Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Parable of Austin Powers!

One of the things that happens is that when you clean out your office and book shelves you discover things from the past. You brush the dust off and can sit down and read some stuff you had written along time ago. I've been re reading something I wrote while at the school of ministry called "Hope Not Hype: A Prophetic Ministry in a church in Decline.' It was a reflection on my sense of calling to ministry within the PCANZ... anyway in the conclusion I came upon a section I had written called the Parable of Austin Powers... It was good to be reminded of two things by this.

firstly, that we need to be teachable as it was one of my Youth Group leadership team who came up with it after my rather arrogant comment that I could see no redeeming feature in the Austin Power's movies... as quick as a flash he came back with this.

"The church is Like Austin Powers"

 And on a flat, wrestling with it all, Wednesday the glimmer of hope from that comment in the reflection I wrote on it... " I am excited about he church because it is like Austin powers. It may seem as if somehow its been stuck in a  time warp, frozen in time and out of place in its twenty first century home. It may be rather comical and , well, for the past few decades it has been obsessed with sex. However it is till God's not so secret agent and as bungling as it may seem it is still the agent of God's redemption in the world today."

I'm not such if 'Yeah Baby, Yeah' should replace alleluia in our worship services... well I'm quite positive it shouldn't. But on a droopy Wednesday I find a glimmer of hope not hype in this reflection.

You'll be pleased to note, in a way that stopped my reflection being hype not hope: A Pathetic ministry in a church in decline' and I apologise if I've shared this before however I finished my reflection then and now with two challenging insights from other voices.

" don't think that small groups can't change the world; they are the only ones who ever have- Margaret mead (quoted in Jim Wallis' FaithWorks)

"It's hard to believe that a movement born of visionaries and dreamers would become dominantly known for its traditions and rituals... God has a lot on his mind and it is through the church that he makes it happen."- Erwin MacManus

Sunday, April 27, 2014

"What's in a Name?... Waiting on the Spirit (A series introduction) Acts 1:1-26... Fire and Wind: Encountering the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts and in Our Lives Today (Part1)

While I was preparing for this message Peter Jackson, the king of the sequel , was making a very important announcement. He had, to quote a much loved TV commercial,  been ‘internalizing a very complicated situation in his head’. You see since he had decided to make the Hobbit book into three movies, there was the question of what to call each movie. Originally the last movie was to be called The Hobbit: There and Back Again’ which is what Tolkien called his whole story. But in “the desolation of Smaug”, Bilbo had already got there. Could they call it simply…and back again”. So as they have been viewing the footage and doing the post production they have come up with a new name for the third movie…Which he announced this week ‘The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies’. However, Tolkien purists will be pleased to know that when the box set comes out it will be called “There and back again:  A Hobbit’s tale”.

Today we are starting a series looking at Luke’s sequel to his gospel, the book of Acts. Luke kind of fits very nicely into that great Hollywood tradition of doing a sequel. In fact it’s not really an advent of Hollywood or even comic books or the four book sci -fi trilogy tradition in the ancient world it was common for major works to be in several parts. Partly due to the length of material that you could wind into a scroll, and of course the scope of the story you want to tell. In the Prologue to Luke’s gospel and Acts, Luke tells us that he is writing to Theophilius. WE don’t know who this person is, except that he was probably a prominent Christian in Rome who was wrestling with his faith, and Luke is writing to tell him the facts of the faith. How it started in Jesus and then how it was carried to Rome.  Theophilius also means ‘Beloved of God’ as you and I read the gospel and its sequel we too as the ‘beloved of God’ are invited to look at the facts of our faith, its foundation in Jesus and the story of its initial spread to the centre of the Roman world. We are invited to see the initial impact that the resurrection had.

Luke starts his sequel, with a recap, by filling us in with what has gone before, with his account of the ascension echoing closely the last chapter of his gospel, it speaks of the reality of a continual story that you and I are part of, way past the chapter 22 where he leaves it.

But like with Peter Jackson there is a problem about what we should call this sequel. We call it Acts, but what does that mean. I want to start our exploration of acts through the question what’s in a name…Traditionally it’s been seen as the “Acts of the Apostles” , what those who had been with Jesus did after Jesus death and resurrection. It is a very human story, fall of human faults and foibles, disagreements and setbacks, triumphs and tragedies, personalities all that goes into a great and very human drama. It is basically Church History. It’s our history, it’s like the Marvel Studio’s who with the release of the Avengers Movie completed what they called Phase one of their story of the marvel universe, telling the origin stories of all the characters,  here is our origin story.

But that does not really do justice to what is happening here, it focuses on the work of human beings but not on what is really going on in the bigger picture. Some have wanted to call this book the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Right from his introduction Luke is telling us that this is about the work of the Promised Holy Spirit. In fact for Luke the Holy Spirit is the one through whom God has been working out his salvation plans all the time. It was it was by the Holy Spirit that Jesus gave instruction to the Apostles. The focal point for the spirits work in the gospel is Jesus, from his conception to his resurrection. The key difference of the new narrative  is that the long promised Holy Spirit would come. It is not simply the age of the church but of the Holy Spirit. We are reminded here at the beginning that John the Baptist had identified Jesus as the one who would baptise people not with water but the Holy Spirit. Jesus last words to his apostles are to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes and they will receive power to be his witnesses. Their mission is the work of God’s spirit.

This series is called ‘Fire and Wind: encountering the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts and our lives today.” Fire and wind are symbols of the coming of the spirit on those first believers at Pentecost. Our interest reflects the centrality of the Holy Spirit to what it means to being God’s People, and its importance in empowering and enabling us to proclaim the Kingdom of God. We are God’s Spirited People. WE need to be filled with the promised spirit to witness to the risen Jesus. I’ve tried to capture that in this image by having the wind and the fire but with the impression of being the burning bush the symbol of our Presbyterian Church.

