How do we forgive

   Does Jesus want us to be wimps? – Matt. 5: 38-42

   When someone stole little 12 year old Mark’s bike he complained to his parents. “I just want to get back at whoever stole my bike.  I want them to fall off the bike and really hurt themselves”. He felt hurt and he wanted the thief to hurt too, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  I think we understand, but I wonder what we might say as Mark’s parents.  What would we suggest Mark do with his feelings of anger and wanting to get even.  Would we quote the passage for today about turning the other cheek.  Would we quote the eighth of the ten commandments, do not steal….

As followers of Jesus we surely want to hold on to the idea that we do not repay evil with evil.  But what does that look like? 

An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth – no says Jesus there is another way.  If someone hits you on the right cheek offer the left as well.  We need to understand a couple of things.  Firstly this is humiliation slapping not out and out violence. The second thing is that in middle eastern society you differentiate between right and left hand.   The right hand is always extended in welcome, the right hand is always used in eating, because the left hand is used for other things.  I won’t go into detail but your left hand is unclean.  The right hand is also used for striking.  Did you notice that our passage specifies the right cheek so let’s have a practical demo of striking with my right hand on your right cheek.  The blow has to be a back hander.  In Jesus’ culture a back-hander had a very specific meaning.  It was used by people in power to humiliate someone.  Masters back-handed slaves, Romans back-handed Jews, husbands back-handed wives, and parents would back-hand children.  The message was simple – “I’m putting you in your place”.     But notice what happens when you offer the left cheek.  The striker must still use his right hand but no longer can he back-hand you.  It’s got to be a hit with the open hand, and that’s a hit reserved for equals.  By turning the other cheek, you are actually refusing to hit back, but you are also refusing to be submissive and humiliated.  You are saying something very powerful.  Hit me if you like but I refuse to submit.  I wonder where this little encounter goes next.  There is I believe a real possibility that a new bridge will be crossed as the bully finds someone stands up to them.

   The next image has a similar theme.  If anyone takes your coat, give him your cloak as well.  It sounds a bit strange to us but in the poverty ridden times of Jesus, garments were often the only thing people in poverty owned.  The scene is probably set in a courtroom and the defendant who has lost everything is being asked to turn over their coat or outer garment to help repay a debt to someone we would call a loan shark.  It’s the epitome of screwing someone for every last cent.   The scene was depressingly common in Jesus’ time, but Jesus’ advice is dramatic and stunning.  Offer your “chiton” as well.  This is usually translated as undergarment, but your “chiton” in effect is your underwear.  The result is startling as you give your outer cloak and then proceed to strip naked.  The greedy creditor suddenly finds himself in an embarrassing situation because public nudity was shocking.  Instead of taking the garments, the creditor will now be giving them back and urging the loan defaulter to cover up again.  The power of public humiliation has been used to expose the greed and hopefully educate the creditor.  The encounter hasn’t been about getting even, but about establishing real justice. 

   The third image concerns another practice known at the time.  “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also a second mile”.  In Palestine at the time the Roman occupying soldiers were allowed to ask locals to carry their packs.  It was a form of forced labour, but the Romans were very careful not to push things too far.  One mile of pack carrying was the limit.  So, imagine the scenario.

   You’ve just carried the heavy pack of the hated soldier for a mile along the Roman road where there are markers every mile.  The solider, knowing the rules says, “OK I’ll find someone else, you can get lost now”.  But you say, “no. no, it’s OK, I’ll continue to carry your pack.  Very happy to be of service!”.  Suddenly the Roman solider is worried.  The rules are clear and he could get into serious trouble if his superiors discover someone has carried his pack for more than a mile. He’s now begging for his pack back.  Again injustice is exposed, and maybe just maybe the soldier will see you as a real person rather than a resentful Palestinian.  Maybe just maybe a plank of the bridge building that needed to occur between Roman soldier and Palestinian peasant has been put in place. 

   Jesus talked of forgiveness that renounced vengeance and getting even.  No more an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but he doesn’t want us to be wimps either.  We need to find creative ways Jesus doesn’t want us to be doormats who simply roll over when people put the boot into us or treat us as rubbish.  Jesus asks us to find creative ways to expose the injustices and really make things right again.

   Six-year-old Sam had agreed with Diane, his mother, that his chore would be to set the table each evening in time for dinner at 6 o’clock.  Two evenings in a row the table was not set on time.  Each time Diane discussed the situation with Sam.  On the third evening, at 6.15 the table was still not set.  Sam’s hungry sister and father impatiently offered to do it so Diane could serve dinner.  Diane said, “If you help Sam by letting him take advantage of us, you won’t really be helping him or us”.  Finally Sam arrived.  Before he could trot out a story about why he was late Diane cheerfully asked the whole family to sit down at the table.  She brought a pot of spaghetti from the kitchen and plopped a pile of it down on the bare wooden table in front of each person.  Then she piled spaghetti sauce on top, and salad dressing on top of that.  Maintaining a calm, friendly and non-shaming attitude, Dianne finally brought out the frozen yogurt dessert and put some on top of each person’s spaghetti.  As astonished Sam experienced the logical consequence of his failure to set the table.  From then on, Sam set the table on time!

