The Holy Spirit at Work

Sunday the 21st of May 2017

John 14: 15-21

Since I was a young child, I have spent my life worshipping in, and being involved in, the life of the Lutheran Church, whether in NZ or Australia. I was taught well by my teachers and those who, over the years, had significant influence on my Christian journey. And I see myself as being an ordinary, Christian Lutheran.

In 2001 I began to study at Tabor College in Adelaide, which is a non-denominational bible college. Whilst I was there, for the first time, I mixed with other Christians from various traditions. Many of them were from Pentecostal backgrounds and had a very strong emphasis on the role the Holy Spirit plays in our lives. At that time I began to realise that as Lutherans we do not talk about the Holy Spirit much, do we? We don’t really talk about the role he plays in our lives as believers. At the time I was confused and, to be honest, unsure of what to make of what we believe about the Holy Spirit. It was something that I really had to grapple and wrestle with, and I suspect that it is not just me who has to do this at times.

In today’s Gospel reading from John 14, Jesus tells us that he will send us another advocate, that is: Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, to be with us. As I mentioned last week, Jesus was speaking these words to his disciples, in what is known as his farewell speech; the time where he was preparing them for what was to come. And it is no co-incidence that it was at this time that he tells them about the Holy Spirit, whom he would ask the Father to send. Jesus was promising his presence with them at the same time that he was anticipating his arrest, his crucifixion, his resurrection and his ascension. He strongly encouraged his disciples that his presence would be made known to them, in the times ahead, through the Holy Spirit; Jesus made clear that when these disciples become troubled and afraid the Holy Spirit will come and be present with them always.

I wonder if we can imagine for a moment what it would have been like for those disciples to hear these words from Jesus. They had just been told that Jesus was going away and they could not come with him. These disciples, without knowing what was coming around the corner, had been with Jesus for the majority of his ministry. They had been present with him and taught by him and now he was telling them he was leaving. Add to this the fact that these words are said just after Judas departs into the night and Peter’s denial was foretold.

They might have easily thought to themselves: “What are we going to do? How are we going to manage? How can we keep on going if Jesus is not with us?” It is into this place that Jesus says: “16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth.” And “18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.”

The Holy Spirit will help us and be with us forever. His presence will be with us, along with the presence of Jesus to guide us through this journey in life with him. Knowing the challenges and persecution that these disciples were about to face, we can imagine how powerful these words of assurance and comfort would have been for these disciples.

As you and I here today look at the chaotic and at times unstable world around us; as we look at the challenges that we each individually face in our own lives when it comes to keeping the faith in Jesus amidst our own struggles; as we see the outright attack by those against our Christian values, and we see churches closing down around us, it is easy to find ourselves in a place where our hearts are troubled and we are afraid of what the future holds. And we ask: “What is going to happen to the future generations?” It is easy to get discouraged.

But we have the promise that Jesus spoke of. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, the one who gives us comfort, the one who gives us God’s presence, the one who reminds us of Jesus’ words of promise to us, the one who helps us to trust, when at times we can’t on our own. The promise of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading reminds you and me that we are not alone. The words of assurance that were spoken to those disciples are also the words of assurance spoken to you and me: that even today we are never abandoned, because the Holy Spirit is present with us.

Jesus also says these words concerning the Holy Spirit: “The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (v. 17) This is good news for all of us here. You and I are gathered together as believers, who know our God, because the Holy Spirit is living in us. We are brought together by the Holy Spirit who is working in you and me through the Word and Sacrament, to build us up, to strengthen us in faith and to assure us that we do in fact belong to the Lord through what Jesus has done for you and me, by forgiving our sins. But he does more than just these things. The Holy Spirit is the one who empowers us to not only believe, but to keep his commandments. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts our consciences when we sin. He is the one who points us back to Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the one who empowers us to love one another. He is the one that helps you and me live the Christian life demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit. (Gal 5: 22-24)

All these ways I have been talking about of the Holy Spirit working are very practical. But it is not always recognised by us that he is working in us. This is a very Lutheran way of understanding his role, because it puts the emphasis on scripture and on his working in us. Often this can be misunderstood by others, because they place the emphasis on the outward works of the Holy Spirit. So they look at the gifts he gives us, or the miraculous ways that the Holy Spirit sometimes works through his people. They make these things the standard and do not emphasise the normal everyday ways that the Holy Spirit works in every Christian. The way that he brings about faith in us, the way he assures us of his presence. The Church of Corinth had this very problem. In chapter 12 we read Paul addressing the spiritual gifts among them. The reason he was doing this is because the people had become judgemental of others and had used the more powerful gifts as the standard of faith. Paul says these words in 1 Corinthians 12 v. 3: “No-one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.” Any of us who have faith in Jesus have the Holy Spirit within us and this is good news that should give us certainty and confidence in our Christian life.

