Friday, April 24, 2015


In the olden days, the first thing a preacher would do when he got up to preach was announce the text on which his sermon would be based.

Today I am going to try it out and see how it works.

My text for today is:

“Jesus is the one of whom the scripture says, 
  ‘The stone that you the builders despised
            turned out to be the most important of all.' 
Salvation is to be found through him alone; in all the world there is no one else whom God has given who can save us." – Acts 4:11-12

As I came across these words in our Acts reading today, and was wondering what I could explore with you it occurred to me that it might be a useful exercise for us to consider what it is that we really mean when we speak of “salvation” and of “being saved”.

Christianity, as we talk about it, is full of words that are a bit like shorthand – the one word says a lot of stuff, and when we hear that word, we all know the whole lot of stuff that the word means.  But if you are not a Christian you can only understand the literal meaning of the word.  With this in mind, Marcus Borg published a book in 2011 called "Speaking Christian: Why Christian words have lost their meaning and power - and how they can be restored."  The first key word he explores is Salvation and my thoughts here are inspired by that chapter.

I think the most common idea we have of Salvation is that it means we are going to go to heaven – and in a sense we are therefore saved from going to Hell.  This idea is actually not as common in the Bible as you might think, and it sometimes gets people scared about whether they have been good enough to be saved – because they sure don’t want to go to hell.  It is also a word we use to decide who is “in” this group we call Church, and who is “out” of it.  It has become the marker word of exclusion.

The word Salvation or words related to it is found about 500 times in the Bible and roughly two thirds of these are in the Old Testament.  What is interesting about that is that the only Old Testament reference to life after death comes in Daniel 12:2-3 and this wasn't written till about 180bce.  So none of the OT references to Salvation have this idea behind them

We know from some of the Gospel stories that there were some in Israel who did not believe in life after death – the Sadducees, for example – and so it should not be surprising that this concept is probably fairly modern to Jesus’ time and probably foreign to almost all Old Testament writers.

What this means is that when Salvation was used in the Old Testament it was not making any reference to the idea of us being saved for a life in heaven with God.

There are three great themes of Salvation in the OT that I am sure you will recognise. 

First the stories about and reflecting on the Exodus event reveal a theme of Salvation as Liberation from Bondage.  Again and again the people are reminded that they were slaves in Egypt and that it was by the act of God that they were Liberated – they were SAVED.

Secondly the stories about Israel’s return from Babylon and nations to the East to their homeland reveal a theme of Salvation as Return from Exile.  The period of punishment or banishment was over – Salvation is focussed on their return home.

Finally, the Psalmists again and again pick the idea of Salvation as Rescue from Peril.  “The Lord is my light and my Salvation; whom shall I fear.”  Psalm 27:1

In the New Testament, there are echoes of all three of these ideas in the discussion of Salvation, but the new focus is more strongly on the idea that Salvation means Deliverance or Rescue from that which ails us.

But the New Testament introduces a slightly new idea – that Salvation is about Entering Into a New Kind of Life.  This is a life covenanted with God through which we experience deliverance and transformation.

But one thing that comes through again and again is that while this idea of Salvation has some very personal dimensions, it also has corporate, even global dimensions.  God’s purpose in Salvation is not just deliverance and transformation of life for you and me, it is also very much about the deliverance and transformation of the church and even the whole world.

This actually touches a deep yearning that is felt by most people.  Most of us live with a feeling that we need to be liberated from things in our lives that keep us from being the best we could be.  Most of us want to be better that we know we are.  We might expend a lot of energy trying to get other people to think we are better than we know we are, but we still want to be better.

But we also long for the world to be a better place – both in overcoming the bitterness that fuels enmity and war between peoples, as well as reversing the adverse impacts on our environment of the many terrible things we have do to it.

Salvation, therefore concerns these two transformations.  This is what Christianity at its best is all about.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The group of believers was one in mind and heart.

When I preach through this Easter Season I want to draw my thoughts for you from the selections in the Lectionary from the Acts of the Apostles.  We don’t often take the time to explore these texts so I thought there might be some good material there for us.  So if you were hoping for a sermon about Doubting Thomas today, I am sorry to disappoint you.

