Remembrance X – London 7×7

The tenth anniversary of the London terror attacks may seem ‘history’ from where we are now.  Have we as a nation and the world at large, made any progress in transforming our world for peace – remains a question?

Resorting to violence – either physical, psychological seems almost a natural animal instinct with a default option for survival.  Beyond the religious and ideological reasons given by people who chose violence over the alternative, what governs their behaviour at the core is fear or the existential anxiety.  Calling on the name of God and living a life of anxiety and fear seem to lead to violence.

While beholding the beauty of what surrounds us in the Nature, hope, truth and justice shall prevail and never

Independence

July 4, 2015 marks the 339th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by thirteen United States of America.  Please remember that great nation of the USA in your thoughts and prayers as it seeks relentlessly to symbolise what true Independence is, with great difficulty.  But what is true independence?

Independence is a desire for self-determination.  Synonyms for ‘independence’ such as sovereignty, autonomy, freedom, and liberty seem to suggest that it is primarily about identity.  It is the determination of who ‘I am’ with two possible ways.  Descartes believed, ‘I think, therefore I am’ and our contemporary cultural dogma believes, ‘I desire, therefore I am’.  Identity based on this is susceptible to what the social psychologist call ‘Narcissistic Entitlement Syndrome.’  The extreme symptoms of this syndrome is self-determination through greed and violence.

The day I sat down to write this sermon, I heard it on the radio that Dylann Roof assassinated 9 people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.  When I came to revisit it a week later, it was reported that Seifeddine Rezgui of Tunisia massacred 38 tourists on the beach.  Two ideologies but one outcome – death!  Is there a link that we are unable to see?  I am daring to suggest that it is self-determination gone awry.  Most of us moderate it well.  But Dylann Roof and Seifeddine Rezgui may have been susceptible to this ‘identity’ crisis exposed to evil ideological forces.

Here is a possible alternative, ‘I love, and therefore I am’.  Try, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  There is no other ideology or identity framework greater than this.  Independence built on this ideology is yet to be.

Is this the blood of the new covenant?

Easter 5A May 18, 2014

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’  Whenever I hear such words, I see it as an indication that there is trouble ahead.  When the angel Gabriel said, ‘Fear not Mary’ there was good reason for Mary to wonder ‘what manner of salutation is this?’.  Troubled by such words two of the disciples, Thomas and Philip raised questions in the Gospel for this week, which in turn troubled the Lord.  When Jesus said, ‘And you know the way to the place where I am going,’ Thomas said, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?’  Likewise, when Jesus said, ‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’  Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father.’

In this conversation, it is clear that Jesus was trying to communicate something important to the disciples and they had no clue what the Lord was saying.  So, Jesus said to them, ‘Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.’  It seems, the Lord was appealing initially to their deeper knowledge and understanding of him and his Father and when he realised that they did not have such depth, he appealed to their senses and asked them to believe him because of his works.

In human relationships, when there is mutuality and maturity, through deeper knowledge and understanding between two people, the need for works and words become almost unnecessary.  The need for tokens of love in exchange of gifts and words become less significant when there is deeper trust and love.  Jesus may have expected such love and trust from the disciples and when he did not find it in them, he offered help and made a promise.  He asked them to pray for such maturity in love towards him and his Father which would reflect in their love for one another.  So, the conversation ends with Jesus making a promise, ‘If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’

Our resident New Testament scholar informed us this morning at our reading of the Gospel in Greek, between the 9am and 11am services that the words of the promise ‘If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’ is absent in most reliable New Testament manuscripts.  The possible reason for omission could be because it has grammatical and theological irregularities.  Firstly, why would Jesus ask his disciples to ask him in his name.  Could then not simply ask?  Secondly, if there is need for a mediator, then Jesus should have said, if you ask the Father in my name, he will do it.  Instead we have those words put in the mouth of our Lord which makes little sense.

Well, unless, it is interpreted in legal terms. It is likely that Jesus was making a promise and signs it with his name.  And when the disciples make an appeal, they should show Jesus his signature and demand what he had promised.  This interpretation may be farfetched but what was said at the Last Supper and how it was sealed with his very blood on the cross seem to concur with the legal interpretation of the words of Jesus.  Because the Lord took the Cup at the Last Supper, blessed it and gave it to his disciples saying, ‘this is my blood of the new covenant’ and this was sealed with real blood on the cross.