The fact that Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit and his role for the first time during his farewell speech, is significant. It is significant because of the encouragement that His disciples, which includes you and me, take from his words. Jesus uses a word to describe the Holy Spirit that can have many different meanings. For example, the Holy Spirit is called the advocate, the comforter, the counsellor, the helper, to name a few. That is because the Holy Spirit acts in these various ways in our lives. In the times these disciples were going to face, they again needed to remember these words of encouragement from Jesus, and again, as I said last week, we also need to remember; to remember that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit with us always as we face challenges and trials in our own lives.

I encourage each of you then, to rest assured that our Triune God is always with you bringing you his gifts of grace and faith to help you and guide you through this life. I encourage you to walk confidently with our Lord, because he is truly present with you through the Holy Spirit as he has promised.

 

 

Remembering Jesus’ Words of Promise

Sunday the 14th of May 2017

John 14:1-14

As some of you may know, I was not born into a Christian family. How I came to be in the Lutheran church was due to my next door neighbours asking me if I would like to come to Sunday school with their son, at the time I was five years old. My then Sunday School teacher Nola Waap began to teach me about the Christian faith. I still remember her classes, her taking the time to teach me Luther’s small catechism and her words of encouragement. So much so that when I was in my teenage years and even into my early twenties I used to remember her words of encouragement, her prayers with me and her gentle way of teaching me. I often look at my life and I give thanks to God for the way he worked through her to bring me to a place of faith in Jesus. And I often remember this time, and it has been particularly helpful when I have experienced times of discouragement.

In today’s Gospel reading from John 14 Jesus is preparing his disciples for their life ahead by giving them comfort and encouraging them. John 14 begins what is known as Jesus’ farewell speech. It begins his time of preparing them so that they could face what was ahead of them. And in preparing them he does not give them the answers to everything that the disciples will face. He doesn’t try to explain away what will happen. He does not give them simple answers and suggest that any of this will be easy. He does not try to rationalize what is to come. Rather, he starts with these words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” He encourages them not to be afraid but to trust him. In the years that will follow, these disciples will need to remember these words from Jesus, as they will face many challenges and difficulties.

Jesus was honest with them, he foretold his betrayal by Judas, and Judas has slipped out into the night. He has told his disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come (13:33). He has also foretold Peter’s imminent denial. So it is no wonder that the disciples are troubled. Their Lord is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and the stalwart leader among the disciples is said to be on the cusp of a great failure of loyalty. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet. And yet he told them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” These words of Jesus were words that these disciples were going to have to remind themselves of many times as they journeyed through life with him.

Jesus impresses upon them the fundamental relationship of trust that they are to have in him and assures them that he is not abandoning them. Rather, he is returning to his Father, which is good news for them. In speaking of his ascension to the Father, Jesus assures his disciples that this is also their destination. There are many dwellings in his Father’s house, and he goes to prepare a place for them, so that they will be with him and dwell with him in his intimate relationship with the Father.

When Jesus says that they know the way to the place where he is going, Thomas takes Jesus quite literally. He wants directions, a road map to this place. He wants something from Jesus that is concrete, something that he can grasp, something that he can rely on. At that point, for Thomas, Jesus’ words were not enough.

I can’t help but think that we are more like Thomas that we like to admit sometimes. That we do have faith in Jesus, we do believe, but when the ground begins to shift beneath our feet, when the certainties that we thought we had about life are taken away, do we hear and trust Jesus’ words to us, or are his words not enough. Do we need something more concrete?

It is interesting how Jesus responds to Thomas; he does by saying: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. This statement by Jesus is a word of promise. It is a word spoken to them in comfort. And it highlights to these disciples and to us that Jesus himself is all that we need. Because of this there is no need to panic, there is no need to try to find a secret map or plan for life. Because it is all found in Him. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to fix their attention on him. And this is so important for us all. Because of our sinful natures we all have the temptations at our feet to run after other things, to be distracted by the trials of life, to focus our attention on things other than Jesus. We all face the dangers of trying to plan out our own lives according to how we want life to go. But Jesus was telling them as he is telling us that He is to be our focus in life.

If we want to know who God is, we need look no further than Jesus. All the words that Jesus has spoken, all the works that he has done, come from God and show us who God is.

God does have a plan for our lives as followers of Jesus. He is at work in our lives bringing about his purposes in us, not only as individuals but more importantly as his church across the world. You see the promises that Jesus gives us here have everything to do with life here and now. It has to do with the hope that we have in him, but it also has to do with how he entrusts us as his children with his mission to the world. He says: “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (13-14)

If we are honest, many people find what Jesus tells us here hard to understand. How is it that you and I as his disciples are to be doing greater works than Jesus? The very idea that we can even contemplate doing things greater than Jesus is a stumbling block to many. Add to this that fact that Jesus tells us that he will do whatever we ask in his name. I suspect that nearly all of us have lived through pain in this life, where we have lived through times of desperately crying out to God in prayer and yet things have not changed. I suspect that many of us have thought at times how can these promises of Jesus be true?

