Monday, 2 June 2014

The Ascension: Movement, development and change in God (John 17:1-14)

Movement, growth and development are usually perceived as good things, especially when it relates to spiritual growth.  Movement and growth usually mean change, but change is not always welcome.  The gospel passage is based on the prayer of Jesus in the upper room for his disciples before major changes occurred: the cross, resurrection, and the ascension.  There is a great deal of movement in the text which we will explore.  We are also in a season of movement and change.  Resurrection joy has moved on to Ascension glory and we are awaiting the celebration of the power of the Spirit at Pentecost.  Some people like always being on the go and changing, others like the steady security of little or no change.  The ascension which the church celebrated this week is a key movement and event in God’s story. 
Against the backdrop of Jesus’ ascension, this morning I want to explore how the movement of Jesus as recorded in his prayer for his disciples, (which includes you and me) interweaves with our own movement and change in our life with God.  I want to think about three movements which bring about change that are recorded in this text.
First, there is the movement from glory to glory.  Listen again to verses 1, 4 and 5: 1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you; I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.  Does God change?  I used think that God did not change and that it was a real security for my faith to dwell on the fact that God didn't change.  The world around may be afflicted by the changes and chances of life, but God remains the same.
          But how can God remain the same if we believe God is incarnationally intimate with us as ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ?  At the incarnation, God became one with us in a way that he was not before.  One of the significant aspects to the Ascension of Jesus is that the fleshly humanity of Jesus is taken up into the Godhead.  That very reality alters the Godhead.  Indeed, when we consider this it is not just the potential material change, it is the fact that Jesus takes up into the Godhead his human experience as well.
          This movement from glory to glory is captured in the way that the Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the one who was sent, who descended to the earth and the who will ascend back to the heavens.  It is a movement of glory to glory.  The former glory before God in Christ descended at the incarnation was a 'painless' glory, a transcendent splendour untainted by earthly grit.  It was the glory of heaven untouched by humanity. But now that glory moves to a new glory.  A glory brought about by blood and death, through the glory of the cross.  It is the glory of God in flesh and blood, having tasted hunger and sorrow, completing the appointed time, completing the mission, and returning to glory: from glory to glory.
          As a result of God's glory on earth and revealed in flesh, as a result of God's glory seemingly snuffed out by crucifixion, God's glory now shines in a new, changed way.  In the Ascension, earth and heaven are united in a new way, flesh and deity are intertwined.  God changes and we are no longer the same.
God's change means there is a second movement.  It is a movement described from Jesus' perspective as, 'from me to you'; or in the third-person, 'from Jesus to us'.  In Jesus' prayer for us, he tells what changes will occur because of the movement from glory to glory.
          Listen to these words of Jesus (read vv. 6, 7, 8, 3): 6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me…And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
          The Word made flesh has disclosed the words of God and we now know God in a new way.  When we recognize Jesus as the sent one, when we believe his message, we have eternal life.  Jesus' mission is accomplished through the handing on of his knowledge to you and me.  And what Jesus knew intimately was God, for he was with God and was God.  In ascending to glory, he leaves in you and me intimate knowledge of God and the gift of abundant life.
          There is something spectacularly exhilarating about baptisms.  I have watched adults come out of the ocean waves.  I have seen young children dunked in a garden swimming pool.  I have watched adults in a church baptistery come up out of the water.  And I have stood by little babies made wet by the waters of baptism from an ancient font.  In every case, there is an electricity of new life, new knowledge, new beginnings.  Our baptism illustrates that as Jesus moves from glory to glory he passes from himself to you and me, intimacy with God and new life.  At our baptism, Jesus comes to us in the Holy Spirit to make his home in us.  A new relationship is initiated.  The knowledge transfer begins.
But the movement does not stop there.  Our movement to life and knowledge is a process that is never finished.  After all what is eternal life, but the uninhibited process of becoming, the process of continuing the transformation begun in faith and flesh.  So there is the third movement, the process of now until tomorrow: the ever future tomorrow, the tomorrow which is always the day after; the tomorrow which is our hope.  Listen to verse 11: And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.
In these words, the promise of tomorrow rests and depends on the now.  2000 years ago, Jesus goes from the world, taking flesh up to God so that all flesh may dwell with God.  Because of that now, in the present, our now, we are protected so that we can move into tomorrow.  The hope of tomorrow is the promise of being one with each other and one with God.
          Christ's movement from glory to glory, our movement to knowledge and life in Christ, is all part of the movement of now to tomorrow.  Because of Christ’s ascension we have a real hope for the future.  Because of all that Christ did and does we are being transformed, changed, made a new creation.  We are becoming one with God.  This is a movement that is constant (even in our spiritual ups and downs), but never fully realized.  In our life with God every now has a tomorrow which moves us forward and closer and deeper in our walk with God.
To conclude: three movements, from glory to glory, from Jesus to us, from now to tomorrow.  Three movements which are intertwined and dance with each other in the now and in the tomorrow that is yet to be.  In the now, we see Christ's movement from glory to glory, yet we await the glory that IS to be revealed.  In the now we are coming to know God and have life, but tomorrow we will know more and have an even more abundant life.  In the now, by faith we are one and we are one with God, tomorrow we realise oneness with God and with each other in a new and greater way.