   A wealthy slum landlord had exploited his tenants for many years by charging them excessive rent for substandard housing.  Finally he was arrested for numerous violations of the housing code.  The judge sentenced him to live for one month in one of his own rat-infested smelly rooms with broken pipes and no heat, and the man became a responsible landlord. What would our justice system look like if we practiced restorative justice instead of the current punitive justice system. 

   Forgiveness is not about being a wimp.  Forgiveness requires courage and creativity as we see those who hurt us not as enemies to be punished, but as God’s children who need to grow and find another way.  Forgiveness is hard work, and sometimes we simply won’t have the energy.  It sometimes takes a long time.  Invariably it will take prayer.  We need the creative spirit to guide us and encourage us.  The result however is worth it as we make new friends, and we all draw a little closer to the kingdom of heaven.

   AS many of you know I have a little project along the Heathcote River not far from where we live.  We’ve formed a little group to look after the Laura Kent Reserve which was an overgrown wilderness beside the river.  We’ve removed poplar and blackberry and planted lots of natives.  It looks great.  But earlier this week on my morning walk I discovered  some of the larger trees that we had planted had been snapped off and just left.  I was angry and sad.  Who would do such a thing.  There was part of me that wanted to inflict damage on the people involved.  I imagined a group laughing as some of them tried to snap the trees.  I had to catch myself and ask so how should I respond as a follower of Jesus.  I prayed about it.  As I reflected with God I sensed I should be asking how can I help those involved grow towards God.  Killing these trees was certainly not a godly activity.  I have no idea who is responsible but I held them in prayer before God and asked God to work in their hearts.  Specifically I asked that they would grow to realise life in all forms is sacred.  I am concerned that if they break trees they may also inflict violence on others.  I also wrote a little sign which I hope might unlock some goodness that I believe will be inside them.  I didn’t want to put them down but I did want to say it wasn’t OK, and I wanted to evoke compassion for the trees that had been killed.  Will it work… I don’t know but I trust a door has been open opened for God to move.

The way of Jesus means:

  1. Giving up the desire to get even. 
  2. Confronting the evil.
  3. Building bridges of (re-)connection. 

There are no guarantees, but this is the way of Jesus that I believe will true peace into the world.

Dugald Wilson February 2020

It’s about transformation not keeping the rules

Matt 5:17-37

   The ten commandments are rules that have shaped our society.  While many people say religion is a waste of time they are happy to accept much of the heritage that comes from religion in the form of moral teaching and values that come to us from many years of human experience and reflection.  Jesus assumes we need moral guidance to live well, but he makes the bold claim that rather than have rules imposed from the outside we need an internal guidance system.  The rules that came from places like the ten commandments are good, but we need to build them into our internal being if we are to find happiness and fulfilment in life.   He doesn’t say the old rules should be ditched;  “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” but he adds, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil”.  To underline what he’s saying he pick out the fastidious rule keepers the Scribes and Pharisees and says , , “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.  How could anyone be more righteous and fastidious than that pious crowd?   

   As Jesus continued it was clear he wasn’t looking for stricter adherence to rules but was proposing something else.  Jesus talked of people becoming alive, but true aliveness wouldn’t come through strict conformity to tradition like a cracked record going around and around.  Nor would it come from throwing the baby out with the bathwater and ditching tradition altogether.  The traditions weren’t dead meat – they contained life, but only when we discerned and fulfilled the true intent of tradition as a life giving power that takes root in our hearts and minds.  

   Maybe we could see tradition and past teaching we find in our scriptures as a road that began long ago but continues to the present.  Jesus proposes that the road isn’t finished yet.  There is a whole new landscape that has grown up around us.  To extend the road into this new landscape we need to look back and  get basic guidelines, but we must also be prepared to step beyond where the road currently ends, venturing off the map so to speak into new territory.  To stand still and hold fast to the letter of the law is to risk turning into a pillar of salt.  Our faith tradition was born in what is called the reformation and we are a reforming church.  In such a community faithfulness requires us to walk beyond what we know and make the road that will discover the life of God now and take us forward into the future. Faithfulness invites us to take the essence of our traditions into our hearts so that our lives are transformed and we become travel guides in a world that is looking for direction.

   Having laid out the general principle Jesus give us some very practical examples that relate to our human lives.  Using some of the key commandments he unpacks and re-orientates them with fresh vision.   No longer are they some rules to keep or not keep but they are seeds within our hearts that sprout and grow new life within us.  Food for our core being, our soul, our internal battery, our guidance system.    

