‘What’s In It For Me?’ (a sermon for Sept. 1st on Luke 14.1, 7-14)

The Serendipity Study Bible is an old edition of the New International Version, designed to be used in small groups. For every passage of the Bible, it has a set of discussion questions in the margins. We often use those questions in our Wednesday afternoon study group, and when I’m doing my sermon preparation I often start by working through those questions for the passage I plan to reach on.

When I looked at the Serendipity Study Bible questions for Luke 14.1-14, this was the first question: ‘If you could have the best seats in the house, which house would you choose?’ I wonder how you would answer that question? For me, what I’d like is to go to a small concert hall where a guitarist I admire is playing, and be able to sit right in front of the stage so I can see what he’s doing with his fingers. With some guitar players, I don’t think I could do what they’re doing, but I understand how they’re doing it. But there are others for whom I have absolutely no idea how they’re doing what they’re doing! So I like to get really close, so I can see exactly what they’re doing with their hands. I still might not be able to play it, but at least I can try!

That’s pretty harmless, of course, but in some situations this desire for the front seat might be more insidious. In today’s Gospel, Jesus has a lot to say to people who always want the front seats—people who want the best deal for themselves and don’t care who they displace in order to get it. Whether they’re going to a dinner party put on by others, or throwing a party themselves, they aren’t actually thinking about the other people at all. Their first question is always “What’s in it for me?”

Let’s refresh our memory of the story. Jesus goes to dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee. There are two things you need to know about these dinner parties. First, these were not private occasions. The doors of the house were left open all the time, and it was common for the curious to wander in and out while the meal was going on—especially if well-known people were there and it was likely there would be interesting discussion and debate. And this leads to the second thing: in the Gospels, these dinner parties are often occasions for teaching and discussion.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the dinner guests two parables; the first is about not taking the highest place, and the second is about who you ought to invite when you give a dinner party. In each parable, self-interest is Jesus’ target. In the first parable, he warns against using the banquet as an opportunity for others to see how important you are. In the second parable, he warns against issuing invitations to your party out of self-interest: “If I invite Lord Caiaphas, then I’ll get an invitation to his party in return, and everyone will be able to see that I move in the best social circles in the city.” In both cases, gatherings that ought to be occasions for human companionship and fellowship are being spoiled by people’s self-interest.

So let’s think about what Jesus has to say about lining up for the last place.There’s a story told about St. Francis of Assisi, of a time when he was invited to a meal with the Pope and many other important church dignitaries. In those days before photo technology, people were a lot less familiar with the faces of celebrities, and when Francis turned up at the door of the Vatican in his ragged brown robe, the doorkeepers thought he was a beggar. So they sent him round to the kitchen to take his place with the other beggars. Francis didn’t complain; he went joyfully as usual, and was soon having a good time with the folks in the kitchen.

Meantime there was consternation at the high table; where was the guest of honour? Eventually it was discovered that Francis was in the kitchen with the beggars, and a message was sent that he should come to the banqueting hall. He did as he was told, sat down with the guests at the high table, and immediately began to share with them the scraps he had gathered on his beggar’s plate!

Obviously Francis was a person who had no problem taking the last place in the pecking order – in contrast to the people Jesus is aiming at when he warns us in his parable: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour” (v.8a). Nowadays we don’t often see this happening in a literal way. I’ve attended lots of wedding receptions and I’ve never seen someone marching boldly up to sit at the head table, only to be told a few minutes later “Madam, I’m afraid this seat is reserved for the wedding party!” But the attitude Jesus is talking about is still common. Let me point out two common examples of it.

The first is the inability to sit back and be part of the crowd. You know what I mean: there are some folks who have a deep-seated need to be up front all the time. They can’t just be ordinary members of the group; they have to be visible, they have to be leaders, so that people can look up to them and they can feel important. Don’t misunderstand me: real leadership, offered genuinely, is a real gift to a group. But the hunger for leadership, so that we can be recognized and looked up to, is poisonous and dangerous for the group and also for the person who wants to be a leader.

The second example of this attitude is less obvious; it’s when we’re always wondering what others are thinking about us. Many people are constantly worrying about whether others will like or approve of them. It’s as if they’re constantly checking a mental mirror, to see how they look in the eyes of others. The root cause of this is usually insecurity and a low sense of self-worth. We have an empty, aching space inside; we’re not sure if we’re loved, if we’re valued, if our life has any significance. We need others to reassure us of these things. But the trouble is, we can’t rely on them to do it, so we have to engineer situations that prompt them to do it for us.

What I want to say to you this morning is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes down like rain on the dry field of our insecurity. The vital word in the vocabulary of this Gospel is the word ‘Grace’. Grace is God’s free and unconditional love for you and for everyone else he has made. You don’t have to earn it, you don’t have to deserve it; it comes as a free gift, and nothing can change that. As Philip Yancey says, grace means that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less; God already loves you infinitely, and nothing can ever change that. As another friend of mine likes to say, “God loves you, and there’s not a thing you can do about it!”

Jesus is inviting us to trust in God’s love for us, and relax in it. You don’t have to rush to get first place. And of course, you don’t have to rush to get last place either, if your motive is to get someone to invite you up to first place in the end! No—the Gospel way is not to think about precedence at all. Rather, you can relax, enjoy the feast, and share God’s love freely with the people who happen to be around you, in the secure knowledge that you are loved by God and nothing can ever change that.

Let’s now go on to think about Jesus’ second parable, in which he discusses invitation as a form of grace.

In June 1990 the Boston Globe told the story of an unusual wedding reception. A woman and her fiancée had arranged to have their wedding reception at the Hyatt Hotel in Boston, and as they had expensive tastes the final bill on the contract came to over $13,000, which was a huge amount of money twenty-nine years ago!

