Monday, July 17, 2023

Sermon: Matthew 13:1

I love questions. Many here would be aware that I’m working on a PhD in theology. I’ve also been a teacher of theology, worship, and critical thinking, for around 12 years. I love answering questions and I love asking questions. I suspect my students hate it, though, when I answer a question with another question.

Theological questions tend to be quite simple. Who is God? Who is Jesus? What is faith? How do you get saved? The questions themselves are simple. The answers, though, can occupy a lifetime if you want them to. Jesus was a master of asking questions. To the scribe who asked him how to inherit eternal life he asked “What is written in the Scriptures? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). To the blind man who called out for mercy on the side of the road he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk 10:51). To Peter and the disciples, after they’d recounted what other people were saying about Jesus, he asked “But who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:29).

I love questions. In our gospel reading today, the disciples ask an important question. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (13:10). Jesus answers the question for them. “To you has been given to know the secrets (mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (13:11). The disciples have been given the ability to know these secrets but the crowds, it hasn’t. Even more so, to those who have been given some more will be given and those who have nothing, what they do have will be taken away.

This makes it sound like God gives some people the privilege of understanding the secrets of the kingdom and others are left to their own ignorance. Hardly sounds fair, does it? 

Well, as with all Scripture, context is critical.

Today, our passage is taken from the third of five groups of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel account. Matthew has grouped Jesus’ teaching in this way to mimic the five books of Moses. You can identify each of these groups by looking for the common concluding verse in each one – “After Jesus had finished…” (13:53). An even easier way is if you have a “red-letter Bible” to flick through Matthew’s gospel and look for all the red parts. You’d probably be most familiar with the first group of teaching; the sermon on the Mount. This passage, which starts at the beginning of chapter 13 and concludes in verse 53, is known as “The Parable Discourse” because it is a group of several parables teaching about the kingdom of heaven. Some of them are only one verse long. The parables are about growth, development, and the fruit of the kingdom of heaven in those who follow Jesus. The passage also sits right in the middle of the whole gospel account and in the narrative we are beginning to see the divide widen between those who follow Jesus and those who do not. The reader is beginning to ask “Why?” Why do some people follow Jesus, and some do not? Particularly when those who do not seem to be the ones who should be the most equipped to identify the Messiah in their midst.

“Why is that?”

A parable is a story that does not immediately reveal its meaning. The hearer must work to understand what is meant by the story. Ironically, Jesus uses a parable to tell us about parables; the parable of the sower. Or more correctly, the parable of the soil. It’s not really about the sower, is it?

The parable, and its explanation, act as bookends around the disciples’ question; “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Bookending like this is pretty common in Scripture and it’s a tool used to highlight the bit in the middle. So, the question of the disciples is the important part. The parable helps to answer the question “Why do you speak to them in parables?” If you are prepared to hear it, if you have ears, to listen, and to respond, then you will understand.

The parable points out that not everyone is prepared. There are some who are hard-hearted and simply refuse to listen. Then there are those who are shallow. They take on the message for a time but when challenged their roots don’t run deep, they wither, and their faith dies. Lastly, there are the thorny hearts. They’re distracted by the troubles and attractions of the world so taking the time to nurture their faith is just… not worth the effort. We’re probably familiar enough with the parable, and we have Jesus’ explanation, so I’ll leave it for you to read that for yourself.

What I’m interested in is this idea that the secrets, or mysteries, of the kingdom of heaven are given to some people and not to others. Why is that? Again, if we take Jesus’ answer on its own it seems like God determines who knows and who doesn’t and does so arbitrarily. For those with some theological study in their past this sounds a lot like the idea of double predestination, doesn’t it? But the parable taken on its own makes it sound like it’s up to the soil to receive the message, to nurture it, to grow it, for it to take root and survive. For those with some theology under their belt this sounds a lot like salvation by works, doesn’t it?

