Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 18 October.
1 Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you. 2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. 8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia – your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore, we do not need to say anything about it, 9 for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
In times of great uncertainty, we look for security. With the decline of the church and other institutions in wealthy western wealthy countries like ours, many are looking to their government to step up and lead us out of an economic wasteland. In this state, we’ve been blessed with a sensible and wise response to the pandemic. That’s not the case everywhere across the world. Some leaders have let power go to their heads, and used their authority not to help but to harm their people.
COVID-19 has raised so many questions about who’s in charge of something that seems impossible to control. Today’s Bible readings speak to our situation. They reassure us that God is the ultimate authority figure-he continues to creatively watch over the world he made. And he’s given his church the commission to live confidently in his authority, and to live selflessly for the wellbeing of all people, through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Let’s begin with Isaiah. We may think we live in a time of disorder, but the period during which Isaiah prophesied was tumultuous in the extreme. The Assyrian empire was the global superpower, and had conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721BC. They, in turn, were conquered by the Babylonians, who destroyed Jerusalem in 587. God’s people were inconsolable, and saw no possible future. Exiled from the promised land, and especially God’s temple, there simply was nothing left to live for. Best to adapt to the times, and adopt the gods and the practices of their new homeland, Babylon.
But God had not rejected his people for good, though. Through his prophets, he let his people know that this situation was temporary. Keep the faith. Keep the practices that make you distinctly my people. Keep treasuring my word. I will work a way back for you.
But I’m not sure that God’s people could not have possibly conceived that God was crafting a rescue plan that would involve the ruler of yet another empire, Persia. And so it turned out exactly as God had spoken through Isaiah.
What can we learn from Isaiah’s words today? Firstly, that God sits above all the political machinations taking place across the world. And that today, despite what we see, he still works out his purposes, for the sake of the people of his new covenant in Jesus, for his church. That’s because the church is the means by which God continues his healing and saving work. God appointed Jesus, his crucified, risen, victorious Son, to be the head over everything for the sake of the church.
The second thing we learn from Isaiah is that those who lead, our governments at various levels and in various places, are not the ultimate authority. God is. As Psalm 146 reminds us: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God.”
This question of who’s in charge never goes away. In today’s gospel reading, the Pharisees bring it up too. “Tell us, Jesus,” the Pharisees ask, “what is your opinion. Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not?” Tax is an unpopular topic, then and now. But Jesus isn’t interested in tax rates. He wants to point his questioners back to the God who is behind and over everything. Jesus asks them to produce a coin.
“Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ’Caesar’s,’ they replied.” This is what was inscribed on the coin: Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus Pontifex Maximus. Caesar is claiming he has ultimate authority. But he’s only a pretender.
Jesus goes on: “’Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.’” Caesar has the right to extract tax from you. It’s his job to govern. But that’s where it stops. Caesar is only a king, even an emperor. He is not worthy of worship. Full stop. “Give to God what is God’s.” Money, possessions, Caesar, all governments and the countries they rule, the earth itself and the universe, belong to God, and are under his authority. As Paul himself writes in Romans 13, “'there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
The only authority we can trust is God. That’s something we human beings struggle to do. Instead, we place our trust in substitutes. The Bible has a name for this: idolatry. It’s the original and besetting human sin. We know the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Our first human parents chose to listen to the voice of the snake, the great pretender, who challenged them, “Did God really say” before misrepresenting God and misleading them. The rest, as we say, is history. Unfortunately, it’s our history too.
This is not just an issue for the ancients, but for us in our sophisticated modern world too. We might not bow down in front of a shrine or a statue, but we all fail to place God first in our lives. We look for security in all the wrong places: in other people and their opinions of us, in the prestige of our work, the kind of house we live in, the places we’ve been.
Knowing Jesus changes everything. Paul says to the Christians in Thessalonica: “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” You now serve the God who has shown us his servant love in the cross of his Son Jesus. Idolatry is all about placating, cajoling, begging the object of our worship to give us something. But the one true God gives us life as a gift, and now we are free to live, fully secure in him, and free to live in such a way that honours his authority in our lives by blessing others.
That’s why Paul can write to this church: “We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
See how Paul links together faith, hope and love. This is something he often does. In Colossians 1 Paul reminds us that “faith and love spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven, and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.” The gospel gives us hope in the face of the stresses and concerns that could so easily overwhelm us in this year of pandemic.
In this kind of world, God has given us work to do. “Work of faith” refers to a faith that is active, not passive, a faith that is public, not private. This ‘work’ is motivated by the energy of God in us through the Holy Spirit. Luther once wrote that faith is “a living, busy, active, mighty thing…It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly.” The definition of these good works in remarkably simple: love God, and love your neighbour.
This, Paul says, is our “labour of love.” Labour is a word that speaks of strenuous activity, of carrying a great burden of concern for other. And love is the ‘agape’ love that flows from the Father to the Son, and then to us through the Holy Spirit. Serving our neighbour, caring for one another is hard work. It’s motivated by a love that comes from outside of us, from God himself. And it’s founded on the peace we experience through a secure relationship that come through the cross of Christ.
The fact that this love can keep on keeping on is because it empowered by an “endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” The life of the Christian community is begun, continued and ended in Christ. It’s our relationship with God through Christ that is the impetus for service. Faith, hope and love finds a pathway out of here into the wider community, whether through our individual lives at work or among friends, or in the outreach ministries in which our congregation is involved. Paul delights in the way that the Thessalonian church has done just this: “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.”
What an encouragement this is for us. From groups of Christians dotted throughout the Roman empire, the good news spread through the way that these people demonstrated their allegiance to the God who was in charge of everything but working in faith, and laboring in love. 2000 years later, we can also be hopeful that as we go about loving faithfully and serving sacrificially, that the Lord’s message will ring out from us. That’s his promise. He’s still in charge. Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 11 October.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! 2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:1-9
In 1960, the architect Robin Boyd published a book entitled: The Great Australian Ugliness. It was an attack on the poor architecture that characterised the vast and sprawling suburb of Australian cities. This book launched a thousand criticisms, not just about triple-front brick veneer houses, like the one I happily grew up in, but about the ugliness and laziness of Australian culture.
A few years ago the book was re-released, with a new cover and a foreword by the Melbourne author Christos Tsiolkas. You might have heard of him. His books like The Slap and Barracuda paint a gritty and unrelenting picture of the dark underbelly of contemporary Australian life: the anger, selfishness and revenge, infidelity and greed. And of course he’s right-all that that stuff is there, often hiding behind closed doors or office walls. We all know that there’s ugly stuff out there, but it’s also in us.