But then something unexpected happened. On the day the invitations were to go out, the groom got cold feet and asked for more time to think about things. When his angry fiancée went to the Hyatt to cancel the reception, she found she could not, unless she was willing to forfeit most of the money she had paid.

How here’s where it gets interesting. It turned out that ten years before, this same bride had been living in a homeless shelter. She had been fortunate enough to get a good job and get back on her feet, but now she had the idea of using her savings to treat the down and outs of Boston to a night on the town. So in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—“in honour of the groom”, she said—and sent invitations to shelters and rescue missions throughout the city. That summer night, people who were used to eating out of garbage cans dined on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’ouevres to elderly vagrants propped up by crutches and walkers. Bag ladies and drug addicts took a night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big band melodies late into the night.[1]

For this jilted bride to be, this unusual dinner party was an angry response to the collapse of her wedding plans. For us, however, Jesus is inviting us to embrace it as a way of life. Look again at verses 12-14:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

This parable cuts me to the heart, because I have to admit that most of my social interaction is chosen on the basis of my own enjoyment. “I’ll go and visit so and so—that’s always enjoyable for me.” But Jesus is inviting me to make those decisions on the basis of unconditional love. I don’t think Jesus is literally condemning every family party or quiet dinner between friends. I think he’s challenging us to look for creative ways of reaching out to those who have no friends and no status in society at all. I find it interesting that the literal meaning of the word ‘hospitality’ is ‘love for the stranger’.

Many years ago when Marci and I were living in Aklavik in the western Arctic, we happened to read this gospel passage, and we were especially gripped by verses 12-14. I knew there were many parts of the teaching of Jesus I’d done a poor job of putting into practice, but I had to admit this was one passage I’d never even tried to put into practice! So Marci and I talked about it, and then we invited a particular family from the community to come and join us for dinner. The husband had been in and out of jail—in fact, we strongly suspected he committed a crime every Fall so as not to have to spend the winter in Aklavik. Both husband and wife were from families with a very high incidence of alcoholism and criminal activity of one kind or another. But they came, with their kids, and we had a meal together.

I have absolutely no memory of how the evening went, but it sticks out in my mind because it’s the only time I’ve tried to literally practice what Jesus says in this gospel reading. I don’t know if any of you have tried it; I’d be interested to hear if you have!

And to think of a less dramatic example, I wonder who you know who could benefit from a social invitation—perhaps for a cup of coffee, or an invite to dinner? It might not be someone you would naturally think of inviting, or someone who could pay you back. What might be the best way for you to reach out to that person?

Fund raisers discovered a long time ago that it’s easier to raise money if people can get their name on something – a brass plaque on a pew, or a list in a book. In this passage Jesus is offering us a vision of a different way—a way of freedom from slavery to self-interest. If we learn to live by his vision, we can interact with the people around us without quietly asking ourselves “I wonder how I can get them to admire me”. Instead we can concentrate on listening to them and loving them. We can initiate relationships with others, not for what we can get out of them, but for what we can give to them.

For some of us it might seem an impossible dream to think we could ever be that free. I put myself in that category. I’m well aware that my fundamental sin is self-centredness, which is why these parables hit me so hard. But on the other hand, I’ve met people who live the way Jesus is inviting us to here, and their lives challenge and inspire me.

We don’t always have to be silently asking the question “What’s in this situation, this relationship, for me?” Rather, because God loves each one of us out of pure grace, we can learn to live our lives in the same spirit, and discover in it the way of freedom, joy, and love.

[1]I first read this story in Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?

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Bent Out of Shape (a sermon on Luke 13.10-17)

Have you seen the spoon bending trick? That’s the one you do by holding a spoon between the palms of your hands with the bowl sticking out at the bottom, and then making it look as if you’re bending it, when in fact all you’re doing is dropping the handle between your palms. It’s quite impressive if you’ve never seen it before! It really does look as if you’re bending that spoon, and it’s quite surprising at the end to discover that it’s still straight.

One of the reasons it’s such a convincing trick is that spoons are quite easy to bend. Most of us have done it at one time or another! Quite often we do it when we’re trying to scoop rock-hard ice cream out of a pail. The handle of the spoon’s not strong enough, so back it bends, and hey presto! – you’ve got a useless spoon! Don’t try using it for soup, or you’ll spill it down your shirt front! When a spoon’s all bent out of shape, it’s not much use for anything.

Of course, we sometimes say that peopleare all bent out of shape. This might be a literal thing. When I lived in Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories there were two elderly women in the community who were literally bent double. I suspect they’d spent their whole lives carrying heavy loads on their backs, as well as bending down and crawling in and out of small snow houses. However it happened, it was now impossible for either of them to stand up straight. If they were sitting on a chair they could look straight ahead; if they were standing up, they really had to twist their necks to be able to see ahead of them.

And it doesn’t have to be that extreme. All of us, as we get older, suffer from aches and pains and find movement more difficult—and more painful—than we did when we were young. Sometimes we laugh about it: you know the old story about the man who bends over to tie his shoelaces and then thinks “What else should I do while I’m down here?” But sometimes the pain is much more intense and debilitating, and people find the suffering more and more difficult to bear.

But ‘getting bent out of shape’ isn’t only a term we use for physical ailments. Sometimes we use it for people who get all wound up about issues. We have our share of that in the church! You decide to change the colour of the carpet, or—dare I say—replace the pews with chairs, and some people ‘get all bent out of shape’! It happens whenever the familiar is replaced with the unfamiliar, whether it’s furniture, or hymn books, or music styles, or prayer books, or whatever you like.

