Spirituality and Discipleship: Definitions

walking-349991_640What is spirituality? To me, spirituality is a pattern of habits that helps us experience the love of God through conscious contact with God’s presence, and helps us share that love with our neighbours.

What is discipleship? I learned a new definition of this from Bishop Jane Alexander last night: Discipleship is living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life.

I think those two pretty well cover the most important parts of being a Christian.

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Unlimited Forgiveness (a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35)

We’ve been getting some lessons in honesty, reconciliation and forgiveness from Jesus in the past few weeks. Last Sunday’s gospel, immediately before this one, told us that if we have something against a brother or sister in Christ, instead of telling the world about it we should go to them quietly, raise the issue and work to resolve it. If the other person doesn’t respond positively, there’s a process Jesus tells us to follow – you can read it all in last week’s gospel.

Today’s gospel follows hard on the heels of last week’s; Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (v.21). Probably what’s in view here is a situation where we’ve gone through the process Jesus outlined in last week’s story; we’ve confronted our sister or brother, they’ve admitted their guilt and asked our forgiveness. What then?

Before we dive into the story in detail I want to get a couple of definitions out of the way. First, who’s in view here? Our NRSV pew bibles say, ‘Another member of the church’; the Greek says ‘my brother’, but the NRSV wants to avoid gender-specific language like ‘brother’ and ‘he’. Unfortunately, it opts for an institutional metaphor rather than a family one; it would have done better to say “If my brother or sister sins against me”. Early Christians called each other ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and treated the disciple community as a family. It’s a member of that family who is in view here.

The second item of definition is what we mean by the word ‘Forgive’. So many times I hear people say, “I just can’t forgive him for what he did to me”. When I start to ask them questions about what they mean by that, what it boils down to is this: “I can’t make the pain go away”. They’ve tried, and they think they’ve done it, but the next day they think about what was done to them and the pain and anger and resentment come bubbling back.

But this isn’t what Jesus is talking about. In the Bible, forgiveness is not about our emotions. We think it is, because in verse 35 Jesus tells us we have to forgive our sister or brother ‘from our heart’. Nowadays ‘the heart’ is a metaphor for the emotions, but that wasn’t the case in Bible times. When the Bible talks about the emotions it talks about the ‘bowels’; in the King James Version the word ‘compassion’ is sometimes translated as ‘having bowels of mercy for someone’. The ‘heart’ is often a metaphor for the choices, the will – the decisions we make about how we are going to act in our lives.

Forgiveness is not first of all about healing. Forgiveness is a decision not to take revenge on the other person for what they’ve done to us, but to act in a loving way toward them, whether we feel like it or not. This is not an act of hypocrisy, because we aren’t pretending to like them. It’s an act of obedience to Jesus.

What does it look like? Well, Paul spells it out for us in Romans: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (Romans 12:17, 20). This is what forgiveness is; it’s a decision not to take revenge but to continue to act in a loving and caring way toward the one who has hurt us – to be a blessing to them, and not a curse – whether we feel like it or not.

So Peter’s question is “How many times should I forgive? As many as seven?” I’m sure he thought he was being very generous. After all, the most common human response to attack is escalation. “You burn my house down, and I’ll burn your village down in response”; each party resolves to hit back so hard that the other party will not be able to hit them again. But over and over again, the other party comes back with an even more devastating response, which of course requires an even more devastating response, and so on, and so on.

Give Peter credit – he was suggesting a reversal of this policy. My brother or sister sins against me, we’ve gone through the process outlined in the previous verses, the offender has repented and asked for forgiveness, and I’ve given it to them. But then a week later, they do the same thing. So I grit my teeth, confront them with it again, they readily admit their guilt and say, “You’re right, I’m sorry, and I’m determined never to do it again, please forgive me”. So we grant them the requested forgiveness, and then a couple of days later they do it again. Now we’ve reached the seventh time and the anger in our soul is rising to boiling point. Surely seven times is enough; any reasonable person would agree.

Jesus’ response to Peter is to tell the parable of the unforgiving slave. ‘Slaves’ in those days often had a lot of responsibility and it is quite possible, for instance, that the minister of finance of a country would in fact be a king’s slave. Somehow this slave has gotten himself into enormous debt to his master the king. Ten thousand talents was a lot of money. A talent was more than fifteen year’s wages for a day labourer; we are talking about a sum of money that would have taken a day labourer 150,000 years to pay off. It was approximately a thousand times the annual tax revenue of the provinces of Judea, Samaria, Galilee and Idumaea put together. Jesus is trying to paint a true picture of the position in which you and I stand before the King of all the universe, the creator of all.

