35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’ 39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. 40 He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ 41 They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ Mark 4:35-41
Cheap and trashy novels often begin something like this. ‘It was a dark and stormy night. The thunderclaps were rattling the windows of the run-down cottage. Rain was beating against the door. The timbers of the roof were creaking ominously, as if they were protesting against the deluge...’And so on. Given enough time alone with a computer, I’m sure we could come up with something equally appalling.
Storms are often used by writers and movie directors as a metaphor for the difficulties and tragedies of life. People often talk about a stormy relationship. When a relationship faces breakdown, it’s said to be on the rocks, like a ship driven by the waves on to the shore.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that the gospel writer Mark introduces a storm into the story of Jesus’ ministry as a kind of plot development. But this storm does serve God’s purpose, and it means that the disciples can see exactly who it is they’re following.
Jesus and his disciples sail straight into a storm, but Jesus has actually spent the whole day in a boat, not sailing, first of all, but preaching. The crowd listening to him grew so large that he had to get into a boat to use it as a floating pulpit, to avoid the crush. As the boat bobbed around, he let the crowd in on the secrets of the kingdom of God. When the day was ended, Jesus told the disciples that he wanted to sail across the lake, to the other side.
The other side wasn’t just geographically distinct, but culturally too. It was Gentile territory, the kind of place that held genuine fears for the average Jew. They were on their way across the lake to a place inhabited by people from whom they expected to get a stormy reception.
And then a storm sprang up. The wind reached gale-force, the sea started to pound, and waves crashed into the boat, threatening to swamp it. Some of the disciples were fisherman, and used to a bit of rough weather, but this storm really had them really worried. But what was even more worrying was Jesus’ reaction. Or indeed the lack of it. There he was, head on the leather seat, oblivious to the chaos, sleeping on the job.
They woke Jesus up. Blind panic drove then. And they weren’t polite about it. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are about to die.” Do you really care? Are you all just talk? In the middle of the chaos, the raw fear, the howling of the wind and slapping of the waves, Jesus simply stands up and speaks. To the wind he says, “Be silent” and to the sea “Be still”, literally, be muzzled. And the wind hears these words and stops, and the roiling sea becomes calm.
You might have expected some gratitude, but instead there’s fear. Not of the storm, but of the one who spoke the storm to stillness. Jesus gets to the heart of the issue. “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Faith is the issue. They don’t yet know who they are dealing with. “Who is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him?” They have just started on the journey with Jesus. They’ve heard him speak with great wisdom and insight. They call him Teacher, Rabbi. But then this happens, the kind of stuff only God alone can do. “God, you rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up, you still them.” Or right back at the beginning, the story of creation: “The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters...and God said...’ God spoke. Things happened. Jesus spoke. The same kind of things happened. The wind and the sea responded immediately. Jesus forces them to further grapple with his identity. Who is this Jesus?
As his gospel account progresses, Mark shares with us the disciple’s ongoing struggle with faith in Jesus. They can’t see how he could possibly feed 5000 people. They continually misunderstand the parables and need Jesus’ to give them a more detailed explanation. They argue about who is the best of the bunch. They are scared when Jesus talks about his impending death.
But what happens in the storm is one of the clearest indicators they’ll get of Jesus’ true identity. Despite their confusion, their lack of trust, even their anger at him, he acts to rescue them. The grace-filled God, the living, breathing God, is in the boat with them. Who can believe that?
But there’s so much more to come. There are harder, scarier times ahead. They will see their teacher, their Saviour hanging lifeless on a cross, having given up his life for the sake of this chaotic, sin-fractured world. Death has swallowed up his life. Who will rescue Jesus? They can’t. They’ve abandoned him, and so, it seems, has his Father.
But Jesus does come out of the other side of this storm of death. Death could not hold him, because he is the sinless one. He drew life from his Father. Only after the resurrection does Jesus’ life made a whole lot more sense. “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety” the psalmist writes. These are words that speak of Jesus’ trust in his Father, and words that are true for us too when we place our faith in Jesus.
Our lives seem to consist of alternating periods of storm and calm, stress and success, pain and pleasure. Is now a stormy time for you? Are you in a stormy and tempestuous relationship with someone close? Is this storm characterised by harsh words exchanged in anger, or is it the ache of a cooling friendship? Sometimes it mightn’t be the ferocity of the storm but the fact it seems to go on and on, without an end in sight. It might be living with chronic pain, or raw emotions from some event in the past. Sometimes it’s the whirlwind of busyness We feel trapped by our work and family life, with so many commitments from which we can’t extricate ourselves, and we see no way out.
Who is going to rescue us? In whom can we put our trust? The disciples grabbed the sleeping Jesus by the scruff of the neck and woke him up. Perhaps more in fear than in faith. Yet Jesus responded in grace and in power. He is Lord over all creation, and even more than that, he is the Lord of love.
The same faithful Lord responds gracefully to us, even in our lack of faith. When all hell breaks loose, and when we are stretched to breaking point, we will not find a sleeping Saviour, but a living Lord. He will not, he cannot let us sink. If Jesus wasn’t in the boat that night, all hands would have been lost. If Jesus wasn't with us now, the same would be true. But he has faithfully bound himself to us, as God and man. In our baptism, God has bound himself to us through his Son, and, and that means that we will never have to face the storms of life alone. We may often wonder how we can cope, but we never need wonder about whether Jesus has the ability to save us.
This isn’t true just of each one of us personally, but also of the church. The image of the church as a boat sailing on a stormy sea has its origin in this incident. Tossed around by the pressures of society and culture, sorely tested by the power of the evil one, the church’s only hope is to call to Jesus for help.
The disciples were on their way to a place that they knew very little about, and they were scared about what might happen there. Although St John’s isn’t sailing anywhere, change and chaos surround us. The world continues to travel further and further away from God, thumbing its nose at him and celebrating the freedom to live without any constraints. We are beginning to see what a world unmoored from God looks like-no longer is all human life sacred; no longer need we respect those who disagree with us. Add to that the ongoing challenge of COVID-19, and the way that the pandemic acts like a fog that enshrouds us, and international tensions, it’s no wonder that we feel uncertain, anxious, out of sorts.
The disciples felt this way, at this point in their journey with Jesus. And they continued to face challenges as the church was born at Pentecost and grew though the power of the Holy Spirit. The tempestuous life of Paul is a case in point. But then he experienced the power of a lifechanging encounter with Jesus, and he knew, as did those disciples in the boat, that nothing would be able to separate them from the love of God that was in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We trust in the same living Lord as those first disciples. Jesus is in this boat, and he will sustain us, guide us and lead us as we call out to him for help. In your life, in the life of our congregation, in the life of the church, let your confidence rest in the faithful, storm-calming Jesus Christ, Lord of the wind and waves, Lord of the church, Lord over all. Be still with him, in the storm and the calm. Amen.