So, what do we make of this story today?

The first two chapters of Acts prepare for and then tell the story of the Day of Pentecost.  What then follows are various snapshots of life in this community of the very first Christians.

These stories seem to give us a clear message – the resurrection of Jesus empowers people to live their lives differently.  In Acts we see many stories of signs and wonders happening – evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit.  But there is another striking feature in these stories – it is mentioned in the very first sentence we read today:

“The group of believers was one in mind and heart.”

Now that must rank as something higher than a minor miracle.  Indeed, it could rank as the supreme miracle.

I was thinking about this in relation to the churches I have belonged to.  I think I have been an active participant or member in 15 congregations of the church.  That is probably a few more than most of you.  I remember an Elder in the first church I was a minister in.  He was about 80 years old and had come to that church as a 2 year old.  He had never been a member of any other congregation.  Wow!!!!

As I think about all those congregations I have been a part of – with the exception of this congregation, that is – I don’t think I would be able to apply these words to any of them.  Petty rivalries or ancient upsets fester away, usually just under the surface of a veneer of formal niceties.  There is no way I could say that the whole community of believers in each place was “one in mind and heart.”

You only have to read the letters of Paul and some of the later episodes in this book of the Acts to realise that this ideal was a lot harder to achieve than these words suggest.  And it seems to be an unavoidable part of human nature to be unable really to be “one in mind and heart” with the whole group we belong to.  Indeed the only real examples we can think of these days are the totalitarian societies ruled by despots – like North Korea.

So, why do you think this became part of the story?  Luke didn’t have to put it there.

I guess like all ideals it stands out there in front of us encouraging us always to strive towards that kind of unity.  If that is the case, what would our community here at Holy Cross look like if we were getting closer to that ideal?

The stories immediately preceding this finish with the words, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to proclaim God’s message with boldness.”  This business of the whole community of believers being “one in mind and heart” is something that is empowered by that same Holy Spirit.  So they begin to share with one another and care for those in need with a new boldness that was not much different from the boldness of their speech.

In our modern minds we can’t think of this experiment in communal living without conjuring up images of modern social and political movements that tried to do the same.  But the rationale for this activity on the part of the early Christians was not political, but theological and humanitarian.  It arose out of their conviction that in Jesus they were now one people – each stood alongside the other in the face of God as equals; none had precedence over any other.

The Kingdom of God was at hand; indeed it was already among them.  The resurrection stories were the greatest sign of that.  So these people committed themselves to living as if that Kingdom was a present reality.

The clearest sign of this, they were convinced, was their sense of unity with each other.  But there was more – just like those ads on television where the man says “But wait, there’s more.”  This sense of unity underpinned an idea that none in their community should live in need and so we read “there was no one in the group who was in need.”

I think it is interesting to consider our reaction to this as modern people living in a complex cash economy.  We feel strangely uncomfortable when we are faced with the practice of Aboriginal people whose cultural value-system is much closer to this than ours – especially when it so often means their homes are over-crowded and such things.

And perhaps we feel similarly when we see our Nuba community right here at Holy Cross gathering funds together to help one of the community pay for something, or to send cash home to Sudan.

This is as much a social thing as it is an economic thing.  A legacy of the Greek and Roman empires among the Hebrew people and many others was a cosmopolitan life-style in cities in which family groups and the support systems of family were inevitably being broken down.  We can see the same thing in our day – especially when people like the Nuba come among us, because they are still caught up in a social system in which family is a fundamental factor.

In Jesus Christ, however, there is now a new family of which we are a part: the Church.  It was into this fellowship of other Christians that the men and women of the risen Lord Jesus submitted their goods for the well-being of all, and it was into this fellowship that they all looked for support in times of need.

And in case you are wondering why they did this, it seems clear that they saw this as proclamation itself.  “With great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord, and God poured rich blessings on them all.”

Not only in word, but also in deed, these early Christians lived out their witness to the renewing power of Jesus.  And lives were touched and transformed.