Let’s think about this for a minute. The great commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but every day, in many different ways, I break it: I make myself the centre of my universe, and I see others as simply supporting characters in my story. In other words, I make myself the idol that I worship, rather than worshipping the one true God. I love other idols too – money and the things it can buy, my own selfish ease, the good opinion of others. And I don’t love my neighbour as myself; I would far rather live an easy life and come home to rest and relaxation than put myself out to help someone else. I live in luxury while the majority of the world lives in grinding poverty. I walk past beggars on the street on a regular basis, and not only do I not give them a handout, but I don’t take the time to find better and more effective ways of helping them either.

Or think of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount. I regularly commit spiritual murder against my brother or sister by nursing anger and hatred against them. I commit adultery by looking upon women with lust on a regular basis. I’m not always conscientious about keeping my word. I don’t reach out and love my enemies. And so on, and so on. It’s overwhelming, and paralyzing, to think of the number of times, in an ordinary day, in which I sin.

Except that it isn’t. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. I just take it for granted that God will forgive me. And, according to the parable, that’s exactly what happens. “And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (v. 27). Did you notice, by the way, that the master didn’t give the slave what he asked for. The slave begged “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything”. In other words, he asked for more time to pay off the debt.

Think about this for a minute. How could the slave possibly repay a debt the value of 150,000 years wages for a labourer? It’s a ridiculous idea, and the master knew it. So instead of answering his prayer, the master did what the slave had not asked – he forgave him the whole debt.

What does this mean for us today? So often, we’re so in love with the illusion of our own respectability that we just can’t contemplate putting ourselves into the position where we’re debtors to grace forever. And so, when we come to God and ask for his forgiveness, I wonder if what we’re really asking is, “Lord, please give me more time, and I really, really will change!”

Except that it doesn’t work. How many times have I told God one day in my prayers that I repent of a particular sin, only to go back the next day and do the very same thing again, with my eyes wide open, knowing exactly what I’m doing? We humans have an incredible capacity to mess things up! The reality is that change is very hard, almost as hard as paying off a ten thousand talent debt. Yes, change is possible by the help of the Holy Spirit – but it isn’t going to be finished by the time I kick the bucket!

But this is the wonder of the Christian gospel: God doesn’t answer my prayer! He doesn’t give me more time to pay off the debt, because he knows that for the rest of my life I will never be able to pay it all off. Some of it, yes, but not all of it. And so I ask God to forgive me, over and over and over again.

And I expect him to do it. I can never remember, in all my life, praying to God a prayer like this: “God, I think I’ve probably used up all my get out of jail free cards on this one. If you forgive me again, you’re just going to be reinforcing my bad behaviour. If I were you, I wouldn’t forgive this time”. I have never prayed a prayer like that! Have you? No – every day, up to seventy times seven and beyond, I ask God to forgive me – and I expect he will. And given the fact that he continues to give me the gift of his presence, his love, and his help on a daily basis, that prayer seems to have been answered. That’s what ‘grace’ means: love that we don’t deserve, and that we don’t have to deserve – God just showers it on us as a free gift, because it’s his nature to do that. Grace is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

Very well – what does that mean for how we treat one another? The story goes on to deal with a situation where the same slave, who had been forgiven such an enormous sum, refused to forgive a paltry little debt owed him by a fellow-slave. A hundred denarii was a tiny sum in comparison to the ten thousand talents; it was still substantial, about three or four months’ wages, but nothing in comparison to the astronomical debt the first slave had been forgiven.

Jesus’ point is obvious. ‘Yes, you certainly have a case against your brother or sister; the offences they have committed against you are real. However, when you stack that list up against the list of offences you have committed – and continue to commit – against God every day, it’s not hard to see which list is longer”.

Why would the slave refuse to forgive in this way, after he himself had been forgiven so much? I suspect that he did what I do so often – he kept these two items in two hermetically sealed compartments in his soul. Compartment number one reads: “God has forgiven me more than I can possibly imagine, and he continues to forgive me day by day. I must never forget that”. Compartment number two reads, “That SOB sitting two pews in front of me is going out of his way to hurt me. He does it on a regular basis. It’s time for him to get what he deserves!”