2020 has been an ugly year. I believe we desperately need to hear what the Apostle Paul has to say to us today. Paul’s watchword is joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” He needs to say it again because joy is hard to come by right now. Bad news dominates the 24-hour news cycle, and the good news we see is often forced, trite and only skin-deep.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean papering over the cracks of modern life, or pretending that everything’s just fine when it isn’t. Instead, Paul’s call to rejoice is built on the rock solid foundation of the action of God in Jesus Christ. We need to go back to the previous chapter to see how Paul sets out the reasons that Christians have to be joyful in the face of ugliness.Being a Christian doesn’t mean papering over the cracks of modern life, or pretending that everything’s just fine when it isn’t. Instead, Paul’s call to rejoice is built on the rock solid foundation of the action of God in Jesus Christ. We need to go back to the previous chapter to see how Paul sets out the reasons that Christians have to be joyful in the face of ugliness.
Chapter three begins with these words: “Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.” Bu immediately, Paul warns about the false teachers who are seeking to undermine the only thing that can give the church confidence and hope: gaining Christ and being found in him, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ.” And underlying these words is Paul’s conviction that the existence of the universe is not random and that it is the product of God’s creative hand. And we are created in God’s image, and God longs to share his life with us.
But Paul is also honest about the way in which sin mars God’s good creation. Paul speaks of those “who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.” Evil has perverted what God intended to be good, and this has resulted in all kinds of ugliness in attitude and action.
So then, how can we rejoice in the face of this ugliness? Because God didn’t shirk the reality of human sin and entered into this sad and sorry world in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Only through the cross and the resurrection of Jesus are the scales tipped toward hope and a future, despite what we see happening around and within us, in this year above all years. Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven.” This means that our life is bracketed by the fact that we have been created by God in love, and that because of our relationship with him through his Son, we are on the trajectory to eternal life. And right now, in this messy middle, we know that God cares passionately and personally for us, and also for this broken world. And he is rebuilding the whole creation through the good news that he calls the church to live and proclaim.
Today Paul calls us to stand firm, as we are firmly held in his loving grasp. That’s the grounds for our joy. It’s a deep confidence in the nurturing love of God. This joy results in gentleness, which flows over into our relationships. The word Paul uses here is remarkably broad in meaning. Let your goodwill, friendliness, patience, forbearance be evident to all. What an antidote to ugly this is.
“The Lord is near…” Paul is thinking of the imminent return of Jesus to “bring everything under his control, [who] will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body.” I don’t think many of us think a lot about Jesus’ second coming, but this is one of the key Christian teachings. It’s important because it means that the world will not running down to an inevitable, ugly end, but that God will intervene at a time of his choosing, to announce that time’s up and that he’s creating a brand new heaven and a new earth, full of grace, beauty and joy in his presence. But at the same time, it is also true that the “Lord is near” through his gifts of grace that he continues to lavish on us, his word and holy meal, his presence within, the gift of each other, the way that the Holy Spirit lives in us and links us together.
This then leads to the next point. “Do not be anxious about anything.” I struggle with anxiety, and especially so this year. For me, anxiety is the sense that the world is out of control and I’m not on top of things. So firstly, Paul’s words really unsettle me, challenge me. But then I hear the grace in what Paul is saying. He is calling me, and you, to anchor in the safe haven of the one who loves us beyond measure and who has our lives in his hands, and whose intentions for us are always and only for our good.
From that thought, Paul moves next to prayer. Prayer is the clearest expression of God’s interest in the intricacies of our daily lives, warts and all. Paul writes, “In every situation by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God.” and by that I’m assuming he means every situation, the good, the bad, and the ugly of each day. We pray for ourselves in our struggles, and for others too, as they wrestle with the ugliness, knowing that God isn’t deaf to our cries. Seeing Jesus dying on the cross shows us that God cares, and that he has embraced the ugliness our sin in order to fill our lives with the beauty of his love and grace. If God’s Son would dare to suffer and die for us-if that God is for us, who can be against us. This is peace for all people, for the whole universe, but it’s also peace at the micro-level, in our day to day lives. Paul says that God stands like a sentry and guards not just our hearts, but our minds too, with his strong peace.
Finally, Paul gives a list of beautiful thing to think about in the middle of the ugliness of this morning’s news, and the things that are going on for us personally. Considering these things reframes our thinking about our lives and our relationships, and how the good news impacts everything we do and say.
- Whatever is true- Jesus calls Christians to pray: “Lord, sanctify us by your truth. Your word is truth.” And so that’s why we dwell in God’s word, today, and, I ray, daily during the week.
- Whatever is worthy of respect-who do you admire for their integrity in this community-how can you thank them, even seek to be mentored by them?
- Whatever is right-Paul is thinking of right and wrong in terms of those right behaviours and attitudes that come from a right relationship with God. This kind of right isn’t interested in pointing out the wrong in others, but letting the right lead the way and point to the beauty of God’s righteousness.
- Whatever is pure-purity is the core of God’s being. God is perfect love and beauty, and he wants to share this with us. I think of James’ words here: “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
- ”Whatever is lovely-literally, whatever bends toward love of others. How can you ‘be lovely’ to others. It’s attitudes and actions that our world so desperately needs?
- Whatever is admirable or virtuous-think of the classic virtues taught by the church: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. These habits incarnate God’s loving nature and build up the common good?
- Whatever is praiseworthy-how have you thanked and encouraged those who have served and cared for you; and how have you praised God for all his love. And how might your life elicit that reaction from others, praising not you, but God working through you?
The other day Facebook reminded me that it is 20 years ago that the band U2 released the album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. This one song, called “Grace” spoke powerfully then, and still does to me today, of the power of God’s grace to bring hope, share peace and change life for the good. There’s one line that sticks with me: Grace makes beauty out of ugly things
There is much in contemporary Australian culture that is ugly and life-draining. We all know and experience it. But it’s Jesus, and trust in him, which brings beauty out of ugliness, and healing out of brokenness.Grace makes beauty out of ugly things. God has done this through the ugliness and pain of the cross, from which flows the amazing beauty of resurrection life. God calls us to share his beautiful grace with others. As you do so, may the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 4 October.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:4b-14
I’ve returned to work this week after a short holiday. It was good to get away from regular routines and responsibilities for a while, and reflect on the kind of year that it has been. I had hoped, like many of you, that 2020 would have been very different from the way it has played out.
During my leave, I read a biography of the Apostle Paul. I’ve always loved Paul’s writings, his passion, his struggles, his honesty, his grasp of the good news, his concern for the truth but also his compassion for people, his hard work, his suffering and his endurance. His letters are full of life and energy, and speak so clearly about the power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, not just to transform Paul’s own life but to create the church and bring a new future for all creation. I believe Paul has something vital to share with us today as we head toward the conclusion of this messed up year.
The words we hear from Paul today are written from a prison cell in Ephesus. Paul had time to think long and hard about how his trust and faith in Jesus fitted in the middle of his suffering. Suffering always forces us back to bedrock. Perhaps the advent of COVID-19 has raised big questions for you? What security is there in life when my plans for work, travel, retirement, can be so quickly turned on their head?
