kind of death he was to die’.
For Jesus, there could be no ducking the Cross. The Cross was not a tragedy; it wasn’t a derailment of God’s plan; rather, the whole story from the very beginning had been leading up to this moment. As God has been rejected by people all over the world, so Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, would be rejected and nailed to the Cross. The people of the world put him there, and as he says in verse 31, ‘Now is the judgement of this world’. The best the world had to offer – the Roman empire, the Pharisees, the high priests and Sadducees, the Jerusalem crowd – all combined together to reject Jesus and kill him.
But in an extraordinary turnaround, that moment of defeat and death became a victory for the love of God. Jesus refused to strike back; he offered only forgiveness and love from the Cross. And so he embodied for the whole world the fact that love is stronger than hate, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Anger and rejection were turned on him, but he responded with mercy and forgiveness and grace. This is what God is like. This is what Jesus’ death on the Cross demonstrates for us.
So there’s good news in the Cross! But there’s also challenge, and Jesus wants to be up front with this challenge to these Greeks who think they might want to follow him. So in verses 25-26 he says, “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour”.
In other words, the way of the Cross isn’t for Jesus only; it’s for his followers too. Those who choose to give their first loyalty to Jesus will always be an offence to earthly leaders who demand absolute obedience. The early Christians experienced this when they refused to offer incense to Caesar as a god; this wasn’t just a harmless religious ceremony in those days; it was a pledge of allegiance. To say, “Jesus is Lord” always carries the corollary, “and Caesar is not”. Whether Caesar is our political leaders, our employers, the media, the global economy – whatever it is, people who want to follow Jesus need to realize from the get-go that not everyone will be jumping for joy about this; there will be a price to pay.
Throughout Christian history there have been people who have willingly paid the ultimate price for their allegiance to Jesus. But those of us who aren’t asked to do this are not ‘off the hook’. We’re all called to ‘die to self’ – in other words, to be willing to let go of our desire to have everything we want, to have a comfortable and easy life with ourselves at centre stage. It’s a happy coincidence that in the English language the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ at the centre of it; when I’m at the centre of my own life, that’s what sin’s all about, because the throne at the centre of my life rightfully belongs to God. Those who want to follow Jesus must be prepared to face this challenge.
So Jesus is calling his followers to a different kind of glory. Today, all over the world, crosses are emblazoned on church buildings, which is a bit weird, if you think about it – imagine if we all started wearing little silver electric chairs on chains around our necks? And yet, it’s true that the Cross is Jesus’ moment of glory. The one who called people to love their enemies and do good to those who hated them did just that himself, accepting the worst the world could do to him and responding with forgiveness and grace. The one who called people to trust God did just that himself, trusting that if he allowed himself to fall into the ground like a grain of wheat, the Father wouldn’t allow him to be trodden underfoot and forgotten. And so it was; the Father raised him from the dead, an act that gripped his followers and sent them out to spread the good news of his victory all over the world. Today, two thousand years later, we are still telling the story – glory indeed.
So what’s this gospel telling us today?
First, it’s telling us to be on the lookout for those spiritual seekers. They’re all around us, if we’re prepared to listen. They may have all sorts of intellectual questions about God, or they may just feel like God’s a million miles away from them, and if there’s a way to get closer, they want to find it. The conversation’s not going to be a short one – not nowadays, when people have so little cultural memory of what Jesus is all about. We can’t be in a hurry. But if we’re willing to engage on their turf – not necessarily expecting them to come to church, but being willing to go where they’re comfortable and take their questions seriously – amazing things can happen.
Second, this gospel is giving us some guidance about those conversations. We may start in all kinds of interesting places, and it might take a long time to get to the point, but as Christians we do have to get to the point sooner or later, and the point is Jesus. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Jesus is the unique son of God who has come from God to show us the way to God. He’s the clearest picture of God we can find. And that picture is clearest of all at the Cross. At the Cross we see, not a God who tortures and kills his enemies, but a God who’s willing to endure torture and death at the hands of his enemies rather than stop loving them. The face of Jesus on the Cross is the face of God for this world today: a God who isn’t far from us, but suffers with us.