   Starting off with one of the Ten Commandments he reminds us not to murder.  Most of us will say to ourselves, ‘safe on that one! –I’ve never been up for murder and never likely to be.’   But that’s the issue with outside rules we can easily tick them off and say passed or failed that one.  Jesus goes deeper. This commandment is really about the sacredness of human life and the taking away of this life can happen in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways.  Jesus raises three possibilities.  Firstly he tells us that when we are angry with someone else we invariably risk diminishing their sacredness and will murder them in some way with thoughtless words or actions.  It’s a huge issue in our society leading to violence ad all sorts of abuse and we are all infected and affected in some way.   Secondly the verbal put downs that I suspect we have all used to dismiss someone by calling them names or a useless fool takes away their life and sacredness.  It doesn’t need to be something we say face to face, but is there in our heart as we look at someone or some group of people.   We name and we write them off as someone I value.  And thirdly Jesus points out we murder people when we refuse to actively work towards reconciliation.  When we allow the fences to remain and put others on the other side out of sight and refuse to engage in meaningful ways that will resolve our separation.  

   Dear Jesus this commandment was something I could keep at arms length and even give myself a pat on the back with but you have introduced a whole new picture.  You are calling me to plant this commandment in my heart and in my soul and to live it.  To treat every human life is sacred, special, God breathed.   You are saying to take this rule into every sphere of my life.  How I see my own life, how you see my friends, how I see those I don’t get along with so well.  You are asking me to listen harder to those I want to dismiss, to make space for those I want to keep at arms length, to stand up for those others want to demonise.  You are asking me to be very careful with my angers, the way I put people in boxes, and neglect relationships that involve fences.  When I hear someone writing off Chinese people and saying they are all responsible for spreading a virus I will not remain silent.   When I celebrate Waitangi Day I will do so knowing we still have work to do to resolve the injustices of the past, and to shape a society in this land that is not only bicultural but multi cultural – a land where we welcome difference and diversity while honouring the good from all our traditions. 

   Jesus takes another seed when he says you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  For some reason Jesus seems to aiming this at men!  However what he is really aiming at is looking at anyone as an object for your consumption.  It’s treating others as an object to be used, abused, manipulated, or enslaved for your own purposes.  Again we find ourselves drawn into planting this seed in our heart and soul.  From thinking we may have got a pass mark we find ourselves on the wrong side of the line.  Greed and competition fuels or society.  Stepping on others to get ahead is part of the game.  If you can get a bargain no matter what the workers are paid go for it.  If someone else is a sucker and takes on a role of leadership and responsibility and I can sit back why should I?  There are all sorts of way we use others for our benefit and Jesus is asking us to treat our relationships with respect and honour. 

   After sowing this seed Jesus does a little side sowing and addresses the issue of divorce.  Divorce was legal in Jesus’ day and in reality was very common because all a man needed to do was sign a certificate of divorce and send a woman on her way.   It remains so in many societies.  But Jesus says you can’t treat women in such a degrading way.  He accepts divorce will occur, but is saying the easy divorce of his day was unjust and women who had been thrown on the scrapheap of failure through being rejected should in fact be considered still married and honourable

    And another seed concerning the swearing of oaths.  Turning to a higher being or authority to reinforce your word was a common practice in Jesus’ day.  We still do it in court when we swear to tell the truth on the Bible.  I guess the thinking is that failure to tell the truth will get us into trouble with God.  But Jesus says don’t promise your loyalty to any system or authority – let your word be enough.   Welcome to a world where we talk with absolute simple truth to one another and our word is good.  It’s a world we can trust one another, where we are no longer suspicious of someone asking for help, where we no longer play games to get what we want.  In our world of image, fake news, manipulated truth, I long for this world Jesus talks of.    

   Simply keeping the letter of the law was not enough in Jesus’ eyes.  To be one of his disciples we are expected to live out the heart of the law, and let the law take root in our heart.   For Jesus keeping the law is not about keeping the rules, but is about what’s going on in our heart and in our thoughts.  The rules say, as long as you don’t sleep with another woman you don’t commit adultery, or as long as you don’t pull a knife on someone you don’t murder. But for Jesus keeping the law is all about something deeper.   It’s about transforming our deeper beings and desires.   It’s about growing a new person by nurturing the seeds from our heritage and tradition in our hearts and letting the essence of those seeds shape us as individuals and as a community of that honours Jesus.

Dugald Wilson 9 Feb 2020

It starts from the inside out

Matthew 5:1-12

In Matthews’s gospel Jesus’ opening message of open your eyes because the kingdom of heaven has come near is followed by what we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount which explains what we need to be looking for, what this new way of being is all about.  I invite you to go home, take twenty minutes, get out your Bible and read chapters five to seven of Matthews’s gospel.  Just three chapters or 111 verses- 16 verses a day over a week!  If you read no other Bible passage in the next few months give this a go.  It’s full of practical teaching and even if you are an absolute saint there will be something here that you can learn that will make your life better. 