It’s interesting in the passage we had read out today we see the apostles going back to Jerusalem and going about the business of being a community. They act in obedience to Jesus by going back, they pray together, they are unified, they search the scriptures, and they work on the structure of being church: they work out a process for replacing Judas as one of the twelve. They function OK, but it’s not till they receive the Holy Spirit do we see the focus move them from being inwardly focused to being outward looking, to being a church with purpose and mission. One of the ways that difference is often explained is like a car with and without the petrol, or diesel. It can be built and made for what it is intended for, it can cleaned and maintained and shown off, but if  it lacks that essential ingredient that powers it for what it was purposed for.it remains stationary and does not go anywhere.

OK, but even that name the 'Acts of the Holy Spirit', does not give due consideration to what the book is about. Again we need to go and look at Luke’s introduction to get the big picture. Because again I wonder if the title the Acts of the Holy Spirit is not even big enough,  it does not cover the scope of the narrative and our part in the story as a church.  First and foremost it is the Acts of the sovereign God. It is the kingdom of God, the rule and the reign of God that Jesus is teaching and enacting. It is the father who promised and who sends the Spirit… we used the prophecy in Joel 2 that is part of peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts,  as our call to worship today, in which God promises to pour his Spirit out over all humanity regardless of gender or socio-economic standing, that We may be able to have vision and imagine  what the Kingdom will look like in our world today and speak God’s words, to be Jesus witnesses. 

It is the action of God through Jesus Christ. Luke tells us what Jesus had begun to do and here there is the sense that through his presence with his people in the Holy Spirit that action continues. We could call it the continuing 'Acts of The risen Jesus Christ'...What will happen in Acts and what is happening in the church today is the continuation of the ministry of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the sending of the Holy Spirit was that we would witness to Jesus Christ to the end of the earth.  It is the story of what Jesus continues to do through us until he returns in a cloud just as he was taken for their sight.

Well that may seem a bit of a long drawn out look at what’s in a name, but I think it’s important  for us as we find ourselves in this ongoing story, for us to understand the place and purpose of the of the Holy Spirit. To again await and seek the power of the spirit to enable us, and to witness to the resurrection of Jesus.

And it’s with that last idea of what the resurrection of Jesus means for the church that I want to finish off today.   Luke is very quick to tell us this is central to his message, he tells us that Jesus had performed very many convincing proofs that he was alive and that dovetails with the idea of a witness as one who can testify to the observable and objective truth of a situation. What that means for us as a church comes as we move from Luke’s introduction into his account of the ascension.

Luke does that in verse 6.  It’s like stepping out of a voice over into live action, in a movie. And he does it with a question. Luke tells us that Jesus had given his disciples his commission to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit and they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  And the question captures what the disciples are thinking, is it now Jesus that you will restore the kingdom to Israel? The burning question for the people in Jesus day about the messiah was that his coming would mean Israel’s restoration as a nation, throwing off roman rule, was that going to be now? More than that, and Jesus picks this up in his answer, it may sum up some of the things that Theopilius and Luke’s readers were wrestling with. Because the question has a longer range understanding, is it now that it will be the end of all things. Is it now that Jesus would reign in person. There is a lot of talk in scholarly circles about the fact that the early church had an expectation that Christ’s return and the end was immanent  and a lot of them were wrestling with their faith as the time seemed to stretch further and further into the distance.

And Jesus answer is to tell us that those things are the preserve of God, they are held in the sovereignty of God. The meaning of the resurrection was not that we should idly speculate about those things or that we should associate the Kingdom of God any longer simply with the physical nation of Israel, but that the resurrection was a call to us for mission: To bare witness to Jesus. It was a call to a mission that would start at the centre of Judaism in Jerusalem but would spread out to the ends of the world.

 Luke often quotes the book of Isaiah and the term ‘ends of the earth’ comes from Isaiah 49:6 and while we may think of it terms of geography it has a wider connotation and promise. For Theopilius that would have been defined by the Roman Empire, for the Jews they may have seen it as meaning to Jews in the extent of the diaspora, how far they had been scattered, but in Isaiah it is used both geographically and also to talk of God’s promise and favour spreading to gentile as well as Jew.  Here as we’ve seen in John is the saviour of the world that God so loves sending out his people to the world.

This seems to be reinforced by the men in white who come and stand with the apostles after Jesus is taken up into heaven. They are gazing up in the sky and the men have to remind them that believing in Jesus is not about staring up into the sky waiting for his return. It’s not about all heavenly minded and no earthly use it’s about in obedience to Jesus the Mission of God. Witnessing to what we know of the Risen Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

wonder if we are not a bit like the church between the ascension and Pentecost, we are good at doing church, keeping it going, in obedience to God caring for each other and worshipping and praying and responding to the scripture. We even wrestle with getting the structure right, but I find myself wondering if we are still kind of waiting, still kind of looking up at the sky our hands half raised in worship and half in “ well what do we do now”. As we work through the book of Acts I hope we encounter afresh the spirit of God , in power, the spirit that enables us to witness to the hope we have found in the risen Jesus and enable us to bear witness in our homes, neighbourhoods, workplaces, city nation and just maybe to the ends of the earth.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Lost Prayer About Being Willing to Follow...

About 12 years ago I wrote a Theological reflection on Celtic Spirituality and the idea of green martyrdom, that is leaving your home for the sake of the gospel, as a metaphor for ministry. It had been sitting gathering dust amongst all my papers until we were forced to tidy them in the face of new uncertainty and a looming move... timely I wonder.

As part of that reflection I wrote a prayer (which I have always felt was rather long and a bit pretentious. It was a reflection about moving from a ministry situation in Rotorua to train in Dunedin in the deep south of New Zealand, a whole different Island, a whole different world. But it is a Prayer which I thought expressed the adventure of Following Jesus into future ministry situations and being prepared to leave the familiar to seek the kingdom be it place or out of those comfort zones that we tend to find ourselves settling in. So even after twelve years of gathering dust it still expresses my hearts desire, and probably my lack of poetic ability.