Well, I can’t pretend to subscribe the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination which suggests that God alone decides who is predestined to salvation and simultaneously decides who is predestined to damnation, and there is nothing that anyone can do to change God’s mind. Such a doctrine, if I’m honest, I find repulsive. Nor, can I stand here and suggest that salvation is by works either. That if we just work harder at being “good enough” we can all save ourselves. That theology makes a mockery of the cross.

My theological training sits firmly, and comfortably, in the Wesleyan camp. John Wesley, the 18th Century English Anglican priest and founder of Methodism spent much of his early life trying to make his soil receptive to the kingdom of heaven. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who worked harder to earn his place in the kingdom. He studied hard, was diligent in prayer, he joined with his fellow Oxford students in studying the scriptures, visiting prisoners, and feeding the poor. In 1725, at the age of 22, he was ordained as a priest, but still, it wasn’t enough. Ten years later, having graduated from Oxford with a Master of Arts, he and his brother Charles journeyed to the colony of Georgia in what we now know as the United States. There he worked as a missionary at what was, for him, the ends of the earth as they knew it. He did as much as he could and went as far as he could in service to God.

But it was a failure.

He left Georgia in disgrace returning to London just a couple of years later, arriving home at the beginning of 1738.

His problem was both theological and personal. He thought if he could work harder, be more faithful, more diligent with the Scriptures, then he would know in himself that he was truly saved. The problem is theological in that he had the order of sanctification and justification around the wrong way. “If I’m holy enough then God will see me as righteous and count me as saved.” But he wrestled with the reality that this was never going to happen. Not in his own strength. Not with all the missionary journeys in the world. The problem was personal in that he doubted whether he really was saved or not.

Then, a few months after landing back in England, on May 24, 1738, he attended a meeting in Aldersgate Street, where someone was reading from Luther’s preface to the Romans. Luther who, just over 200 years earlier, had a very similar crisis of faith, having stated that he “hated God and God’s righteousness” because it was an unattainable ideal, realised, whilst reading Romans, that justification is a gift of God’s grace, given through faith. The result changed Luther’s life, and the church, forever. Wesley, hearing Luther’s story again, and his reading of the book of Romans, had an experience that changed his life forever as well. In a very understated, and typically British manner, Wesley writes in his journal that his “heart was strangely warmed.” More importantly, he goes on to say, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” It was that assurance that he had been desperately searching for and that had eluded him for so long. Now, in a moment of simple trust and faith, it was given to him. In theological terms, he knew he was already justified by faith and now he can move on to sanctification. In personal terms, he came to know this as true for himself; that he was indeed saved.  

Now here’s the interesting thing for me. Was all that time spent studying, praying, visiting the sick and prisoners, and journeying to Georgia as a missionary wasted? No! Without the hard work that preceded it Wesley’s heart-warming experience would have made no sense to him at all. The soil in his heart was prepared for the message when it arrived. But, at the same time, it wasn’t until God moved in his heart that the message was planted. It was the work of God and the work of Wesley.

So, returning to our passage today, is it that God determines who will receive the secrets of the kingdom of heaven? Or is it that the hearers of the word of the kingdom need to work the soil of their hearts so that they are prepared for its planting in their heart?

The answer, to both questions, is “yes”.

Yes, God will reveal the secrets of the kingdom to whom God chooses and those who are prepared to hear it will receive it.

“If you have ears…. hear!” (13:9).

Friday, February 17, 2023

Sermon: Matthew 5:21-37

I want to start today with a story. It’s about a minister of religion. He was very smart, capable, and well-loved within his church and the denomination he was part of. From the outside he was an outstanding preacher, a loving husband and father, a great teacher, and a shining example of successful ministry. When people had questions regarding their faith, about the bible, about life, quite often he was the first person they would turn to. As far as the denomination was concerned, he was on the rise; a future leader of the movement, and someone to keep an eye on.