In the upper room, Jesus outlines the way God is moving.  When we join in the movement of God, we are changed.  We are woven into the life of God and God's life and glory is woven in and through our life and being.  In the now and tomorrow of God there is movement, growth and development.  As we heard last week, 'For in God we live and move and have our being'. (Acts 17.28)

Friday, 9 May 2014

Being an Easter Community

Easter so what?  The church looked lovely with all the flowers and special decorations, still does.  The service was a bit more alive than usual.  Perhaps you had a special meal with friends or family.  The Easter eggs and assorted chocolates make it special too.  And you had the next day off work.  But so what, what difference does it all make? 
          The church is an Easter community.  Each and every Sunday we gather to worship our God and key is celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.  We are a community which believes in and embraces the new life we are called to in Christ Jesus, our risen Lord.
         What does it mean to be an Easter community, a post-Jesus resurrection community.  To do this, I want us to consider the kind of community Jesus was creating after his resurrection as he met the disciples (see John 20:19-end).
          First he created a community of peace.  Three times in this reading Jesus says, ‘peace be with you’.  When was the last time you felt totally at peace?  Some of you with young children or some of you living with chronic pain may wonder if you can remember.  But at some point we experience a sense of peace.  This is what we are called to be.  Peace is a sense of being a rest in the moment (not static).  Peace is sense of not being in conflict with yourself or others.  Peace is being right with God.  Listen to this: Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus before the death and resurrection promised peace to the disciples: John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  This peace is the promise of the enduring presence of Christ in our midst.  As a Easter community we are to be a community marked by peace, the peace of Christ and peace between each other.
          Second, he created or commissioned the community to go: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  We are a sent community.  Our church life is not just within the four walls of a church.  We gather that we might go out into the world to be the light of Christ, to proclaim the good news to others in word and deed, and to serve our community.  We are now the revelation of Jesus in the world.  What a challenge!  We must ask ourselves, how do we reveal Christ in our mission and ministry as a church?  In what way, as we leave this place, do we show Christ to others?  As an Easter community we are sent into the community to reveal Christ to the world.
          Thirdly, we are spirit filled community: Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.  The going out, the peace, and all we are called to be is enabled and empowered by the presence of God in our lives and in our midst through the Holy Spirit.  Where two are three gather in Christ’s name, God is present through the Holy Spirit.  We worship God in Spirit and in truth.  The Holy Spirit is also present in our individual lives as disciples.  The Holy Spirit gifts us in our service in the church and in the world.  Through faith in Christ and through baptism and confirmation we become spirit filled people.  The evidence of being Spirit filled is seeing the gifts of the spirit and the fruit of the Spirit in evidence in our community.  As an Easter community we are to be a spirit filled community.
          Fourthly, we are to be a forgiving community.  Jesus said, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  The resurrection is about new life.  New life comes from repenting of sin and evil, those things which are contrary to God’s person and ways.  New life is about a second chance.  God’s forgiveness comes to us in the love of God extended to us in the cross and resurrection.  To be forgiven people we need the cross and the empty tomb.  The cross covers our sins and the empty tomb releases us to go and to live the new resurrected life as forgiven people.  Forgiveness is part of our community life as we confess our sins and are absolved when we gather as a community in worship.  Scripture says, If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Forgiveness is part of our community life as we forgive each other when we are wronged or hurt by someone in the community.  The Lord’s Prayer says to God, forgive us our sins as we forgive one another.  As an Easter community we are a forgiven and forgiving community.
          Fifthly and last, first and foremost, we are to be a believing community.  John writes: these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.  As an Easter community we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, that he is God’s only begotten Son, sent from the Father to be God’s suffering servant, God’s anointed one to reveal the father in truth and love as no one ever has before.  As we come to believe this, we are given the gift of life.  The life we were created to have in perfect communion with God, the abundant and shalom life that is God’s gift to all believe.  As an Easter community we are a believing community who are living the resurrection life, the abundant life now and in the life to come.