Or you may have experienced other difficult things this year, as in every year. My mother died in early March, and the question of future hope in the face of death is not an academic one for me. As it wasn’t for Paul, who faced death many times throughout his ministry. And of course all of us await an appointment with our own death, which is getting closer every day, no matter how young or old we are
The heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is Jesus himself. Paul is totally amazed at the way that Jesus changes everything about our future through his life, death and resurrection, God was putting the world to rights. “Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” And even more unexpectedly, amazingly, God raised him from the dead, to confirm his victory and to hold before us the certainty of eternal life.
For Paul, the faithful Jew, this came as a huge shock. Paul believed that God had revealed his covenant love to Israel, and had given them his law, and called them to be a light to all nations. Sadly, God’s people kept on making one wrong decision after another. Their hearts were led astray, and because of their behaviour, their idolatry and injustice, God eventually turfed them out of the promised land, and into exile. Yet Paul, as a committed Pharisee, worked as hard as he could to push his own people toward a renewed obedience to God. And that’s also why, when he first heard about Jesus and his claims, he was convinced that they were totally wrong and their teaching had to be stamped out.
It took some pretty dramatic intervention from God to turn Paul around-an encounter with the Risen Jesus himself as Paul was on his way to imprison some of Jesus followers in Damascus. Suddenly, blinded by God’s light, and shaken by the voice of Jesus himself, Paul’s spiritual vision was slowly healed as Barnabas, one of the first Christians, lovingly shared the story of Jesus with him. And so, bit by bit, as Paul reflected deeply on the Old Testament he knew and loved, he began to understand that the life and death of Jesus was actually the fulfilment of everything God had promised.
It’s not possible to overestimate how challenging this was for Paul. It required a completely new world view. You see, Paul was a star performer in the world of first century Judaism. He ticked every box. “If others think they have reason to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church, as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”
I’m sure that we, too, all have our list of personal achievements, and we rely on these for our sense of esteem or security-our academic achievements, our work, our homes and surroundings, our social network. We also hold them up to God as a way of showing him that we are worthy of his love. But what Paul learnt, through meeting Jesus, is that this is putting everything the wrong way around. It leads to a dead end. What Paul would have once placed in the profit column-his qualifications and achievements, are really only junk bonds in God’s eyes. All that we’ve accomplished, no matter how impressive it is in the eyes of others, or even in our own eyes, can’t deal with our biggest issue-the debt of obedience we owe to God. And all of what we consider good is shot through with self-interest, let alone those things we know are bad. No one living can work their way up to God through their own behaviour.
God’s covenant people were incapable of keeping his law. And so are we. And God’s law itself comes to a dead end too, because it can’t change our hearts. It only hammers us in our disobedience or fuels our misguided pride that we are on top of things.
Paul knows that this religious game is up. That’s why he writes: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” Whatever I thought was credit to me I now realise is loss. But I’m willing to give up that up because it really is worthless when I think about everything that I’ve been given by God through his Son, Jesus. There is really no comparison. Jesus became Paul’s passion, and his rock-solid confidence. And this is what he was bursting to share. It was good news not just for him personally, but for all people. It’s not just a nice idea, but something that changes the way we live, as well as the way we think. Knowing that God holds us in his love, through Jesus, is good news in the worst of situations. Knowing Jesus, personally, powerfully, gives Paul the strength he needs to endure. You can hear it in his words today, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul’s life itself is testimony to the grace of God, in the midst of suffering. And so is your life, and mine. Our experiences, and our inner thoughts, may not be so well known to others beyond our close family and friends, but the story of God’s grace at work is also written in and through us. I’ve had the privilege of hearing some of your stories of faith under pressure, of suffering sanctified by the presence of Jesus.
In my own life, I think I’m beginning to understand what Paul is saying through journeying with my mother toward her death, and now in my own grief, experiencing that strange, mixed up world of loss but also of sure hope through Jesus. This side of heaven, that’s the way it is for also, perhaps acutely so in this COVID-19 world and its ongoing implications.
Like Paul, we know only too well that we have not reached the end yet. But we do know that whatever life holds into the future, our lives are intertwined with Jesus’ life. Paul writes, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” Just savour that sentence, which to me sums up life as a follower of Jesus: taking hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. God reaching down to you and me, in grace and mercy, his grasp strong and secure, never letting us go, always hanging on even when we feel that we can no longer hold on to him. This enables me to deal with the difficulties of the here and now, in the light of God’s love that I know will never let me go.
“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” We will find ourselves on the victory dais, receiving the fullness of the gift Jesus has already given to us. And so, right now, as 2020 heads to a longed for conclusion, and 2021 beckons, we live, we love, and we serve, on the basis of this certain future. We have been grasped by God for good.This is the future from which we live fully in the present. Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 27 September.
Today we are going to reflect a little more on our Gospel reading: To help us understand, let’s have a brief look at it’s context. Jesus had entered into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The people welcomed him as a king!
Jesus went into the temple. He saw how it had become a corrupt marketplace. He was not happy. In holy anger he overturned the tables! Jesus was disgusted to see how the people were expected to pay ridiculously high prices to purchase the perfect animals for the ritual sacrifices and how they had to exchange their money for the temple offering. This was not a fair marketplace. The poor worshipper had no choice but to pay the inflated prices….
Now, the Chief priests and elders, were responsible for operations at the temple. They were powerful and wealthy people. In response to Jesus’ actions, they came to Jesus saying: “By what authority do you do these things and who gave you this authority?” …
As followers of Jesus we confess that Jesus’ authority comes from God the Father. …
Still today, authority remains a big issue in our world.
We find it hard to exercise our authority and we find it hard to live under authority.
A person who is given a position of authority will quickly learn that just because you have been given the position, does not mean people will automatically respect you or listen to you or do what you ask. …
Just think of the father and his two sons in our reading. Neither of the sons showed 100% respect for the authority of their father. One said yes dad and then did nothing. The other said no dad but later changed his mind and did what he was asked to do.
But Jesus willingly lived under the authority of his father. He did what his father asked him to do and in the end, was highly exalted! Jesus shows us there is blessing in living under authority.
So who are the authority figures in your life? Who are the people in your life you listen to and do what they ask you to do? Our number one authority is God who speaks to us primarily through the Holy Bible. The Bible is the means by which we can discover God’s will for our life. Under God, there are many in positions of authority in our society that exist to care for us. There is the government, civil authorities, teachers and employers. But the simplest and most common authorities are fathers and mothers.
Positions of authority will bring the greatest blessing to others when the person in the position puts themselves under the authority of God and his word. When people who are in positions of authority listen to the word and let God’s spirit speak into their lives, then everyone under their authority will be blessed.
Parents have authority over their children. The commandments say to children: “Respect your father and mother and all in positions of authority. – so that it may all go well with you!” So for example, how are fathers called to exercise their authority? Ephesians 6:4 says: Fathers do not make your children angry. Instead train them and teach them in the ways of the Lord.
The challenge in our world is that sin hates authority. Some of our biggest social issues are a testament to this. Sin leads us to reject the authorities that God has placed over us for our own good. Sin leads us to appoint ourselves as the number one authority in our lives. And we make our own rules to suit our own desires. Sin effects all of us. Sin leads us to say one thing and do the other.