Often people get all bent out of shape about things that aren’t ultimately important, and maybe we can laugh it off. But sometimes it’s more serious. Sometimes when church leaders decide to speak out about social justice issues, some church members disagree, and occasionally they get so bent out of shape that they leave. And to use a slightly different illustration, I think of a person years ago who invited a friend to church; the friend had no shoes with her, so she came barefoot. In those days the church was a bit more conventional, and some people got bent out of shape about it; the welcome was not, shall we say, overly enthusiastic. This is what happens in this sort of situation: people get hurt. Sometimes, sadly, when people get bent out of shape they keep others away from the healing love of God.

When we listen to today’s Gospel reading, it seems at first as if there’s only one person ‘bent out of shape’: the woman who had been bent double for eighteen years. But when we look a little more closely we see that in fact there are two people bent out of shape in this reading: one in body, the other in spirit. Jesus was able to heal one of them, but the other wasn’t willing to accept healing, because he wasn’t even aware how twisted he was in spirit.

Let’s picture the situation. It’s the sabbath day, so all sorts of restrictions apply. The Old Testament command was simply ‘For six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:9-10). But the problem with a command like that, of course, is that people immediately start asking questions about it. What exactly is ‘work’? Is cooking work? Lighting a fire? Can you walk, and if so, how far? These aren’t facetious questions; they’re the questions of sincere people who want to know what it means to obey God in their daily lives.

The teachers of Israel developed traditions and regulations about the Sabbath Day to help those people. Those regulations continue to this day. In Chaim Potok’s excellent novel The Book of Lights,the hero is an Orthodox Jewish chaplain serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The winters are bitterly cold and the chaplain is living in what we used to call in the Arctic a ‘tent frame’, lit by an oil stove. The stoves are turned off during the night, and he wakes up on winter mornings to sub-zero temperatures. But he’s forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath Day. Remembering this, his assistant, who is not Jewish, digs out the snow from the entrance to his tent and comes in to light the fire for him.

Jesus, of course, was constantly running into this sort of thing. We shouldn’t imagine that Jesus was on a campaign to abolish the Sabbath. Far from it: as far as we can tell, he went to synagogue every Saturday and used the day as a day of rest, just as the Law commanded. But the hundreds of man-made regulations were irksome to him. He told his followers that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath, and that it was permissible to do good on the Sabbath.

So here is Jesus, on the Sabbath Day, in the synagogue. The men and women would be seated separately; the young children would be with the women, but boys over the age of twelve who had gone through their bar-mitzvah would be with their fathers in the men’s section. The Sabbath service consisted of readings from the Torah scrolls, a time of teaching based on the readings, and prayers together. The teaching wouldn’t all be done by professional rabbis or synagogue elders; it was their responsibility to make sure teaching happened, but they were free to invite anyone to expound the Law if they thought he was competent enough (I say ‘he’ because in those days it was always a man). Jesus was a well-known teacher, so he had obviously been asked to read from the Torah scrolls and then comment on them. This might have been previously arranged, or it might have just been a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. Jesus would come to the front, remain standing to read from the Torah, and then sit down to teach.

The first person we meet in the synagogue is a person whose body is all bent out of shape. Let me read verses 10-13 to you from the New Living Translation:

One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue,he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!”Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

I can imagine Jesus sitting at the front of the synagogue, looking out over the congregation as he teaches them. His eyes scan the crowd, noticing the expressions on the faces of the people. Some are happy, some are irritated, some are anxious, some are angry. And then he sees a face etched with suffering. Normally that face can only look down at the bare earth, but in the synagogue the woman is sitting down, so she can look at Jesus eye to eye. Maybe Jesus can read the longing in those eyes: if only God could heal her! Eighteen long years she’s been looking down at the ground; she’d love to be able to look up at the sky again!

And so Jesus stops his sermon and calls her to the front of the synagogue. This, of course, wasn’t a normal part of the procedure, and we can imagine the synagogue elders doing a facepalm when they realize what’s going on. But to Jesus, this wasn’t unusual; he’d had violent encounters with evil spirits in synagogues, and healed people there as well. “Woman,” he says, “you are set free from your ailment.” And then he lays his hands on her, and immediately she stands up straight. Can you imagine how she feels? Can you imagine the joy of being able to look up at the roof of the synagogue? No wonder she begins to praise God! She isn’t bent out of shape anymore!

But now we meet a person whose soul is all bent out of shape.The leader of the synagogue gets angry. “There are six days of the week for working,” he says. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath” (v.14, NLT). Apparently it was okay for Jesus to teach the Law on the Sabbath, but not to behave like a doctor. Doctors and their patients had to wait!

But Jesus has no time for this sort of hypocrisy; he knows the Sabbath legalists aren’t consistent. So he says, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water?This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” (vv.15-16, NLT).

These Sabbath legalists remind me of the people in that church who got bent out of shape about the young person who came with no shoes on. There are rules about these things! People should dress respectfully! They shouldn’t bring coffee mugs into church! Little children should sit quietly with their parents, not run around and make noise! Gay couples shouldn’t hold hands in church! What’s the world coming to?

But Jesus has a different agenda. The Sabbath Day is a day to meet God. It’s a day for people who feel burdened by life to lay down their burdens. It’s a day for hurting people to find healing. When it comes to the Sabbath, as they say, ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing’, and not get buried under the details!

So how does this apply to us today?