          The resurrection is so powerful it transforms you and me and it transform the church.  It makes us a new community marked by peace; it makes us a community sent out into the world; it makes us a spirit-filled community, a community of forgiveness, a believing community full of the life of God.  But this potential must be grasped to be made a reality.  We have to respond with open hearts and open hands to become what we can be.  May God help us to be an Easter community full of the life of God.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

This Lent, Jesus says, ‘Follow me’: A Lenten Reflection

These two words pick up on the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry when he says to those would be disciples, ‘come and follow me’.  But they also echo the poignant words of Jesus: If one comes after me, let them deny themselves take up their cross and follow me.  What does it mean for us today to follow Jesus.  I want to reflect on that by considering the path of martyrdom that some disciples have experienced in their journey of following Jesus and what that says about the challenge we face in following Jesus today.
If I said to you that I wanted to die for my faith in Jesus Christ, you would probably think me a bit odd; and certainly a bit fanatical about my religion.  Yet, the history of the Christian church is built in part on the martyrs for the faith, on those men and women in every age who have died because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ.
            On this Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey, a journey with Jesus.  During Lent we make the time to examine our own faith and to survey the depth of our devotion to God.  It is a journey of death, of dying to self and becoming alive to God.  Jesus said, 'If anyone comes after me, let them deny themselves, take-up their cross and follow me'.
            What does it mean to follow Jesus, to respond to the call, ‘follow me’?  For many it will mean the ultimate giving of one’s life. 
The first martyr for the faith was, of course, Jesus.  We do not know when exactly he began to understand that his life would end in death.  But we know that some months before he went to Jerusalem for his last Passover that he told his disciples that he would suffer and die.  Do you remember that Peter was simply aghast at this thought?  In fact, Peter demanded that this not happen.  What Peter did not understand was that through Jesus' death, life would come to many.  The single grain of wheat dies and produces many seeds.  Martyrdom for Jesus meant by laying down his life, others would be saved.  For Jesus devotion to God's purpose meant the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of his very life.
            The first Christian martyr was Stephen.  He was one of the first deacons appointed by the apostles in Jerusalem.  The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had Stephen arrested for blasphemy because his preaching about Jesus was so effective.  During his trial, Stephen unfolded his understanding of God's saving work in a lengthy sermon, even accusing the religious leaders of not comprehending the work of God.   As he finished his message he saw heaven open and saw a vision of the risen Christ.  Having heard his words and now this vision, the leaders were indignant.  They dragged Stephen outside the city and stoned him.  Stephen following Jesus' example, prayed for his enemies, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them'.
            Stephen's death was not in vain.  It did fill the Christians in Jerusalem with fear.  From this fear they fled Jerusalem into all parts of the Mediterranean world.  As a result, as Luke tells us in the Book of Acts, 'those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went'.  From Stephen's death came new life for many.  As a result of Stephen's martyrdom, many heard and believed the saving message about Jesus Christ.  A single seed falls in the ground and produces many seed.  From the offering of a life, comes new life.
            But Stephen's martyrdom produced a new understanding about following Jesus.  It suddenly became clear that witnessing about Jesus could be a dangerous business.  Jesus said, 'Whoever serves me, must follow me'.  Stephen's martyrdom clearly showed that to follow Jesus meant possibly even following Jesus to one's death.  But such sacrifice, such devotion would be rewarded: Jesus said, 'the one who loves his life will lose it; while the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life'.
            St Ignatius was one of the early Christians who articulated a desire to be martyred that he might be counted worthy of such devotion.  Such a blatant longing for martyrdom seems somehow wrong to our thinking.  But it reveals a passion for God that cannot but stir us, even shame us in our comfortable complacency.  Hear what St. Ignatius said about devotion, 'He who dies for us is all that I seek; he who rose again for us is my whole desire'.  We may not share St. Ignatius' longing for martyrdom, but do we share his longing for God?  This question deserves our consideration as we begin this Lenten season.
            Now, not all martyrs were such willing victims as St. Ignatius.  But the history of the church is filled with men and women who in following Christ found themselves in the jaws of death.  One of the foundations of the church is the spilt blood of men and women who have sacrificed their very life for the glory of Christ.
            Martyrdom brings into stark relief the issue that following Christ goes against the normal instinct.  As humans we fight to preserve our life.  As humans we strive hard to achieve something substantive, something lasting.  But martyrdom brings home the reality that following Christ often means the laying down of that which is precious to us, following Christ demands, following Christ entails sacrifice.  Who is worthy of it?  Who is capable of it?  I know I am not.  I actually do not want to die for my faith.  But I share with so many of you a desire to walk with God, a desire to know God in a deeper and richer way.  Martyrdom reminds us that such devotion requires sacrifice.