Sin leads us to reject the authorities above us and ignore the needs of those we are called to care for.
In our reading from Philippians we learn that Jesus never assumed to be his own authority. He always remained under his Father’s authority and did the will of his father - first time, every time, without fail for the sake of all humankind.
Jesus is so different to the two sons in our Gospel who were asked by their father to work for him. One of the sons said yes to his father, but did not carry through. The other said no but then changed his mind and only later went to work in his vineyard.
But Jesus said Yes to his father and obeyed his father! And we are blessed because of it! …
Now, when the Chief priests and the elders heard this parable they knew that Jesus was talking about them. This made them angry. They wanted to arrest Jesus but were afraid of the crowd who supported him!
In the parable, the son who said yes but did nothing - was most like the Chief priests. They say all the right things – ‘Yes God, Yes God’, - but then go back and live as their own authorities and find more ways to feather their own nests at the expense of the poor.
In the parable, the son who initially said no and then chose to do what he was asked to do is most like the people who ignored the commandments but later heard John the Baptist’s call to repent and turn away from their evil ways. These people previously rejected God’s authority. They lived under their own authority and made a dishonest and destructive living. But upon hearing the message of John the Baptist they turned away from their evil ways and believed. They changed their ways and submitted to God’s authority.
The good news in our gospel today is seen in the life of the son who said no. God pursues us to show his grace to us even after we first reject his authority. Even after we have gone our own way living as our own authority, he shows us a better way. He renews in us a joy and a peace that comes from receiving forgiveness, he reminds us that he is with us and our life is hidden in him. He equips us to live under his authority and do his will by the power of the Spirit.
We have every reason to thank God the Father for Jesus who humbly submitted to the authority of his father. As a result of Jesus’ obedience, the father raised him up and gave him authority over all things so that all people may be drawn to him, receive forgiveness as his baptised sons and daughters and worship him with all creation forever.
As Philippians 2:9-11 says: Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is amplified at the end of the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus says to his disciples, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me….” Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and in earth by his father! He now calls us to live as his disciples. To go and work in his vineyard and do his will. His will is that we may care for others so they too may discover God’s love and become his disciples.
Now is the time to recognise his grace to us and to position ourselves under his authority and do what he has called us to do.
Jesus always recognised the authority of his father. He did not just say yes to his father, he obediently did what his father wanted him to do: He humbled himself and was obedient to the will of his father, even if it meant suffering and dying for the sake of others.
Often we think authority is exercised by telling others what to do. But Jesus teaches us otherwise. True authority is exercised by recognising the needs of others and caring for them according to their greatest need.
Friends, we have no authority in the lives of others: unless we too are willing to serve them at their point of need. We have no authority, unless we are willing to forgive as Christ has forgiven us and build them up so that they too may live with an eternal hope.
True authority never looks down on others or thinks only about self.
True authority will always help. It will show love and respect. It will extend care and compassion to those who need it the most.
Today as we celebrate the confirmation of 8 young people at St John’s God is calling all of us to live our lives in service to him under his authority for he truly cares for us and has shown his grace and love to us in Jesus.
When we have come to understand the grace of God, then we too will be able to say: Jesus rescued me when I was lost and sentenced to death. He set me free from all my sins, from death and from the power of the devil. It cost him more than gold or silver; it cost him his life. Even though he was holy and innocent, he suffered and died for me.
Jesus did this so that I can belong to him, and he can rule over me as my king (as my number one authority). All I can do is live under him and serve him, innocent and happy forever, just as he was raised to life, and lives and rules forever.
Today our confirmation students are saying Yes to Jesus and his authority over all things. And they will do so in obedience and thanks to God the Father for his love and grace! May we all do the same and support each other in honouring Jesus as our king – by Celebrating in worship, by Growing in Faith, by Caring for one another and by Telling others about Jesus. Together may we share Jesus love under the authority of Jesus who loved and cared for us first.
May we do so with joy under his authority! Amen
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 20 September.
"We no longer live in a society, we live in an economy."
I wonder if you can guess the author of this weighty quote. Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, Barack Obama?
In fact, it was our own Geoff Berger, who chatted with me about the state of the world one Sunday after church. It’s a sad reflection on our society that so many things are measured purely in economic terms, as it means we lose sight of the humanity and dignity of every person, which are the things that bind us together in our society.
We live in an age where so many things are counted in dollars. We have enterprise bargaining agreements, industrial relations legislation, unions and lobbies to ensure that things are fair in our workplaces. Many of us benefit greatly from these things. The main aim is to ensure that workers get a fair wage and in endeavours such as these you see a pairing of two great human interests – the economy and the desire for fairness.
As right as Geoff was to point this out, I think human beings have always had a preoccupation with money and economics, even if our society is particularly focused on these things today. Jesus even appealed to our understanding of a good deal when he spoke about the kingdom of God being like a treasure hidden in a field or an extremely valuable pearl being sold by a merchant. Jesus understood our attitude towards money very well when he said that anyone who discovered these things would go out and sell everything they had in order to buy the field with the treasure, or get hold of the highly valuable pearl. Although Jesus warned people about the problems of greed on a number of occasions and the futility of material possessions, he didn’t chastise the person in these parables for giving up everything so that they could buy something that was highly valuable. Instead, he appealed to our own appreciation of good economics – a sound investment in something of great value is a good way to use your money. His point in these parables was to say that the treasure of the kingdom of God is immeasurably more important than the treasures we accumulate here on earth and – once we realise that – we are willing to let go of anything that might get in our way to take hold of something that will have eternal significance.
And so, with a clear understanding of the human appreciation both for good economics and fair work conditions, Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard. But he tells this story knowing it will receive a strong reaction. God’s way of working – God’s kingdom – is not an economy. It is not based on money and it is not even based, primarily, on fairness – at least not fairness as we understand it. God’s kingdom is about the spiritual life we receive as treasures from heaven, things that give our life here on earth purpose and meaning and a sense of fulfilment. And fairness in God’s kingdom actually comes
second to his desire to be generous. This is wonderful news for people who realise that God has great gifts he wants to give them even though they don’t deserve it. This news might not sit so well with people who feel that they deserve God’s blessing and commendation after a long period of service, or after living a supposedly good life. This parable grates with our usual understanding of fairness and economics because we like to see those who are first rewarded and those who are last, at least by their own fault, left at the end of the queue. In God’s kingdom, however, the first here on earth end up being last and those who are last end up being first.
So if you were to place yourself in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, which character would you prefer to be? Do you appreciate job security, the meaningfulness of work, the sense of assurance that you will have a steady income for you and your family? If so, you would probably prefer to be the characters who are up early, looking for work, and who are given a secure job for a negotiated wage right at the start of the day. If you’ve ever been unemployed, finally being given reliable work at a fair wage is an enormous relief. I’m sure those workers who clocked on early in the day worked peacefully all day not worrying about how they would pay for food and shelter for the next period of time. It strikes me that these workers were actually the lucky ones, even if, when it came time to receive their pay, they felt unjustly treated.