You'll probably note the bits from other prayers. St Brendan's, Sir Francis Drake and St Patricks breast plate, as well as a couple of lines and sentiment  from the book of Ruth.

God who formed the sea and the land,
who spoke and the waves rolled and the wind blew,
who flung stars and galaxies into space,
and breathed life into our clay forms
we give you praise

In Christ, You know what it is like to journey,
you left your heavenly existence to live amongst us,
you chose to give up the comforts of house and home,
to teach and heal freely as you roamed,
you experienced the joys and sorrows
ebbs and flows of our life,
then out of love you gave your life for us,
nailed to across, dead and buried but not ended.
you rose from the grave and you are seated at the God's right hand
yet in a real way you journey with us still
present to the end of the age.

God's Holy Spirit
wild goose, spirit wind
you blow and we do not know from where it comes
or where it will lead us.
we aask you to fill our sails afresh
not to lead us to safe harbour
but out upon the wild ocean
to where our master calls us to serve.

God we have left family and home
prestige and position to follow you
the land we are in is foreign and strange
there are no familiar landmarks, by which to navigate
we miss the things and people we have left behind,
friendships that warmed our heart,
a community that embraced and nurtured us,
homes that were full of memory and meaning
it has caused sorrow in our hearts
and often we are tempted to give up the journey
or find an easier path to go by
Yet you lead us and guide us
you provide for us
you go before us and watch our back on the way
you walk alongside us

I often fear O Lord for my family and their welfare
I question what moving here and there will do to them
yet I know you love them more than I do
that you are loving and full of grace
that your plans are for our good
that you know our needs and provide
I will put my trust in you and go where you call
I will stay where you call me to stay
I will wander if you call me to move on
In all this I will continue to journey with you
Through your strength, by your spirit
As you continue to journey with me
A journey of to maturity and mission in Christ

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Indulging in wishful thinking or inspiration for being witness (Acts 1 6-8 and a Quote from I Howard Marshall)

In preparing for Sunday I found a couple of great quotes from I Howard Marshall ( Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP: 1980).

Marshall comments on the question asked Jesus about "is it time that you will now establish Israel. And I think Jesus answer and Marshalls reflections are helpful to us as it is easy to want to look for God to move and make it all right... be it revival, a political swing back to the Church ( a longing to return to the days of Christendom), or that the Lord's coming is immanent... you just have to read the signs (and lets face it we've just been through a period of heightened eschatological stress with the Millennium and living in an age where for the first time human activity can be seen to have catastrophic global ramifications).

I Howard Marshall Comments... On the question...

" Their question (tying into Jesus comment in v.3) is weather Jesus intends to restore the Kingdom to Israel. This may reflect the Jewish hope that God would establish his rule in such a way that the people of Israel would be freed from their enemies (especially the Romans) and establish as a nation  to which other people would be subservient. If so, the disciples would  appear here as representatives of Luke's readers who had not yet realised  that Jesus had transformed the Jewish hope of the Kingdom of God by purging it of its nationalistic political elements."

he goes on to acknowledge some may have been looking towards how soon the end was coming...Marshall comments on Jesus reply...

" Jesus roundly states that the matter of the time of God's action is his own affair, and it is not open to men to share his knowledge. Since this is God's secret, there is no place for human speculation- a point that might well be borne in mind by those who still anxiously try to calculate the probable course of events in the last days. Instead of indulging in wishful thinking or apocalyptic speculation, the disciples must accomplish their task of being witnesses to Jesus. The scope of their task is world wide. It begins in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and it stretches to the end of the earth."
I find myself encouraged that to believe in and follow a Risen Jesus is a call to live in a world that God so loved and to Witness in it to that Love shown in Jesus... with the knowledge of God's promised presence and power in the Holy Spirit, knowing that God has the God sized stuff under his control.
It's not a matter of (see image above) wanting to jump off, but jumping into the arms of God for what we are called to live out.

Darrell Bock succinctly sums it up by saying ' Instead of being worried about the end of the plan they are to be equipped to carry the message to the ends of the earth." 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sitting Under The Fig Tree: Encounters With Jesus in John's Gospel (an Index)

Leading into Easter this year I have preached my second series of messages from John's Gospel... Last year over the same period I preached a series called 'Refracted Glory: Jesus Revealed In The 'I Am' Sayings of John's Gospel.' ...and this year I wanted to look at how people meet with Jesus in John's gospel and how that  changed them and how we can meet with Jesus today.

This years series was called "Sitting Under The Fig Tree: Encounters with Jesus in John Gospel and Today." and picks up the encounter that Jesus has with Nathaniel at the beginning of the gospel. WE tend to think of the Fig Tree as an exotic and interesting place to be sitting, but in Ancient Near eastern homes the Fig Tree outside the house was the place where people would sit to rest and also to pray and contemplate. My hope was that in our own time and culture that we would meet Jesus in the similar places where we live our everyday lives and as we come to pray, reflect and read scripture.

I've posted the messages on my blog and in what does seem a bit of a self promotion I'm providing this index so people can find a passage and message they want. Please if there is anything of value in this feel free to reuse it, I'm also always open to peoples comment and reflections... I guess that goes without saying in the blogosphere.

Due to a glitch with Mircosoft word (if I am allowed to say such things... yes this is a google owned website) I lost the electronic version of my message on John 4: 43-54.

John 1:  35-50... Under The Fig Tree: The First disciples (Jesus meet us where we are and invites us to follow him)

John 3:1-21.... At Night: You must Be Born Again, Jesus and Nicodemus

John 4: 1-37... At the Well, the Samaritan Women

John 5:1-14   At the Pool... Do You want to be well?