            Jesus says, if you want to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it in the end.  But if you offer your life to God, you will find eternal life.  Few if any of us will be actual martyrs for the faith, but from the example of the martyrs we learn that devotion to God is rewarded, from the example of the martyrs we are challenged to offer our life to God.  Jesus says, ‘if anyone come after me, let them deny themselves, take-up their cross and follow me'.  What does that mean for you and who you are and your life now?  May this Lent be a time that you reflect on what it means to you when Jesus says, ‘follow me’.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A Christian Manifesto: 

Matthew 5:13 - 20

Do you remember 1968?  If you do, you no doubt remember this tumultuous time with student riots, the hippie culture and free love.  I’ve been reading an article about the history of Europe which reflects on the student riots in Paris.  The Leftist manifesto was very much formed during this time.  Though the Left was not organised enough to take control in France in the 60’s, the Leftist agenda slowly seeped into government policy and practice.  Today, much of what we take for granted as our culture was radically introduced in the 60’s: equality of the working class; social welfare benefits for all; liberal social policies bringing choice and equality for women and minorities.

The Sermon on the Mount gives Christians a manifesto, looking particularly at Matthew 5:13-20.  The Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto for the Kingdom of God.  Jesus gathers the disciples to him on the mountain and sits down and begins to teach them.  Jesus sets out in the Sermon on the Mount a new programme of living and being which is to shape all disciples.  It is in every way an ideal manifesto which no one can achieve, but to which we are all called to strive for.  Its unachievable demand is meant to be a constant call on our life to go further and higher and deeper so that the kingdom will be manifest in our life and actions.  We do not despair because we have not or cannot attain it.  By its very demand we recognise our need for God’s grace.  By the impossibility of achieving it in our own strength, we look to Christ to consummate the Kingdom of God that he inaugurated by his life, death and resurrection.  
         I want us to look briefly at two aspects of this manifesto for the Kingdom of God.  First, the Kingdom calls us to a new way of being a disciple; and secondly, the Kingdom calls us to new righteousness.
The first aspect to the Kingdom manifesto is a new way of being a disciple.  Disciples are essentially followers and learners.  As disciples of Christ we seek to follow him and to learn from him.  But the manifesto of the Kingdom places greater emphasis on our discipleship and its impact.  It puts more emphasis on being active, not passive disciples: You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. As salt and light, we bear constant witness in who we are and in what we do so that others can see the Kingdom of God manifested in us, just as the world saw it in Jesus Christ: In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  
       Most of us, as we live our daily life, compartmentalise our lives.  We are employees; we are family members; we are friends; we are at work; we are at play.  The discipleship we are called to is to be apart of all our life so that whether at work or play; whether in the grocery store or in church, we are to be salt and light, pointing to the kingdom in the way we are and in the way we act.
A second aspect to the manifesto of the KofG is being called to a new righteousness.  Listen again to what Jesus said: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Now this does not phase us too much, because we have come to associate scribes and Pharisees with hypocrisy and the like.  But for a first century Jew in Palestine, Jesus’ words were radical.  Let me offer a paraphrase for our times.  Jesus is saying to you and me today that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pope and the Archbishop; it must exceed that of Mother Theresa and St Alban.  Most of us think, that’s impossible, why try.  But that is the point of the Kingdom manifesto, to urge us on to be more than we think we are capable of being.  In Christ, we not only become all we can be, we become more than we think possible.  It is a case of letting God work in us and through us so that his righteousness is manifest, not our own feeble efforts.
When we read the Sermon on the Mount we are reading a manifesto for the KofG.  It calls us to a new way of being and living in the world.  It calls us to a radical cultural ethos; it calls us to a new way of being a disciple; and it calls us to a new kind of righteousness.  The standard it calls us to is high, even unachievable in human terms.  But that is point, we recognise our need for God’s grace and strength, we recognise that it is Jesus who brings in the kingdom by his life, death and resurrection and by working in and through our lives as children of the Kingdom.  Let your light shine before others, so that they may see the kingdom of God and give glory to your Father in heaven.