The more I thought about these words from Jesus the more I pondered whether the problem is in our hearing of his words. How do you and I hear Jesus’ promises here? Do we expect God to do what we want him to do, and think that he will do it if we ask in Jesus’ name? Do we expect these greater works to look like that way Jesus did them, with miraculous power that instantly solves all our problems we face? In John’s Gospel we see that many people indeed did witness Jesus’ signs that he did, but they did not guarantee faith, in fact the overwhelming majority of those who saw Jesus at work had trouble seeing God working through him right before their very eyes.

The key here is to go back to the first verse. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” The very issues that you and I face are the very issues that all Christians face. The willingness to not be troubled but to trust. We do not pray to God based on results, but based upon his promise to us that he will hear us, and how and when he chooses to answer us is often a mystery. We pray to God trusting that he knows best, trusting that Jesus is with us no matter what we face. We do not always see the results of our prayers, or the work that he does in our lives, for that matter, but we step out in faith.

Knowing all of the issues that his disciples would face, Jesus gave them these words of encouragement. Knowing all that you and I are going to face, these same words of encouragement are spoken to you and me. And these words are something that is important for us to remember and to cling to. You and I, as his children who belong to our Heavenly Father through Jesus, are to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus; as he has all things in his hands, no matter what happens, we need not to fear, but to put our trust in him.

I encourage you all to remember Jesus’ words to you, and to walk with him confidently trusting that our God always keeps his promises.

 

The Abundant Life

Sunday the 7th of May 2017

John 10:1-10

In today’s Gospel reading from John chapter 10 we hear these words from Jesus: “10 A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.” Jesus says that he comes to give us life in abundance. I wonder what you think of when you think of an abundant life. I suspect that many of us would think of things like: being happy in life; having a close family relationship; having friends to share life with; some may think of having enough money to live a comfortable life; others may think of the freedom to make the choices we want in life?

But I wonder sometimes if the way we think of abundance is shaped more by our culture around us, than by what Jesus means by abundance.

Jesus uses the image of a door/gate and a shepherd to describe himself in today’s reading. These images are important because they tell us something of how life with Jesus works. A gate’s function is a simple one: to keep the sheep together in the sheepfold during the night, to keep them safe from thieves and predators. So we see that one of the purposes of the gate is to guard against all that threatens the well-being of the sheep, protecting them from thieves, bandits, and wolves.

But during the day the gate is opened so that the sheep can go out, following their shepherd, to find pasture. Both the gate and the shepherd work together for the well-being of the sheep, so that the flock thrives. Our Lord Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; He is the one who guards and protects you and me as his sheep from danger; he is also the one who provides for our nourishment, for our life of abundance.

One of the issues that the Pharisees of the previous chapter had with Jesus, was that they had put themselves in a position of power. The Pharisees were the ones who saw themselves as the ones who would protect and save people. They saw themselves as the gate-keepers so to speak. The problem was that they did this by controlling the people and burdening them with their laws. They were demanding that the people listen to their voice, not the voice of God. That is why Jesus was so offensive to them.

But the fact is it is through Jesus himself, who is that door/gate and true Shepherd, that a life of abundance is lived. But what does this look like?

One of the important things to realize is that Jesus is speaking into the situation of the previous chapter where Jesus healed the man who was born blind. So one way of understanding Jesus’ words: “I came that they may have life and have it in abundance” (10:10), is to interpret them in the context of the healing of the man blind from birth. This was a man who for all his life had to beg for his next meal; who was constantly exposed to the danger of being out in the elements; this was a man without community because of his blindness; who was left alone to fend for himself. By restoring the man’s sight, Jesus does much more than make him able to see again.

When the man had received his sight and had been thrown out by the religious leaders, cast out once again from community and exposed to the dangers and risks of life, Jesus finds him and protects him (John 9:35). As a result of Jesus’ actions this man is now one of Jesus’ own, and because he is one of his own he has the promise of pasture, the promise of provision. The man is now a sheep of Jesus’ fold, part of Jesus’ community, and Jesus is with him always.

This man now has a life of abundance because for him, salvation is not only about receiving his physical sight but also spiritual sight, recognizing who Jesus is, believing in him, and becoming part of his community. He followed the voice of Jesus before he could see him, and it led to new life. His days of isolation are over; he now knows himself to be a valued member of Jesus’ flock, cared for and protected.

There has been a tendency by some of our brothers and sisters in Christ, to see abundance as being linked to wealth. This is known as the prosperity Gospel. And this teaching is popular among Christian circles because it taps into the world’s standards of what abundance means. It has almost got to a point where in some cases affluence equals abundance. Where believing in God means that He pours out blessing into your life. Faith leads to a life of fortune.

