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.
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ 40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence. 44 He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. Luke 24:36b-48
There’s a children’s song about parts of our bodies: “Have you ever noticed your nose?” One verse goes like this, “Have you ever noticed your hands. They’re the things at the end of your arms.” Hands tell a story. My hands tell the story that I don’t do much manual work. My skin is soft, and I get blisters as soon as I pick up a spade.
My grandfather’s hands were different. None of the fingers pointed in the direction that God had designed them. Rheumatoid arthritis had twisted the fingers and swollen the joints. Hands that once built fences, dug holes, shorn sheep could hardly even pick up a pen to write.
They reminded me of those knotted growths you see on gum trees.
When I visit those who are sick or elderly, I notice that sometimes their hands are covered with bruises, perhaps because of a drip being placed there. Their skin is often as thin as paper, almost translucent.
The hands of a newborn are different again. A work of art, each little digit perfectly formed, a hand that grasps your finger strongly by reflex. You find yourself wondering what these little hands will turn to when the child grows and matures.
Jesus says to his disciples today, “Notice my hands and my feet…Touch me and see.” Jesus hands, and his feet, his resurrected body, tell a story too. It’s a story of pain and suffering. But it’s also a story of hope. Jesus’ hands and feet help his disciples to come to terms with everything that happened to him over what we now call Good Friday and Easter.
Today we find the disciples in deep discussion about the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection. Locked away, they were listening to the stories of the three women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, of Peter too, and two other disciples who claimed to have met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. They dare to hope but they’re not sure what to believe. Suddenly, the one who they are talking about appears, in their midst. He doesn’t knock, he doesn’t use the door. He’s just there. But instead of being thrilled by his presence, they are terrified. And even though he greets them with his trademark words, “Peace be with you”, it doesn’t help. ‘They thought they were seeing a ghost and were half scared to death.’
If this was the ghost of Jesus, this was the worst possible outcome. He had come back to haunt them, to repay them for their failure to follow him. But on the other hand, if it really was Jesus, there was also a good reason to be scared. Stumbling into the presence of God was the scariest thing imaginable. How can a sinful person coexist with a holy God? Do Jesus’ words of comfort, “Peace be with you,” even register with them?
Jesus speaks through the fog of fear: “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” The ghostly presence of a dead Jesus would have changed nothing, only made the disciples’ grief worse. But the living presence of a resurrected Jesus makes all the difference in the world. Real hands. Real feet. Real body. Really risen. The same Jesus, but different too.
The hands and feet of Jesus fill the disciples with joy, yet this joy is mixed with doubt, the kind of doubt that says it’s too good to be true. They’ve been deeply scarred by Good Friday and Easter Day. It’s going to take some time to come to terms with what Jesus’ resurrection means. But just now, Jesus asks for something to eat, just to show them he is ‘flesh and bones,’ as they are, but with a radical difference. Jesus has been raised from the dead with a physical body, yet one which is different from yours and mine, and is not subject to the laws of time and space as we are. God has raised Jesus bodily, not only to show that Jesus’ death was part of his plan to restore our fallen human nature, but also to show what God has in store for the whole creation. All humanity, the entire created universe, eagerly await the promised re-creation that God will undertake at the end of time. The resurrection of Jesus is the first link in the chain of this new creation.
That Jesus was raised bodily matters. That he was physically present with his disciples matters. The Christian faith doesn’t teach that the body is evil, and the spirit is all that matters. The resurrection disproves that lie. All matter, all people, matter. Christianity is a most down to earth faith. Look at what Jesus calls his disciples to proclaim: his suffering in the body, his death on the cross, his resurrection, body and all.
Jesus Christ still has a body today. Christianity is the faith that speaks of a Saviour who has experienced what you have experienced, in his body, who has suffered pain and sorrow, as we do. We have a God who has been betrayed by a friend, who has been abused by those in power. We have a Father in heaven who has suffered the loss of a child. Jesus, God with skin on, has even experienced death.
Our bodies matter. And so does what we do with them. With our hands and feet, our words, thoughts and actions, we can either build people up or tear them down. The ongoing controversy about sexual harassment and abuse points to the fact that what we do with our bodies is not inconsequential. Despite what the sexual revolution might have said, sex is not simply a recreation pursuit, something to be taken lightly, but a deep and intimate connection between people that needs a context of mutual self-giving. This is something that the church has always believed and taught. Similarly, then church opposes the practices of abortion and euthanasia, because the bodies, and not just the souls of the unborn, as well as the vulnerable and elderly must be respected. And of course, our ongoing commitment to charity in feeding the hungry, and providing for those who lack bodily is because the good news goes far beyond the spiritual alone.