John 6:60-71 ...Following When Jesus Says What!!!

John 9: 1-41... In Sight: Jesus and Who is really Blind?

John 11:1-44   In The Face Of Death: at Lazarus' Tomb

John 12: 1-11 In Worship or is It Worth it, Mary and Judas Respond to Jesus

John 12:12-36 In The Swirl Of The Passover Crowd: A Sea Of Responses.

John 20: 11-29, 21:15-19 With The Risen Christ: Mary, Thomas And Peter

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Encountering the Risen Jesus: Mary, Thomas and Peter (John 20:11-29, 21:15-19)... Sitting Under The Fig Tree: Encounters with Jesus in John's Gospel and Now (Part 11).

“On the first day… in the garden” is how John starts his narrative of the resurrection (I preached on it last year).  He had started his Gospel ‘In the beginnings’ painting us a wonderful sweep from before time and Creation, and onto the incarnation, the word that spoke and it all came into being, the word becoming flesh and pitching his tent in our neighbourhood.  In Jesus we see the truth and grace of God revealed. Now we have a new start and the dawn of a new creation. “on the first day… in the garden”

And maybe you expect John who had started his gospel with that grand sweep of cosmic proportions to start his narrative of the new creation, in the same way, but he doesn’t he starts with simple stories of people’s encounters with the risen Jesus… By telling us how that new life, that resurrection hope began to shine its new reality into one life at a time, it helps us to see how that resurrection reality can shine into our lives as well this Easter Sunday.

We’ve been working our way through encounters with Jesus in John’s Gospel and now… We’ve followed him from sitting under the fig tree,  to being nailed to the cross… and today we find ourselves encountering Jesus risen from the tomb, in the garden with Mary, in the locked room with the disciples and in particular Thomas, and on the beach, by a fire with Peter … almost a full circle as we come back to where we started and find Jesus asking Peter to “follow me”.

Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Peter act as witnesses. They are witnesses to the reality of the resurrection; they meet Jesus raised from the dead. They also act as witnesses to what that resurrection reality means for us, how it can change our lives… from grief to good news… cynicism to certainty and forsaking to forgiveness. They invite us to witness what a life transformed by the risen Jesus can and what it means to be a witness to the resurrection.

Mary Magdalene, is mentioned in all four gospels as being at the cross, and a witness to the resurrection. Outside of that it is left to Luke to tell us about her, in Luke 8:2 he mentions Mary Magdalene as one of the women who Jesus had healed and who in response travelled with Jesus and provided financial support. In Mary’s case Luke tells us she was delivered of seven demons. She would have been a woman on the edge of her society, Outcast and stigmatised as having spiritual problems before she met Jesus, but in Jesus she found someone who had turned her life around.   

She had been at the cross, she had watched Jesus rejection and death, you can imagine all her hopes and dreams dying on that cross as surely as if they had been nailed up there as well. She is full of grief, and now as she had come to do one last act of respect to her Lord and master, her beloved Jesus, she finds that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. She does not see it as hope… no…What cruel sick trick is this… what last desperate act of hatred… there was no longer anywhere to focus that grief and desire to remember. Even the angels John tells us who were there are unable to console her.

A figure comes and stands behind her, she does not recognise him, she thinks it’s the gardener maybe he can tell her where they have taken the body… She is so caught up in her grief until he says her name “Mary”.She recognises at last through the tear filled eyes, the voice that spoke healing and wholeness into her life, who had been willing to have women as part of his followers and had taught them, a voice she could not forget saying “Mary”.   

Mary’s grief is turned to Joyous Good News. Jesus is ascending to the father, the grave has lost, death where is you sting. She is told to go and to tell the disciples and so her song of sorrow is turned to one of Good News “I have seen the Lord!”.

Despite what Dan Brown might have you believe…Mary seems to disappear out of the scriptural story at this time… My reflection on what she has to say to us today really comes in what sort of week it’s been for me. You see we too are called to witness to knowing the risen Jesus, and even in the face of grief to witness to that new life and new creation. I was given the privilege this week of doing a eulogy for my Father in Law Ray Middendorf, It meant that I sat down with Shona and some of his brothers and heard the precious family stories. But also as Ray was a man of faith I had the great privilege in the midst of that sorrow and grief in celebrating his faith and proclaiming Good News as well. That you and I have hope in a Risen saviour that goes beyond grief and death… I didn’t want to use my own words I borrowed them from a very trusted source… Desmond Tutu… who more than anybody recently has articulated that hope… when he finished his farewell for Nelson Mandela with “rest in peace and rise in glory”…

Thomas, also known as Didymus, which means twin, is one of the twelve. We meet him at various times in the gospel, you may remember when Jesus was going to Bethany and the disciples were trying to convince him that it would be suicide to do so, Thomas said “ hey we might as well go along and die with him”. But Thomas seems to be very absent at the cross and the day of the resurrection. In fact when Thomas turns up, he is not prepared to believe what he has been told. Thomas seems to fit into our twenty first century materialistic world, I want to see for myself, touch and hear for myself before I will believe. So when Jesus turns up in the locked room, Thomas as a witness becomes quite important.  We don’t know how Jesus appeared in that locked room, we do know that Jesus like with Mary is concerned and cares for Thomas. He invites Thomas to do exactly the things that he had said he needed to do to believe.  We don’t know if Thomas does these things or not, all we know is that Thomas stops doubting and believes. He turns from his cynicism to certainty… and he is the first to actually understand what this means. He responds in worship” My Lord and My God”.

You see for Thomas to believe in the resurrection is to believe in the divine nature of Jesus. If you believe in the resurrection it points to vindicating and proving all that Jesus had claimed about himself.  Thomas knew that… it was not a step he would take lightly.