But the thing is that abundant life according to Jesus’ standards is the total opposite of how an abundant life is understood by culture around us. This is one of the areas that makes it hard as Christians living in our world at the moment. Abundant life according to Jesus is not that impressive when it comes right down to it and especially if we compare it to our assessments and expectations of what we think abundant life should look like. The abundant life according to Jesus is one where he gives us protection, provision, and his presence. You see that abundant life, according to Jesus, is not about wealth—it is knowing that in your life with him you will be safe; knowing that in your life with him that your basic needs will be met, and that in your life with him believing you are never alone.

These are the things which he gave the blind man, in the healing he received, he also received protection, provision, and presence that now belonged to him, both in his life on earth and forever. He then had the life of abundance that Jesus gave him; this is true for you and me as it is for this man.

One of the things that has stood out to me over the last two years as I have been visiting people throughout this parish is the way that the evil one often attacks our consciences. When we sin our consciences are burdened and it affects the way we live our life. But the good news is that because of what Jesus has done, by his death on that cross, taking your sin upon himself so that you have complete forgiveness, gives us a clear conscience before God, which allows us as Christians to live life abundantly, knowing that we have God’s favour and his protection and his presence with us as we journey through this life, because of Jesus. The abundant life that we have is only through him.

It is almost universally recognized that sheep are unintelligent animals. And the fact is that without a shepherd, they will not necessarily be able to find food or water, and they will easily get lost and not be able to find their way home. But the point that Jesus emphasizes about sheep is that they know the voice of their shepherd.  They recognize the voice of the one who cares for them. They follow their shepherd, but will not follow a stranger whose voice they do not know.

There are many different voices in this world that promise a life of abundance. So the question I ask is: Do we recognize the voice of the good shepherd over all the other voices promising abundance? (However this abundance may look like to us). Do we listen to the voice of our Shepherd over the voices that want to lead us astray and destroy our life?

I put the challenge out to you all, to think about what living the abundant life means to you and to see if it matches up with what Jesus tells us is true? I encourage you to rest assured that Jesus has come to you to give you his protection; to give you his provision for all of your needs and that he gives you his presence in your life, so that you may indeed live life in abundance. And most importantly I encourage you to listen to his voice as he leads you.

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus The One Who Teaches Us.

Sunday the 30th of April 2017

Luke 24: 13-35

During this past week I have been thinking about today’s Gospel reading from Luke chapter 24 where we hear of two disciples on a journey to Emmaus. The distance was on 7 miles, but I get the impression that the ‘journey’ was a long one because of where these disciples were at. It was the Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion; they had heard from the women that the grave was empty and were confused by all that had happened; and of course these disciples were greatly affected by what had occurred and were in a place of grief, and were discussing this with each other as they were walking.

Hearing that the women had had a vision of angels saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, maybe they were struggling with the tension between knowing what had actually occurred and what the future now meant for them. What would their future look like? Maybe these disciples wanted to believe the women, but just could not bring themselves to believe. Whatever the case one thing was for sure: their hopes had been deflated and they had become disillusioned.

I suspect that for many of us, during different seasons in our own walk with Jesus, that we can identify with them. When speaking to Jesus they said in verse 21: “but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel…” Because of the crucifixion their hopes of who they wanted Jesus to be were dashed. Are there times in our lives, where we feel the same, where our hopes of what Jesus will do in our lives and in others’ lives has not happened? Where we hoped and trusted Jesus to put things right, but everything became a mess? And yet at the same time we live on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection; we know and believe in him. And yet maybe we live life somewhere between losing hope and being disillusioned and faithfully believing Jesus’ promise that he is with us.

As these disciples were walking along it says: “15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.” And he says: 17 “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” After being completely dumbfounded that he did not know they said “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 “What things?” he said.

As Christians we live in a time between knowing that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead and the time when he will come back again. But as we journey through this life there are times when we want Jesus to show up, so to speak. We have times in our lives where we need to know that he is present with us as we face the difficult and hard places that we find ourselves in at times. We like to have assurance that he is indeed with us. In my preaching over the last twelve months I have emphasised Jesus’ promise that he is indeed with us many times. It is an easy thing to say isn’t it that Jesus shows up in our times of trial or our disappointments; that Jesus is present in our grief; that Jesus meets us where we are. And it is true he is with us. But the question I ask today is: what exactly does Jesus do when he shows up?

Jesus did not just come alongside these disciples and only walk with them, but he asked them the question: “What things?” Jesus gives them an invitation to tell what they experienced.  And the question he asked led them to describe the things that occurred and in doing so they were able to give voice to their dismay, their grief and even their doubts.