Third, we dare not downplay the difficulties. Evangelists in the past have told a lot of lies about this. They’ve talked about how being a Christian makes them happy all day long, but they haven’t talked about their struggles to follow the hard teachings of Jesus, or the times their friends have ridiculed them or rejected them. People need to know right up front that it’s not always easy to be a Christian. We owe them that.
Fourth, we in this church need to make this a priority for our ministry. All kinds of organizations can do all kinds of good in our city, but not many can show people the way to Jesus. We need to make this a priority: to know Jesus and follow him ourselves, and to make him known to others. The Jesus we follow began his ministry by calling people to follow him so he could teach them to fish for people. He ended his ministry by sending them out to lift him higher, so that he could draw all people to himself. This was obviously a priority for him. It should be for us too.
Be excited about Jesus. Be connected with people who don’t know him. Be on the lookout for spiritual seekers. Take their questions seriously. Help them understand what Jesus shows us about God. Tell them the truth about the challenging bits. Walk in the light of Jesus yourself and shine that light for others. That’s what today’s Gospel is calling us to do.
Friday, March 16, 2018
Upcoming Events March 19th to March 25th, 2018
March 19th, 2018
Office is closed
March 21st, 2018
2:00pm Lectionary Bible study @ church
7:15pm Vestry meeting @ church
March 22nd, 2018
8:00am Men’s and Women’s Bible Study @ Bogani Café
2:00pm Funeral for Elisabeth Bai
March 24th, 2018
4:30pm – 7:30pm Crosslife Church rental
March 25th, 2018 (Palm Sunday)
9:00am Holy Communion
10:30am Holy Communion and Sunday School
Sunday, March 11, 2018
I want to start this morning by telling you a true story.
Many years ago, a bishop named Maurice Wood was fast asleep in his house at about three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang beside his bed. He reached for it and put it to his ear, and said a rather sleepy ‘Hello?’ And the voice of the man on the other end of the line said, “Is this the Bishop’s house?” “Yes”, Maurice replied. “Is this the Bishop?” “Yes it is”. “Bishop, can I ask you a question?”
For a moment Maurice didn’t reply, and then he said, “Have you any idea what time it is?” “Yes – it’s about three o’clock in the morning”. “Oh – right! What’s the question?” “Bishop – does God love me?”
And then Maurice realized that for this man at this moment in his life, this was the question - the question that was so important that it didn’t matter that he had to wake the Bishop up at three o’clock in the morning to ask it.
“Does God love me?” I suspect that, deep down inside, many of us have that same nagging question. Do I matter to God? Does God know my name? Does God love me?
Let me take you to two verses from our gospel reading for today, two verses in which we hear the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Here they are:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17 NRSV).
So the fundamental truth that these verses announce to us is the truth of God’s love. God’s love led him to decide not to condemn the world. Instead, God’s love led him to give a gift - a free gift - the gift of ‘being saved’ through Jesus Christ. God offers this gift to each person, and God invites each of us to receive it.
What is this love like? It’s not a conditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. It’s not a reward for performance. The word John uses in the original language is ‘agapé’, which is a very unusual word in ancient Greek. It’s like the Old Testament word that’s translated in our NRSV Bibles as ‘steadfast love’. It’s not primarily a feeling, and it’s not based on feelings. It’s a decision that God makes to pour out his love on us, not because we are lovable but because God is love. It’s the love Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Another word often used for it in the Bible is charis, which is usually translated ‘grace’; it means a free gift, with no strings attached.
This is where we start with God. Philip Yancey says that what grace means is that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is ever going to change that.
So let me ask you – do you believe that?
If we really believe that, we can let go of the everlasting burden of having to win God’s approval. We can let go of the anxiety that if we put even one foot wrong it’s all up for us. We can have the sense that instead of standing over us with a big stick waiting to beat us up for our failures, God is standing beside us in Jesus to lift us up when we fall down. More than that, God is living in us through the Holy Spirit – the one Jesus describes earlier in John 3 as the ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ of God – giving us the oxygen of grace that we need to live the Jesus Way. If we really believe that God loves us, we can go home from church today in the sure knowledge, not just that God lives in our hearts, but that God holds us in his heart – which is surely the safest place in the world to be, now and through eternity.
