Tag Archives: faith

Easter is God’s ‘Yes’ to those who die

Reading
John 20.1–18

 

One reason [why we cannot seem to learn to die], of course, is that death is the one great adventure of which there are no surviving accounts; death, by definition, is what happens to somebody else. Empiricism falters before death. Yet [death] is more certain than love and more reliable than health. Pico Iyer, ‘Death, Be Not a Stranger’, Time Magazine, August 8, 1994, 68 ― in Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary

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Last Sunday, I told you a story about my dad and me. Let me refresh your memory. This is what I said:

At fourteen, I accepted Jesus Christ at a Billy Graham rally — in fact, it was 52 years ago to this very day (5 April 1968). When I told my dad what had happened, his first reaction was displeasure. He said that Billy Graham had come to Brisbane in a luxury jet; therefore he wouldn’t listed to him. (You have to remember that jet travel was much less common in 1968 — there was even less than there is in 2020!) Dad went on to say that if Billy had come into town on a donkey, then he would’ve believed him. 

You have to unpack that statement a bit. At fourteen, I didn’t and couldn’t. My dad was confessing deep respect for Jesus, while at the same time he held in contempt Christians who didn’t live as Jesus lived. 

Dad’s story didn’t end there. And — of course — it didn’t start there either. At fourteen, I didn’t know the beginning of dad’s story well, and the end was still a long way off. 

A few words about dad’s early years, which I learned about after I was fourteen. 

Dad was raised as a member of the Methodist Church. He must have been a keen youngster, and he decided he’d like to be a minister when he grew up. 

Now, to be a minister you had to have completed secondary schooling, which many were not able to do around the early years of Word War Two. Dad would have gone on to secondary school, but his own dad had died and his mum, my gran, needed him to leave school as soon as possible so he could start earning money for the family. 

When my dad mentioned his sense of a vocation to his minister, he was brushed off because he didn’t have the education to enter the ministry.

Dad never went back to that church. 

By the time I came along, dad was a cultural Christian at best. 

That was dad’s beginning. 

So, what about his end? Dad died of cancer at the age of 59. 

In his last weeks, I got to know him better than I had for a long time. 

In particular, I saw his boyhood faith rise from the grave where he had laid it years before. 

As his body wasted away, I saw his eyes come to life. I witnessed his dawning, renewed and life-transforming realisation that Christ, the risen One, was with him. Even walking through The Valley of the shadow of death. 

Dad became aware that he had a share in the new life; he was being raised with Jesus. 

I heard recently (on the By the Well podcast) that Easter is God’s ‘Yes!’ to those who die. 

It’s often been said that Easter is God’s ‘No’ to death. But dad died! We all die, and people across the globe are dying today from COVID-19. Yet Easter is God’s ‘Yes’ to us who will die. 

Easter is God’s assurance that we can live without fear of death. 

Christ is present with us. Alleluia!

Christ is risen indeed. 

 

 

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If / Since you are a child of God

Reading
Matthew 4.1–11

 

The temptations [Jesus] faces will each in turn urge him to take his relationship to God as a position of privilege, using it to meet his own needs, receive protection from the vulnerability of his humanity, and gain power over all the kingdoms of the world. Is this what it means to be ‘the Son of God’? Or will Jesus understand his calling in terms of God’s redemptive work and take up a role of serving God and God’s people toward that end―even if the end was suffering and death for him? ― Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: A Theological Commentary

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Our Gospel story today shows Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. 

To get it, we need to look a little behind the story. What’s in the background? 

Interestingly, Jesus has just been baptised. At his baptism, a voice from heaven says

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

We have baptised J today, and we can equally say to her, ‘You are a child of God. You are beloved by God.’ 

But for now, Jesus is in the wilderness. And for forty days. It’s a time of testing. A time of trial. And Matthew wants us to recall another time in the wilderness, a long time before. 

The people of Israel were in the wilderness too, weren’t they? They were there wandering not for forty days, but for forty years. It was a time of trial and testing for them. 

The people of Israel failed the test. But Jesus passed it. They gave in to temptation, where Jesus did not. 

I just want to look at one detail today, very briefly. I want to look at one part of the questions that Matthew puts into the mouth of the devil. The first two begin,

If you are the Son of God …

If you are the Son of God, take shortcuts! If you are the Son of God, be a superhero! And let me give you power and wealth beyond your wildest dreams! 