Jesus did more than just turn up. And Jesus does more than just show up for us here today. Jesus does show up, but he shows up and give us the opportunity to speak the truth of our pain; to help us make sense of it all, or at least some of it; to help us get to a place where we can see beyond just what’s happened; to help us move from “we had hoped” to “the Lord is risen indeed.” And what this means for us in our lives.

On Easter Sunday I took the opportunity to participate in the ecumenical Easter dawn service at Burnie which is held down on the beach. It was great to go and be a part of this and I really did enjoy welcoming in the Easter morning this way. Afterwards I was speaking to another pastor that I get on really well with and he spoke of how Easter is such an exciting time of the year, that it was an exciting time to be alive. I agreed with him. A week or so later I was sitting down thinking to myself that I know that our risen Lord is with us, but it so easy to lose hope when life is difficult.

I thought about how Jesus appeared to these two disciples. He did not just show up and say, “Hey, I’m here. There, there, everything will be alright.” The disciples were not just having a bad day. The one in whom they had placed their trust, their hope for a kingdom of justice, their assurance for freedom from oppression, just got executed by the system from which they hoped Jesus would set them free. The one who they believed would fulfil the promises of Scripture was dead.

Jesus came to those disciples on the road to Emmaus, but he did not just show up for the ride—he listened to them, but more importantly he taught them what it meant from the scriptures that Jesus had won the victory over death and sin. It is the same for you and me—Jesus comes to us and he walks with us, but he does more than that—he teaches us who he truly is through the scriptures. He teaches us and helps us to learn what it means to walk with him along the journey that we are on.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the most powerful moment in history, as it changed everything. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated for us; we can live a life now with confidence that our sins are forgiven; and we do have the promise of the life to come, life in eternity with him. These are the promises that you and I are to believe and cling to with all our faith, and yet even in the midst of our daily lives we confront the sins of our hearts, the sins of other people, the reality of the sinful world we live in. It is here that we need to realise that Jesus is not only present with us, but that he is actively at work in and through the situations that we are facing, even when we cannot recognise him at work.

It struck me that that moment when the disciples recognized who Jesus was, occurred when he broke the bread. It occurred at the time when the disciples had invited Jesus in for fellowship with them that they then knew. The thing is that Jesus with was with them even though they did not know it, as he is often with you and me when we are not aware of him being present, but as we invite him to fellowship with us, he reveals himself.

These two disciples’ journey to Emmaus shows us that as we face lives as Christians, full of disappointment, discouragement and loss of hope, our risen Lord will come to save us, by walking the road with us, but also by asking us the ‘what things’ type questions in our own lives. And when he asks these questions it means that he is leading us somewhere, that he is present, but also he is teaching us through his Word so that we come through these times closer to him. And as this happens he brings us to a place where we have true fellowship with him, where we begin to recognise and start to live out the life-changing presence of our resurrected Lord in our lives.

As we continue to reflect on the events of Easter, I encourage you to look for the ways that our risen Lord Jesus is coming to you, in the midst of your life, bringing with him his presence and his teaching to help you on your life journey with him.

Jesus comes to us in the midst of our doubts.

Sunday the 23rd of April 2017

John 20: 19-31

Our readings from God’s Word in the season of Easter focus on Jesus’ appearance to his disciples after his resurrection. As I was thinking about this during the week, I was thinking about how for many people in our world the resurrection of Jesus is a stumbling block. It is okay to recognise that Jesus existed; it is okay to recognise that Jesus’ teachings have wisdom in them; it is also okay to recognise that Jesus actually died on a cross at the hands of Romans. But to say that Jesus actually rose again from the dead, well that is a different story. Many people have doubts about Jesus’ resurrection, including many people who claim to be Christians. It is one of those things that are very difficult to grasp, particularly in our modern scientific world.

This morning I am going to be looking at the account of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, but more particularly his appearance to Thomas. Most people know the story of Thomas and that he doubted the resurrection; even non-Christians will use the phrase: “Don’t be a doubting Thomas”. The more I thought about Thomas’ reaction the more I began to think about what kind of person Thomas was.

We hear of Thomas earlier in chapter 11:16 as Jesus was about to head to Judea to raise Lazarus, and the disciples were trying to talk him out of it, since it was a dangerous place for Jesus to be. Thomas is the one who said: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” I don’t know how you hear him in what he said, but I wonder whether Thomas was resigned to the fact that Jesus was heading for trouble, and so Thomas, showing his loyalty, was going to go with him. Perhaps it shows us his bravery.

We hear of Thomas again in chapter 14 when Jesus is specifically talking about his impending death and ascension to heaven. You get the idea from Philip’s response that the other disciples have not got a clue about what Jesus is saying and perhaps remain silent, as they often did. Thomas however speaks up and says: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”(5)

I can see that maybe Thomas was a straight shooter, get to the point, practical type of man. He may not have much imagination or sense of mystery, but he does have an enquiring mind. And Thomas shows us that he is capable of asking the tough questions that maybe the others won’t because of their fear or embarrassment. The impression I get is that Thomas is a no-nonsense type of person. I suspect that many of us are like Thomas in this way. We take no nonsense, like to know what’s going on, want to have answers to our questions and are not afraid to ask them.