I wonder how closely we could come to this ideal in the way we live together at Holy Cross.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

We Never Leave our People Behind

Ages ago I was a fan of a Sci-fi TV show called Stargate in which people travelled through what they called a wormhole to other places and times – and most of the time they were all lucky to get back alive.  One of the phrases that crept into the scrip again and again is “We never leave our people behind.”

I guess this term is a reassurance to anyone involved in a military-kind of operation – we all abhorr the idea of a casualty being left behind on foreign soil.

I would like to explore this as an idea to help us understand something that happened at Easter.

Now, we all know what happened at Easter, don’t we?

Jesus was put through three kangaroo-court trials – Caiphus, Pilate and King Herod – and in the end he was executed as a blasphemer, hardly a Capital offence to the Romans.

So, he died on Good Friday, after which he “descended to the dead” as we affirm in the Apostle’s Creed and “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, (where) he is seated at the right hand of the Father.”

Now I want to know what you think happened when he “descended to the dead.”

I have to admit that in my studies at Bible College we did not examine the notion that Jesus descended to the dead in order to fight a cosmic battle against the evil one – we call him The Devil, Lucifer or Satan.

Even though such an idea is not present in the words of the Creed, I think we have developed the idea as a result of some of the other New Testament writings which do convey the sense of a cosmic battle having happened, and of Jesus winning that Battle, and of the Resurrection being the foundational evidence of his victory over evil in the person of the Devil.

This icon first appeared as a mosaic in the Monastry of Daphni in Athnens nearly a thousand years ago.  This is a re-written version of the Icon by the Rev’d Dr Bob Gallagher and it is called “The Anastasis” or “The Resurrection”. 

There are many other forms of this Icon that have minor variations, but I would like us to look at this one and examine the story it is telling.

The central figure is, of course, Jesus who is lifting up through the gates of hell, which are now broken, the two seminal humans – Adam and Eve.  Through these two, sin and death entered into the human experience and their presence in this icon represents the whole human race.

So, Jesus is lifting Adam and Eve out of the place of the dead while, at the same time, trampling on the gates of hell and breaking the power of evil – Evil is represented here by the strong man that Jesus is walking over and you will notice that he is now bound up with chains.  That little space where he is lying is filled with important imagery, also, because there you can see the broken gates and the discarded key and these also represent the liberation Jesus has now achieved for us.

Who are the other people in the Icon?

On the left we have a father and son combination – King David & King Solomon – signifying Jesus’ own royalty; and there on the right we have a scruffy looking John the Baptist in green, blessing Jesus as “The Lamb of God.”

There are two important aspects to do with the Cross in this Icon.  Firstly, it is placed between Adam and Christ as a way of saying that Jesus puts right what began in Adam; that the way to life is through the Cross.

Secondly, you can see that the bottom of the cross is firmly placed on the neck of the Evil One indicating his total subjugation by the Cross. 

As you look at this part of the Icon you will notice that The Evil One has a firm grip on Adam’s foot and is clearly unwilling to let him go.  By this the writer of the Icon is saying to us that the experience of receiving new life through Christ does not make us immune from sin.

Finally, take a look at the backgrounds.  In the lower part of the Icon we have dark and deathly colours for the place of the dead.  The upper part, however, is golden; incorruptible, eternal and blazing with light.

Now you know the origin of the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.”  Icons are not portraits.  They do not capture a moment in time.  They tell a whole story.

The reason I wanted us to look at this today is that it opens the door for us to gain perhaps a new, but ancient, understanding of what was happening in this Easter.

Let’s think about the implications of the Genesis story of Adam & Eve.  God spent a great deal of effort creating the world and the people on it, and they were regarded as the pinnacle of God’s creation.  The catechism that has been used for generations to prepare people for baptism says that people were created for God’s pleasure and company.

The story we call The Fall in Genesis 3 is really saying that through their sin God was deprived of the pleasure of the company of those first humans – and as a consequence, they were consigned to a place beyond God’s reach, in a way, the place of the dead.

But this Icon tells us in a very vivid way that just like the Stargate people, God does not leave his people behind.

Through Jesus, God has broken the doors that kept him out of the place of the dead and freed all those who up until that time had been consigned to it.

And now, all who follow in Jesus’ way can experience liberation from the powers that would otherwise keep them in that place of the dead.