With all this legal and theological interpretations of the absent obscure promise of the Lord we are still left to wonder about the meaning and significance of it all.  And here we are given the other lectionary reading for this Sunday from the Acts of the Apostles.  The narrative takes us directly to the scene where Stephen, one of the seven deacons of the early church addressing the crowd at the Synagogue.  The crowd is pressed to stop him because of the power and authority with which he preached.  ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.

Trying to step into his shoes for a moment, the experience of the impact of stones on the head, face, chest, arms and legs bones feels extremely painful and soul rending.  Faced with such pain and agony, it would be natural to cry, ‘my Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?’  Instead, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’  When he said this, he died.  And there was a young man who witnessed this and his name was Saul.

Faced with trouble, the words of our Lord, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled’ seem to take a new meaning.  So, Stephen, instead of being troubled, he appealed to the Lord who said, ‘If in my name, you ask me for anything, I will do it.’  Now, let us hear the words of Stephen, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’  ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’  This direct appeal to Jesus in his name must have troubled the young man Saul deeply.  His years of learning and practice of the Law of Moses must have suddenly vaporised into oblivion.  This would be the beginning of a New Life of transformation.  One Stephen dies and One Saul is transformed to Paul.

St Peter claimed in his epistle which is the third lesson from our lectionary readings for this week says, ‘You are a royal priesthood, a holy nation … ‘ made of the living stones.  The foundation for this glorious and living temple shaped essentially by the labours of St Paul has the love and forgiveness of St Stephen who asked Jesus in his name.

The foundations on which we are built into a living temple are the love and forgiveness of the cross Christ which is revealed time and again in the lives of the saints.  It is the love of God that gives and gives generously, pouring out himself.  There is no law and prophets to supplant this amazing love.  Our hearts shall never be troubled when we have our promise ratified in the blood of Christ.

‘I am the gate’

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.  John 10.6

St John the Evangelist, one of the four biographers of Jesus, in this section of the gospel narrative comes across as an absolute genius or complete no brainer.  He puts into the mouth of Jesus some amazing words.  Hear the words of our Lord in red letters! Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

Jesus seem to be hot on the subject of being a shepherd, even a good shepherd.  There are two possible entrants to the sheepfold, the sheep and the shepherd.  And there is the gatekeeper who opens the gate and the shepherd calls his sheep by name and leads them out.  The essential point is the relationship, a relationship of trust between the shepherd and his sheep.  The sheepfold has multiple flocks gathered in one and each shepherd calls his own and they follow him.  Then there are the thieves and bandits who come to steal the sheep.  The sheep have no relationship with the thieves and bandits but the shepherd does the sheep hear his voice.

As we come to get grips with this amazing parable, the Evangelist says, ‘Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.’  Here is the problem.  Was the Evangelist accusing Jesus of being a thief because his sheep did not understand what he was saying? Or, is there more to this narrative than meets the eye.

The narrative moves on and so does the figure of speech.  Now Jesus claims to be the gate and this may explain further why the disciples did not understand.  It is possible to accept Jesus as the Shepherd because it is a concept familiar to the disciples.  They had learnt to say Psalm 23 from their childhood and Jesus rightly claims his lordship by calling himself the shepherd.  Had he stopped there, all would be well.  He did not and hence the disciple had a problem seeing Jesus as a gate.  The figure of speech moved on to an inanimate comparison.

I found myself in good company of the disciples, faced with this problem of Jesus as a gate, a gate as I know and have heard sermons about it.  For a gate to have a purpose and meaning it needs walls to make a boundary with inside and outside categories.  The emerging market for gated communities is a sign of barriers in the society.  The church in general, and some churches in particular have this need to be ‘gated communities’ where there is a clear distinction between the ones inside those who aren’t.  And the grounds for such notion of a church is our figure of speech in focus – Jesus said, ‘I am the gate’ and somehow these communities become gatekeepers.

There is a problem when we choose to follow this figure of speech and explore it in the context.  The gated sheepfold designed to prevent thieves and bandits from stealing is rare to come by.  If the Evangelist put the words in the mouth of Jesus as an hyperbole, then we may deduce it to the common sheepfold found around the world which are designed to keep the sheep together and protect them from wild animals like those stories said by David the shepherd who later became the king of Israel.  In that context, there are pens with low walls and a narrow entrance for the sheep to go in and out.  Here the figure of speech gets close to reality.  In this image of a sheepfold, the sheep will go into the walled area for protection from the wolf, for instance and will come out for feeding, led by the shepherd.  The gate to this walled area is not an inanimate wooden or metal structure but the shepherd himself would sit or lie down at the entrance, thus preventing the sheep from being lost and the wolf from coming in.

