Stephen, full of grace and power

Acts 6 – 8:1a

The story of Stephen comes at a critical point. Despite every effort of the authorities to stamp out Jesus’ followers, using threats, harassment and persecution, “the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” (6: 7) There is something deeply compelling about the life and faith of this fledgling community proclaiming Jesus as God’s chosen one.

How could Jesus, preacher, teacher, healer, yet crucified by the religious and political authorities, be proclaimed and understood as the one blessed and anointed by God? Surely his death meant defeat and discredit.

Stephen’s passionate defense of Jesus turns Israel’s history on its head. He argues that Jesus, unrecognized, unacknowledged and rejected by the religious authorities, is in fact the ultimate exemplar who followed a familiar pattern of unrecognized, unacknowledged and rejected leaders and prophets of God throughout the history of Israel. God is the faithful rescuer and liberator of history, uncontained by human made religious buildings or plans. Jesus is likewise uncontained by human plotting and even death, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (7: 56)

The Spirit of God, who had moved through the history of the world, was moving now, powerfully, through the words and person of Stephen. The Holy Spirit is the convicting and vibrant source of power and authority in this narrative, in sharp contrast with the vindictive and yet ultimately impotent rage of the religious leaders and their institutions.

In the moment of worldly triumph, when Stephen, in the steps of his Master is also rejected and killed, Saul is introduced. Saul, who becomes Paul, through the transforming power of Jesus Christ, and follows the life giving Holy Spirit blowing through Turkey, Syria and into the heart of Rome. The power of God to bring liberation and life is completely uncontained by the plans, claims to ownership, and wisdom of people, despite their impressive titles and influence.

As ever, our role as followers of Jesus is to discern and pursue the movement of his Spirit bringing mercy and freedom, both within ourselves, and within our small corner of the sweep of history. This is our hope, that even amidst sadness, death and destruction, the bigger picture of God bringing forth his purposes, his grace and his love is constantly unfolding. The energy and work of the Spirit of God will never be contained by time, place or human constructs and barriers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Begging for Mercy

Leviticus 13: 45-46

Luke 17: 11- 19

Jesus spent a great deal of time in the borderlands with people on the fringes of society. The story of his encounter with 10 lepers, or those who suffered from skin diseases, confronts us with multiple barriers which conspire to segregate, shame, and stigmatise fellow human beings. Jesus is in the midst of foreigners, in a village somewhere in the mixed-race lands between Samaria and Galilee. Samaritans were despised by their Hebrew neighbours as heretics. Ritual impurity and the fear of contagion condemned the sufferers of skin diseases to the lonely and destitute edges of society.

Keeping their distance, as prescribed by the Law, the sufferers call to Jesus, begging him for mercy. In response, Jesus instructs the lepers to act in faith, and present themselves to the priests who can declare them clean. They go, and miraculously are indeed healed.

One of them, a Samaritan, ‘sees’ he is healed. Here Luke is clearly noting the importance of both ‘sight’ and ‘insight’. The Samaritan is not only attentive to his cleansing, he is also aware of the identity of the source of his healing, and these open within him the floodgates of praise, thanksgiving and joy. The Samaritan recognized and was transformed by the presence and saving activity of a merciful God in Jesus.

Jesus comes to all of us where we are. I found particularly moving the utter humility of the fearfully distant and yet desperate begging call of the lepers to Jesus. The reality of Jesus’ healing mercy is always given in response to our deep need.

Mercy is given, but must be received. If we do not ‘see’ the goodness of God then how can we experience the freedom and joy which accompanies the gift of mercy. There were 10 sufferers, 10 healings, and yet only 1 transformation – a Samaritan from the margins.

Today’s invitation – Open your eyes and see.

Who do you say that I am?

Luke 9: 18 – 36

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” Jesus asks Peter in a quiet moment. Something interesting to ponder this morning. The identity of Jesus has been a hotly contested topic, both in ancient Israel and throughout the past two thousand years.

Who do the crowds say Jesus is?