(Of course, if you can’t do any of that, maybe you’re not the Son of God after all … maybe you’re just a deluded fool.) 

Today, we have declared J to be a child of God. Baptised into Christ, she is one with Christ. But there may be times to come when she doubts it. That accusing voice may say to her, ‘If’ you are a child of God … Perhaps we too doubt that we could be God’s children? Yet in God’s eyes we are. Always. And always beloved. 

I need to remind you at this point that every word in our English Bibles is a translation. Matthew wrote his Gospel in everyday, ordinary Greek. Our English translations sometimes have a hard time getting the Greek exactly right when we put it into English. 

So: The word we translate ‘if’ (If you are the Son of God …) could just as easily be ‘since’—Since you are the Son of God … 

Since you are the Son of God, you can take shortcuts! Since you are the Son of God, you should be a superhero! And you deserve power and wealth beyond your wildest dreams. Let me give it all to you! 

When we read it as ‘since’, the Tempter isn’t sowing doubt. Instead, the temptation is for Jesus to think of himself as entitled. Since you’re the Son of God, you deserve power and wealth, everything you want …

Yet Jesus didn’t come to grab power. Jesus came to serve. He didn’t think of himself as entitled. Jesus, the Son of God, came to be a servant, to reach out to others in love, to bring healing. 

That’s what being a child of God means today. It’s not a title, it’s not about being entitled. It’s a way of life that begins with looking out for the interests of others and not putting ourselves first. 

That’s what we have asked for J today. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child. They’re right. We all have a role in Josephine’s life now. We’re all involved. 

Parents and godparents: you have promised to ‘teach [J] the way of Christ until the Spirit draws her to make her own response in faith and love’. Please do. 

Congregation: you have promised to ‘continue a life of worship and teaching, witness and service so that this child and all the children among you may grow to maturity in Christ’. Please do. 

Family and friends, having witnessed this day, I ask you also to do your part. For J. For all the children. Since they are children of God. 

Let us encourage one another to be the best children of God we can be. Let’s not settle for second best. Let us excel at serving others, at caring for the earth, at showing the love of God for everyone. Amen.

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A Second Naivete

Readings
Luke 1.68–79
Luke 3.1–6

 

…scholars had to learn to read the Bible again through lenses ground by faith and theology, including the theological reading of Scripture developed in the first Christian centuries and in the Middle Ages. It was necessary, in other words, to practise the ecumenism of time when reading and trying to understand the Bible.

And what is true for biblical scholars is surely true for other believers. We, too, must learn to approach the Bible with what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur once called a ‘second naivete’—not the naivete of the child, but the openness to wonder and mystery that comes from having passed through the purifying fires of modern knowledge without having one’s faith in either revelation or reason reduced to ashes and dust. — George Weigel, ‘Second Naivete: Reading the Christmas story with Benedict XVI’.

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A granddad is reading stories to his young granddaughter, stories he loved as a boy. They may be the Narnia tales, or Winnie the Pooh, or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. 

Granddad loves this as much as Granddaughter. Why not, they’re sharing precious time together and creating memories. But Granddad hasn’t picked these stories up for years. As he grew up, he’d learned that bears don’t talk and that for them piglets are food not friends. Secret worlds like Narnia don’t exist. And gumnuts don’t talk. 

He’d got on with life instead, building a career, mowing the lawn, having a family which this dear little child is part of.

Now, he’s not just enjoying being with his granddaughter, though that would be enjoyment enough; he is connecting with these children’s stories in a new way, a way that awakens him to something within, something he can’t quite put his finger on. 

He knows the wardrobe is just a wardrobe. He knows there’s no point going off to find the Hundred-Acre Wood. He knows it’s all imagination, yet—at the same time—it does seem bigger and vaster than him. 

Granddaughter just loves the stories. And snuggling with Granddad.

She is perfectly happy to accept that Winnie the Pooh is real—and now, when she sees an open wardrobe door she feels something… Is it a thrill or a chill? She doesn’t always know. 

They’re both happy to have read the story, and they go to bed contented, but for different reasons. 