So how do we know this is true? How do we know God loves us?
Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. This doesn’t just mean ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son’ - although that surely is good news! But it doesn’t give us the full range of meanings in the original. ‘God so loved the world’ is an archaic construction, which actually means ‘God loved the world in this way’. In other words, we’re not just taking about how much God loves us; we’re also talking about the form his love took on this one occasion, or the method he chose to show us his love.
‘Tim so loved his wife that he took her out for dinner on their anniversary’. Well done me! But what does that actually mean? Yes, of course, it means “I loved her so much that I wanted to give her a wonderful evening out” (and I hoped very much that her definition of ‘wonder’ included an evening with me!). But it also says something about the form my love took on this occasion: ‘I loved her in this way: I took her out for dinner on our anniversary’.
So what form did God’s love for us take? ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. The gift of God to the world was to send his Son into the world, ‘not…to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (v.17).
We can think of this as describing the mission of Jesus in all its fullness – the mission that began when ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). This ‘Word’ of God, according to John, was somehow at the same time God himself, and was also ‘with God’ – obviously John’s trying to describe a mystery far above our understanding. But what a gift God gives to the world! To come and live among us himself in the person of his Son, as one of us – to share our human life in all its frailty – all out of love for us. If God cared enough about the inhabitants of this planet to actually make himself vulnerable and be born as one of us, then surely that would be compelling evidence that ‘God loved the world’.
But in fact, our text is going further than that. Earlier in the passage, it refers to the story we read in our Old Testament reading today – the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The people are wandering in the wilderness, grumbling and complaining to God about having nothing but manna to eat all day long, and suddenly they find themselves being attacked by poisonous snakes. They’re being bitten, and some of them are dying. So Moses prays for the people, and God tells him what to do: ‘“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live”. So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it up on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live’ (8-9).
Verses 14-15 of our gospel refer to this story: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. When Jesus uses the ‘lifted up’ language, he’s referring to his cross. The parallels with the text from Numbers are actually quite striking. The thing the people feared most of all was the snakes that were biting them and causing them to die, but Moses made an image of the very thing that they feared, and it became for them a means of salvation. And in the same way, in the time of Jesus the cross was a symbol of cruel and violent death, but it became for us Christians a means of forgiveness and salvation. And just as the Israelites had to personally appropriate the salvation God was offering them – they had to ‘look to’ the bronze serpent – so now people are called to personally appropriate what Jesus has done for them by looking to him in faith, by ‘believing’ in him, or ‘putting their trust in him’.
This is ‘how’ God loved the world so much – he loved us by coming in the person of his Son, allowing human beings to do their worst to him – rejecting him, whipping him, mocking him, driving spikes through his wrists and feet and hanging him up on a cross until he died. He did not judge the people who did this to him. He didn’t blast them with thunderbolts or call on twelve legions of angels to wipe them out. Instead, he forgave them: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.
So the Cross became the most vivid demonstration imaginable of God’s love for the whole world. God loves the world in this way: when we reject him and mock him and scourge him and kill him, he rejects our rejection. He does not overcome evil with evil; he loves his enemies and continues to love them. The arms of Jesus are open wide on the Cross in welcome to all: Come to me - whoever you are, whatever you’ve done - come to me, and I will give you rest.
That’s how we know God loves us; we know because of Jesus.
But there’s still more. To what end does God love us? What’s his goal for us? The text says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. ‘Eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on forever’; it means ‘life as God dreamed it for us when he first created us’.
We sometimes tell people ‘Get a life!’ Most of the people we say that to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we all understand instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still miss out on the deepest meaning of life, life in all its fullness. The writers of the New Testament all believed that the way to ‘get a life’ in the fullest possible sense is to put your faith in Jesus and follow him. God becomes human in Jesus, not just to reveal God to us, but to reveal our humanity to us as well. As we look at him, as we follow him, we discover the life we were originally created to live.