Jesus often spoke to his disciples in parables, and impressed upon them the importance of listening closely to what he had to say. On a number of occasions, he said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”. Today we might say, “If you’ve got ears, then listen up!”
God’s word is so powerful that, when it takes root, it shapes us and brings God’s light into our lives. The Holy Spirit bears fruit in us through this word as it takes hold of our hearts. This is why listening well is so important. Like a plant that flourishes in the right conditions, hearing God’s word, paying attention to it, acting on it and living by it means that God’s power and influence in our lives will grow in increasing measure.
May God open our ears to hear his word today so that we bear the fruit of the Spirit.
Occasionally, as people reflect upon the state of Christianity both in Australia and in the West more generally, we hear them speaking about a ‘dying’ church, or even a ‘dead’ church. I am reluctant to speak this way, since the church is Christ’s bride and he will never allow her to die, and the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the most powerful, life-giving force in existence. Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the pain endured by people when congregations amalgamate, churches close, or when faith seems hard to find in the world around us. Jesus’ words in Revelation 3 about ‘dead’ churches and ‘lukewarm’ churches should be enough of a warning for us to take the health of the church very seriously.
But what if something that looked dead was actually only dormant, like a seed? Jesus says in today’s Gospel that God’s kingdom is growing and will keep growing, even without our effort or help. Jesus’ parable about the seed reminds us that God’s kingdom advances automatically, that is, all by itself. Like a seed that grows in the ground without any tending by a farmer, so God’s kingdom will grow and advance throughout this world. A supposedly ‘dying’ church doesn’t mean it is time to panic; it certainly means it’s time to pray.
The great privilege we have, as Christians, is that this advancement of God’s kingdom takes place not merely around us but within us. Jesus calls us to listen carefully to his word, because the seed of his kingdom, when it takes root in our hearts, will also grow automatically, without our help, all because of God’s incredible power.
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” 23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” 30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.” 31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:20-35
This is Jodi and my collection of family history books. They tell the story of where our family has come from, mostly from the northern part of Germany, and what is now Poland. I don’t know why the English and Scottish half of my ancestry don’t have their own books, only my Lutheran forebears. I have a sense of deep gratitude for my ancestors, and for the importance they attached to passing on the faith through to the next generation. And God has called me to do the same thing in my family. That’s a heritage far more important than genetics.
“Who are you related to?” People say that this is a particularly Lutheran question, and not always a helpful one. There have been times when we have placed more stock on our ancestry than is warranted, an overweening pride about where we’ve come from.
This happened to me when I was reading through the latest family history book in my collection, “Browsing the Bormanns.” It tells the story of my mother’s father’s family. This man, Johann Gottfried Bormann, is my great-great-great grandfather. He arrived at Port Adelaide on the 27th of October 1841. Not only was he in the one of the first waves of Lutheran migration, but he was also on the same ship, the Skjold as Pastor Fritsche, one of the two key founders of the Lutheran Church in Australia. Suddenly, I could feel the pride welling up in me. I was much closer to the centre of all things Lutheran than I had imagined. Perhaps there are times when you may have felt that way, basking in the reflected glory of an esteemed lineage. “Who are you related to?” is an important question, but today Jesus invites us to answer it in a new way.
The gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus’ ministry has begun with a bang. Immediately after his temptation, Jesus is thrown into the ring, and goes the full nine rounds with evil and human brokenness. The first thing he does is exorcise a man with a demon, while preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. News about this spreads like wildfire, and soon crowds come from everywhere, wanting a piece of the action. While visiting Peter’s mother-in-law, not only does Jesus heal her, but also the many people gathered outside her door.
News about Jesus travels fast, and soon the religious authorities get wind of the impact he is making. He heals another man, again in the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus makes the audacious claim that he also has the authority to forgive sins. He heals a leper on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees criticise him for breaking the Sabbath law. He does the same thing again, challenging the religious leaders, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save or to kill?” The crowds continue to grow, the anger of the authorities glows hotter. Trouble is surely not far away.
It arrives today. But it begins, somewhat surprisingly, with Jesus’ own family. Jesus is at someone’s house, and there’s such a crush that they can’t even recline at table to eat. Jesus’ family, which we hear later means his mother Mary, and his brothers, are deeply concerned for him. Their concern clearly runs deeper than the fact that he can’t eat. They wonder whether he is out of his mind, literally ‘beside himself’ and they resolve to take charge of him, to take him away. Why do they think this? It’s hard to say. Are they worried that the fame will go to his head? Is their concern the same one that the teachers of the law have?
They, too, come to Jesus. Their motive is not his welfare. They are deeply disturbed by both his teaching and the following he has gathered. They make a serious accusation against Jesus, ““He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” What an astonishing claim, but one which indicates that they believe Jesus is a clear and present danger to them, to their authority, and to the populace at large.
Jesu takes this accusation head on, and he begins with some simple logic. “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” The same is true for a household, for a government, even for a church. Divide and conquer. Jesus goes on, “If Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.” Which we would all agree would be a great outcome, but hardly one that the evil one would engineer himself.
The logic doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Now Jesus states his case. “In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.” Jesus is saying that he is, in fact, the strong man. He is the one to whom God has given the power to bind Satan and tear down his rule. Jesus is the one who will break open the prison doors which sin has bound fast and release the captives from bondage. Jesus will battle sin and death on the cross and emerge victorious in resurrection on the third day. This is what the prophet Isaiah promises that God will do through his Messiah: “24 Can plunder be taken from warriors, or captives be rescued from the fierce? 25 But this is what the Lord says: “Yes, captives will be taken from warriors, and plunder retrieved from the fierce; I will contend with those who contend with you, and your children I will save.”
Jesus is saying, “You’ve got this all wrong. Badly, sadly, dangerously wrong.” “Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” I remember worrying about committing the unforgiveable sin when I was younger. As a pastor told me way back then, “If you worry about committing this sin, then you haven’t committed it.”