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A New Authority

Reading
Mark 1.21–28

…the unclean spirit recognises Jesus, yet the crowd’s reaction focusses instead on Jesus’ authority, not his demonically disclosed identity! Through this ‘secret’ readers are brought in on an insight that characters in the story fail to notice. The upshot is that neither the miraculous exorcism, nor even authoritative teaching, is sufficient for faith. This also underlines the fragility of the gospel promise that Jesus embodies. – David Schnasa Jacobsen, Mark (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries), (Kindle Locations 973-975), Fortress Press, Kindle Edition.

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Capernaum, on the shores of Lake Galilee, was where Jesus had made his home. It is in the synagogue of Capernaum that today’s story is set. My wife and I were standing there in the ruined synagogue almost five years ago, on a journey to Israel. From memory, the current structure dates from somewhere around the third century. However, you can see at its base a darker stone which dates from the first century. Jesus would have seen this same stone.

This is the very site at which

the people who heard [Jesus] were amazed at the way he taught, for he wasn’t like the teachers of the Law; instead, he taught with authority.

The people in Capernaum were amazed. Gobsmacked. At the way Jesus taught, and at his authority over the demonic spirit.

But amazement was not enough. It wasn’t what Jesus was looking for.

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Increase (?) our faith (Ordinary Sunday 27, Year C)

Reading
Luke 17.5–10

The disciples say to Jesus,

Increase our faith!

The scriptures don’t mention their state of mind, but I can’t resist speculating. I suspect they were
anxious,
bewildered,
confused,
and shamed.

You see, Jesus had just said some things that showed that it’s very difficult sometimes to be his disciple. Things like this:

Things that cause people to trip and fall into sin must happen, but how terrible it is for the person through whom they happen. It would be better for them to be thrown into a lake with a large stone hung around their necks than to cause one of these little ones to trip and fall into sin.

What’s that about? What are the ‘things that cause people to trip and fall into sin’? Jesus explains what he means: it’s all about not forgiving other people. Surprised? Listen:

Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person.

That’s when the disciples say, ‘Increase our faith!’

The disciples are saying, You want us to forgive someone who keeps doing the wrong thing day after day after day? You’re asking the impossible! Increase our faith!

And what do they mean, ‘Increase our faith’? It is absolutely crucial to understand Jesus’ reply. He tells them the size of their faith doesn’t matter. It only needs to be the size of a mustard seed.

If size doesn’t matter, what does matter? Continue reading

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Faith looks forward

Ordinary Time 20C; Pentecost 13C; Proper 15C

Readings
Isaiah 5.1–7
Hebrews 11.29—12.2
Luke 12.49–56

Today and last Sunday, the lectionary has directed our thoughts to Hebrews 11, the great ‘Faith Chapter’. Key Old Testament figures of faith are remembered in this chapter: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Samuel, David, and others. Of course, if we were writing this list today we may have included Sarah with Abraham, and named more women than Rahab. Women like Hagar, Ruth, Deborah and Judith would really round the chapter out for many of us.

The stories of people of faith can be a great encouragement to us. The people of faith we ourselves know can also encourage us.

I want to tell you about a time when I wondered if I really was a person of faith after all. A time when I thought my faith may just evaporate.

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Standing on the ground of grace (Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B, 18 March 2012)

Standing on the ground of grace

Readings
Ephesians 2.1-10
John 3.14-21

Grace.

It’s a word we hear in church often. We hear it outside of church too—we speak of a dancer who dances with a certain grace, a certain beauty and delicacy. People say grace before a meal. If someone offends another, they may have the grace to apologise. You may receive a year’s grace before you must pay a debt—but if you don’t pay, you’ll fall from grace. And if Kate Middleton were ever to come here, she’d want you to call her ‘Your Grace’. It’s a very positive word!

Yet grace has another kind of positive meaning when St Paul says,

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…

Here, the word ‘grace’ means something greater and grander than any of the other ways we use it.

Grace is a great word, one of the greatest in the whole of the scriptures. We read in John’s Gospel chapter one that ‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’:

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.

And Paul says in Romans,

since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand…

Jesus Christ has brought us grace upon grace; grace is the very ground on which we stand.

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The faith of outsiders (20th Sunday, Year A 14 August 2011)

Readings
Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15.10-28 

Make no mistake: the story of the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman is one of the most troubling in all the Gospels—and yet it’s one of the most rewarding.