In today’s Gospel where Jesus appears to the disciples in a locked room, the disciples are there, all except Thomas that is. The bible does not tell us where he was, only that he was not with them. We don’t know where the disciples find him, but obviously they do and they tell him the news. And how does Thomas react to this news that Jesus has been raised from the dead? Perhaps we would expect him to be overjoyed, maybe shocked; maybe overwhelmed, but no, he does not react like this at all.

I believe that there is a real lesson here for us. As Christians who know the joy that we have because we know who Jesus is, I wonder whether our expectations of the people who do not know him when we speak of him are not realistic. Perhaps we expect others to react to the good news of Jesus with joy and happiness, and when they don’t it may leave us flat. It struck me that the way that Peter and other disciples reacted when Mary told them she had seen the Lord, was similar. They were not overjoyed, they did not run to the garden to find Jesus, rather they went back to where they had come from. There is something about their reaction that tells us, that in reality Jesus the risen Good Shepherd is the one who goes and finds his sheep, rather than them coming to find him.

Thomas, being the type of person he is, says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”(25) Thomas is saying here that he will not believe until the conditions that he has set down have been met. I wonder if you and I have conditions on our faith. I will believe in Jesus if he does this… or if he shows me this… I will trust in Jesus when he does things to show me that he is real. Thomas was a man who wanted hard evidence, unquestionable eyewitness fact that Jesus is risen, before he would believe in the risen Lord.

A few years ago while we were living in Adelaide the local paper, The Advertiser, had a journalist ask: “Show me where God is then I will believe,” as a challenge to the Christians leading up to Easter weekend. Some clever person sent in a picture the following week of a group of Christians together worshiping, with a caption that said: “Here he is.” There are lots of people in our world that are like Thomas; they want hard evidence before they will believe.

Thomas was a man who did not put faith in people’s words, but wanted a solid sign before he would believe.

For Thomas, he only had to wait eight days for his wish to come true. Jesus appears and speaks directly to Thomas. It is interesting to me that today’s reading doesn’t tell us that Thomas ever even touched Jesus’ wounds. I get the impression that once Thomas got a look at and felt the presence of the risen Lord, that he forgot all his conditions that he had made. Maybe in that moment when he saw Jesus the only thing he could says was, “My Lord and my God.” In other words, perhaps the presence of the risen Lord erased Thomas’s petty scepticisms and proofs and arrogant arguments. Perhaps Thomas was put in this place as he faced the glory of the risen Lord, and the only appropriate response was to confess him as Lord and God.

I don’t know about you, but I am envious of Thomas, because he had the opportunity to see for himself. I wish that I could have been there in that place to see. But then I hear Jesus’ words: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

It is not lost on me that the challenge that Jesus gives Thomas is the same challenge that he gives all of his followers, including you and me. Are we going to let our conditions that we put before God, stop us from believing? Sometimes we have to wrestle with this question, just as Thomas did. But just as Jesus came to Thomas, as he came and sought Thomas out in the midst of his unbelief, Jesus does the same for you and me. In the midst of our struggles, doubt and ‘conditions’ Jesus the Good Shepherd seeks us out.

In Thomas, I believe we see how Christian discipleship comes about. It starts at the beginning of John’s Gospel and goes throughout. One person encounters Jesus. Then they share their experience with the next person, who may express some reluctance. Then that person experiences Jesus on their own, directly, and becomes convinced about him and then shares the news about Jesus with the next person. For example Andrew tells Peter. Philip tells Nathanael. The Samaritan woman tells the townspeople. “Come and See.”

After the resurrection, our resurrected Lord Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene. She encounters Jesus, shares the news; the others don’t really believe it until they have their own experiences so that they can own the experience. They become convinced and then share it with Thomas. Like the other disciples, Thomas doesn’t come to faith until he has his own experience. The same is true for you and me.

It is okay to wrestle with faith in Jesus; in fact a part of growing in faith needs times of struggle and doubt. When these times come in your lives, I encourage you to look for Jesus the risen Good Shepherd as he comes to find you in the midst of them.

 

The Earthquake of the Resurrection

Matthew 28:1-10

Coming from New Zealand, I grew up being used to experiencing earthquakes. Some of the ones I have experienced are still vivid in my mind, as they have a lot of power to them and can have a significant impact. Last year as many of you know there was a big earthquake on the South Island near Christchurch that caused great damage. The thing about earthquakes is that they reverberate, which means that the earthquake is often felt far from its epicentre. Speaking to my dad, he was telling me that in this big earthquake, even though he lives on the other side of the Island, he felt the impact and the earth shook for 4 minutes, the biggest earthquake he had felt, which says something of the power of this earthquake.