First, like this woman in our gospel reading, sometimes our bodies get bent out of shape.And I have to acknowledge right away that when it comes to healing the sick, human beings don’t have the same excellent track record as Jesus. In the gospels Jesus goes around showering healing all over the place. Young and old, men and women, rich and poor, with all kinds of sicknesses: they all come to him, and all of them get healed. The only ones who don’t get healed are the ones who won’t come to him, because they don’t have faith in him. But if they have faith—or even if their friends have faith on their behalf—Jesus is willing and able to heal them. He’s the strong Son of God, and the Spirit of God is working through him in a powerful way.

Since the time of Jesus Christians have not stopped praying for sick people to be healed, but even in the book of Acts the record isn’t so spotless. Often people are healed, but sometimes they aren’t. Even a great apostle like Paul has a bodily ailment—a ‘thorn in the flesh’, he calls it—that isn’t healed. He also has sick colleagues who he presumably prays for, but who continue to be sick. And today we pray for the sick, because that’s what we’re commanded to do, but we have to be honest and say they aren’t always healed as we would wish. Some people are helped by God by being healed; others are helped by a sense of God’s presence and support even in the midst of their suffering. But all are invited to reach out to God and ask for his support and strength.

However, sometimes it’s not our bodies that get bent out of shape: it’s our souls. Often this is not our fault; it’s a result of sins that have been committed against us. Think of a puppy who’s been trained up with lots of punishment, and then watch the adult dog cower in fear whenever its master approaches. There’s a wound inside, and the dog is forever scarred by it. Some people are like that, too: they’ve been wounded inside by the sins of others, and they spend their lives in fear, afraid to speak or act because they’re terrified of what people will say or do in response.

God wants to reach into these poor folks’ hearts and heal their wounds. This doesn’t usually happen in an instant. Usually it takes a long time. It involves lots of prayer, and also lots of love on the part of the people of Jesus. We’re called to be a community where people with wounded souls can find the love and healing they’re looking for. Unconditional love is the indispensable ingredient in that healing.

Sometimes, like the synagogue leader in this story, our souls are bent out of shape because of the way we see the world. The God we believe in is an angry judge who demands detailed obedience to all kinds of commands, even though they don’t always seem to make sense and don’t always seem very important. This God is the God of a certain kind of people with a certain skin colour and creed, and not the God of others. This God likes all the people we like and hates all the people we hate. His values exactly coincide with our own.

If this is us, we need to ask Jesus to open our eyes, because we’re as blind as anyone he healed in the gospels. The god we believe in isn’t the real God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—he’s an imaginary idol we’ve made in our own image. We need to learn to believe the truth that John taught us in his letter: God is love. ‘Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love’ (1 John 4.8 NLT). We need to remember how Jesus summed up the Law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. Everything else is just window-dressing.

Jesus lived his whole life on the principle of love: love for his Father in heaven, and love for the people God sent him to save. Anger and hate always bend us out of shape. Usually the process starts with anger and hate we receive at the hands of others. This anger and hate has the effect of making us in its own image, so that we live in anger and hate as well. Religion is no guarantee that this won’t happen; religious people seem just as capable of anger and hate as anyone else, unless they constantly remind themselves of the law of love, and ask God to help them walk in it and live by it.

If our souls are bent out of shape, Jesus wants to see us free, so we can stand up straight and see the world as God sees it. When that happens, we’ll rejoice like we’ve never rejoiced before. ‘When Jesus laid his hands on the woman, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God’ (v.13), and ‘the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing’ (v.17). When Jesus brings God’s healing power into our lives, the result is always joy, praise, and freedom. May it be so today, for you and me. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘The Image of God’ (a sermon on Colossians 1.15)

Today is a joyful celebration of new life in Christ. Today, in a few minutes, Holly is going to commit herself to Christ in faith and baptism, and then she and Craig are going to offer their son Henry to receive baptism as well. I think the last time we celebrated the baptism of a mother and her child at the same service at St. Margaret’s was nineteen years ago, so it’s not something we see very often! But it’s a beautiful witness to the decision of a family to put God at the centre of their lives and follow the way of Jesus together, and so we rejoice with them here today.

Baptism in the New Testament is like a beautiful diamond with many facets. We turn it around and examine it closely, and the light falls on a different facet each time. Sometimes baptism is about being born again into the family of God. Sometimes it’s about dying with Christ on his cross and being raised with him in his resurrection—that symbolism was very powerful when adults were baptized by total immersion, going down into the water and coming up again. Sometimes it’s about God making a covenant with the person being baptized, and baptism being the sign and seal of that covenant. Sometimes it’s about repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Most of the language used about baptism in the New Testament works better when it’s an adult being baptized, as Holly will be baptized today. That shouldn’t surprise us; after all, most of the New Testament books were written by the first generation of Christians. They remembered what it was like to be without Christ in their lives. They remembered how they came to believe in Christ, and how they were baptized into his family. So they loved using the language of dying and rising again, or being washed from your sins. That language really resonated with their experience. They looked back on their conversion to Christ using the sort of imagery Paul uses in the two verses immediately before our reading from Colossians today, where he says,

‘For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom and forgave our sins.’ (Colossians 1.13-14 NLT)

But what does baptism mean for a person who experiences it the way Henry is going to experience it today, right at the beginning of his life? I think the New Testament text that best fits Henry’s experience is the one from the end of the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the gospel to all nations. Let me remind you of what he says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a NRSV).

A disciple is a learner—we might even say, an apprentice—someone who is intent on putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in their daily life. Adults can decide to do this, of course, but parents can also decide to make this the centre of their lives with their children. We love Jesus and we want to learn to follow him, and as we’re learning day by day, we’re also passing on what we learn to our children and grandchildren, by our words and by our example. So a family that brings a child for baptism is a family that has decided to follow Jesus together.