The scandal, and the sadness, in today’s gospel, is that God’s people, the family descended from the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, wouldn’t recognise and receive the one God had sent them to rescue them from their slavery to sin. They continued to argue and attack and grumble and fight against Jesus, right to his bitter end. Jesus wanted to lead them on the new exodus, a final journey to new life, but as happened the first time, they grumbled and complained and maligned the work of God. They refused to see God’s Spirit at work in Jesus and decided not to believe in him. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit-unbelief, a repudiation of the saving work of Jesus. In making this decision. God’s chosen people, his own family, wrote themselves out of their inheritance as his children.
If that wasn’t enough controversy for one day, Jesus’ family return, still trying to take him away for his own good. Even they don’t understand his mission, at least not yet. In time they will. Mary will stand at the foot of the cross. James will lead the early church. But right now, they can’t see that there is a deeper loyalty than blood, a loyalty to the Father in heaven. This doesn’t preclude loving one’s own blood family. But as we in the sequence of commandments, loving the Lord your God, and having no gods before him, precedes every other love and action, including that of mother and father. For Jesus and for us.
Jesus gets a message out to his family, ““Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. 34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” God’s children are those “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” They are those who have thrown their lot in with Jesus as their Lord, their Saviour, their brother. This is the relationship that doesn’t end when death calls. There God calls us home, to his house, where we will live forever with our family of faith. There are no surnames in heaven.
How did this family act? What are its characteristics? “ Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” God’s will is that through the spirit we come to faith in his Son, and that we share the love that we have received through his life, death and resurrection for us. This is not to our credit; the glory belongs to God alone.
The concept of what a family is, is much debated in contemporary culture. Jesus is not speaking against the importance of family in nurturing children and providing a secure environment in which to grow up and flourish. However, he is calling his children, his church, to a deeper loyalty which goes beyond blood family. This is the family of faith, the church across space and time. Now many of us have been greatly blessed to grow up in a family where these two things came together: family and faith. We have a truly blessed heritage. But that’s not true for all of us. Some of us didn’t grow up in a family of faith. But now we are part of God’s family, the family that acknowledges that Jesus is the King, and being in his household is the best family to be part of.
Who are you related to? To Jesus your brother, God your Father, through the love of the Holy Spirit. And to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. There are no surnames in God’s family. Amen.
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. Romans 8:12-17
A baptism is a precious family occasion. Parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles, brothers and sisters, godparents and friends, are invited to the special day. And today’s baptism is doubly a family occasion, given that Florence and Walter are cousins.
We are all born into a family. Its core reality is mum and dad, and siblings. It expands out, each layer people with whom we share not just a genetic but also an emotional bond, a shared history and stories that define and inspire us. At its best, there’s a deep, robust and vibrant love.
Blood family is important, but the church has another dimension of family that we celebrate. And baptism is the starting point. Because it’s here that people are born into another family, the family of God. This morning Florence and Walter were named children of God. This name was a gift of God to them, through the new birth of baptism. And this is the name also given to each one of us here today who have been baptised in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s the day in the church’s calendar that we stop to reflect on how God has revealed himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The God Christians worship lives in a perfect community of love: one God, but three persons who are joined together in love. And God doesn’t keep this love quarantined. From the very beginning, God wants to share his being, his love.
God’s starting point was the act of creation. This universe, so beautiful, so intricate, so complicated, so incomprehensible, showcases God’s wisdom. But God wanted someone to share it with, someone who could enjoy relationship with God.
So “God created human beings in his image,” the book of Genesis tells us, “in the image of God he created them.” God gave us the amazing blessing of being co-creators of life: “Be fruitful and multiply.” The birth of a child continues to be one of the greatest miracles we will ever witness.
We also know, however, that it didn’t take long for things to go pear shaped. Our first human parents decided that they didn’t need to listen to God and the instructions that he had given them about a meaningful and rich life in relationship with him. They thought they knew better, they pushed the boundaries, and the rest, sad to say, is the shared history of the whole human family. We have a sad solidarity in sin, and this is played out in each and every relationship in our lives. No family, workplace, community, organisation, or nation is exempt. And what is worse, our relationship with the God of perfect love has also been fractured.
God could be excused for wanting to retreat into his holy huddle of triune love, but that’s not the path he took. He chose to engage with us, in the deepest way imaginable. God sent his Son to be born as a human being, so that the relationship we broke might be restored, and that we could become “children of God.”
Reuniting the human family was no easy task. It took Jesus’ everything, his love, patience, grace, kindness, obedience, suffering, even his life. The Apostle Paul writes earlier in his letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus…God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
God wanted us back in his family, but we weren’t capable of restoring the relationship, so he did it for us. Jesus’ death and resurrection were what it took to welcome us. What pain it caused God the Father to give up his Son to die for us, but what joy too that Jesus accomplished the task and made it possible for us to become God’s children.
When Florence and Walter were baptised, we heard these words, and then again in today’s gospel reading: “I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again … No one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. A person is born physically of human parents but is born spiritually of the Spirit.” The phrase “kingdom of God” is Jesus’ shorthand for every good thing that comes from being part of God’s family: a new identity, a Father in heaven, knowing Jesus as our Lord, Saviour and brother, the presence of the Holy Spirit to nurture, guide and direct us, and a family far, far wider than those we are related to by human birth or marriage. And all of us becomes ours when we are born of water and the Spirit, in other word, baptism.
In our first reading today, Paul explains what a difference it makes in our lives to be called God’s children. This is no small honour. In the Old Testament, God called his chosen nation, Israel. And Jesus, of course, is also called God’s Son. So, for us to be given that name is a sure sign that baptism makes us part of God’s family. Paul describes this as God adopting us as his children. Adoption was a common practice in the Greek and Roman world of Paul’s day. An adopted child received all the rights and privileges of a natural child. The old ties are broken, and the new ones become permanent. With adoption comes a whole lot of new relatives and relationships.
Baptism has huge implications. We take up residence in God’s heart, and he is ours. The Holy Spirit is God’s relationship builder, the one who keeps us connected to God, and to our spiritual siblings. The Spirit encourages to keep open the communication channels with God our Father.
This doesn’t come naturally to us. Many people seek to avoid God altogether or live in perpetual fear of how they feel God wants to punish them for their failures. But Paul tells us: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.” Fear arises from ignorance or misunderstanding. People are scared of God because they think of him as a capricious, angry dictator, who is out to get them, punish them; or they think of God as a remote and impotent cosmic technician, who is too far away to care. But that’s not an accurate picture of God our Father.