Crowds can include a wide cross section of humanity, including those who express faith, and those who are curious, and those who are actively hostile. Crowds can hold wisdom, and crowds can be manipulated and led astray. Certainly the crowd at church on a Sunday may have different responses to this question than the crowd cheering at the football in Sydney this evening as I write this reflection.

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” is a good discussion question. A question to provoke thought.

Jesus follows up on this question with, “But who do you say that I am?” And suddenly the ground shifts from safe intellectual, or even theological pondering, to a direct and personal enquiry. “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter has an answer, which Jesus takes and turns upside down. Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah of God. Jesus replies that being the Messiah of God means suffering, rejection, death and resurrection are Jesus’ pathway. The Messiah of God resists and exposes the values and the priorities of the world, and those in positions of privilege who have a vested interest in maintaining their power. Saying he believes Jesus is the Messiah of God, upends Peter onto the pathway and into the mission of Jesus. The repercussions are enormous. Suffering and rejection inflicted by worldly powers are naturally shared by those who say that Jesus is the Messiah and follow him. Jesus leads those who follow, however, into the freedom and reality of the very presence of God’s glorious reign and life!

Today, in a quiet moment away from the voices of the crowd, who do you say Jesus is?

The Lord bless you and keep you

Numbers 5 and 6. Luke 1: 57-80

The people of Israel have been rescued by God, and are preparing for their journey to the promised land. Numbers dictates, in detail, what redemption is to look like for the people of Israel; how this ancient cluster of tribes are to worship God and live out the liberty and restoration which has been gifted to them.

Ritual purity is a major concern, as Israel prepares to live in a way which honours their calling as the covenanted people of God. This includes rituals for managing conflicts, reconciliation and restitution among neighbours, and detailed instructions for living as a consecrated Nazarite, one who devotes him or herself, for a period of time, to service of God.

Sections of these chapters in Numbers, however, make deeply disturbing and frankly harrowing reading.

Contact with skin disease, bodily discharges and corpses are named as defiling. Lepers are to be cast out of the camps, Num 5: 1-4.

Wives who have been accused of unfaithfulness by their husbands, without any corroborating evidence, are subjected to public humiliation and shame, and trial by ordeal. They are brought to the Priest, who dishevels the woman’s hair as a sign of ritual impurity, and forces them to drink ‘cursed’ water, which will have no effect if they are innocent, but if they are guilty will induce miscarriage, result in permanent infertility, and cause bitter pain, Num 5: 11-31.

What are we to make of such cruel exclusion of lepers (even taking into account the very real fear of contagion) and misogynistic brutality?

Jesus is the radical, life saving and merciful response to the deep questions which passages such as these pose. Jesus tells us that while purity rules can mean shame, exclusion, abandonment, and abuse of power, God, in contrast, embraces, forgives, restores and welcomes.

Thank you Ian, for a moving reminder at church yesterday of Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, who understands brokenness and rejection, whose infinite love and valuing of humanity is not constrained by any social or religious barriers. Jesus, who himself bore our diseases and infirmity, who bore our shame, who bore our suffering.

Jesus, who revealed with courage, love and authority (at enormous cost), the truth about the nature of the saving and merciful God of Israel. This is a God who blesses his people, ALL his people, with these beautiful words of providence, presence and peace.

“The LORD bless you and keep you;

The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;

The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Num 6: 24-26)

Being redeemed by God means receiving His free, gracious, and generous gift of blessing and peace.

Luke 1: 57-80, the story of the birth of John the Baptist, contains a prophetic song of utter joy and trust in a God who has not abandoned us, but instead, has looked favourably on us and rescued us. God has come close, very close. He is with us, God with us, Jesus. The readings from Numbers remind me this morning of the extraordinary blessing and liberation brought by Jesus. This is no small thing!

With Zechariah let us sing:

“By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the

shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1: 78-79)

Peace be with you today.

Mystery

Ephesians 3: 1-13

So here we are on a Monday, the weekend but a dream already. Let me take you back to Sunday. If you were at church, walk with me, in your imagination, through the entrance doors again. Who do you see in the foyer? Inside the auditorium, who is seated in front of you, beside you, across the aisle from you? Who is missing? Do you share a cup of tea or coffee with anyone? Chat with anyone? Wave goodbye to anyone? Hear a story of happiness or difficulty? Meet someone new?