Whoa! Wait a minute! “What he deserves?” If we’re going to move back into the realm of what people deserve, we’ve left the gospel behind, because the gospel tells us that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us what we need. If we want to move back into the realm of what we deserve, we’ve moved back from the gospel to the law. And that has terrifying implications for us.

What are the consequences of not forgiving? Look at what Jesus says in verses 34-35:

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.

Remember, we’re not talking about the healing of hurts here; we’re not talking about feeling good toward the offender. We’re talking about Jesus’ command to love our enemies in action, to be a blessing to them. Jesus doesn’t specify what form the love should take in a given situation. He doesn’t say, for instance, that a woman being abused by her husband should remain in a situation where her life and safety are in danger. What he does say is that revenge is not an option. ‘An eye for an eye’ is not an option. Love may be a struggle, but it is the command of Jesus.

I want to say that if you struggle with this, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. God knows that the person who says “I know I should forgive, and I’m doing my best, but there are days when I find it very hard” is in a very different spiritual position from the person who says “That SOB has it coming to him; he knew exactly what he was doing to me, and I will never, ever forgive him, no matter what the Gospel says. I want revenge, and it’s my right”. The first person is trying hard to do what Jesus commands, and often failing. The second person is refusing even to try. Those are two entirely different attitudes.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It is only because of God’s forgiveness that I can have any hope of eternal life. Day by day I’m in debt to God’s amazing grace. May God help all of us to love others as Jesus loved us, and to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven, just as we expect God to forgive us.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Steering into the Skid (a sermon on Matthew 16:21-28)

Looking around the congregation this morning I see that quite a few of you are old enough to have learned to drive on a car with rear-wheel drive. Could you just raise your hand if you learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car? Thank you. Do you remember what it was like the first time you drove a front-wheel drive car? Everything was in the same place, but somehow it felt different when you were driving, didn’t it?

There was one particular area of driving where it not only felt different – it was very different. Those of you who learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car: do you remember what they told us to do when we got into a skid? We were supposed to steer into it! This of course felt completely wrong and counter-intuitive; if you’d lost control of your car and it was sliding toward the ditch, the natural thing to do was to steer away from the ditch, not toward it! But given that the back wheels were the driving wheels and the front wheels were the steering wheels, what was necessary was to get the front and back wheels in line with each other again, so as to bring the car under control. That’s why they told us to steer into the skid; it was a better way to regain control of your car.

Or so my driving instructor told me! I must say that the few times I ever went into a skid, I don’t think I did as I was told! Natural instinct was to steer away from the skid, and when you lose control of a car, it’s usually natural instinct that takes over. It’s so difficult to do the things we know in our head will work, when they just feel completely wrong.

This is a problem Christians have to face all the time. So often in our walk with Jesus we run into paradoxes: things that don’t seem to make sense, but that Jesus seems to think are right at the centre of Christian life. The first will be last. If you want to be the first in the kingdom, then be the servant of all the others. The tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom before the religious leaders. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. And, in today’s gospel reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). What’s this all about?

This week’s gospel reading follows hard on the heels of last week’s. Last week we read about Jesus gathering his disciples together and asking them a question: “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asked them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus affirmed that this was the right answer and he told Peter that it was God who had revealed this truth to him.

Remember: in the time of Jesus the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ was not just a religious word; it was a political word too. Israel lived under Roman rule, aided by corrupt Jewish leaders who were doing quite well out of the Roman occupation. That couldn’t be right, people thought; they were God’s chosen people and God would surely liberate them. God would send a king like good old King David in the past; he would drive out their enemies and set up a good and honest government in Jerusalem. He would protect the poor and the widow and the orphan and restore peace and justice to Israel. That was the Messiah’s job description.

So if Jesus is the Messiah, what’s the plan? Surely the next move is to develop a strategy for taking over the government. We should march on Jerusalem, pick up some more supporters on the way, choose our moment carefully, pray for God’s help, then stage a surprise attack, take over the Temple and have Jesus crowned as King of Israel in the royal line of David. Jesus is the true Messiah, so God will vindicate him by giving him victory over his enemies; Herod and Pontius Pilate will get what they deserve, and we’ll have peace and justice forever. This is how God’s kingdom will come. This is how we will ‘gain the whole world’ (v.26).