God craves relationship with us. This relationship is based on the life of his Son Jesus. As Jesus was facing his death in the Garden of Gethsemane, he cried out to his Father, “Abba, Father ...everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Jesus cried out, “Abba Father…I want to do your will.” And because Jesus did take that last step to the cross, we can now pray to God in the same way, “Abba, Father,” through the Holy Spirit’s prompting. We know where we stand before God, because of Jesus’s sacrifice of obedience. We are loved beyond measure, cared for and valued, wanting to serve and honour our loving Father.
And there’s more. Paul goes on: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” We, along with Christ, are heirs to all that God has and is. This doesn’t mean property, money, family heirlooms handed down from generation to generation but something much more solid and even more precious: the confidence that comes from knowing that God will never abandon us, the hope that we are part of God’s family, for good, for ever. And this is true in tough times as well as good. We see how Jesus suffered for us, and we know that God will stick with us through the worst.
A baptism is a precious family occasion, and today’s no exception. We celebrate the new life of children, grandchildren, the opportunity to reconnect with one another. Baptism is a precious family occasion for all of us, people who are related to another as God’s children, brothers and sisters of Jesus, welcoming the newest members of God’s family, Florence and Walter, linked in love through the Holy Spirit. Amen.
26 ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning… I did not tell you this from the beginning because I was with you, 5 but now I am going to him who sent me. None of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6 Rather, you are filled with grief because I have said these things. 7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because people do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. 12 ‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.’ John 15:26,26; 16:4b-15
I wonder if you recognise these words, or indeed where this photo may have been taken. “You’ll never walk alone” is the title of a song from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel. In 1963, the Liverpool band Gerry And the Pacemakers released a version of this song. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ It stayed at No. 1 in the charts for about four weeks in 1963. And it was only weeks before it was adopted as the anthem of the Liverpool Football Club. That’s why we see these words over the gates of Liverpool’s home ground, Anfield.
If you’ve ever watched a Liverpool match, you’ll know how powerful and compelling this song is. “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart. And you’ll never walk alone. You’ll never walk alone.” Supporters sing this song as a sign of their shared identity and the hope of victory at the beginning of each match. Never was this hope more tested than the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, when almost 100 Liverpool fans lost their lives in a human crush during an FA Cup semi-final. On the day after this tragedy, thousands of people gathered in and outside Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. A lone choir boy sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.” This song spoke about the determination of Liverpool supporters to stand alongside each other in their grief.
Today Jesus speaks to his disciples in the middle of their confusion and grief, at the news that he is going away. Not only that, but he also tells them that the world will hate them, and that they will face persecution, even the possibility of death, as they follow him. I wonder if we can identify with what they are feeling. The Christian church in Australia finds itself in a time of significant decline, and all the markers point to stormy times ahead. We find ourselves on the wrong side of many of the current debates about what constitutes a meaningful human life. We are not sure how we will navigate a society where being a Christian is considered an oddity, or perhaps even an offence against the common good.
Today Jesus addresses both the disciples’ concerns and ours. Yes, he is going away, but his departure is good news. It means that not only will he fulfill the mission that God has given him, but he will also ensure his presence with his church for the long haul. Right now, for the 12 disciples, Jesus is now only with them as long as they can see him. But after his betrayal, his arrest and trial, his cruel death, the game changes. Jesus will rise as Lord of life and Lord over death. When Jesus ascends back where he belongs, he will send his followers the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is what we celebrate on Pentecost Sunday. We’ll never walk alone.
Hear Jesus: “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me.” Firstly, Jesus uses the word ‘Advocate’ to describe the Holy Spirit’s work in the life of God’s people. The word in Greek is paraclete. A paraclete was a helper in court, a legal representative appointed to assist someone facing prosecution. The Holy Spirit pleads the saving work of Jesus in our defence against our sin. There are other shades of meaning: The Holy Spirit is our Counsellor, Comforter, Helper.
Secondly, like Jesus himself, the Holy Spirit comes from God the Father, and serves God’s mission of love for the world. “God loved the world so much that he sent his one and only Son.” And God also sends his Spirit as an expression of his love.
Thirdly, Jesus names the Advocate “The Spirit of truth.” The truth to which the Spirit testifies is that Jesus is God’s Son, and the mission on which God has sent his Son, “that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” The truth is God’s redemptive love for us and all people in Christ Jesus his Son.
Jesus says, “He will testify about me.” That’s the Spirit’s job description. The Holy Spirit takes the word Jesus speaks, and the word spoken about him in the Scripture, and breathes his life into these words, and through them creates saving faith and births new life in them through baptism. The plain fact that we trust in Jesus is proof of the Spirit’s work today, in us. Martin Luther wrote that “the poor Holy Spirit doesn’t know any other subject” but Jesus!
Jesus continues: “And you, my disciples, also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.” This is what Jesus is doing in his farewell conversation with his disciples, preparing them for their calling to bear witness to him. John himself writes that he wrote his gospel so that people “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing people may have life in his name.” But the disciples must have been wondering, as we do, about whether they are up to the task of testifying to him, in the face of a hostile world. But they will not walk alone. The Holy Spirit will be in them, and alongside them, as they testify to Jesus.
Jesus explains how the Holy Spirit will go about this work. ‘When he (the Advocate) comes he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement” This is legal language. The Holy Spirit will cross examine the world, and lead people to understand what’s wrong in the world, what’s right, and who wins in the end.
1. ‘He will prove the world wrong…about sin, because they do not believe in me.’ The root of sin is unbelief. The first commandment sums it up: ‘You shall have no other gods.’ It all went wrong when we made ourselves the centre of creation. Exposing sin is painful, but ultimately life-giving, because it opens a person up to see the need that they have of Jesus as their Saviour.
2. ‘He will prove the world wrong…about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer.’ One of the greatest lies is the fact that people believe that they can work their way into God’s good books. There is only one right life, that of Jesus. God’s Son, and that righteousness, a right relationship with God, is the gift of the risen Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. It’s the perfect plea bargain: our sin for God’s righteousness.
3. ‘He will prove the world wrong…about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.’ This world is messy and fractured. Hope is in short supply. It seems like the balance is tilted toward evil, but Jesus’ death and resurrection shows that God’s love wins.
This is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth that the Spirit guides us into, and those with whom we share Jesus.
Being a Christian can seem to be a lonely path in 21st century Australia. We may not know many people who confess Christ amongst our friends, neighbours, and workmates. We may feel that we walk alone most of the time, except when we gather here in worship. But we have received the promise Jesus shares with his disciples: The Holy Spirit who speaks Jesus’ words to us, who unites us with his Father, and connects us with one another as the Body of Christ.