Again Thomas steps out of the scriptural story, except when he is mentioned as part of the twelve and the apostles. Part of that is that Luke is interested in telling us how the Gospel spread to the centre of the Roman Empire, and we have Paul who was a prolific letter writer. Thomas however went east, to Syria where he is acknowledged as founding the church there… WE can tend to forget that in what are mainly Muslim countries these days that the gospel and church have been there from almost day one. I am always reminded of this in a story told by shane Claiborne, talking with the bishop of Baghdad during the US bombings, and in response to Claiborne’s expression of amazement that there are so many Christians in Iraq,  the bishop told him the west did not invent the gospel, it just domesticated it”…  In fact even in India the church looks back to Thomas going and telling and establishing faith communities.  (it was grat to have someone in Church from Madras India today who after the service told me of growing up and worshipping at St Thomas’ church in that city, traditionally said to have been built on the site of Thomas’ death in that city).

Jesus gentle rebuke of Thomas is a blessing on you and I who have believed withoutseeing. Who have come to know the risen Christ through the witness of people like Thomas and those who have followed him down through the millennium, have shared their hope and certain knowledge of Jesus death and resurrection.  It calls us to stand with Thomas as a witness, maybe like him away from the limelight, without the write ups, not at the centre of the dominant society but as it says in the great commission as we go… where ever we go… everywhere we go.

Simon Peter, we’ve known from those first encounters that Jesus has in this gospel.  His brother had come to find him and told him “I Think we’ve found the one”. He’d been there and seen and slowly begun to understand, he’d been given the name Peter… which means Rock… he’d assumed the position of leader and spokesman for the group. When many stopped following Jesus he had said “where else can we go, you have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” he’d even been ready for an armed uprising drawing his sword when Jesus had been arrested, but he was not ready for the cross. John tells us of Peter denying knowing Jesus three times; he tells us that while John was at the cross Peter was nowhere to be seen. He was at the tomb that first day and with the twelve. But it seems he had no understanding of what this meant for him, maybe he was still so aware of having forsaken Jesus, he decided to go back to what he knew. Let’s go fishing he says. It’s in that that he encounters Jesus again. In the midst of this we have a wonderful narrative of Peter being reconciled with Jesus, being forgiven, restored and freshly commissioned. Peter, do you love me?, Peter do you love me?... Peter do you love me? Then feed my sheep.  Come and follow me…

When Jesus had first meet the disciples he had spoken to them of the power to forgive sins and here that power is demonstrated and wonderful shared with Simon Peter. Sin and death have lost their power and we are set free. We are invited out of the familiar to serve Jesus a fresh and anew. Of course we know a lot about Peter’s story from here, we know he was an apostle we know he made mistakes and didn’t get it right, Paul had to rebuke him about showing favouritism to his own people. But we see that here is someone who experienced the new life, freedom and forgiveness from Christ crucified and resurrected.
John does not give us an account of Jesus ascension, but leaves us with his own account as a witness, in the hope that we will believe. There is the sense that the story of people encountering the risen saviour is to continue and it still continues, he still meets with us today, not in physical body, but by the spirit. Today does Christ want to meet with you. How today does the risen Jesus want to bring that new and abundant life to you? Like with Mary, Thomas and peter he cares for each one of us …How does he want to bring joyous good news into grief and sorrow for you?  Certainty and belief in doubt?... Forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of our failings and faults?   In what ways are you being called to witness to an empty tomb, fresh hope and the Risen Christ?  He is here today may you encounter the risen Christ.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

In the Swirl of the Passover Crowd: A Sea of Responses (John 12:12-36)... Sitting Under the Fig Tree: Encounters With Jesus in John's Gospel And Now (part 10)

John 12:12-36

Leading into Palm Sunday this year perhaps in New Zealand we’ve caught a glimpse of what can happen when a future monarch comes to visit. Crowds gather excitedly, people are expectant of even a glimpse, a wave, a walk by and chat, a photo op, although I wonder if you’d need to be a bit careful these days reaching into your coat pocket to pull out the ol’ cell phone for a quick selfie with the royals. Maybe that was what Jesus entry into Jerusalem was like, except with palm branches not Union Jack flags and cell phones.

We are rapidly working our way to Easter as we look at encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel and now. Today we are looking at Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  As you read John’s account you get the idea of the swirl and movement of the crowd as Jesus comes into the city, we catch a glimpse of how the powers to be see things, and Jesus public ministry comes to an end. Not with the acclimation of the crowd and growing worldwide acclaim  but with Jesus speaking openly of his coming death and one last plea to his own to believe and find light and life in him. Today I want to invite you to step into the swirl of the Passover crowd and encounter Jesus with me, as he comes into the city and speaks, to find yourself amidst the sea of people and responses to Jesus.

Jesus comes up to Jerusalem from Bethany, he’d stopped there and a feast had been thrown in his honour. Many people had come because they heard of the great miracle of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Now Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, at a time of heightened tension and nationalistic expectations, Passover where the Jews remembered their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. John tells us a crowd came out to meet him. Pilgrims from all over the country had come to Jerusalem for the festival, maybe many in this crowd were from Galilee and last time Jesus had been with them they had wanted to make him their king and he had slipped away to pray. Now here he was coming to Jerusalem. Could this be the time to throw off Roman oppression? 

There is excitement and expectation, while this event is mentioned in all four gospels. John is the only one who tells us what sort of branches the crowd used Leon Morris says “both the words they spoke and their actions express their praise.” Palm branches were an emblem of victory, and John’s mention here points to the triumph of Christ. The words are from the Old Testament we used them as a call to worship this morning. Hosanna means “save us” and echoes Israel’s hope that God would send a messiah to save them, the blessed coming one’. They were the usual words sung by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem.. But John records that the people add “Blessed is the King of Israel”  this was not part of the psalm but summed up the hope of the crowd.