These three chapters, are called the Sermon on the Mount because Matthew has gathered up a collection of Jesus’ teaching that happened in the hills around Lake Galilee.   They are teachings for disciples of Jesus, teachings that should shape our lives.  They describes the priorities, character, and values of this new age that Jesus came to inaugurate.  I see them as a team talk, teaching for the core group. They have to do with money, possessions, power, violence, sexuality, anxiety, security, the way we treat our neighbour, and the way we treat those we don’t like.  At the core of these teachings is the idea that living a good life is not just about living by rules and imposing some sort of religious straight jacket on us, but about getting our inner life on the right track.  You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear so the old saying goes.  If fear and ego are alive within us then violence and greed are going to be inevitable consequences.  The new earth Jesus proclaimed happens from the inside out  – you have to attend to what drives us inside. 

We are told to live simply and without hypocrisy.  We are told to trust God for our security.  We are instructed to love our enemies and not to return evil for evil.  We are told to treat every person with dignity and respect, and to be very careful about diminishing the value of another.  For example most of us do not think of ourselves as murderers but Jesus tells us we murder someone when we put them down or call them worthless.  For most of us controlling our physical actions is the easy part but transforming the inner working of our thoughts and our hearts is a harder thing.  We are to turn the other cheek when attacked in some way and go the extra mile when prevailed upon.  I need to say this is not doormat stuff for Jesus challenges us to be strong and find a creative way of revealing and combating the power of evil.  Getting even is revealed to be fruitless.   We are told not to be anxious nor to seek to impress others.  Further Jesus tells those who heed his words will be like those who build their house on a rock and when the rains come they will be safe a secure.   We will become peaceful people, people who will be like salt or light for the rest of the world.  And this is not about a future reality but is about our lives now.

The Beatitudes… It Happens from the Inside Out

The teachings begin with a series of blessings that we often call the beatitudes.  The term beatitude comes from the Latin adjective be?tit?d? which means “happy”, or “blissful”.    At a first glance they seem bizarre.  Happy are those who are poor, happy are those who are gentle for they shall inherit the earth, and so on.  You have to be kidding.   The gentle inherit the earth….. you have to be joking for the gentle and meek in our world will get kicked in the teeth and miss out on everything.  You have to fight and scheme to get things in this world, and as for being poor…. That doesn’t sound like fun!

But remember Jesus is asking us to look inside.  You have to look at what’s driving your actions.  We have to learn to tame the ego, that power within us which wants to grow and dominate, amassing influence and power.  We have to face our fears and anxieties that imprison and keep us from being truly ourselves.  The beatitudes take us inside ourselves rather than just offering some moral rules to live by. 

So there, let’s look at just the first two to see if we can get the hang of these strange teachings. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit the kingdom of heaven is theirs….So what is Jesus getting at.  In Luke’s version of the beatitude he simply says blessed are the poor.  There are a number of words in Greek dealing with states of poverty.  The usual Greek word for the peasant class is tapeinoi, which referred to the great majority of folk in Jesus’ time.  But that’s not the word Matthew chooses to use.  When he says blessed are the poor he uses the word ptochoi which applies to those at the very bottom, the expendable ones, the untouchables, and the bent over beggars that know they have absolutely nothing.  Jesus is saying these people will be happy, and these people will see the kingdom of heaven.  What on earth does he mean?

I recall that after the earthquakes many people told me that material possessions were less important for them, sometimes for obvious reason.  Prized possessions had literally been shattered.  What were we learning?  I think we all knew that what really mattered in our lives was relationship.  Family and friends were what really mattered.  Having lots of things wasn’t much help when it came to the earth shaking.  Maybe Jesus would say to us blessed are the poor for they shall see what really matters.

But I think he would also say take it a step further.   In our lives we get attached to all sorts of things besides material possessions.  I am about to enter retirement and discover that I no longer have a place of privilege and power as a minister.   Many struggle with retirement because of this.  Loosing a sense of purpose and power.   There is a part of us that craves for recognition and admiration and Jesus says we have to let it go.   That’s why Jesus would also say you need to become like a child to enter the kingdom of God.  You need to become detached from the things that feed our ego. 

For any of you who have looked at Buddhism you’ll know that this sounds very Buddhist.  Letting go of attachment is central in that faith, but here it is in Christianity as well.  But there is something more.  Jesus says the Kingdom of heaven belongs to people who have learned to let go of the desire to be noticed or to be admired by others.   Notice that word belongs…it doesn’t say will belong but says belongs.  It happens now.   The poor know they are poor and do not seek to bolster their value and ego by false means. They are set free of the need to impress others, compare themselves with others, and strive to keep up with the Jones’s.  They don’t have to defend themselves, or build networks of people to affirm them.  They don’t have to learn to play the right games to parade themselves in front of others.  The poor can just be, and when you are freed from the desire to impress, to have your say, to be noticed, to seek power and prestige, you will become a beautiful person in the true sense of the word.   In a world where image is so important but where anxiety and fears are growing exponentially we need to hear this simple truth and blessing.

Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth… The word meek is an interesting one.  In Jesus’ time the powerful owned land.  Most were labourers and workers eking out an existence as best they could.  The meek could be translated as the powerless ones.  There was a message here for those people.  Jesus is saying they will be landowners when God is fully respected by all people and the reign of God or commonwealth of God comes on earth.  There will be justice and equality for all.  All will own land and have the opportunity that brings in an agrarian society.  It is a message of hope.  It is also a message of challenge for the  wealthy ones, powerful ones.  Societies like ours that have seen great divisions of inequality open up need to listen.  The meek, the powerless always have a place around God’s table and we have to work and stand up for a world that consigns no-one to the scrap heap to be forgotten or labelled as worthless. There is another side to this coin.   My dictionary describes meek as patient and submissive and that sounds decidedly dodgy. The don’t push and shove, they just accept what is.   I think we need to get this word sorted.  I don’t see Jesus telling people to be submissive and like doormats.  I don’t see Jesus saying put up with whatever.   Happy are the doormats.   Eugene Petersen in his modern translation in the Message translates this verse:  “You are blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.”   I think we start to see a different view of meekness.  It is not about being a doormat and giving into everyone’s demands of you, jumping when someone else says jump.  It’s not a recommendation to be spineless, but is about discovering who you truly are.  That sounds very different. 

But knowing who you truly are doesn’t just happen.  I’m still learning.  Key is a practice of reflection and reflection is something we could do with a whole lot more of in our world.  The reflection requires we are honest with ourselves but what we also need is feedback from others who often see things we are blind to.  The trouble is honestly feeding back is something we are often not good at.    Sadly Christians are well known for their ability to see faults in themselves and in others while affirmation is another story..  I wonder what our congregation might look like if we saw more readily and celebrated more readily and affirmed more readily each others gifts.  …….. you did that really well.  …….. I think you have a real gift for……. You seem to have this unique ability to….  Research would tell us that the most successful teams work best on a five to one ratio.  Five messages of affirmation to every message of criticism.  I wonder if we could ever make our congregation a five to one congregation.   St Martin’s the five to one community where we help one another learn who we truly are.  A community that notices and affirms the good things in the lives others.  A community that helps people know their gifts and encourages people to use their gifts.   

There is a danger here also.  Affirmation may simply feed our ego instead of bringing us to a truer understanding of ourselves, so the meek also understand that our strengths and gifts are gifts.  They come from God.  We are not self made, but we are God made.  Our strengths well used will make a difference in the world, but our strengths are not mine.  Meek people know this well.

You are blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less.”  Jesus says when you know this you will inherit the earth.  In the original telling this meant you would have some land to build your life on, a place to stand tall, you’ll know your turangawaewaei.  A place where we are empowered and connected.  Eugene Peterson goes on to say when we discover who we truly are, “That’s the moment you find you find yourself proud owners of everything that can’t be bought or sold.”  When you know who you truly are in a community like this you will stand tall, your life will have found it’s true purpose and place, and that is something we all long for deep inside.   You are content to just be, to the glory of God.   

It starts from the inside out….. You will be happy when you are freed from the desire to impress.  You will find heaven has drawn near. 

You will be happy when you are content to be who you truly are.  You will discover your turagawaewae…. A place of gentle strength.

May the Spirit of Jesus continue to work within each of us, teaching us, transforming us, and building a community where all have a place of belonging and purpose. Dugald Wilson 2 February 2020

Jesus the Teacher

Read:  Matt 4: 12-23

Jesus was a teacher.  People called him Rabbi.  One of the first things he does as he begins his ministry is to call together a group of people called disciples.  Disciples are people who learn from someone and then follow in the way epitomized by the life and teaching of a teacher.  The word disciple come a Latin word which means to learn.   So as modern disciples of Jesus we are learners.  We are people who have learned and still are learning how to live well in 2020, with Jesus as our teacher. 

Our scriptures talk often of Jesus as a teacher.  I remember as a young boy at Sunday School hearing stories about Jesus and being drawn into a way of looking at the world and other people that resonated deep within.   He seemed to radiate the presence of God.  Often the teaching was about moral living.   I discovered it was much better to tell the truth than to lie.  Jesus taught me to be honest and respectful.  I was amazed at the way Jesus reached out to strangers and people who were rejected by others and tried to do the same.  I has my eyes opened to see others treated badly by others at school so would try and befriend them.  Kids with a different skin colour or some oddity would often be picked on or ignored, so I tried to put myself in their shoes and feel how it might be for them and act accordingly.  Every week we would meet in our Sunday School and learn.

Later in my student years I was part of a Youth Group.  The learning continued.  This was the time that there was a movement of the Spirit and the Charismatic Movement was moving through the church.  There were many discussions and eye opening moments about what that all meant. I was part of several flats that were idealistically asking how should we live as followers of Jesus.  We took to heart Jesus’ advice to live simply and tried to avoid being duped into the consumer dream that happiness is found in having lots of things.  Part of that dream was to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle so as to consume less of the world’s resources which we did for some years, but alas the meat lover won through again.  We talked a lot about the importance of community and welcomed others into our flat who were a bit lost in the world.  We were part of the anti-nuclear movement staging street dramas and doing whatever we could to alert others to the evil of nuclear weapons.  When Jesus said ‘blessed are the peacemakers’, we took his words seriously.  To spend billions on making and peddling weapons of destruction in a world wracked by poverty and basic health and education issues, seemed and seams so wrong.  Jesus clearly stood for another way.  In our flat we talked often of how we could be a witness for Jesus and so we tried to invite someone we didn’t know well at church to share a meal with us each week.  It was an all guys flat so guests had to put up with some interesting meals. 