We may also feel ill-equipped for the task Jesus has given us of testifying to him. I sometimes feel that I simply can’t do justice to the good news, and by opening my mouth I will mess it up more than lead another person to faith in Jesus. The Pentecost good news is twofold-Jesus has given me the gift of the Holy Spirit, who has led me to faith and continues to renew me in love and grace. And secondly, the Holy Spirit is living and active in my life and witness, and yours too. You and I do not walk alone. The Spirit of Truth is guiding us into the truth of living in the love of Jesus, and using us, as unworthy as we feel, to make God known to others, letting them know what we know-that we will never walk alone-in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ Acts 1:11
Why do you stand here looking up at the sky?’ Of course, the disciples had good reason for doing that. Jesus had just ascended into heaven, rising up from the earth until a cloud hid him from their sight. No doubt they’re wondering: ‘what on earth are we supposed to do now?’ Especially after being promised the gift, the power, of the Holy Spirit so they could carry out a new task given to them by Jesus — to be his witnesses to the whole world. But now he’d just up and left them.
I can imagine them standing there for quite some time as they tried to adjust to this new chapter in their life as messengers of the now ascended Jesus. I’m sure they felt very much alone. And who knows how long they would have stayed there, if that question hadn’t made them realize how silly they must have looked.
‘Why do you stand here looking up at the sky?’ You and I have good reasons for doing that too.
For example: Prayers that seems to be unanswered and get us impatiently wondering why God doesn’t quickly solve all kinds of problems simply by taking our advice. Or having to go through long times, or low times, of sadness, and situations in life that are really hard for us. And what about all those puzzling and difficult questions that life throws at us — what’s the purpose of suffering? what does God want me to do with my life? why do bad things happen?
Or maybe we want some particular spiritual gift, some blessing, a greater faith — gifts that we reckon would really help us minister to those around us with troubles or needs.
We may have good reasons to stand here looking up at the sky, trying to catch a glimpse of God, of what he’s doing, of what he wants us to do. And we may stand there for ages, open-mouthed, confused, feeling all alone, wondering, paralysed — until we, too, are struck by how silly we must be looking.
But where else should we look? When we feel alone, wondering, puzzled. When God isn’t doing what we expect from him. Where else should we look?
Well, the disciples were told, and so are we: Yes, Jesus has gone into heaven — but he’s going to return — someday, to solve every problem. In the meantime don’t just stand there, confused and puzzled. Get on with your life.
You want to see Jesus, glimpses of his presence, his power, his activity? Now that he’s ascended into heaven, as strange as it sounds, it’s here on this earth, it’s in your daily life, that you’ll see the ascended Jesus.
And you’ll see him especially in the things that go wrong in your life, and in other people’s lives.
The folk singer Leonard Cohen wrote a song, called ‘Anthem’, that includes the chorus, ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.’ I think that can be applied to life following the ascension of Jesus.
There are always things that will go wrong in your personal life — a crack here, a break there, a coming apart there. There are always things that will go wrong in the world around you; in other people’s lives, in life in general — a crack here, a break there, a coming apart there.
The great miracle about the ascended Jesus is that now he’s closer to you than ever. He’s there shining his light through the cracks in your life, and in the world.
Maybe you’ve decided that you’ve always served God in this way and you’re going to continue doing that as long as you can. But now maybe a crack has developed in that decision. Perhaps it’s there because God wants you to do something else. Or is he telling you you’re doing that task relying more and more on your own insights and strength, rather than on him?
Maybe you see an unwelcome crack in your relationship with another person. Perhaps the light of God is shining through to make you aware of what you can do to restore that relationship.
Maybe you’re worried by major events in our world, or in our country, events that seem to suggest that the very fabric of our society, of sustainable life in our world, of peace between nations, is starting to break up or come apart.
Do you need to take notice of the light of God shining through all those breakages, assuring you of his presence, of his knowledge of what’s going on, and his promise that whatever we humans end up bringing on ourselves, he will still accomplish his purposes for the human race? Or is that light calling on you to add your voice in some way to those protesting and demonstrating against what we humans are doing to one another and to the world in which we live?
God can use all the troubles, everything that’s going wrong in life, to get your attention back on him. His light shines through to reveal his mercy and love, his great promises for hard times. By means of those cracks you’re able to see Jesus in action, able to hear his voice.
As well as shining his light through the troublesome cracks in life, Jesus is also good at using other people to get your attention on him.
Have you seen films of meerkats, who stand up constantly looking around for any signs of danger, and at each other to check on each other's welfare? That’s what God gets us doing.
In her book Travelling Mercies Anne Lamott explains why she made her son, Sam, go to church. She writes that she started attending church services early in her pregnancy. After a few Sundays she felt she should come clean and tell the congregation she was unmarried and pregnant, which was quite disgraceful in those days. Well, they all cheered and clapped — she didn’t expect that. More than that, they adopted her, brought her clothes and blankets for the coming baby, dropped in casseroles, and began to slip her money. They told her the new baby was going to be part of their church family.
She first brought Sam to the church when he was 5 days old. They all stood in line and called him ‘our baby’ or ‘my baby’. And they all kept caring for her, reaching out to her, praying for her, loving her, and seeing her through the hard times. And still they gave her money, which she often passed on to those who were more needy than she was.
So why does she make Sam go to church — when none of his friends go? Because the church members give her so much — when she looked at them she saw the face, the actions, of God.
There’s no need to look into the sky to try to see God, the ascended Jesus meets us in other people. And other people meet him in us.
‘Why do you stand here looking up at the sky?’ That question gets our attention back on to the life going on around us. Where we all like to categorize people into us and them.
But the cracks in life, that we all have to put up with, make us realize that there’s no us and them. The way we all like to help other people in need, if only we dare to do that, makes us realize that there’s no us and them. Every person is one with us in our need for God. Not one of us can live joyfully when we’re troubled by guilt, or fear, or aloneness, or the dread of death. We all need, more than we can ever imagine, the message of Jesus about his victory over guilt and fear and aloneness and death. We’re all one in our need, deep down in our soul, for Jesus and faith in him. There’s no us and them.
And God lets his light shine on us all. It shines through the cracks and strife and troubles in our lives. It shines through the love and care we show to one another. That’s where the ascended Lord reveals himself to us, makes himself available to us, speaks to us.
Our task is simply to help one another to see that light. The light proclaiming God’s message of love and hope and newness of life.
9 ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: love each other. John 15:9-17
The Irish priest and writer Brennan Manning tells the story of an Irish priest is on a walking tour of his rural parish. He comes upon an old peasant who is kneeling by the side of the road praying. The priest is impressed by this display of piety and says to the man, "You must be very close to God." The peasant looks up from his prayers, thinks a moment, and then smiles, "Yes, he's very fond of me."
