Friday, February 27, 2015

Follow the Leader

As a child, one of the games I played was “Follow the Leader.”  All children coveted the role of Leader so that they had the chance to make everyone else follow them into the trickiest places in the school ground or wherever they were playing.

This is a good analogy for the Christian life.  Last week we heard Jesus say to his disciples “Follow me!”  This morning we read of Jesus saying to his disciples that anyone who wanted to “follow him” should forget themselves and take up his cross.  This following involves getting behind Jesus and going where he goes.

There is an interesting word play, or perhaps just a coincidence, in the original words used in these texts and the text when Jesus says “Get behind me Satan” which we just read. 

To Satan Jesus says “Depart behind me”. 
To the disciples Jesus says “Come behind me” and
To the crowd and his disciples Jesus says “Follow behind me”.

In this story we read today it is clear that Peter has not yet understood who Jesus really is, nor has he understood what it means to follow after Jesus.

The Son of the Father
Mark uses this story to remind his readers again who it is that Jesus maintains the most intimate relationship.  Jesus here describes himself as the Son of Man, and makes it clear that God is his Father.

Now you will remember from last week, when we read of Jesus’ Baptism, the voice from heaven referred to Jesus as “my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

In his book, Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen says that the words God gave to Jesus at his baptism are the same words God gives to everyone.  “The words, ‘You are my Beloved’ revealed the most intimate truth about all human beings.”

God’s voice comes to everyone and declares that we are all God’s Beloved children.  That’s a beautiful insight and something we must all remember during Lent – since we have already been declared God’s Beloved and are his children, then our approach to Lenten Practices should not be made with a mind to making ourselves good enough for God.  Rather they become our heart-driven response to the God who calls us his beloved.

Keeping our Eyes on Jesus
In Mark’s gospel, there are a number of statements about discipleship and it is appropriate that we hear this one so early in Lent.

Discipleship is fundamentally about following Jesus – come behind me, or follow behind me.  The obvious consequence of this is that we will always have Jesus in view in front of us.

And in this passage he says two things about this discipleship.

Firstly, he says that we need to put our selfishness aside and fix our minds on following him – “taking up the cross” is a metaphor for discipleship.  The game of “Follow the Leader” gives us a sense that this following of Jesus might lead us into unexpected or even difficult places.  It might even mean we have to risk everything.  But if we keep our eyes on Jesus he will not let us down.

The second thing he says is that this world of his Kingdom will be rather upside down to the world we all live in. 

“If you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it.

This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of Christian discipleship.  All our instincts are to do everything we can to save ourselves and the things we love and care about.  But the life Jesus offers us can only be found when we abandon all those things.

I suppose this gives something of a hint about why people go without during Lent – as a tangible reminder that they should be willing to give up even their life for the sake of the Kingdom.  But you can see how easily this can become something that is undertaken out of fear rather than love.

Nothing is more un-Christian than having to prove we are worthy of being loved.

Instead, believe God’s voice that says, “You are my beloved.”  The journey of Lent leads us to the truth that we are already loved.  Lent isn’t primarily about giving stuff up.  Only give stuff up during Lent if it helps lead you to the truth that you are loved just as you are.  The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favour through self-denial.  

The Christian journey isn’t about trying to be good enough to earn God’s favour.  The Christian journey, including the Lenten journey, is about relaxing into the truth that God only relates to us like a parent who unconditionally loves her child.  As James Alison says, the Christian journey is about relaxing “into the realization that being good or bad is not what it’s about.  It’s about being loved.”

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Be Transformed by the Spirit

Preached by Oliver Yangi, Formation Student on placement at Holy Cross on the First Sunday of Lent, 2015

Today's Gospel reading from Mark tells us about the Baptism of our Lord, how he was taken into the wilderness and tempted, the selection of his first disciples and the performance of his first miracle

The Baptism of Jesus Christ
Jesus was baptised when he was thirty years of age. This was the age at which the Levites entered upon their work; the age, too, at which it was lawful for scribes to teach. Generally speaking, thirty among the Jews was looked upon as the time of life when manhood had reached its full development.  This was the beginning of his ministry.

We believe that Jesus did not need baptism because He was without sin, but the story in Matthew explains that he was baptised because it was the Father's will for him at that time.

Learnt to be led by the spirit
In this story we read that "Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” which in the bible is a sign of peace and Joy.  And the work of this Spirit in his life is very important.

What an exciting moment when we were getting baptism no matter whether you are baptised as a baby or adult.  Baptism is one of the great five celebrations in our Christian life.  All baptised Christians, through their baptismal vows and the gift of the Holy Spirit, are called to participate in the community's ministry.  Led by the Spirit, as Jesus was, we will see Christ open doors and windows that lead us beyond still waters into new territories and vision.

Do you want to see changes in your life?  And do you want to become a more effective instrument of the Gospel?  Examine Jesushumility and ask the Holy Spirit to forge this same attitude in your heart.  As you do, heaven will open for you as well.  The Lord is ever ready to renew us in his Spirit and to anoint us for mission.  We are called to be lightand “salt” to those around us.  The Lord wants his love and truth to shine through us so that others may see the goodness and truth of Gods message of salvation.  Ask the Lord to fill you with his Holy Spirit so that you may radiate the joy of the Gospel to those around you.

Learn to do battle
Do you ever feel compelled or driven to do something for God?  Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to spend forty days and nights in prayer and fasting in a lonely place.  Why was he compelled to seek solitude for such a lengthy period?  Was it simply a test to prepare him for his ministry?  Or did Satan want to lure him into a trap?  The scriptural word here means test in the sense of proving and purifying someone to see if there are ready for the task at hand.  We test pilots to see that they are fit to fly.  Likewise God tests his servants to see if they are fit to be used by him.  God tested Abraham to prove his faith. 