When we hurt one another by our words or bodily actions, where can we go beyond cancelling others who have hurt us, or ducking and weaving, avoiding the issue of apology. Jesus makes it clear what the church’s mission is: “repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be preached in Jesus’ name to all nations…” Jesus embodies this statement in his death on the cross. He models it in the way that the first word he speaks to the disciples is” “Peace be with you,” an astounding, astonishing, undeserved word in the light of their failure to follow him to the cross.
Proclaiming this word means embodying it in our lives. “Now you are the body of Christ,” the Apostle Paul says, “and each one of you is a part of it.” Today we see how Jesus opens the Scriptures to his disciples, the words that point to his saving mission. We do the same thing here this morning. The Holy Spirit takes God’s word and brings it to life in our lives. Jesus serves us at his table. This isn’t a trip down memory lane, but the real presence of the Risen Jesus, his body and blood in bread and wine, in our space and time.
The Christian writer, Tim Keller, is dying of pancreatic cancer. While he has spent his ministry proclaiming the resurrection, facing his own death has shone new light on how Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. He says in a recent podcast: “If Jesus really rose from the dead, then everything is going to be OK in the end. There’s going to be a new heaven and a new earth. The world is going to be restored… When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, he
brought the power of the age to come into this age through the Holy Spirit. This is the power that will cleanse the world of every evil power and death.”
This is the power that we have received “from on high.” As Jesus today calls his disciples to move out from Jerusalem with the good news of his death and resurrection, so he calls us to head out from here into our daily world. There we will use our hands and feet, our minds, our hearts, all that we are and all that we have, to communicate the love of God in concrete ways. This work will mean getting our hands and feet dirty, quite literally. This work will take us to places where people are hurting physically, spiritually and emotionally. It probably won’t be the spectacular things that we are called to do, but the small things, listening to a lonely person, taking someone to a doctor’s appointment, placing an arm on a grief-stricken shoulder, asking for and giving forgiveness. All in a day’s work for the body of Christ.
“Have you ever noticed your hands?” They are Jesus hands, Jesus’ good news in and through you, bringing God’s peace and power to the world he loves. Amen.
Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your fingers here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.' Thomas said to him, 'My Lord and my God!' John 20:27-28
Let’s talk scars. Many people seem to be happy to take up a subject like that some even like to demonstrate their talk with visual examples. I’ve known kids who wave round a scar on their finger or leg and love sharing their story of what happened, and of their recovery. Let me be clear that I’m distinguishing between scars and wounds. Usually we’re far less comfortable dealing with wounds. We don’t like talking about them or seeing them. But scars are evidence of healing, they proclaim healing. That’s why scars are worth talking about. And, of course, scars are not just physical, either. There are ones that are mental and emotional and psychological but all of them are indicators of healing.
Now the first thing I want to say fills me with surprise every time I think about it, and I don’t think I ever want that surprise to go away. It’s this: God is scarred. They appear on his Son, Jesus. There are scars on his hands and side. The book of Revelation eve n seems to indicate that these scars are eternal. It’s splendid vision of heaven gives Jesus a new title, ‘the Lamb who was slain’, and describes this lamb by saying it looked ‘as if it had been slain’. That seems to suggest that the scars of Jesus are t here forever. And as a human, perhaps he also has inner emotional scars due to what the human race did to him, did to the love that he only wanted to pour out on all of us. Maybe even our reactions today to the love we know God has for us is contributing to the existence of those inner scars. I often find myself objecting to the ways in which Jesus, and his crucifixion, has been portrayed in the paintings, carvings and statues of medieval times. They seem to glory in his wounds rather than in his scars. But maybe I’m not really sure maybe there’s a place for that, too. But God’s Son has scars. I find that astounding, amazing. And they proclaim healing, the healing he won for us and gives to us.
The first time Jesus pointed out his scars was partly for identification purposes. And scars are still useful today for that, and assist the police in their work. Thomas had difficulty believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. The claims by the rest of the disciples that they had seen him alive didn’t really help him. He wanted proof, the proof they had been given, of seeing Jesus alive. So a week later Jesus stands before him and shows him his scars. And Thomas’ doubts are gone. ‘My Lord and my God’ he exclaims. For Thomas those scars not only p roved the identity of Jesus and his resurrection, but also healed the wound of his doubt, restoring his relationship with his Saviour and God. Thank God for the scars on the body of Jesus.
Today the body of Jesus is the church. That’s how St Paul describes those who have faith in Jesus together they, we, are Christ’s body. So how do people come to faith in Jesus now, how do they know he really rose from the dead? Is it ONLY by believing without seeing? Is it ONLY by accepting the account of those who have seen, the account that has come down to us in the form of the Bible? Is it ONLY through the conviction of the Spirit that doesn’t depend on any visible proof at all? With the physical body of Jesus ascended it may sound like it.