In those days we didn’t know much about carbon footprints and taking off overseas for the bog OE was common.  I felt called by Jesus to do something different.  It wasn’t London and parties, but I decided I wanted to learn about world poverty.  I had been captured by the prophetic writings in the Old Testament which speak so much about equality and justice for all. These writings filled out Jesus’ teaching on welcoming all people as brothers and sisters.  As I looked within I felt a call to visit Christian communities around the world but also to live in a wealthy country and a poor country to see what I could learn.  In America I volunteered to help in a Christian rehab community for people suffering from mental illness for six months.  It was real eye opener into some of the issues surrounding mental illness, the importance of therapeutic drugs, but also the huge importance of a loving community in any healing.  I also learned that despite being a very wealthy country America had terrible poverty and many people were consigned to the scrapheap.  I then spent a year in India working as a volunteer with the Presbyterian mission project in Jagadhri and in a multi-faith ashram trying to teach kids from very poor villages how they could farm and grow crops in more productive ways.  I learned poverty was a complex matter that had few quick fixes.  I discovered more laughter in rural India than existed back home in New Zealand.  But I also learned about the spiritual practices of Jesus like the setting aside of quiet time to meditate and reflecting on God and on what was really motivating and driving my life.  I had my eyes opened to other Christian traditions and other religions as an important part of listening to Jesus, and seeking to be a disciple….someone who was constantly learning from Jesus.

Youth is, of course, a time to experiment and learn.  Unburdened by responsibility you can take risks and can be idealistic.  Time progresses and sadly these elements get trampled in our lives.  We tend to adopt a settled and safe routine that is risk averse – as we move on we like to stay safe in the boat instead of trying to walk on water.  We tend to become one of the crowd and our Christian faith becomes a chameleon faith of fitting in and adapting to our society.  Jesus becomes domesticated.  The danger is that no longer is Jesus a teacher and we disciples, but we are much happier to talk of Jesus as possibly a friend, a comforter, but the teacher takes a back seat.  We may talk simply of Jesus as the one who has saved us by his death, our Saviour, and forget that salvation is about finding and discovering heaven on earth.  Repent, open your eyes, for the kingdom of heaven is in your midst if only we have eyes to see and imaginations to dream.  We need the Rabbi to show us.  We need Jesus to teach us how to find true life.

I believe that most of us want to live a life that honours God, our creator, a life that is meaningful, a life of significance, a life that honours our soul and the dream of God within each of us.  We want to live a life of integrity, a life that is true to our essence, and which will make a difference in our world.  To do this I believe we have to continue to learn, and we have to be part of a group of disciples of Jesus who challenge and encourage each other in our faith journey.  We need to see ourselves as learners and experimenters with Jesus as our guide and teacher.   

I was speaking to a person a while ago who started going to church.  Actually they were going to a church on a Tuesday as part of a Weight Watchers group.  He said he’d been trying to lose weight for years and knew all the head stuff about what was required.  Eat less, exercise more….it’s pretty simple really.  But however hard he tried he never managed to put it into practice.  His weight remained the same or in reality slowly crept up over the years.  What made the difference he said was meeting with others who encouraged and supported him and together they began living a new way.  He wasn’t sure just what made the difference but being with others, sharing the journey with others, learning with others, being encouraged by the example of others, changed everything.  In just a couple of months he’s lost nearly 15kg.  It’s being part of a group together that’s made the difference, he said.

I don’t quite understand why our religion and spirituality is so private.  We are good at keeping masks in place which hide the real me and you.  We very rarely talk about Jesus and what he might be saying to us, or how he might be calling us to open our eyes as disciples in 2020.  Sometimes I think I as the minister may be the problem, because when you label someone as the expert you deny your own journey and experience.  They know the answers and I don’t.  Let me tell you, I am still learning and I do not know all the answers.  I often learn from you. 

Maybe we get older and say I’m done with learning, and we stop asking questions, but I look at Rob and Margaret Mclean in our midst and see people not who are old but who retain a youthful sense of asking questions even as they draw close to 100 years of journeying.  I think one of their secrets is that they never stop asking questions.  As a rabbi or teacher, Jesus taught his disciples to risk asking all sorts of questions so they could find the true way of living.  Notice how often he asks a question of others.   I believe the gospel of Jesus, spreads not by force, or fear, but by fascination.  We open our eyes to the kingdom of heaven when we ask questions together, talk together, courageously be honest and take down the masks we hide behind.  One day Jesus took a child in his arms and said unless you become as a child you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  I’ve often reflected on that.  Children are curious and ask questions.  Children have yet to learn the secret of hiding behind masks.  Children know they have more to learn and new realities to see. 