If a sheep fancies a night out, it would have to step over the shepherd and it is unlikely.  Similarly, should a wolf come looking for a leg a lamb, it is more likely to get a bite of the leg of shepherd rather than the leg of lamb.  And this seem to make sense.

When Jesus said, ‘I am the gate’ he certainly did mean it.  As a shepherd, he would be the gate to his sheepfold, risking his very own life for the love his sheep.  He would let his sheep go in and out and find pasture.

Should the world remain in peril and darkness, it is the disciples who fail to understand the figure of speech used by Jesus.  Jesus said, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.‘ The abundant life that Jesus offers is yet to be known fully and received by all his creation because his disciples do not understand his figure of speech.

What seek ye?  John 1.38 (KJV)

The first three Red Letter Words in my King James Version of the gospel according to St John are both eternal and penetrating.  Reading these words, consciously for the first time when I was about twelve years of age should have made an impression on my soul which remains to this very day.  This version has the words of Jesus in red making it more significant.  The words are personal and direct and every human being ever lived irrespective of colour and creed has to encounter.  In the context of the story Jesus put this question to the very first two people who followed him.  In that sense, I must answer this question with integrity to the one whom I seek to follow.  What do I seek in following Jesus Christ?

Why do I follow Jesus Christ?  I have considered a range of answers found in the Christian tradition and in the stories from the earthly days of Jesus.  Some followed him for his teachings and others for his miracles.  Some sought Jesus for healing and many went after him to question and challenge him.  Towards the end many followed him singing praises and equally others crying, ‘crucify him!  Crucify him!’   This wide range of reasons to follow Jesus remains alive and well to this day.  Most people seem to follow Jesus for relief from their present predicaments while some follow him for no personal gain but for who he is.  The gospel narratives give us an impression of Jesus which transcends all human comprehension yet utterly familiar.  We recognise him as one of us while at the same time not one of us based on our human experience.  This state of paradox is what frustrates many who seek to follow him.  Hence, his question to us becomes ultimate – what seek ye?

My awkward answer to that penetrating question would be the one similar to that of St Peter.  ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?  For you have the words of eternal life.’  I can follow no other nor can I go to any but Jesus.  His destiny was the cross which I dread and hence hesitate.  But, unless a seed falls to the ground it cannot bear fruit.  This is not good news for many to whom eye for an eye remains the choice.  While the many still chose the path of ‘eye for an eye’ that leads to darkness, Jesus remains the light of the world for some.  I for one would seek to follow the ‘Lamb of God’ the ‘Light of the World!’

Uniqueness of Christ

One of the questions put forward frequently is ‘How could you invite people of other religions to use your place of worship?’  Do you not think you compromise the confessions of your faith?  Do you not believe in the Uniqueness of Christ?

These questions are to be found often not on the lips of people who are without any faith commitments or of other Faiths but are of the Christian faith.  It is a question posed with utter sincerity and conviction that the name of Christ is unique for the salvation of humanity and it is the duty of a Christian to convert others to that conviction.   This conviction is developed on the basis of a defence made by St Peter before the religious authorities in Jerusalem when they were threatened with imprisonment and possible execution for preaching salvation in the name of Jesus.  St Peter said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”[1]

Peter made this claim at the point of death.  His claim would cost him his life.  For one to make such claim, the conviction must be total and deeply personal.  Peter to make this claim was more unique than the uniqueness my friends claim for Christ.  The reason is simple.  Peter proclaimed the very name as the name for salvation which he denied at the point of death of Christ a few weeks earlier.  There was a change in the life of Peter before and after the death of Jesus.  The evidence for Peter’s conversion is of cosmic proportions.  It is hard to compare it to anything in our day to day life.   The uniqueness the Peter claimed for Jesus was not an objective claim he came to learn, understand and preach but it was a subjective experience which evident in the life of Peter which was most powerful.

Therefore, when someone makes a claim on the uniqueness of Christ without subjective evidence to that in their own lives, then their claim becomes suspect.  This leads one to question.