Brennan Manning wrote a book called “The Ragamuffin Gospel.” This phrase re-occurs through his: “God loves us unconditionally as we are, and not as we should be.” God revealed the truth of these words powerfully in Manning’s life. And this phrase mirrors what Jesus says to us today: “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you...”
I didn’t know much about Brennan Manning’s his life until I started reading his autobiography, called not surprisingly, “All is Grace.” Manning writes in the introduction: “I have written about experiences with the straight-no-chaser grace of God, battered by wave upon wave of his tender fury. I have also experience just as many, if not more, moments where Abba’s love was mediated, grace via the cloud of witnesses who have cast shadows on my bedraggled, beat up, and burnt-out life.” These are the people who showed themselves to be his true friends by extending to Manning the friendship that Christ had shown to them. As Jesus also says today, “You are my friends if you do what I command…love one another.”
Manning was born in New York in April 1934. From the beginning he felt unloved by a mother who had hoped he would be a girl, and an alcoholic father. His mother used to say, “You don’t always get what you ask for,” a phrase that cut him deeply. Shame was the “monster [that] wasn’t at the door and big and bad; it was inside, in the subtle approval of others.” Manning learnt to be good, to keep his head down and do whatever it took to gain other’s favour. But he used to have this recurring dream. “In the dream, a boy my age approached me and said, “I like you. Can we play together?” That dream became real one day when a boy named Joey approached him and spoke those very words. This was Manning’s first experience of friendship of being valued, even loved.
“I like you. Can we play together?” These words were such a contrast with Manning’s formal experience of God. He and his family regularly attended Mass, because that’s what good Catholic families did. But sadly, there he experienced God as “the Something Awful” who “was tearing behind him with his arms rigid and his fingers ready to clutch. That’s how I felt about God...I never heard any reference to a loving, personal God. The emphasis was on obeying the Ten Commandments in order to avoid punishment...I heard an awful and angry God separate from my life.”
This attitude stayed with him for many years, even as he made the rash decision to enter a Franciscan seminary to become a priest. But after one week he decided that this wasn’t the life for him. While he was waiting to announce to the head of the order that he was quitting, he went into the chapel to pray the Stations of the Cross, more as a way to pass time than with any pious intention.
At the 12th station, “Jesus dies on the cross” Manning read these words: Behold, Jesus crucified! Behold his wounds received for love of you! His whole appearance betokens love. His head is bent to kiss you; His arms are extended to embrace you; His heart is open to receive you. O superabundance of love, Jesus, the Son of God, dies upon the cross, that man may live and be delivered from everlasting death!
The next thing he knew three hours had passed. He describes what happened: “I had found myself in the terra incognita. It was the very heart of Jesus Christ, the place of unconditional love...Jesus had died on the cross and then called me by name! The Catholic crucifix finally took on flesh and bone. It was in those golden moments that I was battered by wave upon wave of delight, that God not only loves me but also likes me...It was not that I had found the more, but rather the more found me. Christianity was not some moral code; it was a love affair, and I had experience it firsthand.”
Was this God saying, “I like you. Can we play together?” This was certainly Manning’s experience of Jesus’ love for him: the love that laid down his life for his friends, for people who were not even friends. What does Paul say in Romans 5: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
The world in which Jesus lived knew about the concept of friendship and sacrifice. It also knew of the love that existed between friends. In Greek, the word friend, philos, comes from a word that means love, phileo. So perhaps we could translate this word as lover, although it would be badly understood in our sex-saturated culture.
It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus describes his supreme act of love, his death on the cross, in terms of friendship. Friendship is a form of love, but what happens on the cross redefines love. It is agape love, divine love that searches others out to love them unconditionally, and not simply to receive that love back. It’s different from the way we love, especially in friendships. A friend is often someone who can offer us something, support, solace, conversation, encouragement. Friends are people who can be useful. At the heart, there is some degree of self-interest in the friends we choose to make.
But this is not what Jesus’ friendship with us is like. From the beginning he holds nothing back. He tells us that he has shared with us everything that he has learned from his Father: his Father’s love and compassion for a broken world, his desire to reconcile the world to himself. To be called Jesus’ friend is to be God’s friend. This friendship is what brings lasting and enduring joy. This friendship will never be broken from God’s side. In the Old Testament only two people are called God’s friends: Abraham, the Father of faith, and of my nations, and Moses, God’s prophet leader. How astonishing it is that we are given the same name by Jesus. Friends for whom Jesus would lay down his life. And with whom he shares everything that he has learned from his Father.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” Divine friendship isn’t based on what Jesus’ friends do, but what we do flows out of this friendship, this secure relationship of loving grace. “You are my friends” Jesus says, “if you do what I command.” And what is this command? It is to “love one another as I have loved you.” This is the fruit that we are called to bear: a love that is more than mere friendship, more than philos, but a deep, enduring, giving, sacrificing love that is wholeheartedly open to others.
This is the love that we all need. This is the love that Manning needed to hear, time and time again. Despite the powerful, tangible experience of God’s grace in the seminary, the ugliness inside him threatened to overwhelm him. Alcoholism almost killed him. He left the priesthood. He married but then divorced his wife. The words from his mother’s mouth were a constant refrain in his ears: “He’ll never amount to much.” But time and again God spoke of his befriending love through the mouths of others. Disgusted by the pervasiveness of his pride, he once confessed to a brother priest. His friend spoke a word of truthful love: “You are on the threshold of receiving the greatest gift of your life. You are discovering what it means to be poor in spirit. Brother Brennan, it’s okay not to be okay.”
This friend spoke the word of Jesus who calls him friend. In spite of himself, and in spite of a messed-up life where the path of his love for God was anything but smooth, Manning hung on to that love like a person grabs on to a lifebuoy. This is the same love that God has poured out into your heart and mind. An undeserved, unmerited love that transforms us, filling us with the overflowing joy of which Jesus speaks today.
Who do you know who doesn’t know that the God of the universe wants to befriend them? Who has been let down by human friends and family once too often and has lost trust and hope in others, and in life? To whom is God calling you to be a neighbour, a friend who gives graciously without expecting to receive? Who will God gather to himself through the love that you do and say?
Manning used to spend hours with people on the fringes of society. He would shock them with these words: “Jesus Christ is crazy about you. He loves you just as you are, not as you should be.” This is the costly grace that befriends the world and has made us God’s friends, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and Friend. Amen.