Our church community is a learning community, so let’s not be afraid of asking questions however stupid they may seem, and let’s never stop searching for the answers to the question ‘What Would Jesus Do’ in our journey together.   Let us be people who help one another open our eyes to the reality of heaven in our midst.

Dugald Wilson 26th Jan 2020

Titles for Jesus – Son of God, Lamb of God, Messiah

An intro to John’s gospel…

John was writing his gospel maybe 100 years after Jesus was born.  The year was 863 – 863 years since the city of Rome was established.  By this time small Christian communities had formed.  About .01% of the population were Christian, so if Christchurch existed back then there would less Christians in the whole city than are gathered here – maybe a little group of thirty dissidents, because that’s how we would be seen, followers of Jesus. In the whole Roman Empire maybe 8,000 Christians.  Tiny but resilient. 

We have a fascinating letter written by Pliny, a local governor in what we know as Turkey in AD112 about the time John was writing his gospel.  The letter concerned the new Christian sect.  It is actually the first reference to Christians in Roman records that we still have.  Pliny the governor writes to Emperor Trajan in Rome asking what he should do about the Christians that have been brought to him for trial.  There was no blanket persecution of Christians in the empire but obviously there was local voices who were upset by this new sect and Pliny wants advice.  He points out the Christians meet as a little club that shares a common meal, they sing hymns to Christ as if he were a god, and commit to not practicing fraud, theft, or adultery.  Clearly they do not follow the accepted practice of worshipping the local Roman gods.  Emperor Trajan responds with clear advice.  Don’t go after these Christians and don’t listen to any anonymous accusations.  However if you do have Christians brought before you and they refuse to denounce their faith and curse Jesus, and worship the Roman gods then kill them.   It’s never much fun being a small outsider group.  But this outsider group continued to grow, maybe just 2-3 people per year, but year after year. Clearly they meant business as you don’t continue to practice your faith without good cause if it could mean you got executed.  In ten years 30 had become 50.

People found friendship, acceptance, every person and all life was valued, every person was seen to have a ministry because this tiny group ushered in a new way of living.   Some of these groups were actually called people of the Way.  They claimed Jesus was alive with them in Spirit leading, encouraging, teaching. 

They were sustained by practices like the common meal where everyone was treated as an equal, worship, prayers, mutual support and friendship, and the teaching.  The equality in the group meant that women were treated with respect in a world that often abandoned girl babies to die.  It meant slaves sat down at the communion meal with their owners.  The teaching and learning was ongoing as Christians sought to live out the Way of Jesus in a world that knew nothing of Jesus.  Most people in the surrounding communities had never heard of Jesus. 

One of the obvious needs was to have some concise writings that told the story of their departed leader.   Matthew, Mark, and Luke had provided such stories by this stage but John and others were gathering material for additional life stories.  There were other gospels written but only John’s story would be added to the other three when the scriptures were finally put together in a later process. 

Read: John 1: 29-42

John’s story of Jesus opens with some amazing credentials.  Son of God or Chosen One in some early Greek versions, Teacher Rabbi, Lamb of God, Messiah, the Anointed One.  

I wonder what John meant by using these titles.  They were not titles Jesus claimed for himself and I doubt they were actually used freely by his immediate disciples.  However by the time John was writing his gospel they were in free use.  One hundred years after Jesus Christians were using these titles to help explain who Jesus was for them.  I want to take a closer look.

Lamb of God:  Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t use the title Lamb of God, but John does, and he does because he wants to make a link.   John introduces Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Many Christians assume that this is referring to Jesus’ death which is seen to be a sacrifice for sin.   I see sin as separation from God.  The world is in a state of darkness.  Violence and inhumanity exist all round us.  We see literally the earth burning across the ditch, people and all sorts of God’s creatures perish literally because of greed and over consumptive lifestyles.  The power of evil is strong.  John says Jesus came to heal this, to take away the sin of the world, the separation from what God desires.  John is taking us back to the beginning of the Exodus story the people of Israel were living in a state of sin.  It wasn’t so much that they were bad people, but they living in a terrible state of oppression and God heard their cries and promised to lead them to a new land.   But there was an event that signalled this journey to the new land.  The Passover, the key festival for all Jews even today.  I remember well being very intrigued as a youngster when at the time of Passover our Jewish neighbours in Dunedin acquired a little lamb. I heard it bleating and then silence.  The father of the household  happened to be a surgeon at the hospital so I guess the end was well managed.  At the first Passover an unblemished lamb was killed, the blood was collected and sprinkled over their doorways as a protection from evil and as a sign that God would lead them to the new Promised Land.   The lamb was eaten as the last meal in slavery.  A new journey was begun.  The blood of the lamb was not a simple ritual to atone for sin, but was to protect and establish a covenantal relationship of hope as together with God they sought the new land where lion and lamb would exist in peace together, and sin or separation from God would be no more.    So the lamb is about a journey with God to a new place.  Fast forward back to Jesus and John and the message is that Jesus is going to be the one to lead us to the new earth where sin or separation from God is no more.  The lamb is about leaving behind what enslaves us, be it bad habits, unjust economic systems, mistakes we have made in our personal lives, lifestyles that are unsustainable to find the new person, the new society, the new earth.  It’s going to take blood and guts, exposing what is evil, forgiveness, faith, and lots of hard work but the way of this gentle lamb is the way of redemption and true life.  The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world will be our guide, our light, our companion, our hope in the great journey to see the whole earth not perish, but find eternal life.