John tells us that Jesus responds to these calls by finding a young colt to ride on. In the synoptic gospels it goes into great detail as to how Jesus found the colt that it was all worked out in advance. But here in the swirl and whirl of this spontaneous but predestined event, Jesus symbolically shows them what sort of King he is and what sort of Kingdom he has come to establish. This is not the triumphant warrior king, riding on a white charger, or conqueror marching at the head of an army, rather it was a humble person , here RVG Tasker says is the prince of peace. Again in this action Jesus fulfils scripture and John quotes it for us from Zechariah 9:9…

The disciples didn’t understand what was going on,   John tells us it was only after Jesus had been glorified that they realised that these thing had been written about him. In his teaching at the last supper, Jesus talks of sending the spirit, the one like him, who would come alongside and lead them into all truth and here we see that in action. It only from the other side of the cross, only from the other side of the empty tomb, with the spirit at work in us that Jesus is fully revealed. The crowd can have an idea of who Jesus is and his mission and it is often that that understanding of Jesus fits into what we want, our hopes and expectations… But it is only as we allow the spirit to minister to us that the reality of Christ crucified is revealed, and that reality stands starkly against the mass moves and expectations of even his followers.

Now the home town crowd hears about Jesus, not just the country bumkins, who could be excused for thinking Jesus was someone special. The people who had been with him when he called Lazarus from the grave, the Jews who had travelled down for Jerusalem, start telling people about what they know, what they saw and more people come out to meet Jesus.  The people that the religious leaders might have thought would have been a bit more sceptical and circumspect, instead of flocking to see Jesus.  John’s transports us into the back rooms, the shadows and the Pharisees who had plotted against Jesus they see this as a sign that the whole world has gone after Jesus.

And we are no longer caught up in the crowd, but the words the Pharisees spoke seem to come true as we find a group Greeks who were at the festival come and see Jesus. The Greeks were probably what was known as ‘god fearers, people who were drawn to Judaism because of its Lofty morality and monotheism, but who did not want to go the whole hog of becoming proselytes and be circumcised.    They talk to Philip, and Philip tells Andrew, who in turn tells Jesus. And maybe they think this is a sign that Jesus is about to go global, that the big time beckons, if I maybe a little cheeky here they think it’s like he’s lorde, that is L ORDE. Our world beating teenage pop sensation… and Jesus does take it as a sign, but a very different sign.

Jesus sees this as a sign that his time has come. His mission is about to be fulfilled. In John 3:16 John had told us that Jesus had come as the saviour of the world, now he sees that about to be fulfilled, the Greeks represent that wider context for him. Jesus speaks to Philip and Andrew and the crowd around him. He tells them that just like with a seed falling to the ground and dying to produce much fruit that he too must die. This is not to be a popularist uprising, but as he will say later a sacrificial uplifting.

That to follow Jesus calls us to be willing also to give up our lives so that we might find eternal life. It would be great if the way of Jesus was simply all triumphant entry, but it is a call to sacrifice and costly love. Not that the Christian life is like sucking lemons, no it is full of joy and wonder and finding eternal life… but couched in different terms than our society sees them… it comes from being with Jesus  and in finding our honor and purpose and worth being meet by God, as we follow Jesus example. AS he will tell his disciples the night he was betrayed, after he has washed their feet and invited them to do likewise, and love one another as he had loved them,  that  he will give them peace and joy that are beyond the powers of this world to take away. But the road there leads through the cross.

John does not provide us with a narrative of Jesus prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, but amidst the hustle and bustle of the festive crowd we have an account of Jesus wrestling with what is before him. “His hour has come” he is aware what that will mean.  Being human it tells us that Jesus heart was troubled, But his faith and his trust in God do not weaver.  Our emotional response to an adverse situation, our experience of the pain of loss, facing suffering does not equate with a lack of trust in God. Jesus here wrestles with those very human feelings but expresses his knowledge and trust  that God will be glorified in this hour.

Amidst the business of this day and this place, we hear an audible voice from heaven; an affirmation that God will indeed glorify his name and will glorify his Son. That what is about to happen is God’s will and God’s way and God’s purpose and God will  be victorious despite it looking as if the powers of this word have won.  It’s interesting that John takes the time to work through how people respond to what happens here… We get Jesus understanding that God has spoken, not to gee Jesus up so he’ll go through with it, but as a way of showing those around that Jesus has been sent from God. Some simply write it off as very opportune thunder, yet in Psalm 29 we have the fact that God’s speaks in the thunder and the storm. Some thought an Angel had spoken. Ina very pragmatic way it shows how our the ears of the crowd and our ears can be closed to hearing what God has to say.

Jesus then translates what this voice means to the crowd. He speaks of Judgement that God has chosen to judge the world. And it’s not the picture that we often carry round in our mind as to what the judgement of God might mean. It’s not the negative I’m going to make you pay for all you’ve done wrong, you are never good enough for me kind of stories that we tend to carry round in our heads and our hearts.  Rather it is a judgement of liberation and victory that fits very nicely into the triumphant entry of the king into Jerusalem. The prince of this world, Satan, will be cast out.  Death and sin will be defeated; darkness will be driven out by the light. There is the hope of new life and living in the light. Jesus did not come to condemn but to all who believe in him he came that they may have life.

Now we do need to unpack this a bit, firstly, the crowd and Jesus understood the idea of being lifted up to mean death and death on a cross. This is an affirmation that this liberation this freedom this life, comes because of the costly sacrifice of Jesus. But also it needs to be seen in the context of the Greek’s coming to see Jesus. They kind of got lost in the swirl of this narrative, but remember they are the trigger for Jesus words here. Some have seen this as a sort of universalism, that everyone will find life in Christ. But it speaks more of a universal mission, that Jesus salvation and the life that he gives will be open to all peoples… “Jesus will draw all peoples”…  Not just the chosen people, but Jew and gentile, men and women, free and slave, rich and poor.