But Jesus has a different idea. Yes, he’s going to go to Jerusalem, but the visit will be very different from what Peter and the others have in mind:

‘From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (v.21).

This is really ‘steering into the skid’, isn’t it! Jesus is talking dangerous nonsense, and Peter thinks he needs to set him straight: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (v.24). But then Jesus says the harshest words he ever said to a human being – and he says them to his closest friend and the leader of his disciples: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (vv.22-23).

What a terrible thing to say to his friend: ‘The Devil is speaking through you!’ Why was Jesus so harsh?

I think it was because it wasn’t the first time he had heard this temptation. Way back in the desert when he was tempted after his baptism, the Devil had told him, “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you bow down and worship me”. This wasn’t just about praying to the devil. This was about becoming like the one we worship. To worship the devil would have been to imitate his way of doing things – violence, coercion, oppression, killing, and all for the love of power. And this was a real temptation for Jesus, because everyone expected this was how the Messiah would win! David did it, Judas Maccabeus did it, the Zealots did it, so what would be wrong with Jesus doing it too?

The reason it would be wrong is that the Kingdom Jesus came to announce isn’t founded on violence and coercion. It’s about love from start to finish – God’s love for us, our love for God, our love for our neighbours, for the poor and needy, and even for our enemies. Setting up the Kingdom by violence wouldn’t change anything other than the name on the crown: ‘welcome to the new boss, same as the old boss’. Jesus had come to show something different: that if you’re faithful to the Father’s love even to the point of death, God will vindicate you. ‘And on the third day, he will be raised’. In effect Jesus was saying, “Trust me, people; steer into the skid, and God will make it come out right”.

This is the challenging thing for us today as followers of Jesus. Jesus not only took this road himself: he called us to follow after him. And so we read,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (vv.24-26).

Crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans reserved for rebels against the Empire. They didn’t crucify embezzlers and petty thieves and religious fanatics. So when the people of occupied Judea saw a man carrying a cross out to a nearby hill with Roman soldiers around him, they knew what was coming: he was about to be executed. This is the bad news that Jesus is giving his followers. He was going to be executed by the Romans because they saw him as a threat to their authority, despite the fact that he’d never breathed a word of rebellion. He was going to respond as he had taught his followers, by loving his enemies and praying for them, not resisting and striking them down. “And you must do the same”, he told the disciples. “You must be totally committed to this Kingdom-of-God movement we’re starting, to the point of being willing to give your life and still love those who murder you. That’s what it means to be one of my disciples”.

It sounds like bad news but in fact it’s good news: Jesus is saying “This is the way to really find life”. You think you’ll find life by taking the easy way, the less challenging road? You won’t. Steer away from the skid and you’ll end up in the ditch. Steer into the skid – even though it feels totally wrong to do so – and to your surprise things will turn out right: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.

This is what it means to be a baptized Christian. When we’re baptized, or when we bring children to be baptized, this is what we’re signing up for. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (6:3).  It’s a wonderful thing to be baptized, to be washed from sin and evil and to be adopted as a child of God. But it’s also a difficult thing: it’s a total identification with Jesus and all he stands for. It’s a ‘no’ to the easy life, a ‘no’ to compromise, a ‘no’ to spending your whole life trying to be popular. It’s a ‘yes’ to following Jesus, a ‘yes’ to the way of love, a ‘yes’ to being faithful even when no one else goes with you.

How do we practice this in our daily lives? We’re not likely to be crucified for our allegiance to Jesus, so what does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow him?

I think two things. First, it means not being ashamed of him. It means not being ashamed to identify ourselves as his followers, not being ashamed to say “Yes, I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus”.

Personally, I think it’s important to go further than just identifying ourselves as churchgoers. The Church is an institution, but Jesus is the Son of God, the one we follow as our Saviour and Lord. He’s the one who has revealed God to us. I think it’s important for us to identify with him personally. I’m not a Church-follower; I’m a Jesus-follower, someone who’s learning to see life as Jesus sees it, and to live life as he taught it.

Secondly, it means that if we get into trouble because of our loyalty to Jesus, we respond with love, not belligerence. There’s a lot of belligerence out there these days, especially in social media. It’s not just the new atheists; there seem to be many people who are angry at the Church, at organized religion, at the people they see as ‘hypocrites’ who go to church but don’t practice what they preach. Identify yourself as a follower of Jesus, and sooner or later these folks will come out of the woodwork.