Son of God:  There is a context behind this title.  In the Old Testament it sometimes refers to the nation of Israel (Hosea11:1) sometimes to the king (Ps2:7), sometimes to heavenly beings (Job 1:6, 2:1).  In the time of Jesus the term was used of ‘holy men’ who were mystics or healers.  There is a thread in the use of the term and that is a “Son of God’ was someone who had an especially intimate relationship with God.  You could see God in that person.  In our own time we might call Desmond Tutu a Son of God, or Mother Teresa a Daughter of God.   They are human beings who radiate the qualities of God and we see God in their lives inspiring us.  For us as Christians Jesus is the Son of God because we see God clearly in him.  For us he became the decisive revelation of God.  A key question however in our time is also whether the Way that our Son of God calls us to is found in other places and in other traditions.  I believe it is, but that’s something to talk about later.  There is however another context we should be aware of.  Ten years ago Janet and I had the privilege of visiting the ruins of Ephesus.  There as we wandered around the ancient streets we came across this archway [photo]  The wording above it is important.  It proclaims Caesar Augustus to be a Son of God (DIVI F) and High Priest (PONTIFICO MAXIMO).  In the Roman Empire ‘Son of God’ referred to one thing – the emperor Caesar.    It began with Caesar Augustus, who ruled from 31BC to 14CE.  According to roman imperial theology he was the product of a divine conception conceived in the womb of his mother, Attia, by the god Apollo.  The title ‘Son of God’ occurred on coins and inscriptions throughout the empire.   So when Jesus’ followers spoke of Jesus as the “Son of God” they were not only saying he was especially related to God, but they were saying something treasonous.  The real Son of God was not Caesar and his world of so called Pax Romana the peace of Rome established by brute power, but Jesus the Lamb of God.  And that as they sometimes discovered meant they faced the lions or some other hideous fate.  Being a Christian meant you didn’t follow the party line but stood out and followed a different path and Way, a different “Son of God.”   The guide and authority in your life was not Caesar but Jesus.  We comfortable Christians living in the lap of consumerism need to hear this challenge very clearly.  For too long we have seen faith as just fitting in to our world and our society, Jesus the Son of God, calls us to stand out and be different.  We are called to show others in our community a new Way of living – the Jesus Way – because Jesus is the Son of God.

Messiah:  Messiah is a distinctly Jewish idea and had no great meaning in the Roman world.  However we all know the Greek word used to translate the word Messiah – it is Christos from which of course we get the title Christ.  I think many people are a little confused by name Christ and some think it must be Jesus’ family name because we often talk of Jesus as Jesus Christ.  We should correctly say Jesus the Christ.  Christ or Messiah was a title which meant the anointed one.  The original meaning was literally someone who was anointed with oil.  The Old Testament practice indicated that the person anointed had been singled out by God as having special gifts or functions.  In 1 Samuel 24:6 David refuses to let his men harm King Saul because he is the Lord’s anointed.  In Psalm 23 the Psalmist radically proclaims that God sees us all as special when he writes ‘you anoint my head with oil’ but in general thinking it was a way of signifying someone who was a special leader.  During the period of Jesus’ ministry Palestine was occupied and administered by Rome, and the Jewish people felt pretty much about the Romans as the Iraqi’s think of the Americans.  Be great to see them gone! Jewish people in Palestine longed to see the foreign occupying army gone, and this gave rise to the hopes of a Messiah, a new king anointed by God who would expel the Romans and restore national freedom.  Remember the comment by the two disciples trudging home along the Emmaus road after the death of Jesus.  Sad and disappointed they say to each other, “we hoped he would be the one who would liberate our nation Israel.”    Some expected a warrior messiah but as the Messiah Jesus was a very different kettle of fish.  Instead of kicking butt he spoke of reconciliation and building bridges.  Instead of imposing from the top down he worked from the bottom up, unleashing the power of compassion and grace.  Be your true self, be generous, respect all life, love God and love neighbour as yourself.   Jesus our Messiah was anointed by God to reshape life on earth, to bring true life and freedom and justice for all.  I think he would say to us,  ‘ahhh but you are all messiahs, all anointed, all special, each with your God given gifts.  Together let’s heal this earth, together let’s unleash to power of compassion and grace and love.’ 

The last title in the reading is Rabbi or Teacher and we’ll pick up on that next week. 

Dugald Wilson 19 Jan 2020