But his church body is still here on this earth. And part of our reason for being here is to make Jesus real to those around us people can look at us to see Jesus. And this body of Jesus, the church, has scars. Scars from it’s battle with sin and satan and death. Scars from the serious blows and wounds it has received and from which it has recovered by God’s grace. Now, maybe those scars can help the Thomases of this world cry out in renewed faith, ‘my Lord and my God.’
Let me stress again that we’re talking scars he re, not the wounds. The church and individual believers sometimes have open wounds. And these wounds are probably far more obvious, and far more easily seen by the community around us, mainly because of all the hurt and pain they cause.
The body of Jesus suffers these wounds as believers refuse to live together in peace; as denominations refuse to live the unity that God imposes on the body of his Son; as tensions and arguments in congregations go on and on without the sides involved taking any steps towards resolution and peace. And maybe every congregation can look back at it’s past history, and become aware of some wounds that it has inflicted on itself.
The body of Jesus also suffers wounds as individual Christians openly flout the commands of G od and give the impression to their friends and neighbours that God’s commands really don’t matter all that much; and as individual Christians say things that are not loving or forgiving or accepting. Wounds are inflicted as individual Christians go through distressing and unfair circumstances which make them question, even deny, the love, mercy and care of God.
Individual Christians and congregations will suffer wounds. And all those wounds need to be converted into scars so they can be a positive witness to Jesus. Healing has to be prayed for and sought and applied so that the body of Jesus recovers from these wounds. Then they’re no longer a threat to the church’s life and health. Now they are a witness to the healing and life God gives.
I think of S t Paul who was plagued with what he called his ‘thorn in the flesh’. That was a painful, open wound in his life, and he earnestly asked God to remove it, to take it away. But when he heard God say to him, No, it stays ‘My grace is sufficient for you; f or my power is made perfect in weakness’ when God told him that, healing resulted. Now his thorn in the flesh is no more than a scar, reminding Paul of his weakness and leading him to boast about all his weaknesses and scars. He knew that in his weakness the grace and the power of God is revealed.
Hearing God’s healing assurances and promises is one way a wound is turned into a scar a scar which tells others about who God is and what he does in people’s lives. Or forgiveness is given and received; my rebellion against God is confessed and others support me in my resolve to die to that particular sin and a painful wound has become a scar that now witness to God’s healing. Wounds become scars as the love of Jesus overcomes my anger against God and ag ainst other people; as I realize what he’s really doing in my life; and as I see how he has worked things that I didn’t want to go through for the good of many people. That remaining scar is a constant reminder of who God is and what he has done for me an d through me.
You and I, the whole church, the body of Jesus here in this world, is scarred, painfully scarred, beautifully scarred, victoriously scarred. Those scars are the result of God stepping in, dealing with sin, raising up a dying, even dead, church, and empowering it with his eternal life. Those scars tell us we’ve been raised with Jesus.
Maybe as you see the scars on others, and they see the scars on you, those scars will witness to the life and healing God brings to this world. May they also serve to strengthen and create faith in the present, living, and life bringing God as people, seeing Jesus and his actions in those scars, are led to confess, ‘my Lord and my God.’
16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’ 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”’ 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Mark 16:1-8
There’s something disconcerting about Mark’s account of what happened on resurrection morning. Something doesn’t read quite right. Did Mark really intend these to be the last words of his gospel? “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Is that it? Nothing is resolved. We don’t even get to meet the risen Jesus. The women are frozen in fear and can’t say anything. What kind of an outcome is that?
It's clear that there were some in the early church who didn’t know what to do with this either, because we have two additional endings to the gospel that were clearly added much later. They were an attempt to tie up the loose ends, to clarify what happened in the tomb early that morning, to smooth out the shock and increase the awe.
But what if this is exactly how Mark wanted the story to end? And yet this wasn’t the end, but a new beginning, the start of something that no one could have ever expected. And what if we write our own ending?
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, go to Jesus’ tomb to pay their last respects. They carry with them spices to anoint his body, an act of love and a way to hold back, if only briefly, the stench of death. They come early in the morning. Why wait? They can’t sleep anyway. The events of the last horrific days keep playing over and over in their heads. It was so devastating, humiliating, crushing. Then, all of a sudden, the obvious dawns on them. How are we going to get into the tomb, with the stone set in place?
But they needn’t have worried. The stone has been rolled away. But this isn’t good news. It just adds insult to injury. Not only has Jesus been degraded in life, now he has also been desecrated in death. But as they peer into the tomb, they are shocked to see not a dead body, but a young man. They can hardly believe his words. “Don’t be alarmed. I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.”