15 Jesus said, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. John 15:1-8
A long weekend in autumn is such a wonderful gift, and so it was last Monday morning that I found myself cycling through the vineyards of the Southern Vales. How beautiful were row upon row of harvested vines starting to turn yellow. I wanted to stop and try and take it all in, to be lost in the moment and in the beauty all around me.
As we rode along, I found myself talking with my riding companion about getting away from it all, thinking forward some fifteen years until retirement. Or even right now. What would it be like to live among the vines, to watch them die off in the autumn, then see the skilful men and women shiver in the winter drizzle, pruning the vines; to see the vines bud, and knows this is the first sign that spring has arrived. Then, as the weather hots up, watch the green turn to brown, except for the vines, whose leaves are lush and branches heavy with blackcurrant coloured fruit. And of course, to enjoy the odd fruit of the vine. To rest, and renew, to find peace, and enjoy the fullness of life. Dreaming of a future that is everything that now isn’t.
“I am the vine, and you are the branches,” Jesus says to us today. Now there’s an image to savour, and one is particularly apt for us who live in the wine state. God’s people are like rows upon rows of healthy vines, branches drawing life from the vine, roots sunk deep into the ground, carefully tended and pruned and watered, and bearing good fruit. Jesus shares this picture with his disciples as he prepares them for his impending death, only hours away now. This word places his sacrifice in its context, and it teaches the disciples who they are through him.
Jesus begins, “I am the True Vine, and my Father is the vigneron.” In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were called God's vineyard. In Isaiah 5 we read, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” These grapes were unsuitable for making wine, and too bitter to eat. God’s people had failed to fulfil the purpose or which he had planted them. They didn’t bear the fruit of worship, nor did they witness to the nations around them. They had fallen into worship of other gods, had rejected God's law and treated their poor and the foreigners among them with disdain.
Jesus, however, is the true vine, the genuine article. His life of perfect worship and obedience is the way that God’s people should have lived. We see the way he healed the sick and fed the hungry, the way he held power over the natural world. But we see his obedience most fully in his death on the cross. He lived as God’s covenant people could not, or indeed, any people, and through his death and resurrection he opened the way to a new and fruitful life.
Jesus says, ‘'I am the vine, you are the branches.” We have become shoots of Christ, the true vine through our baptism. What began with God continues with God. A branch cannot manufacture its own life, but must draw sustenance from the vine, which has sunk its roots down deep into the soil. Jesus is the true vine, who sources his life from his heavenly Father. He is intimately connected to his Father though his relationship as his dearly beloved Son. As branches in him, we draw on the fullness of divine life, forgiveness, and blessing. All of which can only happen through connection with Jesus.
“Remain in me,” Jesus says, four times in our reading:
• Remain in me and will remain in you.
• You cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me.
• Those who remain in me and in in them will bear much fruit.
• If you remain in me and words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you.
Remain in me, Dwell in me. Stick with me. Abide in me. This is a concept we find hard to grasp in a world that majors in change and action. Life gets busier each year. Our present age glorifies changes and lauds innovation. If you’re standing still, you’re going backwards. The new is always preferable to the old. It’s no wonder that we find that we simply can’t keep up with the sheer volume of change, and yet we bravely try, because we’re scared that once we lose contact, we will never be able to reconnect.
The American theologian Andrew Root says that we live in a fast present. He notes that whereas typewriters used to last ten years, now laptops have a life of around 3 years. The present is compressed time. We can do more, and more quickly. But in the process, we have left behind centuries’ old ways of looking at the world. Servant love has been subsumed by individual fulfilment. Relationships last as long as I’m feeling something, or they allow me to be my authentic self. Humility is out, and marketing one’s life and achievement on social media is in. Freedom to be whoever I want to be is the highest good. I am the supreme authority. And because we can do so much, we feel that we must.
And because our lives are so full, the irony is that we end up alienated from other people, with little time to go deep into the lives of others. We are so invested in the future, and working hard to make our dreams happen, that the present is flat. Root gives an example that resonates with me: “This constant need to experience reach…alienates us from ourselves (and those we are supposed to be having dinner with). My head is in my phone, disconnecting me from the life in front of me, from the less rushed conversations at my dinner table. The thrill of reach keeps me rushing and refreshing my feed, accelerating the pace of my life, and alienating me from the life I’m living.” We are less in the now, always two steps ahead. But the real problem is that no one really knows what the good life is, because the goal posts are continually shifting. Life is wide, but it’s also shallow.
Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The good life, the best life, is life in Christ. And that life is sustained not by our own efforts but by our connection with him. We are not little vines, but branches, and he is the vine. We source our life, and our core identity from the one vine. And we are fruitful because we are in him.
Not only does John use the word remain in this chapter, but throughout his gospel. In chapter 1, John the Baptist reflects that when Jesus was baptised, he “saw the Spirit come down from heaven and remain on him.” The Holy Spirit strengthens and supports Jesus in his life of obedient service. This same Holy Spirit indwells us and facilitates the relationship between God and us.
In John chapter 6, Jesus tells us that he us the Bread of Life. He is the sustenance that we desperately need. In words that shocked some of his disciples, he says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” The Lord’s Supper fills us with the very life of Jesus, his body and blood in the bread and the wine that we receive as his gift. Through Jesus, his forgiveness, life, and peace dwell in us.
In John 8, Jesus also says to those who wish to follow him, “If you remain in my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The teaching Jesus speaks of is the good news that is attested to in the gospels, promised in the Old Testament, and reflected upon in the letters of the New Testament.
Remaining, resting, sticking with, dwelling in, is not something we find easy. It’s slow work. It takes time, and constancy. It’s the exact opposite of what our world teaches us we need: personal freedom, self-expression, authenticity, following our own path, living our dream.
Chad Bird is a Lutheran theologian in the United states. He writes, “We can follow the liturgical calendar of the world where do, do, do is the Creed. Hurry, hurry, hurry is the chant. That allows little time for rest and meditation. Built into the church’s calendar is the ebb and flow of feast, fast and reflection.”
By being here today, we are making a statement about who we are, and what our life is all about. What may seem to our task-focused, future orientated, self-obsessed world to be a royal waste of time is the way that we best remain in Christ. We do what God’s people have done for centuries. We spend time slowly, dwelling in the word, listening to Jesus and his teaching, receiving Jesus through his body and blood, being pruned and cleansed by the word that makes us fruitful and through which we bear the fruit of love. As vines together in the Lord’s vineyard, we bear fruit in a community of love and care. Producing the wine of love that “gladdens human hearts” and shares the good news with an overbusy, alienated and fractured world.