Consider this.  Should I claim that I am unique, I must do so in isolation or in comparison.  For Christians to make a claim on their uniqueness they may do so in isolation or in relation to others.  Claim to uniqueness made in isolation may appear to be narcissistic i.e. I see my own reflection in a mirror and adore how wonderful and unique I am.  I can see myself in a group photograph and think I am unique in that group.  But these two alternates does not make Christ unique.  Which turns our attention to Christ himself.

Christ is unique for a number of reason.  He was unique in refusing to be unique.  He was unique in his uncertain birth.  He was unique in choosing to identify himself with the sinners and outcasts.  He was unique in standing by what he believed.  He was unique in his humiliating death.  Therefore I may claim to the uniqueness of Christ if my own life demonstrates one or all those unique qualities that Christ demonstrated in his life.  If not, my claim of the uniqueness of Christ would be mere words.  There cannot be more harm done to the cause of Christ than empty words.


[1] Acts 4.12

Christmas – God’s refusal to quit on you and I

Human frailty was brought home to us on Friday the 14th December 2012 when a young man of twenty took the lives of as many children and a few adults for reasons unknown.  The fragility of human life is brought home to us at this time of the year when life is active at one level yet it is in a state of inactivity and hibernation.  The Christmas story intensifies this period of transition from darkness to light when we celebrate new life in the midst of death and hope in utter hopelessness.  I hope you do not mind this ramble before we return to the Nativity story.

Some of you may recall the story of the Messiah in the church hall which I narrated last year!  Well, I was told off by a young academic that I made a mockery of the Christian faith.  The point of the story was that the loving relationship between the Creator the Creation is marred by a gap in communication and that the Christmas story seeks to bridge that gap.  Sadly, the story had the opposite effect, as far as I know, at least on one person!  So, I decided to quit seeking stories with a moral and laughter.

However, I came across this meaningful meditation on quitting which I hope you don’t mind me sharing.

One day I decided to quit…I quit my job, my relationship, my spirituality…. I wanted to quit my life. I went to the woods to have one last talk with God.

“God”, I said. “Can you give me one good reason not to quit?”

His answer surprised me.

“Look around”, He said. “Do you see the fern and the bamboo?”

“Yes”, I replied.

“When I planted the fern and the bamboo seeds, I took very good care of them. I gave them light. I gave them water. The fern quickly grew from the earth. Its brilliant green covered the floor. Yet nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo.

“In the second year the fern grew more vibrant and plentiful. And again, nothing came from the bamboo seed. But I did not quit on the bamboo.

“In year three there was still nothing from the bamboo seed. But I would not quit. The same in year four!

“Then in the fifth year, a tiny sprout emerged from the earth.

Compared to the fern, it was seemingly small and insignificant.

But just six months later, the bamboo rose to over 100 feet tall.

It had spent the five years growing roots. Those roots made it strong and gave it what it needed to survive. I would not give any of my creations a challenge it could not handle.

“Did you know, my child, that all this time you have been struggling, you have actually been growing roots? I would not quit on the bamboo nor will I quit on you!

“Don’t compare yourself to others.” God said. “The bamboo had a different purpose than the fern. Yet they both make the forest beautiful.

“Your time will come”, God said to me. “You will rise high.”

“How high should I rise?” I asked.

“How high will the bamboo rise?” He asked in return.

“As high as it can?” I questioned.

“Yes.” God said, “Give your utmost for the Highest and let me do the rest.”

I left the forest, realizing that God will never give up on me. God will never give up on us.

Good days give us happiness; bad days give us experience; both are essential to life.

What’s all this got to do with Christmas, you may wonder.  Given the realities of life as we face it, with economic crisis, political instability in parts of the world, news of massacre of the innocent, we might want to quit and embrace apathy and indifference.  The world in which Jesus was born into was a world of apathy and indifference.  While it may have been a world of apathy and indifference to most, one young woman believed in possibilities, the story goes.  When everything looks gloomy and bleak, Mary believed in a world of hope.  “Mary did you know!”  She knew something – not to quit like others – to believe in goodness, truth, justice, peace and joy.  She refused to quit and we celebrate!

God’s refusal to quit on humanity is the essence of Christmas story.  However much the evil may seem to overwhelm, the love of God revealed the Christ child will prevail.