In our modern world we know why earthquakes occur. We know that earthquakes happen because of the friction that occurs between tectonic plates under the ground rubbing against each other. But when we look, scripture earthquakes often indicated that the Lord was speaking to his people. For example, just before the Lord was going to give the Ten Commandments to Moses it says in Exodus 19:18, “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently.” This is only one example of many with the earth shaking when the Lord spoke.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Easter has earthquakes. In his crucifixion account in 27: 51-54, right after Jesus died, it says: “51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. 54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

And in this morning’s Gospel from chapter 28, after Jesus’ resurrection, and after the women had come to the tomb, it says: “2There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

At Easter our Lord speaks through the actions of his Son, and just like an earthquake reverberates and is felt far away, so too would this first Easter day. And it began with these women at an empty tomb of our risen Lord. “The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

The most powerful moment in history, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus from the dead, was seen and spoken of by just these few women at the tomb; it then spread to the disciples, then throughout Samaria, Galilee, the Mediterranean and beyond. And in fact two thousand years later it is still being spoken to us.

Right from the beginning of Jesus’ life in this world, evil was at work, as it always had been. Herod, when hearing that a king was to be born in Bethlehem, tried to kill him, sending solders to kill all the children in the region. Jesus confronted evil in his life leading up to the cross where he experienced the intensification of evil with his death on that cross. But the God who shakes the earth cannot be stopped from speaking his Word and life into our world. The story that begins with fear ends with overwhelming joy. Jesus’ birth is shadowed by many deaths, but Jesus’ resurrection from the dead brings the promise of the resurrection life for all.

When our Lord conquered sin, and death, by his death and his resurrection, it started an ‘earthquake’ that has been felt around our world for centuries. The resurrection of our Lord and the forgiveness that we now have from the chains of our sin have been changing lives, destroying death and indeed have changed the course of human history—not only the history of this world, but also changed the course of eternity.

I know that as we look around us, it seems as if evil is closing in on us again. We look at all of the churches that are near-empty, the churches that are closing, the direction that our world seems to be heading in and we wonder. Perhaps we wonder whether the effect of this earthquake has run its course. But it hasn’t, because the resurrection of our Lord Jesus is still rumbling in your life. The second reading for today from Colossians chapter 3 speaks these words to you and me: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Through your Christian life, in which you have been baptised into Jesus’ death and his resurrection, the power of Jesus’ resurrection is at work in your life. The power of the forgiveness of your sins is still at work; the power of his spoken words to you is still at work in your life. And as a consequence, these things are still at work in this congregation, this body of believers. Through this church’s life the earthquake continues to rumble and spread. The world looks at our lives as his followers, as we continue to point to Jesus and his resurrection.

And this is the hope that we continually cling to in our daily lives. No matter what we see going on in the world around us. No matter how discouraged we may become because to us it seems that the church is dying. I encourage you to stand firm knowing that the earthquake of Jesus’ death and resurrection will continue to be felt across the world until it is ended with a trumpet call, when death for all is finally overcome.

Finally, I would like to encourage you all to remember that our God often acts and moves in ways that we don’t often see or perceive. Often we are discouraged because we don’t see the bigger picture as God does. The Good News that you and I believe and hold onto began with a man afraid to marry his disgraced fiancée; it began with a fearful king who tried to kill potential rivals for his own power; but it ended with victory over sin and death and with overwhelming joy. It ends with these women following the resurrected Jesus’ command; a command to all of us; that is: Stop being afraid! God has defeated death. Rejoice, and share the good news! As we do this the earthquake keeps reverberating.

As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on this day I encourage you all to rejoice, because the power of his resurrection is still being worked out in your lives as his followers today.

Good Friday Sermon

Good Friday Sermon 2017

A few years ago I was out with some work colleagues at lunch. In our conversation someone asked if any of us had ever seen a movie so bad that it made us walk out of the cinema. The response of one particular person struck me. She said that the only movie she had ever walked out of in her life was Mel Gibson’s ‘The passion of the Christ’. I asked her why she walked out, and she said that it was too violent, so violent in fact that she found it highly offensive. As I thought about what this woman said, I thought to myself the cross of Jesus is supposed to be offensive!

I wonder if for us whether sometimes the cross has in some way lost its impact on us. Many of us have a cross on the walls of our homes; the cross is prominent in our church, as it should be. The fact that the cross is central to our worship is important as its presence gives focus to our altars as holy places. Many of us even wear a cross around our necks as jewellery. But does having these crosses make the impact they should? With its exalted status as the focal point of our faith, I wonder at times whether the cross has lost its power to scandalize us, to offend us, to wake us up. Perhaps we have lost somehow the reality that the cross was an instrument of extreme torture and death and in doing so lose the fact that Jesus went through this death for our sake.