It’s important to keep focussed on this; if we don’t, we’re going to be tricked into thinking that Christianity is all about the things we’re not allowed to do! ‘You shall not do this!’ ‘You shall not do that!’ ‘Don’t touch!’ ‘Wet paint!’ ‘Keep off the grass!’ From time to time, Christians have fallen into this trap of overemphasizing the things Christians are asked to avoid, but not focusing enough on the amazing and wonderful things we’re promised. A friend of mine used to say, “I want to introduce you to a God who loves you more than you can possibly imagine, and who created you for the sheer joy of knowing you!” Does that sound like life to you? I know it does to me!
So we’ve talked about the central, bedrock truth of God’s indestructible love for us – for each one of us. We’ve talked about how God demonstrated it: God loved the world in this way, by giving us his Son to live out his love for us, even to the point of death on a Cross. We’ve talked about God’s goal in this process: that we should receive life in all its fullness, which is what the Bible means by ‘eternal life’.
One last question: how do we tap into this for ourselves? How does it become part of our personal experience?
Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. It’s by believing in him that we move into that abundant life that he promises us.
This is not just an intellectual thing. I might say, “I believe that Bishop Jane exists”, and very few of us here would disagree with that proposition! But it’s an entirely different thing for us to say, “I believe in Bishop Jane”. It means we trust her, we have confidence in the direction she’s leading, and we’re willing to go along with her on that journey.
So to believe in Jesus is not just to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It means that we’re willing to put our life on the line for him. I think of Jesus walking on the water and calling out to Peter, “Come”. Believing in Jesus, for Peter, meant getting out of the boat and walking toward him. It was an act of commitment.
For many of us, faith is a journey, but I would like to suggest that sometimes it’s also a decision. When two people love each other they obviously experience love as a journey, but traditionally we’ve also believed that there comes a point where the journey is strengthened as people make commitments to each other, to love each other for the rest of their lives. We call that a marriage, and we still believe it’s a hugely important step in a love relationship.
When I was thirteen I made a commitment of faith to Jesus. The language I used was ‘giving my life to Jesus’. Did I understand at the time everything that would imply? Of course not. But the decision I made that day – in response to the good news I had heard – that decision shaped the course of the rest of my life.
People make these decisions in a thousand different ways, and no one really should dare to lay down a single pattern. Even in our baptism services we ask people to articulate that decision. When parents bring children for baptism we ask them ‘Do you turn away from sin and evil? Do you accept Jesus as your Saviour, and will you obey him as your Lord?’ Of course, the problem is that no one ever says ‘No’ in a baptism or confirmation service! We’d have to stop the service if they did! And so it’s easy for people to read words off a page just because the service tells them too. That’s why it’s sometimes helpful for Anglicans, who have read these words from service sheets for years, to be challenged to pray them from the heart, at a time when no one’s listening. ‘Yes, Lord, I will turn away from evil and sin. Yes, I will put my life in your hands. Help me to trust you and follow you’.
My friend Harold Percy used to say that the Gospel is an invitation from God to us: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand: RSVP!’ If we understand that invitation – if we can even imagine Jesus giving us that invitation – sometimes the most powerful prayer in the world is the simple word ‘Yes’.
So let me close by asking you: Can you hear that invitation today? Can you hear, in your heart, the voice of Christ saying ‘Follow me?’ Have you perhaps heard the good news of God’s love in a fresh way today – a way that’s tugging at you inside. “I want to be part of that in a way I never have before”?
If so, listen to that voice. Take time today to get alone with God and pray. You don’t have to use any particular form of words; God knows what’s on your heart. Simply thank him for the free gift of love he’s given you, and give yourself back to him in return, in faith and love.
Let us pray.
God, you loved the world in this way: you gave your only son, so that each one who believes in him may not perish, but may have life in all its fullness. Help each one of us today to put our faith in you, whether for the first time or the thousandth time, and to put our lives in your hands, so that we may ‘get a life’ – the life that you long so much to give us. This we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.