But why would we want to do that? Why would we specifically want to follow Jesus? After all, there are many different religions out there in the world today. We have many different options to choose from. What makes Jesus so special? Is it just because we live in Canada, and historically Canada has had a Christian tradition? Or is it something more than that?

I want to focus with you on one verse from our reading from Colossians this morning: the first verse of the passage, Colossians 1.15. Here it is:

‘He (that is, Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation’.

That’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it, rather literally, from the original Greek. The Common English Bible gives what I think is a good paraphrase of it:

‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’

This is amazing language for our author to use! We’re not exactly sure when the letter to the Colossians was written. Many scholars think it was written by Paul the apostle, as it claims, which means it would have had to be written before the mid-sixties A.D., since Paul was probably executed by the Roman Emperor Nero about that time. But other scholars think it was written at a later date, by a disciple of Paul, perhaps a decade or so after Paul died. Even so, we’re talking about no more than forty-five years after the death of Jesus—and likely quite a bit earlier than that—and someone is already using astonishing language to describe the carpenter from Nazareth who’d been executed as a rebel against Rome by Pontius Pilate.

Let me try to illustrate what I mean. C.S. Lewis died on November 22nd1963, so that will be fifty-six years ago this coming November. Lewis continues to be a very popular Christian writer. His Narnia stories have been made into movies several times over the years. His books still sell in the millions. Many people have been inspired by him and some have become Christians because of his writings. There have been dozens of biographies and studies about his life, to the point that you’d think there would be nothing left to say, but no, people are still writing them! So it’s safe to say that Lewis was an impressive man and a great religious leader and teacher.

But no one has ever said of C.S. Lewis the sort of thing that we read in Colossians:

‘C.S. Lewis is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation, because all things were created by him: both in the heavens and on the earth, the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.Whether they are thrones or powers, or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him.’

It would be unthinkable that anyone would talk about Lewis like that. After all there are still people alive who knew him! His character flaws are well documented, and if anyone tried to teach that Lewis’ life was some sort of special revelation of God, Lewis and his friends would have been the first ones to protest. “I’m just a man,” he would have said, “and a sinner too. Please pray for me!”

When these verses from Colossians were written there were certainly people still alive who had known Jesus well. Many of them were Jewish people, and Jewish people were very strict about not worshipping anyone but the one God, the Creator of heaven and earth. They were also very strict about not making images or idols. How could you possibly make an image that would sum up everything that God is? The whole universe can’t contain the likeness of God, so what hope does an image have of doing it? And so Jewish people were told quite clearly in the Ten Commandments not to make any sort of image to bow down and worship.

But now here is Paul, using that image language about Jesus, calling him the Son of God, and going on to say, ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation.’ And none of Jesus’ early followers protested that, despite the fact that it cut right across their Jewish sensitivities. Why is that? Surely it’s because, the more they thought about their experience of Jesus, the more they realized that this was the only sort of language that was adequate for him.

The Anglican bishop of Toronto is called Andrew Asbil. Andrew’s father Walter was also an Anglican bishop in the Diocese of Niagara in Ontario. About twenty years ago, long before Andrew became a bishop, I was at a national church meeting in Toronto where he was one of the speakers. The person introducing him said, “I want to introduce Andrew Asbil to you today. Some of you know his father Walter, and you’ll agree with me that you now know exactly what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’!” And it’s true! If you put photographs of Andrew and Walter beside each other, the likeness is uncanny!

But of course most children bear the likeness of their parents to some degree. And children also inherit some of their characteristics from their parents. The older I get, the more I realize that some of my deepest convictions about what it means to be a Christian priest come from my dad, who was a priest before me. And I chuckle sometimes when I hear some of the things my daughter says to her children, and I realize that she heard the very same words coming out of my mouth when she was growing up!

“Like father, like son.” “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Many of you have heard me tell the joke about the little girl in Sunday School who was trying to draw a picture of God. Her teacher was surprised. “But no one knows what God looks like!” he said. She replied, “They will when I’m done!” And when Jesus was done living his life of love for God and others—even going so far as to love his enemies and pray for those who hated him—when he was done living a simple life with few possessions, focussing only on God and the people God loves—when he was done crossing boundaries and loving people no one else had any time for—when he was done healing the sick and raising the dead and welcoming sinners and teaching us what God had in mind for us when he created us in the first place—well, when Jesus was done all that, now we know what God is like. God is like Jesus.

Let’s be clear what we mean here. We’re not saying that God hasn’t revealed any truth about himself to anyone in any other religion on the planet. That would be absurd. God hasn’t left himself without a witness anywhere. There are good and wise things taught about God in many different religious traditions. But at one point in the history of the planet, as St. John says in his Gospel, ‘The word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1.14 NRSV) God has come among us in Jesus, to live and die as one of us. That’s why we follow him.

But there’s one more thing we need to remember about this verse in Colossians. Jesus doesn’t only show us what God is like; he also shows us what humans are meant to be like. ‘He is the image of the invisible God,’ says Paul. But you remember in the Book of Genesis, when God creates human beings, he says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” (Genesis 1.26 NRSV) and the writer goes on to say,

‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.’ (Genesis 1.27 NRSV)

Scholars have speculated for years about what it means to say that we humans are made in the image of God, but the simple answer was staring us in the face all the time. Five chapters later in Genesis the same language is used when Adam has a son. ‘He became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’. (Genesis 5.3). Parents have children in their image. God created humans in his image. We were meant to grow up to be like God, just as children grow up to be like their parents.