The workers who only came late would not have had the same peace of mind from knowing they had reliable work. We don’t know why they only found work so late in the piece. There’s nothing to suggest they were lazy, or slept in, or missed out for any particular reason. They were ‘standing around all day doing nothing’ it says, but we don’t know why, other than no one offered them any work. Even if they had been lazy, or slow to look for work, the point of this parable is not the character traits of the workers but the desire of the owner of the vineyard to have people work in his fields. He has work he wants done and he has a harvest he wants to be brought in. So he invited anyone and everyone to come in and work for him, no matter what time they can start, and he will pay them whatever is fair, in his eyes. It’s his money, after all, and his harvest. He just wants workers who will come and join him.
It is the same with God and us. God desperately wants people to be workers in his kingdom. Unlike a wage, where you earn your pay, being a worker in God’s kingdom comes with the gifts of eternal life and salvation. In fact, though we share in Jesus’ work with him, he would rather call us ‘friends’ than ‘servants’. But being a worker in God’s kingdom is so much more than just reassurance about life eternal and salvation – the pay off, if you want to compare it to the parable. Being a worker in God’s kingdom gives incredible meaning and purpose to our lives here on earth right now. We see our world differently in the present because of the hope and reassurance we have from Christ’s promises. Just like – for me – the workers who came early to the vineyard were the lucky ones, having peace of mind and a clear
purpose from the very start of their working day, as Christians we can be so grateful that we haven’t had to live most of our lives in uncertainty, or anxiety, or pointless chasing after the wind trying to make meaning of our own existence. We haven’t gone chasing fruitless work of our own, or pursuing the empty promises offered to us by the world. Rather, we have been called into God’s vineyard to serve him there and this brings joy, meaning and fulfilment to our lives.
And hopefully, as workers in God’s kingdom, we delight in new people joining us in God’s kingdom, as workers in his vineyard, even if they clock on very late in the piece. Would we really grumble if someone coming so late to the faith was given the same promises of life and salvation as someone who had known Christ for their whole life? Hopefully not. Maybe, in some cases, if a person had perpetrated particularly evil acts and lived an extremely cruel or sinful life, or had an arrogant attitude towards God and people of faith, only to repent after all the damage had been done, we might see things differently. We may feel a sense of injustice knowing that, should they repent and believe, that their sins would also be washed away and they would be called into God’s kingdom at the eleventh hour. This would be something to take up with God who, like the owner of the vineyard, gives us what he has promised and shows himself to be generous, even if it doesn’t always seem fair.
Let’s thank God that we don’t live in an economy, or even simply in a society that seeks to create its own meaning and its own rules about what’s fair, what’s right, who is first and who is last. We have something far better than that – we have the privilege of being called into service in the kingdom of a generous and merciful God. He sets the conditions and they always err on the side of generosity and mercy. We can be so grateful for that, for we don’t deserve what he has given us – it’s a gift of amazing grace. May that same grace and mercy characterise our lives as we encounter people so that they may also want to join us in God’s service.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 13 September.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ 22 Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 ‘Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 ‘At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go. 28 ‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded. 29 ‘His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.” 30 ‘But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 ‘Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 ‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Joseph Stalin’s biographer said this of his subject. 'Stalin never forgot nor forgave an injury done to him. He bided his time and in the end always hit back.' The death of countless millions can testify to the murderous intent of Stalin's unforgiving heart. He turned the energy of a grudge nursed into the fullness of evil.
In my first parish, one of my members, a GP, ran a workshop on the topic of forgiveness. She began the workshop by quoting this statistic from a Christian psychologist which shocked me. “Non-forgiveness, resentment or bitterness is the leading cause of death in the U.S.A.” She went on to explore the physical effects of not forgiving others: depression, which can be internalized anger, and anxiety, for which people may resort to drugs or alcohol in order to cope. Resentment requires energy, and this comes via the adrenal gland, which pumps out hormones. We know it as the fight or flight response, but when it's perpetually primed, it can suppress the white blood cells and the antibodies which fight illness.
I’m certain that each of us know in our own lives the heartache of an issue that remains unresolved. Perhaps it's a long estrangement between family members. Or a simple dispute with a neighbour that has taken on the form of an ongoing, unresolved border dispute. Or perhaps someone we trusted has passed on something we told them confidentially, and now we refuse to have anything to do with them.
To suggest that the solution to all these issues is forgiveness is seen by many people to be the easy way out, featherbedding people who deserve to suffer for what they’ve done wrong. Witness the ‘law and order’ debate that comes around every election time. Some states have what is called ‘mandatory detention’ of defenders after a 3rd offence, ‘three strikes and you’re in’ legislation. The third conviction places a person in jail, no matter what the crime.
Perhaps this is the origin of Peter’s proposal to Jesus. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Seven is more practical than three, given how much we offend against each other, but it still involves keeping tally of people’s faults. It just requires better accounting and a more powerful memory. Then I can wipe them out of my life.
Jesus replies: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Peter does the maths and rocks back on his heels, and perhaps he wonders whether Jesus is another one of these do-gooders, blind to the potential of human beings to hurt each other. That’s when Jesus decides to tell a story about kingdom accounting. The numbers in this parable are mind-blowing. A slave comes to the king owes the equivalent of a middle-size country's gross national product. His debt is infinite. A talent was the largest coinage known. And ten thousand was the largest number conceivable.
Amazingly, unbelievably, the king is moved by his servant’s plea for mercy. There’s nothing in it for the king. The debt will never be repaid, but in his compassion, he forgives it. He throws the abacus out of the window. What to do now that life has opened up again. Aren’t you shocked that the freed servant chooses the way he has just escaped from? How could he once again account for other people’s wrongs against him, when he has been forgiven so much? Our anger begins to rise at his audacious behaviour. “Seizing his fellow slave by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe…he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.” A big debt, no doubt, 100 day’s wages, but minuscule in proportion to the one he had blithely walked away from.
What was he thinking? Forgiveness might be good for God, and the do-gooders around the place, but it doesn’t work in the real world. You can’t let people take advantage of you. You’ve got to show them who’s boss.
But the king, the one has just pardoned him, gets to hear about what he’s done, and is shocked, and mightily angered: If you’re not into managing with mercy, then nor am I. Pay me what you owe. Two can play this game. “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.”
Do you and I get stuck in accounting mode? Even though we know that we have been forgiven by God, do we transfer this grace across to the way we treat those who have wronged us? This is where Peter starts this conversation: he asks Jesus for a number. He wants to know just how much forgiveness is reasonable. And so he suggests what he thinks is by all accounts is a more-than-sufficient amount of forgiveness.
In turning forgiveness into a transaction, we dismiss grace. And we leave people locked in the prison of our hate. Who have you imprisoned? Who do you still want to punish because they hurt you? What can’t you let go of because it seems unfair that your hurt will be forgotten and therefore not validated?