It doesn’t help for us to respond in kind, and it doesn’t remind people of the Jesus we’re claiming to follow. Jesus has told us clearly how to respond: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). That’s what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Take it up; don’t throw it back at them. As Paul puts it in today’s epistle, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21).

This is the commitment we make as Christians; this is the price we pay for our allegiance to Jesus. We don’t tend to talk much about this in churchland, because we don’t want to frighten off the customers! But I don’t think we do people any favours by not talking about it. And incidentally, it doesn’t usually attract faithful customers either. Statistics have shown over and over again that churches that aren’t afraid to challenge their members – to call them to commitment – tend to be the ones that grow.

Why? Because people respond to a challenge. People want a cause, something worthwhile to live for, even if it involves hardship. How many times have I heard family members of soldiers who died in Afghanistan say “He died doing what he believed in. He thought it was really important, and that’s why he was there”. That’s the sort of commitment Jesus is calling for. His kingdom-of-God movement is going to change the world in a revolution of love. Yes, it’s going to involve suffering and hardship, but the final goal will be well worth the effort. Jesus is looking for people who are willing to pay that price and make that commitment. He has a name for them: ‘disciples’. We call them ‘Christians’.

I once heard my Dad say, “Some people take their Christianity like a vaccination: they inject themselves with a little bit of it in order to protect themselves against the real thing”. And it’s true: some people do treat church like that. Yes, let’s go on Sunday once or twice a month; that way when someone asks us we can say, “Yes, we’re religious, we believe in God, we go to church”. That should be enough for God, surely! But we don’t like this talk about total commitment. After all, we’re not fanatics or fundamentalists, you know!

In today’s gospel, Jesus is telling us that following him will cost everything and give everything. His call to us this morning is simply this: ‘Steer into the skid’. It feels like the stupidest thing to do, doesn’t it? “Come and follow me in the way of the Cross”. Be totally committed to this Kingdom movement, to the point that there is nothing you wouldn’t do for God and for his Son Jesus Christ. No matter what people say about you, no matter what they do to you, keep on following Jesus. If you do this, Jesus says, you won’t regret it. On the contrary: you’ll find your true life.

You can’t enjoy the view without climbing the mountain. You can’t be a great jazz improviser without practicing your scales. You can’t win the marathon without the pain of daily training and a willingness to stick with it when your legs and your lungs are screaming out “Stop!” And you can’t find the true joy of being a Christian without taking up your Cross and following Jesus. So let’s take up the challenge and walk the way of the Cross with Jesus. He assures us that we will find it to be the way of life and blessing, so let’s put our trust in him and do as he says.

Who is my neighbour?

When I was young I understood the word ‘neighbour’ to have a very specific meaning: the person who lives next door.

Occasionally it would be extended a bit. In a small village of a few hundred people, many of them related to each other, the term ‘neighbour’ might reasonably be applied to everyone in the community. Or in the inner-city (like Woodland Road in Leicester, where I spent the first few years of my life), it might mean other people who lived on the same street. 

But ‘neighbour’ always implied proximity. And usually (although this was rarely spelled out) it also involved similarity: neighbours are people like us.

Jesus, however, had a different definition. Let me quote it to you in full:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10:25-37, NRSV)

Let me point out two things about this passage.

First, Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’. That’s because it’s the wrong question. The lawyer thinks the commandments are an entrance exam he has to pass in order to receive eternal life. He wants to know what the pass mark is: what’s the least he can get away with? That being the case, if there are fifty people in his village and only twenty of them qualify as his ‘neighbours’, why would he waste time loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus, however, sees things differently. To him, the commandments are not an entrance exam, they are a description of what eternal life looks like. Growing in joyful obedience to those commandments is what our life is going to be about, now and forever, until we are reshaped into people who obey them not out of obligation, but out of delight. They aren’t an exam that we will complete: they are our new way of life.

So Jesus refuses to answer the lawyer’s question because he doesn’t accept the premise it’s based on. And this leads to the second thing: Jesus’ redefinition of the word  ‘neighbour’. ‘Neighbour’ isn’t a description of a person who lives near us and who looks like us; it’s a description of the relationship between a person in need and the person who stops to help them. A person in need, whether I know them or not, is my neighbour. When I stop to help them, I am behaving like a true neighbour to them.