But so often we choose to disobey God, and the rest of the Bible is a sad record of that. We break our relationship with God, we’re alienated from others, we hurt the people we love, and we bring devastation to the natural world God created. This is still going on today. Yes, we’re still made in God’s image, but we struggle with evil and wickedness as well. We human beings are a mixed bag, capable of incredible love but also incredible cruelty. Our whole lives long, we struggle with this.

But Jesus shows us the way. Yes, he is God come to live among us, but he’s also a real human being. He shares our struggles. He knows what it’s like to be a refugee and have to flee from death squads with your family. He knows what it’s like to have to earn a living by the work of your hands. He knows what it’s like to have to share a small house with siblings, and later on, to be misunderstood by them, and called ‘out of his mind.’ He knows what it’s like to be hungry and thirsty, to love people and be rejected by them, to be gossiped about and slandered, and ultimately to die a painful death for a crime he didn’t commit.

Jesus wasn’t removed from our life; he lived it to the full. But somehow, when we read his story, we find ourselves drawn by him. Through all the difficulties, he seems to know God is with him all the time. He doesn’t get sidetracked from doing God’s will. He reaches out to the poor and the sick and the marginalized. He treats women and children, and lepers and Roman soldiers, and tax collectors and sinners, as if they matter to God. He inspires us, and we find ourselves wanting to be like him. That’s what being a disciple is all about: learning from Jesus what it means to be truly human, made in God’s image.

Let’s go around this one last time.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus shows us what God is like. So if someone tries to tell us that God is pleased by people who plant bombs, and force children to become soldiers, and fly airplanes into buildings to kill thousands of people, we know that’s wrong. Jesus has shown us what God is like. “God is love.” “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” If you want to know God, come to Jesus.

But Jesus is also the image of what it means to be human. He teaches us that loving God and loving your neighbour is the secret of life, and as we watch him, we realize he’s right. Jesus is truly alive, in a way we rarely see in others. He can teach us how to be truly alive.

Today, Holly and Henry are setting out on this path. As they get closer to Jesus, Jesus will teach them to know the God who loves them. And Jesus will also show them what it means to be a real live human being, the way God had in mind when he first created human beings.

But this reminder is for all of us, not just Holly and Henry. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He’s the best picture we have of what God is like. He’s also the best picture we have of what humans are meant to be like. So let’s follow him, so that we also can be transformed into his likeness.

Jesus Saves (a sermon on Luke 8.26-39)

One of the most beautiful titles given to Jesus in the Bible is ‘Saviour’. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves us from something too powerful for us to control. We might think of a person in the grip of an addiction of some kind: perhaps an alcoholic or a drug addict. The first step of Alcoholics Anonymous says ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Step two goes on to say, ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ This illustrates for us what it means to have a saviour, a rescuer, a deliverer.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is the Saviour of all who call on him. He doesn’t differentiate between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, rich or poor. As Paul says in our epistle for today, ‘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) And today’s gospel reading is a powerful example of that.

Jesus and his disciples have just come through a storm on the lake. The disciples thought they were lost. Many of them were experienced fishermen, but even they were afraid as the waves rose and the winds howled and the water began to swamp the boat. They cried out to their Master for help, and then an amazing thing happened. He simply spoke a word of rebuke to the wind and the waves, and immediately the storm ceased, and there was a calm. The disciples were astounded: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (v.25). It’s as if God was giving the disciples a bit of preparation for what was about to happen. It’s as if God was reminding them that there was more to their Master than met the eye.

So now they land on the other shore, in Gentile territory; this is actually the only time in Luke’s gospel that a trip to Gentile territory is mentioned. As soon as Jesus steps out onto the land he’s met by someone we would probably have described as a madman. Luke describes him as ‘a man who had demons’. He’s totally naked, dirty and wild-looking, and he doesn’t live in a house, he lives in the local graveyard. Luke gives us a bit of his history in verse 29:

‘Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.)

Henry Wansbrough describes the man like this:

He is exiled from all civilisation, living in the haunted abodes of the dead and not even properly dressed. His strength is daunting and uncontrollable, and as soon as he has broken his bonds he rushes off into the hideous desert, the eerie home of evil spirits. What makes it almost more tragic is that the attacks seem to have been periodic, presumably with periods of lucidity in between. It was only when the attacks came on that people would fetter him in an unsuccessful attempt to restrain him. But he always ended up in the wilds. Such periodic derangements to a friend whom one thinks one knows are easily ascribed to a powerful and evil spirit alien to himself.[1]

A feature of stories of unclean spirits in the gospels is that they always know the identity of Jesus. Humans don’t; some believe he is the Son of God, some believe he’s an imposter, many don’t know, at least not at first. But it seems the unclean spirits are in no doubt about the identity of their great enemy, and this is true here. As soon as he sees Jesus, the man screams out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (v.28).

But Jesus is determined that the demon has to leave, and he’s already begun to command it to come out of the man. He asks the man his name, but it seems that the man is no longer in control of his personality. A voice from inside him shouts out ‘Legion!’—‘for many demons had entered him’, says Luke. A Roman legion has five thousand soldiers, so that was quite a horde of unclean spirits! They see a herd of pigs feeding on the steep hillside by the lake, and they beg Jesus not to send them straight back to the abyss, but let them go into the pigs. Jesus agrees, and immediately the entire herd rushes down the steep bank into the lake and is drowned—a dramatic visual aid to convince the man that his old enemies are gone and vanquished forever.