We’ve all been stuck in a place like this, and these thought and emotions become a prison which entraps us. An unforgiving and unrepentant attitude causes harm to ourselves as much as it does to others. It’s corrosive to faith and it sets us on a collision course with God who has treated us so graciously in the forgiving way he has embraced us through our baptism and blessed us with a living relationship with him.
“The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go.” This word “pity”
is used by Matthew to refer only to God’s love. God was wiped the slate clean. In the words of Psalm 103, “as far as the east is from the west; so far he removes our transgressions from us.” But in choosing to remember and account for each wrong, we are rewriting our history. We are throwing back in God’s face the fact that he has rescued us from spiritual bankruptcy. And if that’s what we want from God, then sadly that’s what he will give us. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.” If you and I want to keep count, so will God. And he has a far better memory than us.
But this is not the way of full life that Jesus promises those who trust in his love and grace. God is ready and waiting for us to return to him to seek his forgiveness, and to pray to him for strength to forgive those who have hurt us. And this can be immensely difficult, for forgiveness is not the easy way out. It is much easier to ignore other people’s hurts, or underestimate the pain they’ve caused us. But when we do that, we file the hurt away, and we brood on it. It grows and develops a life of its own, and we can’t resist the desire for revenge. But this isn’t love in the name of Christ. Remember what Paul says in the famous chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”
Forgiveness is powerful. It’s not a cop out, nor a helpless acceptance of what happened to us.
In his book, The Art of Forgiving, Lewis Smedes outlines the process of forgiveness. It has four steps, if you’re counting:
1. Acknowledge the hurt
2. Gently confront the person who has hurt you; something has happened that makes it impossible to carry on relationship as if nothing has happened. “Forgiveness is not saying, ‘What you did I understand and it’s all right with me…Forgiving is going to a person and saying, ‘I don’t understand. I’ll never understand. And it wasn’t OK and it isn’t OK. But I forgive.”
3. Decide you are going to live with the scales of justice unbalanced. It means not engaging in the cycle of revenge. It means that you choose to live the prayer that you daily pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” You also choose to live in obedience to God’s word through Paul: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
4. Begin to revise your feelings toward the person who has wronged you. The person who hurt you gradually rejoins the human race. God has dealt with both your sin, and the sin of the person who has hurt you through the cross of Jesus. You stand on the same ground.
Forgiveness is not delayed retribution. It’s not a strategy to bide our time. It’s bringing our rightful hurt and pain into God’s heart, and seeking the healing that he wants to bring, to us and for the person who has wronged us. Forgiveness is the oil that lubricates the wheel of Christian community. Forgiveness is a human need, but a divine endowment. “In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” And in our forgiving, “we set a prisoner free. We discover that the prisoner we set free is ourselves.” Free as God intended us to be in Christ.
Father, give us the power to do what you have done for us, so that we might live in harmony with one another, and at peace with you and ourselves. Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 6 September.
I’m sure most of you have heard of an accounting software package called M.Y.O.B. It was developed for people who run their own small business and want to manage their own accounts. Minding their own business, and helping other businesses has made M.Y.O.B a very successful company.
Many of us would have heard the saying, “Mind your own business,” especially when we were younger. It was mostly a retort if we were prying into something that didn’t concern us, or we may have said it to someone else if we wanted some privacy. However, I think it’s also true to say that in a highly individualistic culture like ours, we have taken this old adage too far. Self-reliance has become self-focus. Independence has become selfishness. We are busily minding our own business, to the detriment of others in our community, who may very well need the support we could offer.
God has created the church to be a community, the body of Christ no less. The Shepherd of Souls series has taught about the responsibility we have to one another to shepherd each other. So the reality for us is that we are not to mind our own business, but to mind, to care for others, and support them in every need.
Now you might be thinking that this is a recipe for gossip, innuendo and relational chaos. And that would be true were the motivation to pick apart other people by pointing out their faults and seeking to bring them down by exposing them. We see enough of that in contemporary cancel culture. Trawl long enough, and dig deep enough, and someone will find a word or an action which is offensive, and that person is hung out to dry. In cancel culture, there is no forgiveness, and no opportunity for rehabilitation. People all either all bad or all good.
However, as Jesus make clear today, the church is not to be that kind of place. The church was not created by Jesus himself to be a loose collection of individuals who are hell bent on their individual agendas. We exist with and for one another. Someone once counted that there are 59 one another’s in the Bible, including one in our second reading today: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”
The church is in the relationship business. The church exists because God came on down and related to us, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. Sure, God could have minded his own business and ignored the mess human beings had made, and continue to make, of their relationship with him, with their fellow human beings, and with the world he made for them. But it’s not in God’s nature to shirk a hard decision. He made us, he redeemed us, and our lives are his business. God’s pure love is stronger than our apathy, stubbornness, defensiveness, self-justification, hardness of heart, our sin. In the cross of Jesus, God’s love healed the rift between us and him.
In turn that’s the kind of love Jesus is calling us to display. This is easy to do when people love us in return. But what about when people aren’t loving? What about when they’ve hurt us, betrayed the trust we’ve placed in them? Living in community can be awfully difficult. So many people, so close together. Something’s bound to happen. Tension, not talking, turning the cold shoulder, just not turning up, these are some of the ways that people deal with conflicts, even between people who confess Jesus as Lord.
So what is the community of God’s people supposed to look like, and how are we supposed to behave toward one another? In Matthew 18, Jesus paints a picture of kingdom life. It’s a place where the ‘little ones’, the vulnerable, and especially children, are accorded a special place of honour. Humility is the characteristic that is honoured, not hubris or pride. It’s a place where the lost ‘little one’ is the object of the shepherd’s diligent search, until he or she is found.
The touchstone for our common is this searching saving love of God displayed in the love of Jesus. This love doesn’t say, ‘Mind your own business.’ That would be the easy way, which would mean people stewing in their anger, people walking off because no one cared enough to actually get close to them to bring healing. Today Jesus shows us the process whereby healing of the individual and the body can take place. This isn’t easy, but is necessary. Every pastor, and every congregation know what happens when we fail to love deeply enough to address an issue of sin.
“If another member of the church sins…” Jesus begins today. Not if, but when, and not just others, but us too. What are we to do? What often happens is that nothing happens. Or worse still, we go and tell others how we’ve been wronged, and how bad the person who has hurt us is, without addressing the individual concerned. Jesus advises a different course of action. “Go and point out the fault when two of you are alone.’ That sounds good. It means I can give them a piece of my mind. No, hang on a moment. Remember the touchstone is God’s searching love, not wanting any to be lost. So we confront in love, gently, calmly, because we are not seeking revenge, but restoration. We know that God wants his healing love to flow through us. And we do it knowing that the boot could so easily be on the other foot. We know that the balm of God’s forgiveness is the only way that true healing can occur.