And it’s not an accident that Jesus chooses to make this an inter-racial story. The Samaritans were mixed-bloods, with centuries of animosity between them and the ‘pure’ Jews of Judea. But a Samaritan was the one who stopped to help this (presumably Jewish) victim of a mugging, while the priest and the Levite (also Jewish) refused to do so. They refused to be neighbours to the man in need; the Samaritan chose to be a neighbour.

In recent weeks we have seen shocking racial hatred, especially today in Charlottesville, Virginia. This hatred is antithetical to the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus recognizes no boundaries; he crosses borders, reaches out to all people, treats Samaritans and Roman soldiers (and women, children, tax collectors and prostitutes) with respect, and tells us that we are even required to love our enemies. There is no escape from the command to love, because it is the nature of the God we believe in, a God who loves his enemies.

I want to say as clearly as I can that any kind of racism – against aboriginal people, against black folks, against Asians, against Jewish people or Muslims (although ‘Muslim’ is a religion, not a race) or anyone else – is totally antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The God Jesus taught us about is the God who created everyone and loves everyone. The Church must stand clearly for the message, and live it out in its daily life. 

I would be the first to admit that we in the Church have often fallen short of this. We have allowed our governments to tells us it’s okay to hate and kill people it calls our enemies. We have colluded with the state in the sinfully misguided and wicked institution of the Residential Schools. And we continue to drag our feet on recognizing the rights of the original inhabitants of this country. So yes, we have a lot to repent of.

But let’s not fail to name the goal we’re aiming for. Let’s be clear: Jesus calls us to be neighbours to one another, to love one another, to help those in need whether they are ‘like us’ or not. One of his early followers, Saul of Tarsus, taught that in Christ ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). 

All one. The Church is called to demonstrate before the watching world what a reconciled humanity looks like. The Church is called to live this love, and then to share it with others and invite them into it. And we cannot do that if we allow ourselves to be divided along lines of race. To allow that would be a complete betrayal of our message.

We are one family. So let us do our best to live as one family, and refuse to let the power of evil divide us.

Trump and Jesus

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Donald Trump appears to be leading the world into a time of belligerence, building walls, turning on your neighbours, and picking fights with everyone about every little thing.

People of Jesus, do not follow him in this. Our Lord is about compassion, forgiveness, caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, loving enemies and praying for those who hate us, sharing the good news of God’s love, and seeking first the Kingdom of God built by love, not the earthly empire built by force and coercion.

Let’s commit ourselves to following Jesus in loving God, our neighbours, and even our enemies.

The Cycle of Violence Ends Here (a sermon for Good Friday)

We come together today to remember how our Lord Jesus Christ was arrested, flogged, tortured and brutally executed in one of the most painful ways imaginable. And surely, as we think about the Good Friday story, we can have a real sense that on that day, God was truly one of us. God came among us and shared the experience that so many people go through in our world today – the experience of being a victim of oppression, violence and unjust death.

I prepared this sermon at the end of last week, a week in which we saw the gas attacks on Syrian civilians – including children – followed by the so-called U.S. ‘retaliation’, in which fifty-nine cruise missiles were used to destroy the Syrian airfield from which the attacks were launched. This is of course just the latest round in the long tale of violence and brutality in the story of Syria. Government and various rebel factions have been at odds for years, and the process of strike and counterstrike has been going on day by day, causing hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. And it’s set in the midst of a bigger picture: the tensions between Russia and the West, and the long history of western interventions in the Middle East, which don’t exactly have a good track record of achieving long term peace and stability.

It’s not my intention this morning to preach a political sermon. I simply want to point out that this is the world we live in, and it was the world Jesus lived in too. In our world (to use a slightly older example), Israeli gunships destroy a Hamas hideout and kill twelve people; the response is a suicide bombing in which fifty people are killed. You wipe out my village; I’ll respond by wiping out your city. In the world of international realpolitik, this is assumed to be the only safe and wise thing to do. People need to know that if they hit us, we’re going to hit them back, only harder. They kill our innocent people, we’re going to respond by killing innocent people on their side – except, we’ll kill twice as many. The response is more suicide bombings, more innocent people being killed, and so the cycle of violence goes on. Killing leads to more killing; retaliation leads to more retaliation.

Just occasionally, though, we get a glimpse of a different way.