The truth is that what we remember on this day is not nice. This is not a good news story that we remember on this day. We hear and think about Jesus being abandoned by those close to him; his being bullied by the chief priests; his standing before Pilate; the ferocious anger of the crowd yelling, “Crucify him!” We hear and think about the brutal violence that was dished out to Jesus, violence that is beyond our imaginations; and we remember his brutal death. And in this we remember that Jesus, the innocent one, was punished and went through all of this for our sins. Isaiah 53 says these words about Jesus: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth”

As Jesus was being subjected to this unthinkable violence he was silent. In taking on the sins of the world, our Lord was silent. Many who are the victims of violence in our world do not speak out, they suffer alone, are unable to speak openly, but for Jesus to be silent when he could easily speak suggests that there is more going on here. The violence that many suffer in this world is not a result of their choices, the same is true for Jesus, but for Jesus it was different. It is easy to see Jesus here as a victim, that things just happened to him and that he had no choice in the matter, but the reality is that he did. He chose to walk this path. What makes the brutal violence that Jesus suffered even more remarkable is that Jesus knew that it was coming. He knew what he was going to have to walk through. This was no easy choice for Jesus to make. In fact he really wrestled with whether he was going to follow through with it and there is no doubt that if wanted to he could have decided not to go through with it; he could have chosen a different path. There is a moment when we see Jesus really wavering. You see this clearly in Matthew’s account of the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane where we see Jesus wrestling with his Father. Jesus prays “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” In that moment he does not want to go through with it, and yet he says, “Yet not as I will, but as you will”.

Being silent in the face of violence many would see as a weakness, but for Jesus his silence is a sign of his strength. It is a sign of his confidence in his Father’s plan. It is a sign of his trust. For Jesus this decision to walk that horrific journey to that cross was a decision as to where he was going to follow his Father’s will. And he had already decided that he was going to. Jesus did not need to defend himself because he made this decision knowing what was about to happen and what was in front of him: knowing that he would face the desertion of his disciples and feelings of abandonment; knowing that he was going to face the abuse of chief priests and hard-hearted religious leaders and face their false accusations; knowing that he would have to face the anger and the total rejection of the people before Pilate; that he was going to walk through extreme physical suffering; that he would have to face a very brutal death by crucifixion.

And knowing all of this, he silently chose to be obedient to his Father. The fact that Jesus followed his Father’s will and made this choice so that you and I would receive the benefits is incomprehensible.

Our world easily deceives itself by thinking that violence is the responsibility of others. But what Jesus’ journey to the cross clearly shows us is what our sin is capable of: the power games, cruelty, abuse, brutal violence, mockery and injustice. All of which we see all around us today. No matter how much we as humanity want to deny it, these things exist because of our sin, the very sin that Jesus was taking to that cross.

As Jesus was hanging there on the cross he spoke. And what he said shows us something of God’s heart. In today’s Gospel reading in verse 26 it says: “26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home”. Here is Jesus hanging on a cross in extreme pain and suffering, yet he speaks words of comfort to his mother and his disciple. He was thinking about them even in the midst of his suffering. This is taken further in the Gospel of Luke, where it was not just his mother that he was concerned about, but all of us, even his enemies. As Jesus was hanging on the cross in Luke 23: 34 it says: “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’” Even as he was hanging there he was thinking of and interceding for those who had treated him with such cruel violence.

As Jesus died on the cross that day it showed the extent of God’s love, in that he loves his people so much that he gave his only Son Jesus and that Jesus willingly chose to obey his Father’s will and gave his very life for us so that our sins may be completely and freely forgiven. Through his sacrifice the very thing that hardens our hearts, our sin, is taken away so that we can be in a right relationship with our God. This is the very reason why Jesus so determinedly went to that cross, so that you and I can be right with God, so that our sins are not a barrier between us and that we can have access to God through what Jesus has done.

John’s first letter chapter 3:16 says: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

Knowing all that Jesus went through for our sake should compel us to respond to him by seeking to follow him, walking in the path that our Heavenly Father wants us to walk, and seeking to follow Jesus by laying down our lives for our brothers and sisters. Jesus’ death on that cross should not be just navel gazing and marvelling at what he has done for us, though we all need to do this from time to time, but as Christians and followers of Jesus it calls for us to respond to others in their need, and not to become complacent, just as he has responded to our deepest need for salvation and life.

Violence, sin and death are clearly seen in the crucifixion account of our Lord; there is no way of escaping it, because this is the reality of life that we live in this sinful world. In order for Jesus to conquer death and sin it meant going through this. And it is here that the heart of the matter is. Jesus went through all of this, to conquer sin and its violence which leads to death, once and for all. Jesus went through this so that you and I could have life. He went through all of this so that you and I could have complete forgiveness of sins.

On this Good Friday I encourage you to meditate and think about these things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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