“Remain in me and I will remain in you” Jesus says. Our life comes from him, and the fruit of love is borne through him. Amen.
11 Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.’ John 10:11-18
Way back in 1996, when we only had one child, Jodi and I made what we thought was an epic journey from Tasmania to Darwin. We were not seasoned, nor adventurous travellers. We packed our Ford Falcon to the brim and headed across Bass Strait, then across to Adelaide, and then up to Alice Springs, where Jodi’s parents lived, and then Darwin.
As beautiful as that trip was, there are two jarring memories. As we were driving on National Highway one, between Port Pirie and Port Augusta, on the Sunday afternoon of April 28, news started to break of a shooting at Port Arthur. Hour by hour the reports became more chilling. It was soon confirmed that multiple people had been killed by a lone gunman, Martin Bryant. Because we were driving a car with Tasmanian plates, wherever we stopped people would ask us if we knew anyone who had been killed. We didn’t, but we did heavily feel the collective grief of that state in which we lived.
Secondly, as we headed into the tropic, every couple of hundred kilometres we would pass the site of a World War II runaway or base. We arrived at Adelaide River, some 100km south of Darwin, and had a look around, and to our surprise, we found a war cemetery. 434 servicemen are buried here, including 181 soldiers and 201 airmen belonging to the Australian forces, and other soldiers and airmen from Commonwealth countries. The neighbouring civil cemetery contains the graves of 9 post office workers were killed when the Darwin Post Office was attacked by Japanese bombers on 19 February 1942. 243 people died that day, and Darwin was bombed 64 times in the period of a year. How close our country came to being invaded?
Today Australia and New Zealand commemorate Anzac Day. We honour those who have fallen in battle, at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, in Africa, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific theatre, in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We thank God for the freedom that has come through their sacrifice. It is right for us to stop and to consider the cost counted by the few for the freedom of we, the many.
On many war memorials you will see these words written: “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” They are a poignant reminder of the price each serviceman and woman paid for the cause of freedom. In and of themselves, they are powerful, but we know that these words point to the ultimate sacrifice that brings peace between God and all people and will bring an end to all war and bloodshed. These words were spoken by Jesus, and he did what he said. He sacrificed his life for sake of the world, to reconcile all people to God.
Today is also Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a time when we dwell on Jesus’ words as recorded in John chapter 10, where he tells us that he is the Good Shepherd. Jesus chose these words deliberately. He wanted God’s people to know that he was the long hoped for, long promised Messiah. God’s people had a long history of being disappointed and mistreated by those who God had appointed to lead them. Kings let them astray, falling for other gods and failing to uphold justice, religious leaders didn’t call power nor God’s people to account, and even prophets failed to speak God’s word and just sanctified the status quo.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God does pronounce judgement on them. 'You shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves…you do not strengthen the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.' Jesus calls these people the hired hands, who really care nothing for the sheep, who are cool, detached, ultimately ducking responsibility.
We see this same thing in our day. We know of leaders across the world who mistreat their people, who subjugate minorities, who use violence as a tool of coercion, who send their people to war against other nations. And closer to home, we see the same kind of behaviours in workplaces, homes, and relationships. We are crying out for someone who cares, and who can address our human woundedness.
But in this same chapter of Ezekiel God promises that “I myself will search for my sheep and look after them…I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered…I will bring them out from the nations…I will bring them into their own land…I will tend them in a good pasture…I will search for the lost and being back the strays… I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…I will shepherd the flock with justice.”
When Jesus announces to us today, “I am the good shepherd” he is speaking as the fulfillment of this promise. He will succeed in every way that the other shepherds failed. He does heal the sick, he does feed the hungry, he spends his time bringing lost people back into contact with the God they thought would automatically reject them. He gives strength to the those who have given up on God and on life.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Leading his people to the green pastures of peace meant that Jesus had first to walk through the valley of his own death. Even before Jesus’ ministry begins, John the Baptist announces as Jesus walks by, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The Shepherd becomes the sacrifice. Jesus faces all evil every act of rebellion, pain, hurt, every act of horror committed in war, and bears these in his body on the cross. He becomes sin for us, and we are made right with God. This is the greatest love, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, and not just for his friends, but also his enemies. No one is excluded from the love of the sacrificial shepherd. This sacrifice covers all sin and conflict and brings peace that will never end.
“The reason my Father loves me, “Jesus says to us today, “is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” Jesus’ death was not a cruel accident of fate. It was his decision, in consultation and cooperation with his Father. Father and Son worked together on this special operation, in perfect unity of love in heart and mind.
There is no war grave bearing the name of the fallen Jesus and his sacrifice. The empty grave proclaims that the cross was not the end of the operation. Jesus’ resurrection means that he continues his saving, searching, shepherding work still today. What does Jesus say in Luke’s gospel? “'Which one of you, having a hundred sheep, and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one who is lost until he finds it?” What joy there is in the Good Shepherd’s heart over each person who becomes part of the flock. Have no doubt that Jesus means what he says, ““I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
We’ve seen these words played out before us, as Jesus has called Charlie his sheep this morning in baptism. Charlie has heard the voice of the Good Shepherd awaken him to eternal life through his baptism. We sing in one of our baptism hymns, “Good shepherd, take this lamb: your own now let him be. You gave your life in death, dear Lord, from death to set him free.”
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own [my sheep] and my own know me.” We, together with our newest brother in Christ, Charlie, are sheep of the Good Shepherd. We are known personally, intimately by God. To be known by God is to be loved. And to know him is to love him. To be loved by him is to be secure. To be secure is the base out of which we now operate in love for others, not from fear of them. We have “one shepherd” Jesus Christ, and we are “one flock.” The church is a community created through Jesus’ sacrifice. It stretches through history and across all peoples. God’s love is colour-blind because God loves all who he has created.
What or who we love we value. Knowing and loving Jesus means loving him and doing what he says. The Apostle John writes in his first letter: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” The church is the community of the Good Shepherd, shaped and spurred on by his sacrificial love. John goes on: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
Anzac Day celebrates the sacrifices that safeguarded our freedom. Good Shepherd Sunday celebrates the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, which brings the freedom to live in his love, and to share in his life which conquers death.
Let us pray.
Lord, who lays down your life for your sheep, how can we doubt your love? Arms once stretched out upon a cross now close in embrace as we return; enfolded, may we know the fullness of love that lives to forgive, and forgives that we might live and love. Amen.