In November 2005 a twelve-year old Palestinian boy, Ahmad Al Khatib, was mistakenly shot in the head by Israeli forces at a distance of 130 metres; it was later shown that he was carrying a toy gun that looked very realistic. His family, rather than crying for revenge, donated his organs to three Israeli children who were waiting for transplants. His father said that their decision was rooted in memories of Ahmad’s uncle, who had died at the age of 24 while waiting for a liver transplant, and that they hoped the donation would send a message of peace to both Israelis and Palestinians.

And so the unbelievable happened. Ahmad died of his wounds on Saturday November 5th 2005. On Sunday November 6th, three children underwent surgery to receive his lungs, heart, and liver. The father of 12-year-old Samah Gadban, who had been waiting five years for a heart, called the donation a “gesture of love.”

Ahmad’s father said he hoped to meet the recipients of his son’s organs. “The most important thing is that I see the person who received the organs, to see him alive”, he said. And so Samah Gadban’s father invited Khatib and his family to a party for Samah when she left the hospital. “I wanted to thank him and his family”, he said. “With their gift, I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter”.

My friend Rob Heath wrote a song about this incident; it includes these words:

His Dad said ‘If you want peace, somewhere it has to start.
With this my son has entered every Israeli heart’.
The army said they’re sorry, then braced for violence;
This time, unlike the others, there would be no revenge.

And the chorus goes,

Some people say with just one life
you can change the world.
What if they’re right?

What Ahmad al Khatib’s father was saying was “Somewhere the violence has to stop. If we want peace, someone at some point has to make the decision not to retaliate. I’m going to make that decision. The violence stops here”.

I believe that this is a central part of the meaning of the Good Friday story. Listen to these words of Paul from 2 Corinthians (I’m reading from the Common English Bible).

‘All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Notice that little phrase, ‘not counting people’s sins against them’. In the conflicts going on around the world today, people are constantly counting one another’s sins against them, meeting violence with further violence again and again. Many of them believe that this is what God wants them to do. But it’s going on in families too. Someone does something despicable that hurts another member of the family; that person retaliates in word or deed, and so the conflict escalates. “Forgive? I can’t possibly forgive him! You just don’t understand how much he hurt me!” And so each party continues to hold the other party’s sins against them, and families are ripped apart, in some cases for generations.

Paul is telling us that this is not the way of the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel tells us that God longs for reconciliation with us, but God knows that there is only one way for that reconciliation to happen: at some point, someone has to choose not to retaliate. And so, in Christ, God chose not to retaliate; he didn’t count our sins against us, but chose to forgive instead.

We see this in Luke’s story of the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke wants to teach us that the cross of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of our sins, and so Luke tells the story in this way:

‘When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”’.

A few verses later we read these words:

‘One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong”. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”’ (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43).

Earlier in his life, Jesus had said these words to his disciples:

“But I say to you that listen: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-28, 32, 35-36).

Now Jesus had an opportunity to put his own teaching into practice. In the garden of Gethsemane, when he was arrested, Peter took out a sword and used it to defend Jesus, cutting off the ear of a servant of the high priest, but Jesus rebuked him and said, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). He then allowed himself to be arrested and taken to the house of the high priest, where he was condemned to die. When the Roman soldiers drove the spikes through his wrists and hauled him up, nailed to the crossbar of the cross, he didn’t respond with curses and abuse, but prayed that they would be forgiven. And when one of the insurrectionists who were crucified with him turned to him in faith, Jesus assured him of eternal life as they hung on their crosses together.

Like the father of young Ahmad al Khatib, Jesus was saying, “No more! The hatred stops here!” And so he loved his enemies, did good to those who hated him, and blessed those who cursed him. He imitated his heavenly Father, who pours out his sun and rain on the good and bad alike; Jesus was merciful, just as his Father in heaven is merciful.

But there’s more to it than that. Paul tells us that ‘God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them’ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christians believe that Jesus is not just a good man or a great religious teacher; we believe he is the Son of God, and so God has come to live among us in him. What is the nature of this God? Surely the cross tells us he is a God who loves his enemies. The Jewish people who handed him over to death – Pontius Pilate who allowed an injustice to be done to him rather than standing up for what was right – the Roman soldiers who crucified him – they stand for all of us. God himself came to live among us, full of love and truth, but we found his love to be too much of a nuisance and a challenge, and so we rejected him and nailed him to a cross. But the Good News is that God rejected our rejection. God didn’t respond to our outrageous murder of his Son by blasting us all to hell with thunderbolts, or by sending twelve legions of angels to rescue Jesus and kill his murderers. What God said to us, in effect, was “You can kill me, but the one thing you can never kill is my love for you”.