There’s a second step. Perhaps it’s not one that we often get to. It is so difficult to take even the first step, because we rationalise that we should let bygones be bygones. And true, it’s wise to weigh up how serious any particular issue is. However, there are times when others need to get involved, for the sake of nursing the person, and the community back to spiritual health. “But if they will not listen,” Jesus says, “take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
I like the way that Paul speaks about this process. He writes to the church in Galatia: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.”
Humility, not superiority, is the attitude we must bring, and the realisation that we all live by the forgiving word of God. St Augustine wrote, “Nothing so demonstrates the spiritual person as their treatment of someone else’s sin, when they plan how to set the other free rather than how to deride them, and to help them rather than deride them.”
Forgiveness is the spiritual kryptonite that disarms sin and its effects. The reality is that when people, even Christian people, live together in community, there are going to be tensions, difficulties, insults and hurts. That’s because we are the frail mixture of both saint and sinner, and we sometimes choose to let the sinner get the upper hand. But what Jesus promises today should encourage us to not to run away from these difficulties and conflicts, but address them in the way he suggests: one on one, then a few more people, then with the wisdom of the whole community.
Jesus has given the church the authority to forgive in his name, and also not to forgive, if a person simply doesn’t want to admit how what he or she has done is wrong and has hurt both another person and the community. And the end game, in treating the person as a tax collector or a Gentile, is that these were the people Matthew tells us who were captivated by the good news of Jesus. Take Matthew himself. So pray for them, and do all you can to win them back. It’s the Father’s will that not one of these ‘little ones’ perish.
As we seek to bring healing, we have the promise of Jesus’ presence with us. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.’ Could these two or three be reconciled members of the community giving thanks to God for the forgiving grace that effected healing of a relationship? What a blessing it is not to be alone, but to be gathered by Jesus through his powerful word of forgiveness.
Minding other people’s business is not being a busybody. Remember that it’s Christ-like love that dictates how we act. Facing people honestly, and working toward forgiveness is what true community is all about. That’s what the presence of Jesus among us enables us to do. Let’s resolve to be a community that owes one another the debt of love. For Jesus’ sake, for one another, and for the world. We are the community of the forgiven, not the community of the sinless, through the forgiving love of our Father in heaven. Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 30 August.
The singer Madonna was once asked why she used to wear a crucifix. You might have thought that it had something to do with the fact that she was raised as a Catholic. But no. In her typically provocative way, she answered, ‘Crucifixes are sexy because there’s a naked man on them.’
I’m sure the first Christians would have been astonished to discover that the instrument that brutalised Jesus has become a ‘must-have’ fashion accessory. This instrument of violent justice began its rise as an icon when Constantine had a vision of a blazing cross in the sky, before he went out into a decisive battle. He heard or saw the words: ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ He did, and so this faith of the poor and the marginalised was transformed into the official religion of the state.
The cross became a symbol of power, and it was to remain that way for many centuries. But in recent decades this power has begun to wane. Sadly, the church itself has been responsible for some of this decline, through the horrific scandal of clerical sexual abuse.
Today many people still wear the cross as a piece of jewellery. But first of all, though, the cross is something we are called to carry. It’s part of the deal of being a disciple of Jesus. And this is based on Jesus’ cross, through which God embraces the sin and brokenness of the whole world, and brings hope, and a new future for all people.
The cross is the strongest symbol of love bar none. But it’s a shocking one too. Our culture sees love through the lens of sentimentality and self-fulfilment, but there is nothing schmaltzy and soft-focus about the cross. But we are not the only people to struggle to understand the depth of God’s love. Even Jesus first disciples didn’t get it first up. In this same chapter of Matthew, Peter confesses that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’
Peter and his compatriots were hoping that being on board with Jesus would mean the fulfilment of all their hopes and dreams, starting with the restoration of Israel as a sovereign nation with Jesus at the helm, and each one of them as members of his kingdom cabinet.
But straight afterward, Jesus had some sobering words for them, and for us too. ‘Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things...and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life...’ Hear the cogs ticking over…Suffer...be killed...Jesus, what are your saying? That’s just not possible. Peter’s first out of the blocks with his objection: ‘Never, Lord. This shall never happen to you.’ Peter’s actions are instinctive, and they indicate that he doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying, nor where he is heading. ‘May God in his mercy spare you’ is actually what he says. This is a common Jewish saying that expresses shock. Little does he know that what Jesus has said is driven by the merciful love of his Father for the broken world. Jesus’ death will be all about God’s mercy.
Jesus knows what’s at stake here. What Peter says is no minor misunderstanding. Jesus’ mission hinges on following the path to the cross. Satan tried to derail him before he had even begun his ministry, at the time of temptation. Jesus words of retort now sound the same: ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’ This time Peter is his unwitting agent, and he gets the same short shrift. ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’
The road ahead for Jesus is hard, harder than his disciples could possibly imagine. It’s the only way that God can reconcile the broken world to himself. And following his cross, the church he creates through his death and resurrection will be called to travel the same road of self-sacrifice. ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.’
Carrying our cross begins with self-denial. This is a hard sell in a world that views a good life as revolving around me, my pleasure, my achievements, my things. We immediately see this call as something that restricts life. But self-denial does not mean a life less-lived. In taking up our cross, we find a fullness of life, a generosity of heart, and the immense blessing of God sharing his healing love with the world through us.
I think we also hear Jesus’ word about carrying our cross in terms of the burdens that life brings us: pain and sickness, grief, family estrangement and stress. There’s no question that these experiences are difficult and draining, but they’re not exactly what Jesus means. The cross about which he’s speaking is discipleship.
Carrying the cross means that we value our relationship with God above all others, above things, above family, above self. It means that we are called to make decisions, every day, every hour, which factor in the cross. It means giving up habits and actions that we know in our heart to be contrary to God’s will for us. It means suffering the ridicule of friends, neighbours and workmates for taking a stand about a matter of faith, an injustice, an ethical issue, or coming to the defence of others, especially those marginalised and isolated. We are called to make decisions that reflect God’s will. We want to personify what we pray: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, in me, as in heaven.’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis in the last weeks of the war in Europe in World War II, ‘Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer.’ What does living as a faithful Christian in an increasingly faithless world look like? What are the consequences of living a life of Christ-like integrity, of truth-telling, of obediently and humbly giving ourselves in serving and suffering love to neighbour, friend and enemy?
When we live this way, we are replacing our agenda with that of Christ’s. This is what it means to lose our lives so that we will save them. This is not some ideal reserved for super-Christians but the call of Jesus for all who want to follow him. But this call can only be heard, understood and lived in the light of Jesus’ own cross. No matter often Jesus spoke about what it meant to be a disciple, no matter how he modelled this in the way that he showed love both to his disciples and to the people who came to him to be healed, it was only in the light of the cross and resurrection that the disciples got it. That’s because the cross displayed the logic and power of God’s love, and cracked open the hardness of their hearts and radically renewed their thinking, and ours too.
We can only be called disciples through the costly grace of the cross. Now that we know about the cross, now that we have been gifted with a living relationship with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are ready to walk the road-less travelled. All that we are and all that we have is now for the glory of God.