Now the crowd raise their voice again, they had been silent since the beginning of this narrative. They had been simply observing and listening. They respond with misunderstanding and disarray. If there was an expectation of a messiah and a king, Jesus had now managed to destroy that, he’d put the kibosh on it, dampened it all down, with his talk of his death. Yes they are looking for a messiah, their worldview is crafted and built on an understanding of scripture and now Jesus does not fit that. He had come to his own and now they were rejecting him.  And Jesus finishes his ministry with one last plea that these people may come to the light. That they may believe in him. And sadly the narrative finishes with Jesus leaving and hiding himself from them.  We’ll it finishes beyond where we read today with the voice of Isiah telling us that this was according to scripture and Jesus crying out pleading and praying that people may come to know him and have life.


Where do you stand today in the swirl and whirl of this triumphant entry? There is the crowd around Jesus with their expectation and hopes… Jesus invites them to go beyond those to follow him even to the cross. What does that look like for you?


Are there people who have come to you and are asking to see Jesus? Maybe they don’t fit the bill, they are outside what you’d normally expect. Do you need to find an Andrew to help them to see Jesus?


Are our ears and eyes open this Easter, to Jesus lifted up? It’s an ugly sight but beyond it there is hope for the people round us in darkness. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Reflection On A Water Feature

It would have been easy to write it off as a burst pipe or an overflowing storm water drain, at least that was on my mind the first few time I noticed the water feature in the square in the Ellerslie shopping centre.  I guess I should apologise to the person who created it (and I looked around the square for a plaque to see who had... didn't find one).

Now, however, I find my self reflecting on this sculpture (or water feature) each time I drive through Ellerslie... which I do about two times everyday. It's not a fountain that you'd want to admire because of its artistic beauty or historical significance... lets face it the little township of Ellerslie nestled in the suburban sprawl of Auckland city isn't Rome or London or New York, it's not even down town Auckland.

Two thoughts come to mind, well three actually because I've pointed out to my son who is studying to be an engineer and he wondered if the fountain wasn't recycling the water that it used as it simply drains off into the ground in a very functional little drain that is a square round the four spouts.

But anyway back to the reflections I had. Firstly I couldn't help but think of Jesus words at the festival in John 7 where he talks of believing him being the source of springs of life giving water.

‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’
Historically there are famous fountains connected to churches which are a way of signifying this reality. But the simplicity of this water feature was such that it invites you to consider water sources springing up in the midst of the tough, concrete urban environment. Even the very modernist functional and I think soulless modern architecture and design of the Ellerslie public square. Although as you'll probably have guessed the plumes of water actually provide that life and soul, hopefully I've captured something of that in the couple of photo's I've put with this post.
The second thought was a prayer actually about being church in (or at least just outside of) this place. St Peter's finds itself down a side street hidden from view by the growing number of multi story gated apartments. On our advertising fliers I have summed this up by saying "St Peter's is the church just round the corner... but not round the bend... and definitely at the heart of the community".  But my prayer is that while we may be like the water feature in Ellerslie glimpsed as people move past on their way somewhere else or going about the business of everyday life, that we may indeed be a place which brings this life giving water to those around us... That by the Spirit's presence in our midst (and John tells us this is what Jesus was refereeing to) that people may meet with Christ.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

In worship... or Whats in it for me: Mary and Judas encounter Jesus On the Road To The Cross (John 12:1-11)... Sitting Under The Fig Tree: Encounters with Jesus In John's Gospel And Now (part 9)