But of course, we can’t expect the pig farmer to be pleased! The swineherds run off to town and tell everyone, and a great crowd comes out to see what’s going on. When they arrive they see a poignant scene.  No doubt the man is a well-known figure in the area, but he’s been completely transformed. Luke says he’s ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.’ (v.35). But the townspeople are afraid, and no doubt the owners of the pigs are angry, as we would have been if our property had been destroyed like that. They don’t rejoice over the man’s deliverance. No: they ask Jesus to leave them. They’re afraid of what might happen next if he hangs around!

What does Jesus do? Maybe they’re afraid that a man with that kind of power might force himself on them, but that’s not Jesus’ way. He gets into the boat, and the man who had been healed begs to be able to go with him. This is usually a request Jesus honours, but this is the only time in the gospels where he refuses: he’s got a more important plan for this man. “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, Luke says, ‘proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Some modern readers of this story find the demonic element hard to take. Evil spirits aren’t part of our contemporary world view, and they give the story a kind of legendary feel. We would be more comfortable if this man was described as being mentally ill, in the grip of some sickness of the mind that has him hearing voices and shouting in a strange voice and exercising surprising feats of strength.

Other modern readers aren’t so sure. American psychiatrist Scott Peck, the famous author of a book called ‘The Road Less Travelled’, also wrote a book called ‘The People of the Lie’ in which he told some stories of his own encounters with what appeared to be evil forces, and how he had dealt with them. And Christians who minister in the developing world frequently tell stories of these sorts of ‘power encounters’ and what comes of them.

It all comes down to a question of our world view. Do we believe we live in a world that has unseen spiritual elements in it, elements that can act on people in our own dimension of reality? Well, obviously we do, because we believe in God, and God fits that description quite well! Do we then also believe in angels? It’s clear to me that many people today, Christian and non-Christians, do in fact believe in guardian angels, and they even have names for them and pray to them! Even if we don’t go this far, angel stories are part of our Christian scriptures—the angel who announces the conception of Jesus to Mary, for instance—and we don’t tend to be offended by those stories, even though we don’t fully understand them.

So if we grant that such creatures might exist, and if we remember that God seems to give free will to all his creatures, it’s not illogical to suppose that there may in fact be ‘fallen angels’: angelic beings who have chosen to rebel against God and work for evil purposes in the world. Certainly Jesus believed that and acted on that belief, and so did his early followers.

But even if we don’t believe that—even if we believe that Jesus and his disciples were people of their day with a pre-modern world view, and that this man was suffering from a particularly severe mental illness—that still doesn’t detract from the amazing miracle Jesus was able to perform. Psychiatrists spend years of therapy with people like this, and sometimes the improvements are only marginal. Jesus simply speaks a word of command, the evil forces leave the man, and almost immediately he’s dressed and in his right mind, sitting calmly at the feet of Jesus and begging to be allowed to follow him. Jesus is truly the Saviour of all, even the last, the least, and the lost!

So what does this story have to say to us today?

We began by reminding ourselves of the beautiful title given to Jesus in the gospels: ‘Saviour’. I say it’s a beautiful title, but sometimes we Anglicans are ambiguous about it. A ‘saviour’ is someone who saves people from forces or situations from which they couldn’t save themselves. But when we hear about people claiming that Jesus has ‘saved’ them, we sometimes get uncomfortable. “I’ve been saved,” they say, and they might even ask us, “Are you saved?”

Why does this make us uncomfortable? Maybe it’s because when they say “I’ve been saved,” what we hear them saying is “I’m better than you.” But if you think about it, that’s not what they’re saying at all. Imagine a person swimming out from a popular beach, going out too far and getting caught in a powerful current. Imagine a lifeguard going out to rescue them from this desperate situation.  ‘Desperate’ is exactly how the swimmer feels. She’s maybe even given up hope; she’s sure she’s going to drown. But then the lifeguard comes and brings her back to safety on the shore. She’s overwhelmed with gratitude; “Thank you for saving me,” she says. Is she claiming to be better than the others? Far from it; she’s been silly enough to get herself into a situation so dangerous that she was powerless to deliver herself from it! Only the skill of the lifeguard has saved her life.

We’re told in the New Testament that the cross of Jesus has brought the forgiveness of God into our lives. If God won’t forgive us our sins, we’re truly in a desperate situation, alienated from the only one who can give us the help and strength we need. And even in this day and age, many people believe that God can’t forgive them. Their sins and failures weigh heavily on them; they’ve tried to change, but the power doesn’t seem to be in them. I’m not talking about obvious things like murders and sexual assaults, although some people obviously are guilty of these things. I’m talking about our selfishness and self-centredness. We know it spoils our lives and the lives of people around us, and we try desperately to change it. But so often we fall back into the same destructive patterns of behaviour.

Can God forgive us? Can God give us strength greater than our own, so that the destructive forces in us can be cast out and drowned in the sea? Whether or not we literally believe in demons, we often use that word metaphorically, don’t we? We say of someone that ‘his demons got the better of him’, and we all know what that means.

The Gospel is Good News: it tells us that Jesus is the strong Son of God. By his cross he brings the forgiveness of God into our lives. Paul says ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting their sins against them.’ And if we’re reconciled to God, then the presence of God can be a present reality in our daily lives. God can breathe the Holy Spirit into us, and we can have access to a power greater than our own, rescuing us from those destructive patterns of behaviour, transforming us into people who love God with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and who love our neighbour as ourselves. And that’s a miracle, no less than the rescuing of the man with the legion of devils.

What’s our response to this story?

Some of us are afraid, like the townspeople. Jesus has only just arrived, and already he’s destroyed a herd of pigs! What’s next? What’s he going to demand of us? If we follow him, how much more meddling is he going to do? Is he going to tell us how to use our money, or how to vote in the next election, or how to treat the dodgy-looking characters we run into on Whyte Avenue?