Of course, they were looking for Jesus. And of course they are alarmed. And confused. And increasingly frightened. The young man continues: “He has been raised-he is not here! Look, there is the place where they laid him.” Can you picture the angel motioning his arm in the direction of the rock slab on which Jesus’ body had been laid? God has done this: the crucified body of Christ, the nail- imprinted, spear-pierced body has been given new life through God the Father's creative power. What exactly have these women stumbled on? Here, in the darkness of the earth, the light of life has shone. This is not the end, as they had thought; this is only the beginning.
And this is what comes next. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you” The women are confronted by the message that Jesus will meet with his faithless followers, yes, even with Peter. Where were the disciples when he hung on the cross? What about Peter, who denied him three times? It's no surprise that we don't find them at the tomb early this morning. They're too ashamed to face what they've done. Or disillusioned. Or both.
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” This is too shocking, too unprecedented, too amazing, too much to fathom.
Where to from here? Remember the first verse of Mark’s gospel: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Could it be that his gospel doesn’t actually have an ending? Could it be that the good news continues, that the women do go and tell Jesus’ disciples exactly what they saw, no dead body, the angel, and what they heard- a future, not a message of judgement and anger at the disciples’ faithlessness. And could it be that Mark leaves the way open for the women, the disciples, and for countless other people, to be written into the story of the risen Jesus?
Jesus is one step ahead of his disciples. He makes the move toward them, even as they moved away from him, back home to Galilee. The Risen Jesus is already mapping out their future. John shares with us the touching meeting of Jesus and the twelve at the Sea of Galilee. Jesus interrupts a fishing trip. He lovingly reinstates Peter as one of his chosen messengers. He tells Peter that the course of his life of witness will be shaped by his cross.
And this is only the beginning of what God is up to through the Easter event. The good news grows through Pentecost, through the suffering witness of the early church, and through each subsequent century, as faithful disciples tell the story of the Saviour who suffered and died for the sins of the world and rose to new life.
Our lives have also been written into the ongoing story of the good news of the crucified and risen Jesus. This happened when we were baptised into Jesus’ death and resurrection. His death is our death to sin, his life is our new life. The Holy Spirit is our ghost writer, shaping our lives, guiding our words, so that they lift Jesus up, so that we live as contemporary witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection.
“He will go ahead of you,” the angel says. And Jesus says, “I am with you always...” The Risen Jesus goes ahead of us, into our Galilee, into the place we call home, with us in our work and study, in our interests and relationships. Each day is a new beginning, a new opportunity to serve and love.
Seventy- six years ago next Thursday, on April 8, 1945, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis. It was a tragic end to a brave and uncompromising life witnessing to the love and justice of God. Englishman Payne Best, a fellow prisoner in Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, wrote of the last days of Bonheoffer’s life. “He seemed always to spread an atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive...He was one of the very few persons I met for whom God was real and always near. On the Second Sunday of Easter Pastor Bonhoeffer conducted a little service of worship and spoke to in a way that went to the heart of all of us.” The text for the sermon was Isaiah 53: 5: “by his stripes we are healed.”
After Bonhoeffer had finished conducting the service, two soldiers came in, saying, "Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us," the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As Bonhoeffer left, he said to another prisoner, "This is the end -- but for me, the beginning -- of life."
The last year has been a difficult one globally. And while we who live in Australia have had the best of a bad situation, it’s my sense that we, too, are tired of the constant stress. And from my reading of St John’s in the last year, this is true of us too. We are more anxious than previously, and less patient too. We all want things to return to normal.
The new normal for us is not a return to pre-pandemic conditions. Instead, it’s the transformation that has taken place through Jesus’ death and resurrection. What looked like the end for Jesus, as he died on the cross, was the beginning of life-and not just for Jesus alone but for all who trust in him.
I read an article only this week entitled, ‘How do faithless people like me make sense of this past year of COVID? That author was a British journalist, a self-confessed atheist. He writes, “I have not even the flimsiest of narratives to project on to what has happened, nor any real vocabulary with which to talk about the profundities of life and death…There has been no community of like minds with whom I have talked about how I am feeling or ritualistically marked the passing of all these grinding weeks and months… For many of us, life without God has turned out to be life without fellowship and shared meaning – and in the midst of the most disorientating, debilitating crisis most of us have ever known, that social tragedy now cries out for action.”
We are Easter people. We have the good news story to tell. We confess that the death and resurrection of Jesus makes sense of a confusing and broken world. We have a narrative of hope, even in the face of death. We belong to the community of those who confess the Risen Christ. We share life with others whose lives have been transformed by the new beginning that Jesus’s resurrection begins. As Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:
“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east, More brightening … as his reign rolls…”
May we be the Easter people through whom others can see that God is real and always near. In Jesus Christ our Lord Amen.