This is what Easter is about – the liberation from the place of the dead of all those who would follow in Jesus’ way.

Now that has got to be worth celebrating with the longest long-weekend we have each year.

Go and Do Likewise

The celebration of Maundy Thursday is something of a puzzle to me at times. 

We mostly think of this service as commemorating the institution of the Last Supper, yet in the story of this Passover meal in John 13 we see no focus on bread and wine, we see no reference to “my body and my blood,” no direction to “remember”.

What we have in this story is two commandments:
“I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet.  You, then, should wash one another’s feet.” v.14


“And now I give you a new commandment: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  v.34

It is these two commandments that are behind the name “Maundy”.  The Latin word for ‘commandment’  which is mandatum, but linguists cannot readily explain how that word morphed into Maundy.  So the focus this evening should rightly be on the commandments rather than the Lord’s Supper.

The story has some powerful elements which we might easily pass over out of familiarity.  Did you notice right at the beginning the statement that Jesus loved his friends to the very end?  John is clearly getting us ready for something – and this is what we celebrate.

This is the day that Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment.

This is the day that Jesus models that commandment to his friends around the Passover meal table.

This is the day when Judas sneaks off into the night to begin the undoing process.

This is the day and the night when Jesus eats and drinks and touches and loves and prays.

This is the last time that Jesus was a free man.

“I have set an example for you so that you will do just what I have done to you.  I am telling you the truth, no slaves are greater than their masters, and no messengers are greater than the one who sent them.  Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice.

Even on the last night of his life, Jesus is beating the same drum:
            hearing is good, doing is better;
            knowledge is good, doing is better. 
            if the story is to be told, it has to be lived.

This is another thing we can pass over in the story.  But this is the piece that we need to grapple with every-single-day because there is a big, big difference between knowing and doing.  There is a big, big difference between knowing about love and loving. 

What this meant for Jesus was to act in ways that turned many rules and social conventions upside down.  Jesus, the host of this meal and a guest in another’s house, strips down, grabs a towel, then bends over and begins, gently but insistently, to wash the dusty feet of his friends.

Now washing feet was an everyday occurrence in 1st century Palestine.  People walked everywhere.  Dinner gatherings were enjoyed reclining on and couches around the table full of food.  Putting your dirty feet up on someone’s couch simply was not done, it was impolite in the extreme.  Water, towel and basin would be provided to all, as an act of welcome, of hospitality.

Ordinarily people would wash their own feet when they came into a house as a guest.  A wealthy homeowner might have a servant to do this.  The host did not wash his guests’ feet.  This task was given to the lowest member of the household: the servant.

For the Teacher, the Rabbi, the leader of the band, to ‘assume the position,’ to bend down and do the dirty work — well, it just was not done.  It was an extremely humble act, and I imagine it was a humbling thing to receive as well.  

Jesus had turned the rules upside down before:
·        Touching lepers
·        Eating with tax collectors & sinners
·        Reinterpreting the Sabbath command to honour women and children

Jesus was wiling to change the meaning, to tweak it in such a way that it could never be looked at the same way again.  

“Watch and learn,” seem to be his bywords.  “Let me tell you the story in a new way.”   
And in this particular piece of the story, the action precedes the commandment.  “Let me show you,” he says, “let me show you how to love one another.  Then go, and do likewise.”

You know, life would be so much simpler if he had said something like, “Go and think likewise.”  Or, “Go, and believe likewise.”  But he didn’t say that.  

He said, “Go, and DO likewise.”  And most of us find this really hard to do.

Like you, I am sure, I have thought about the Christian faith a lot and for all sorts of reasons I have decided to believe it.  I am constantly working on and refining what I think and what I believe – clarifying what I call the content of my faith.  

But the actual doing part; that part is much tougher for me.  

            I am impatient,
            I am cranky, 
            I am judgmental,
            I am intolerant — with myself and with others.  

I don’t always look for ways to ‘be the servant’ in a given situation but. . . most of the time, in most situations, that is, and always will be, the best, the truest, the most-likely-to-line-up-with-the-story thing to do.  BE THE SERVANT.