This fear is very real, even to religious people. Many religious people are fine with religion as long as we’re in control of it! We like the Sunday service, but we also like knowing when it’s going to end, because, you know, we live busy lives, and God needs to stay within his boundaries and not break out! That’s the problem for these Gentiles in our story today. They were fine with the gods as long as they stayed at arms’ length! But Jesus was bringing God too close! And maybe you feel that way too. Maybe this story is getting too close to home for you.

The neighbours are afraid, but the man himself has been delivered. He’s clothed and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and the thing he wants more than anything else is just to go and be with Jesus. And maybe, a few months down the road, Jesus was glad to see him and hear about all the things God had been doing in his life since he was saved. But not right away. Right now the story is buzzing in the air, and the last thing Jesus needs to do is take the prime witness off the scene. Jesus and his disciples are being sent away, but the man is not. He can stay and tell the story, and who knows how many other lives will be changed as a result?

Let me close with three last points of application.

First, as I said at the beginning, Step One of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics anonymous says, ‘We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’ Do you sometimes feel powerless over some force within? You wish you could be different, but something’s got you chained. It might be a fear. It might be a destructive habit that’s hurting you and the other people in your life. Francis Spufford describes sin as ‘our human propensity to mess things up’ (he actually uses a far stronger word than ‘mess’!). Do you know about that? Would you like to be set free?

Second, do you believe that Jesus is in fact the Saviour, not just of the world, but of each individual in it, including you? Step Two of A.A. says ‘We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’ ‘A power greater than ourselves’—what a beautiful description of the Holy Spirit! Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit to all who follow him, and the Spirit will get to work in our lives producing his beautiful fruit. Galatians says ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ (5.22-23) That’s what God can do in us, if we ask him to fill us with the Spirit, and if we then keep in step with the Spirit day by day. Are we ready to ask him?

Third, as you begin to experience this work of grace in your life, you will find yourself in a social situation that gives you opportunities to share your story. Jesus might not be welcome, priests and pastors might not be welcome, but you are! Yes, we’d love to go off with Jesus on retreat for a while, just to bask in his presence, and he may well allow us to do that. But he’s going to teach us and shape us on the road as well, in our ordinary lives, among our friends and colleagues. What’s our call? “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And what did the man do? He didn’t just talk about God; he sharpened the focus. ‘So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.’ (v.38).

Two weeks ago we heard Jesus saying, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1.8b). Witnesses tell what they have experienced. If you are a Christian, then the presence of Christ in your life is making a difference. That difference is your story. You don’t have to be delivered from a legion of devils. Your story might be as simple as the hope Jesus gives you that the future doesn’t have to be the carbon copy of the past. Whatever your story is, Jesus needs you to share it. That’s how his kingdom goes forward, one story at a time, one heart at a time.

[1]Henry Wansbrough: Luke (Daily Bible Commentary); Peabody, Massachusetts; Hendrickson Publishers; 1998.

When Jesus Saw Their Faith

‘One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting round him. People had come from every village in Galilee and from Judaea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick. Some men appeared carrying a paralysed man on a bed, and tried to bring him in and set him down in front of Jesus. Finding no way to do so because of the crowd, they went up onto the roof and let him down through the tiling, bed and all, into the middle of the company in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven you.”‘ (Luke 5.17-30 REB)

For a long time now I’ve believed that the ‘their’ in ‘when Jesus saw their faith’ refers to the four friends, not the paralyzed man. The subject in the previous sentence is clearly the four friends, and it makes grammatical sense for this to be carried over. Also, we know that people who struggle with chronic illnesses often find it difficult to muster up faith that their situation can change.

But the faith of these four friends was strong and active, and Jesus ‘saw’ it—that is, he saw the actions it produced. Faith leads to action!

So God may call on me to exercise faith on behalf of others who find it difficult, and to pray faithfully for them. And he may also call me to ask for the prayers of my friends at times when I find faith difficult.

Lord Jesus, I believe: help my unbelief. When my faith is weak, please strengthen it. Help me take steps to grow in faith, stepping out in obedience to you. Help me be faithful in prayer for my friends. And thank you for the friends who are faithful in prayer for me.

A Remote Place

‘But the talk about Jesus spread ever wider, so that great crowds kept gathering to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. And from time to time he would withdraw to remote places for prayer.’ (Luke 5.15-16 REB)

There have been many times in my life when I’ve been guilty of being far too impressed with the first sentence above, and completely neglectful of the second.

I imagine Jesus going out to the remote place. No Bible, no liturgy, no retreat centre, no one else with him—just the presence of God and whatever scriptures he had memorized (including probably a lot of psalms). This was such a vital feature of his ministry, a refreshment for his spirit, a deepening of his sense of fellowship with God.

Lord, thanks for the opportunities we have to love our neighbours, and give us strength to grasp them with both hands. But also, help us not to neglect the call of the ‘remote place’. Without you we can do nothing, so help us make the time we need to draw closer to you. Amen.

Wisdom

‘The child (Jesus) grew big and strong and full of wisdom; and God’s favour was upon him.’ (Luke 2.36 REB)

‘As Jesus grew he advanced in wisdom and in favour with God and men.’ (Luke 2.52 REB)

As I get older, I find that wisdom is a gift I prize more and more highly. Wisdom means knowing how to live and what to do in all the situations life throws at us. Heavenly wisdom is informed and shaped by faith in God and God’s will for us. Several Old Testament texts tell us that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (fear, not in the sense of terror, but in the sense of a proper awe and reverence for God as our Creator).

Lord Jesus, as you were guided by your Father, so guide us today in the way of wisdom. Amen.