In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus meets a woman and implies that because she is a Canaanite person, she can be called a dog. It’s what we would call these days a ‘racial slur’; the Canaanites were ancient and bitter enemies of Israel, whose ancestors had led Israel away to worship idols. If this were the only story of Jesus that we knew, would he be an attractive figure?

This story is an embarrassment, it always has been. People have tried to get around it in various ways. They note that Jesus said ‘puppy’, not ‘dog’; but puppies are just as religiously ‘unclean’ as grown-up dogs.

They say that Jesus was testing the faith of this woman who was only trying to get help for her daughter. They are trying to ‘protect’ Jesus, but they are unconvincing. Again, think: if this were the only story about Jesus we had, what opinion would you have of him? Actually, I hope you’d still end up with a pretty good opinion of Jesus. I’d hope that if this was all we knew about Jesus, we’d think highly of him.

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“It is your Father’s good pleasure 
to give you the kingdom”

Devotions: Bremer Brisbane Presbytery meeting

Readings
Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16
Luke 12.32-40

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Luke 12.32

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11.1

Faith is ‘the conviction of things not seen’, the gift of God that enables the believer to stand firm in the midst of difficulties and trials. Or at least, faith reminds the believer where to go to find help in the midst of those difficulties and trials.

Faith is ‘the assurance of things hoped for’, the means by which we lean into a hope-filled future—not because we’re optimists by nature, but because it is God’s future.

Hebrews 11, the great faith Chapter, gives us examples of those who lived by faith in Old Testament times: Abel, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Rahab and others. It tells of those who

through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

More than that though, it tells of those who

were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two (according to tradition, the prophet Isaiah met his death by being sawn in two by a wooden sword), they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

All of these, whether so-called ‘winners’ and so-called ‘losers’, had faith—they had conviction that gave them the power to conquer or endure; they had assurance that there was a promised future in God’s good time.

We too live by faith. Yet unlike these Old Testament heroes, we see the promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ; but like them, we see it by faith.

But there is one further dimension to our faith. It is built on Jesus himself, upon God’s taking flesh and living our life. It is built upon God’s humility in dying our death. And it is built on God’s authority over death.

We see more clearly than our ancestors that God is a seeking God, a finding God, that God is looking for partners in bringing about the new creation. We have the word of Jesus:

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Isn’t that wonderful? It is the Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, little flock though we may be. It is the Father’s pleasure for us to work with him in revealing the nature and the contours of that kingdom in our own day. It is the Father’s pleasure for us to live faithfully, whether the ‘results’ of our work look like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ to us.

There’s a sense to me at least that Hebrews 11 describes a heroic quest for the promises. I’ve already used the word ‘heroes’. Yet for me, faith isn’t heroic. Really, faith is all we have. Whether we are ‘successes’ or ‘failures’, whether life is going well or badly, whether we ‘escape the sword’ or are ‘sawn in two’.

And we have faith because in and through Christ, it is God’s good pleasure.

Now, today, it is our turn to live this life of faith. To live with conviction about the present and assurance for the future. To receive the kingdom, and to be generous in sharing it with others. It’s God’s good pleasure. Amen.

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Yet more on faith — “the turn to the personal”

Today’s Eureka St has an interesting article on Irish poet Seamus Heaney called “Non-believer drawn by the sacred”, which says:

…the language of his Catholic past has found new power now. In the poem ‘Out of This World’, he traces the journey from his childhood immersion in ritual to the present, saying of his mature understanding:

And yet I cannot
disavow words like ‘thanksgiving’ or ‘host’
or ‘communion bread’. They have an undying
tremor and draw, like well water far down.

What to make of Heaney’s spiritual journey? It could easily be seen as a casualty of the so-called secularising effect of the ’60s and ’70s; as a loss of religious faith followed by the emergence of a more syncretistic spirituality.

But such a judgement misses the major transition. Heaney describes a shift from faith understood primarily as external adherence to ritual, to faith or the spiritual quest as having profound personal resonance. Even though he no longer sees himself as a believer, sacred words now ‘have an undying/tremor and draw’. They have the capacity to shake the soul and beckon it forth. (Not that I wouldn’t love Heaney to discover the full joy of Christian faith: I would, if he so discovered it.)

Read the whole thing here.

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