Paul writes in Ephesians 3 that he is in prison, essentially for defending and advancing the big story of God’s love for all humanity. There is, Paul says, an extraordinary mystery, that God is drawing all things together in Christ, and that includes each one of us. The church, that ordinary, wonderful, messy group of men, women and children who we rubbed shoulders with yesterday, is the precious embodiment of this mystery. Under Christ, we ‘have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.’ (verse 6) The barriers of class, past, gender, age, intelligence, beauty, and race are completely overpowered by the boundless riches of Christ. The church, writes Paul, is ‘the wisdom of God in its rich variety.’ (verse 10)

Mystery in the Bible is not a problem or conundrum to be solved, in the way that a good murder mystery resolves. Mystery is a precious truth which is multifaceted, slowly being revealed and unfolded, and never fully contained in a neat intellectual argument or even words.

Paul says that somehow the mystery of the church reflects the mystery of Christ, through whom we belong to both God and each other. What does God’s plan for creation look like? It looks like the church; inclusive and diverse, grace founded and driven, shared. And if that raises more questions for you than it answers then, welcome to the mystery 🙂

 

Israel’s God – Judge of All the Earth

Psalm 76

Our God is great, glorious and majestic. Human efforts to attack and harm God, human efforts to kill God, human efforts to defeat and humiliate God, are doomed to fail. Political leaders of the earth, no matter how bloated with their own importance and power, are at His mercy. Violent and murderous militias of humans fall powerless and still before the rebuke and judgement of God.

Our God saves. He is not aloof, secure, and distant from the pain of his creation. Across the earth our God hears the cries of all the oppressed, and establishes judgements in their support. The rage and injustice displayed by humans only serves to provide more opportunities for God to display his saving love.

Our God saves. In Jesus, God humbled Himself, unthinkably, to allow humans to attack, harm, kill, defeat and humiliate Him. All for the oppressed of the earth.

Our God is awesome. Human wickedness does not have the last word. The resurrected King saves, once and for all, his creation, oppressed under the terrible curse of sin and death. Our God has risen, to establish judgement and to rescue.

Today this ancient song calls us, as a community, to honour our glorious God, and invites us to declare our loyalty to His reign of justice and love. In this world groaning under hatred, bigotry, and senseless violence, we proclaim our allegiance to the God who saves, and His Kingdom.

Lord God, be with those who are oppressed this day by grief, violence and injustice. Your Kingdom come, Your will be done!

Jane

 

But this I will call to mind

Lamentations 3: 1 – 24

The Lamentations passage today contains the profound and extraordinary verses of trust and hope which many of us hold onto in times of great trial, sorrow and grief. If you can bear to, come this morning into the passionate covenant relationship expressed here between God and His people.

Lament is frankly the only appropriate response to the trauma, injustice, pain and suffering which confronts us day to day. It may be our own personal experiences and stories, it may be the travails of the world, it may be the disintegration of the institutional church under the horror and shame of child sexual abuse. Lament is our expression of grief and sorrow, and Lamentations is the poetic record of the Hebrew grief and sorrow at their destruction, exile and dispossession. Lamentations is our communal expression of rage and sorrow, our communal attempt to find purpose and meaning amidst terrible sadness and pain.

When faced with unbearable heartache, with cruel injustice, with unceasing sorrows, it is to God that the people of Lamentations cry out. God, I feel afraid of you; God, I feel betrayed by you; God, you do not listen to me, you turn away from me; God you have abandoned me; God, I am utterly bereft of peace, health and happiness, I am empty.

…And then, like the pin prick of a torch light through a night of pitch dark; like a fragile, wavering candle flame in a blackout, comes verse 21.

But this I will call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

This new morning, let us hold in prayer those of us who are in terrible pain, who feel in utter darkness.

This new morning, may our God light in us again a hope, a hope in His faithfulness, a hope in his mercies. As certain as the arrival of morning, is our God’s steadfast love.

Amen