There is a narrative of Jesus being anointed by a woman in all four gospels. Leon Morris says that the relationship between them is rather complicated. John and Mark , and Matthew are similar in the words spoken and even the setting, although Mark and Matthew have this happening after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Luke is very different in timing and in the insistence that the woman was a sinner, and therefore in the teaching that goes along with it. John is the only one who puts a name to the woman; he identifies her with Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus and places this wonderful act of Worship and devotion into the context of a response to the raising of Lazarus. This may seem like a real sort of academic bible scholar not very exciting way of starting off this
morning.  But as we had this passage read out to us today and as I’ve been looking at it in preparation for this message I couldn’t help but find myself standing in Mark Matthew’s narrative, in fact I couldn’t help but think that we all today stand in this story, with people from everywhere down through the last two thousand years as Jesus says (click for quote) “Truly I tell you wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
And we are working our way towards Easter by working our way through peoples encounter with Jesus is John’s gospel and now. Today we look at two very different responses to Jesus one that is a memorable selfless act of devotion and the other a miserable self-centred act of denouncement: One responses with worship and the other with what’s in it for me. Both lead to Jesus death and both invite us to examine our hearts in relation to who Jesus is and what he has done for us.
Jesus comes to the village of Bethany six day before Passover. He is on his way up to Jerusalem so there is a sense here that he is on his way to die.  Mary’s act of devotion is a preparation for his burial, and the seeds of Judas’ betrayal are clearly seen here. This is on the road to the cross.
We know that Martha was her normal hostess with the mostest and served. Once again it fits in with what we know of her character that she would show her devotion to Jesus by doing the practical things for the feast. Maybe again it was social expected of her as the oldest in her family.  However there is a lot of scholarship round the idea of Martha waiting tables. Because waiting tables is the Greek word from which we get deacon, and the English word minister comes from the idea also of waiting tables.  Feminist theologians quite rightly, I think, point out that Martha is always the one going about this servant leadership role in the gospel narratives. AS we saw last week  she is someone who declares her faith in Jesus as the son of God and I don’t think it stretches things too far to see her running of the feast here as her act of leadership and devotion to Jesus. If we are talking of encountering Jesus in this passage in worship or in is it worth it…. She shows that serving is also part of our worship. She carries out this role selflessly in contrast with Judas’ who saw his role as the keeper of the purse as a chance for self-enrichment. This is always a challenge for people who serve and who express leadership… is it about worship and honouring Jesus or is it about status and self-actualisation or advancement.  Worship or what’s in it for me.
Mary anoints Jesus feet with a very expensive jar of perfume. With nard which is an extract from a plant called spikenard… it is still used in perfumery and is still very expensive. In Mark and Mathew’s account she anoints his head, and it serves as his being anointed king as well as preparation for burial. It’s an acknowledgement of Jesus. In this instance just maybe John sees her wiping the feet as the ointment comes all the way down. In Luke’s account he points to the fact that he had been mistreated by the host who had not bothered to wash Jesus feet, and that the woman had not stopped washing his feet with her tears.
It’s a costly act, we are told that the nard cost about the equivalence of a year’s wages. But it was also costly as Mary puts aside her status, and as Jesus will with his disciples takes on a servant role. Jewish women did not uncover their hair in public but here she had loosened it to wipe his feet.
My friend Malcolm Gordon mentions this passage when he talks about worship. He says Worship is a  conversation, in chapter 11 we see the awesome and beautiful thing that Jesus had done for Mary in raising Lazarus from the dead, now in response Mary does a beautiful thing for Jesus.  Christ initiates and moves towards us with grace and love and healing and wholeness and we move towards Christ in response. One of the words in the Old Testament for worship is to lean forward to Kiss, here that is demonstrated graphically by Mary.
But the conversation of worship does not end there. Worship is two words and means to give something or someone worth. Mary acknowledges Jesus worthiness of all praise  and Jesus in return gives Mary worth, he acknowledges the beauty of this expression and its significance in pointing to his death, he defends her actions, her devotion. In Luke there is the affirmation of great love being shown when much is forgiven, In Mark and Matthew he tell us that she will be remembered.  Worship is God’s reaching out and initiating relationship with us and our responding. That opens the door to more of God’s grace as this conversation does not stop here but continues and is linked to Jesus death and God’s  grace shown to us all.
On a real practical level Mary’s devotion is also wholehearted and involves all of her, body, mind and spirit. I wonder if in her heart and mind she has finally understood what Jesus going to Jerusalem will mean. She gets it and this is her response, she does not get to care for Jesus body when he dies that is left to Joseph of Arimathea and interestingly Nicodemus. It involves her emotions and her body. It’s funny but one of the nick names for us Presbyterian’s is God’s frozen chosen: Referring to the reformed understanding of predestination and also our embracing of a very formal and cerebral worship. Can I be cheeky and say it’s Ok to get excited about Jesus, the amazing truth that in him the word became flesh, the creator came and lived as one of his creation, that in the face of our brokenness and darkness that there is life, and freedom and forgiveness and hope and joy and peace, and fellowship and brothers and sister s to walk the road with us and eternal life and the spirit presence to led and guide us to face down the evil and sorrow of this world.  I know it’s easy to sing too many of those Jesus as girlfriend songs, homoerotic worship as some have called it, its easy to get caught up in what we like rather than focusing on the one who loves us. I have friends who are always worried that worship can get too emotional, I worry that we don’t get caught up enough in the wonder of who it is we are loved by and who we have the privilege to worship. Mary is our model for worship.
However… It is easy to find ourselves standing with Judas. On the surface Judas is right isn’t he. Imagine what the equivalent of one year’s wages could do to elevate the suffering of few of the people who we met by the pool at the sheep gate, or along the side of the road. Part of true worship and Jewish piety was a willingness to give to the poor.  It showed that your heart was attuned to the heart of God, the kingdom mentality that we are blessed to be a blessing to others.  And Jesus does not dismiss that, he does not fault Judas on his care and concern for the poor, rather he says that there is room for both. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest command he replied it was to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and to love your neighbour as yourself.  The two go together . It’s interesting that in Luke’s gospel the two stories that follow on from that are ‘ the parable of the good Samaritan, in response to the question who is my neighbour and then we have the story of Jesus at Martha and Mary’s house where Jesus   commends Mary for sitting at his feet. I wonder here if we don’t have what it means to worship and give worth to Jesus, to sit at his feet, as we find ourselves today, with Mary again, and the go and do likewise of the Good Samaritan.
But with Judas we are told that there is an ulterior motive to what he has to say. We are let into what is really going on in his mind and heart. He’s in it not for worship but for what’s in it for him? He’s been dipping his hand into the money bag, lining his own pockets. I wonder iof Judas does not also understand from what is going on where this will lead. He was happy to follow Jesus when he thought that it would result in Jesus being installed in the palace, you have to remember that the disciples in the other gospels had arguments over who would be the key leaders when Jesus came into his earthly kingdom. But now that it is leading to the cross it is a different matter. What’s in it for me, does not present such an attractive alternative.  When it was going to be victory and public recognition and glory, Ok… But Judas begins to see where It is going that it will lead to the feet of Jesus in humility, the feet of Jesus nailed to a cross, without the understanding that it will also lead to Jesus feet stepping from an empty tomb, then worship and following just don’t seem worth it, and Judas looks for another source of what’s in it for me.
Ok well how do we tie this all together in a way that will connect with us today?
Well Paul Meztger says this encounter with Jesus comes right in the midst of a conspiracy theory. At the end of Chapter 11 where the religious authorities plot to have Jesus killed and the end of this story where we hear they want to have Lazarus killed as well. In fact he says this narrative is part of that conspiracy as it directly tells us why and how Jesus dies. However, “The real conspiracy” he says “isn’t taking place on the pages or on the surface but in the hearts of respondents-including the readers, as we react to Mary’s act of supreme devotion to Jesus and Jesus himself.” And he brings it home in a very challenging way by continuing “We the readers tend to praise Mary for her extravagant demonstration of love for Jesus but we tend to behave like Judas, both in our carefully controlled piety and in our dismissal of tactile costly worship when we encounter it in whatever form.”  The narrative finishes with people in two camps; those who came to see Jesus and believe and those who continued to plot his down fall… It finishes with with worship or what’s in it for me?