Selwyn Hughes, who writes the devotion book, ‘Every Day with Jesus,’ makes an interesting point about why Christians in the western world are unaccustomed to suffering. It’s worth our thinking about: ‘Perhaps the reason why we do not suffer very much is because our lives do not challenge and rebuke unbelievers by their integrity, purity, and their love. The world sees nothing in us to dislike (or at least, the wrong things to dislike). We make little impact on society, we are seldom bold enough to speak out against evil, and we mind our own business lest anyone should be offended.’ These words certainly make me think about how cross shaped my life is. What about you?
It is good thing to wear a cross as a sign of our faith in Jesus. It is an even better thing to carry our cross, in acts of suffering love for the world God loves and has redeemed through Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Amen.
Click here to watch the [Worship Video](https://bit.ly/2wOdI3l) for Sunday 23 August.
I bring grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Good shepherd - the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
So for 6 weeks now we have been digging deep in what it means to be a shepherd of souls. I wonder if you have caught the thought that the task of the church – the body of Christ is to shepherd souls. The entire body of Christ has been given the task of shepherding souls. It is a task that belongs to the entire community and not just one lone individual.
And what does the task of shepherding souls look like? It is the task of loving God and our neighbour at the same time… in the same breath,…..
Shepherding of souls brings together the Great Commission to make disciples with the great command to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves.
If we go right back to week one of this series you may recall how Jesus sent out the 72 in pairs – two by two. To every town and place where he was about to go.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus sent them out in pairs? Luke 10:3 says: ‘Go I am sending you our like lambs among wolves.’
Can an ordinary lone lamb stand it’s ground against a wolf?
I doubt it? A lamb on it’s own will be quickly defeated. And if two lambs go out together they may be able to defend each other. So imagine the ability of three? Especially if we take on the task of shepherding oneanother!
Jesus always said, where two or three gather in my name there I am with them!
Our ministry of shepherding will be healthy and life giving for everyone if we all play our part. If we leave it up to one person to shepherd souls on their own, we leave them to succeed or fail on their own. None of us are gifted to shepherd souls as a private calling – it is a call that belongs to all of us together - for together we can support each other in the face of trouble.
The Gift of being part of the church, the body of Christ the Good shepherd, is that we are called to care for one another in a living partnership for the sake of the world God loves. We all need this care. Even the best shepherd will eventually falter and fail if they shepherd on their own. We need each other. Shepherding in community provides the safety net and support that can overcome human brokenness, foolishness and simple judgements in error.
For as we shepherd together we point each other to Jesus, the good shepherd. Together we will discover the grace that is experienced by returning to the good shepherd. And in his grace, he will again allow us to shepherd with others under Jesus the Good shepherd. Jesus does not call perfect people to be shepherds under him. Jesus calls people - who have come to realise how precious his grace is - to be shepherds others. A mature shepherd will realise how amazing God’s grace is and will long to see that grace overflow into the lives of others.
Just as the best shepherd may fail if they see shepherding only as an individual calling, so the opposite is also true. When the worst of shepherds comes back under Christ the good shepherd the Spirit of God remains in them to be the voice or the presence that can bring healing and hope to others.
Today in our readings we have heard Isaiah saying to the Israelites who had suffered the excruciating pain of being exiled in Babylon that an end to their suffering had arrived, for their sins have now been paid for they are forgiven and free!
It speaks a message of comfort to all people of all times and all places. It’s for people who need comfort for misdeeds, for broken promises, for painful experiences that isolate them from others, for hurt that longs for relief that seems out of reach.
All of us at one time or another need to be led in the direction of hope, healing, forgiveness and new beginnings. And our role - together with the biblical prophets - is to speak this same message tenderly to people of every time and every place – including to one another.
We can speak the truth that not only does God save us by forgiving us our sins but he gives us double for all our sins. (Isaiah 40:2 says: Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.) Some may think this refers to double the punishment for her sins and sometimes the troubles in life may feel like double the punishment, but since Christ has paid for our sin once and for all, we can interpret this verse as God giving us an extra gift on top of the gift of forgiveness. He gives us the gift of his blessing so that we can be a blessing to others!
Why can we speak this way?
Our second reading tells us why: We are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved!
No only does God forgive us and wash our hearts clean and fill us with peace. He gives us more! He gives us his clothes to wear and tells us to put them on: He gives us his compassion, his kindness, his humility, gentleness and patience and love so that we can be a blessing to others. (Colossians 3:12,14) – Bearing with each other, forgiving others just as Jesus has forgiven us and living together in unity. (Colossian 3:13)
Apostle Paul doesn’t simply say it’s a nice idea that we practice humility, gentleness and patience, He instructs us to do so. These actions bring about a loving, healthy community. These actions reverberate and create health in ourselves and in others. These actions are an outpouring of the love of Christ within us.
That’s what we love about gathering together around God’s word and sacraments – not only are we reminded by the words we hear and read and sing that we are forgiven, but God demonstrates that forgiveness he gives us more. He chooses to give us a double! He comes and feeds us with his body and blood to strengthen us so that we can be a blessing to others as we care for one another! And what a joy it is to welcome (at our 10.00am service to welcome 8 young people to the lord’s table for their first communion to receive both God’s forgiveness and God’s blessing.
Now if you are hooked on coffee, think of it this way. A one shot coffee might wake you up, but a double shot coffee gets you moving!
OK – for some of you that might have been a flat white analogy, so let’s move right along to our gospel reading.
We teach that Jesus our Good shepherd died and rose again to defeat the powers of sin, death and the devil, but that does not mean that the evil one leaves God’s people alone in this lifetime. 1 Peter 5:8 says “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
In our Gospel reading Jesus makes it clear that the evil one loves to go searching to find any way it can to enter into the sheep pen to stir up trouble amongst God’s people. (a Church community is the sheep pen that the evil one just loves to break into and stir up trouble). Once the evil one has found a foothold, the evil one will tempt us to do the opposite of what Paul calls us to do in Colossians 3. The evil one does not want us to bear with each other and forgive one another if any of us have a grievance against someone. The evil one will do whatever he can to turn us against one another.
To bear with each other is to recognise that everyone is struggling with their own burdens, wrestling with their own conflicts. Bearing with one another will mean getting alongside of one another, sitting with them and gently guiding them back under the care of Jesus the good shepherd to whom we are able to hand our burdens, and in turn receive the abundant life he has won for us. The double blessing we receive in the abundant life is not only being forgiven it is also the overflow to be a blessing to others by carefully shepherding others.
The evil one may come to steal, kill and destroy, but under the care of Jesus the good shepherd, we are called to work together to care for each other and help each other bear the burdens we carry.
Together under Christ the Good shepherd we can guide each other back to Jesus the Good Shepherd and live life to the full, overflowing with blessing to others to the Glory of God.
May this reality be seen here and everywhere that God’s spirit calls and gathers his church on earth.