Jesus was no exception to this testing. Jesus was tempted like us and he overcame not by his own human strength but by the grace and strength which his Father gave to him.  He had to renounce his will for the will of his Father. 

He succeeded because he wanted to please his Father and he trusted that his Father would give him the strength to overcome the obstacles that stood in the way.  The Lord gives us his Holy Spirit to be our strength and guide in temptation and testing. God the Father is ready to give us all that we need to live in his way of love and righteousness.  Do you rely on the Lord for your strength and help?

Learn to call others
When Jesus preached the Gospel message he called others to follow as his disciples and he gave them a mission "to catch people for the kingdom of God".  What kind of disciples did he choose? Smelly fishermen! In the choice of the first apostles we see a characteristic feature of Jesus' work: 

He chose very ordinary people.  They were non-professionals, had no wealth or position. They were common people who did ordinary things, had no special education, and no social advantages. Jesus wanted ordinary people who could take an assignment and do it extraordinarily well. He chose these individuals, not for what they were, but for what they would be capable of becoming under his direction and power. When the Lord calls us to serve, we must not think that we have nothing to offer. The Lord takes what ordinary people, like us, can offer and uses it for greatness in his kingdom. Do you believe that God wants to work through and in you for his glory?

Jesus speaks the same message to us today: we will "catch people" for the kingdom of God if we allow the light of Jesus Christ to shine through us.  God wants others to see the light of Christ in us in the way we live, speak, and witness the joy of the Gospel. We are to be the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

Do you witness to those around you the joy of the Gospel and do you pray for your neighbours, co-workers, and relatives that they may come to know the Lord Jesus Christ and grow in the knowledge of his love?  Discipleship is about inviting people and work together as team for the Kingdom of God.

Learnt to confront Evil
Traditionally Lent is a time where we bend our will towards living a more Christ-like life: through fasting, study, and acts of charity. That means giving up things that diminish our life, taking up things that spiritually enrich our life, and giving away, in order to defy our tendency towards selfish living.

May his Spirit and light shine in us. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Curiouser and Curiouser

One of the greatest gifts a teacher can give a student is the gift of curiosity.  I am sure we could not number the amazing discoveries and scientific breakthroughs that were achieved because of a basic sense of curiosity.

And curiosity is about asking questions that you do not know the answer to.

When you think about it, the early Christians must have had far more questions than answers when they thought about who this Jesus person really was; when they looked at what he did; when they thought about what he said.

One of the things that I am increasingly convinced of, although I might have thought differently years ago, is that we should not be any different from those early Christians in our day and age, some two thousand years after Jesus sojourn among us.  When we read the Gospel stories we need to cultivate a healthy curiosity that leads us into new insights about Jesus.

In a sense, Mark takes his readers on the same journey that those first disciples of Jesus experienced.  The disciples had many questions before they had answers.  Mark does the same.  He does not present readers with a Nicene Creed or a Westminster Confession and ask us to agree with the content.  He stirs up our curiosity.

With evangelical fervour, Mark wants his readers – even us – to become fascinated with this Jesus of Nazareth.  The questions that Mark will not let rest are:  

“What is going on here? 
“Who is this Jesus?  
“From where does he get such power?”

The first disciples journeyed with a man called Jesus, listened to his teaching, wondered at his loving deeds, became acutely aware of something exceptional at work, and had to formulate their own faith in response.  Mark wants us to take the same journey, and find the surprises that they had found. 

Mark is saying “Find out for yourself!”

There are three little scenarios in the selection from Mark’s Gospel that we read today.  In these and the few stories that precede these, Mark is trying to arouse our curiosity about this man Jesus.

Mark is a royal herald.  He is the announcer of good news for the people.  Yet he does not do this by presenting his readers with a doctrinal summary of the nature of Jesus. 

Mark tells it in story and leaves us with the questions:

     Who is this Jesus? 
     What do you make of him? 
     Does this person fit your normal categories? 
     How do you explain his charisma? 
     What is the source of his wide-ranging power?”

Those who first believed in Jesus did so because of what they heard with their own ears and saw with their own eyes.  Their faith did not arrive neatly packaged in a creed, but possessed them bit by bit as they journeyed with him through stories like these.  Maybe in our evangelism we should remember that.

Research on how people come to faith today shows that it is not primarily through up-front preachers.  Instead, people most often come into faith through friendship with a person of faith who one way or another “witnesses” to their faith.  By witnessing I don’t mean seizing every moment to put in a high-pressure religious word, but by living the faith and quietly and lovingly speaking about it at the appropriate moment.  This is often much more about how to live than it is about what to believe.

Those who take the plunge and join this journey will find for themselves who this Jesus really is.  His charisma will work in their lives.  The ‘demons’ will be sent packing, the ‘fevers’ of secular life will lose their power, a new sense of purpose will drive them and a new compassion for humanity will grow.  Then, later on the journey, our common creeds and doctrines may then become joyful affirmations; not as the cause of faith but as an expression of such faith.

The story of Jesus as told by Mark is both simple and profound.  Likewise the story of Jesus as lived by us and told by us is should be simple yet profound.  If we are faithful, and not embarrassed about its simplicity, but live it humbly and joyfully, then those around us are more likely to be brought to that profound wonder and light that follows the question: Who is this Jesus?

So never be embarrassed by the simplicity which lies at the core of our faith and never try to avoid the profound complexity of it by pretending that you have all the answers to every question.  Be frank and be true, and then the evangelical questions will be raised by the way you simply and lovingly follow your Lord.