What is our response to this amazing gift of love and forgiveness?

Some people, like the first man who died with Jesus, continue to reject him. They can’t accept that this man is anything more than a failed prophet. They can’t believe that this way of accepting death on a cross is a victory over evil; it looks far more like a defeat to them. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’, and ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23). But he goes on to say, ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ (25); ‘to us who are being saved’, he says, ‘(the cross) is the power of God’ (18b).

And so, like the second man who died with Jesus, we turn to him in faith, we admit that we have sinned, and we ask for forgiveness and assurance of eternal life. Luke tells us that if we do this, Jesus will gladly give us what we ask for; “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. God offers forgiveness freely to everyone; however, we have to accept that forgiveness – we have to personally appropriate it – because God will not force himself on anyone.

And one more thing: we also are called to walk in the way of the Cross, loving those who hate us, doing good to those who persecute us. As has been done for us, so we must do for others. Towards the end of his life, Peter wrote these words:

‘For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth”. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls’ (1 Peter 2:21-25).

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. The Cross of Jesus is like a great cosmic black hole, sucking up all the anger and rage and rejection and violence that we have ever hurled at God, and letting nothing return – nothing but love. So let’s thank God for the gift Jesus has given us on that Cross. And let’s also pray for the strength to follow the way of the Cross ourselves, which is the path he has set before us.

Random Lent Thought for Maundy Thursday: Humble Service

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The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin word ‘maundatum’, which means ‘commandment’ (we get the word ‘mandatory’ from ‘maundatum).

In the Upper Room, at the Last Supper, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus said to them: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35, NIV 2011).

It has often been pointed out that ‘love one another’ was not a new command; something very like it appears several times in the Old Testament, and Jesus had previously given it to his disciples.

What is new is the description of the love: ‘As I have loved you’. The disciples are instructed to imitate Jesus in loving one another.

What specific acts of Jesus are in view here?

At the beginning of the chapter John says of Jesus, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (John 13:1). This is clearly looking forward to the story of the cross. So we can say without hesitation that we’re called to imitate the love Jesus showed for us in the cross. This is sacrificial love, not ‘feeling’ love. Jesus doesn’t show the disciples his feeling of love by dying on the cross for them. The dying is the act of love. ‘Grater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

So we’re called to be ready and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for one another. Am I ready to do that? Probably not. Maybe I need to pray on that.

But I suspect there’s something more pressing for me to pray on. The other way Jesus loved his disciples was to wash their feet. This was the slave’s job, but for some reason no slave had done it that night. Consequently, after spending the day walking the dusty streets of Jerusalem in open sandals, Jesus and his disciples were now reclining on low couches around a table, their feet literally in each other’s faces. The omission would have been painfully obvious.

Apparently no one was willing to do the slave’s job, so Jesus got up and did it. When he was done, he said, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:12-15, NIV 2011).

Many churches (ours included) will remember this action of Jesus tonight by having foot washing services. I love this custom, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is real obedience to Jesus’ command. Foot washing today is unusual and exotic, but in the time of Jesus it was a mundane task of humble service.

What are the tasks like that today? The simple, humble tasks we do for others as ways of loving them? We make each other cups of tea and coffee. We prepare meals and clean up after them. We change smelly diapers. We clean up messy houses. We care for aged relatives as they lose control over their bodily functions. We support organizations working in refugee camps. We sit with difficult people and listen to their problems, for the forty-seventh time.

We used to have a saying in the college i attended: “I’ll die for you, but I won’t run up to the third floor to fetch your sweater for you”. It’s highly unlikely that I will be called on to die for my fellow Christians (though it may happen). But it’s absolutely certain that today and every day I will be called on to die to selfishness and self-centredness by performing humble acts of service for my sisters and brothers in Christ.

I am not very good at this. Lord, have mercy, and help me follow the footsteps of Christ.

(Painting by Ghislaine Howard. For more of her work see ghislainehoward.com)

(This will be my last RLT this year. Thanks to all who have read and commented, here and on Facebook!)