But it was all a shell. Hidden beneath the surface was a broken man. The image he had become accustomed to portraying to the world was not the reality of what was happening beneath the surface. One day, not so long ago, cracks appeared and the shell was broken and everything came crumbling down. He lost his wife, his family, his ministry. He lost everything. 

Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon story. What makes this story a little different is not that it is unique, because it’s not, but that it’s mine. This is my story.

A little over two years ago Sonia and I first entered into this church. I was broken, exhausted, desperate for forgiveness and hope, and longing for community. I remember that first Sunday weeping as Norm led us through the intercessions. I remember hearing the words of forgiveness as Victor pronounced them and feeling them deeply within myself. I remember the welcome from people I’d never met. I remember Victor’s kind and pastoral words to us both the next week when he took us for coffee to get to know us better. Having heard our story, in much more detail, he said to us both “I hope this church can be a place of healing for you both.”

It is.

So, here I stand before you, looking back on the last two years and still wondering in amazement at the grace of God. I stand before you wondering how this all happened. And, more importantly, how did a divorced and remarried man, standing alongside his divorced and remarried wife, end up being rostered on to preach on this passage today!? If nothing else, God, or Victor, or both, have a sense of humour.

We’ve all heard it said that reading the text in context is really important and this passage is a prime example of why. On its own, this passage could be considered Jesus making the rules even harder to follow. But the passage is a part of a bigger section of Matthew’s gospel; what we’ve come to know as the sermon on the Mount.

This sermon, the first of five sections of teaching that Matthew has grouped together in his account of the gospel, is the first and the most well-known of Jesus’ teaching. It’s important we know who the audience of this sermon is. Matthew 5:1-2 lets us know; “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to himAnd he began to speak and taught them.”

The disciples, not the crowds, were the audience for this teaching. This is a message for insiders, not outsiders.

Secondly, the section comes from a set of six sayings where Jesus reframes existing teaching. Six times he says “you have heard that it was said… but I say to you.” We have heard four of the six sayings in today’s gospel reading. The other two appear in next week's reading. Last week we heard the words of Jesus at the start of these six sayings “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20) At the end of the section is the seemingly impossible imperative “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). In between both is today’s passage.

Call someone a fool and you will be liable to the hell of fire. Lust after a woman and you have already committed adultery. You’re better off poking out your eye or cutting off your hand if they’re causing you to sin. Married a divorced woman and you’re causing her to commit adultery as well. Carry out the vows you make and let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything beyond this is from the evil one.

This is really hard teaching. And if we take it out of context, that is if we don’t read around this passage, we’re likely to become very disheartened by this passage. We might think that Jesus is just taking legalism to a whole new level. Taken on its own, there is very little hope for those who have failed. There is no word of grace. At least not in this section.

I want to promise you, though, that there is hope. There is grace. There is mercy for the sinner. We just need to consider more than this passage alone.

Before we get to that I want to highlight how Jesus is not making the rules even harder for his followers. There are some other aspects at play here. In particular, I want to draw your attention to the two sayings that focus on sexual ethics. Pay attention to Jesus’ words at this point. Who is benefiting from Jesus’ teaching?

Listen again to this section

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Who benefits from this teaching? (Women)

Who has greater expectations placed upon them? (Men)

This is vastly different to the teaching of Jesus’ day, and even the narrative you will commonly hear in the world today. Many times, when you hear of a woman being assaulted by a man, questions will be asked about the woman – “what was she wearing?” “was she drunk?” “was she on her own?” “was it late at night?” and on and on it goes. Rarely do questions get asked about the man’s behaviour. “Was he drunk?” “was he trying to impress his mates?” “Did he have her consent?”

Here Jesus places the emphasis exactly where it needs to be. Upon the men. Upon their attitudes, behaviours, and treatment of women. Looking at a woman lustfully? Cut your eye out! Cut your hand off! Change your behaviour. Don’t expect the woman to change hers because you can’t control yourself. You are the problem.

Now, given I’m looking around with two eyes and two hands and I’m seeing lots of two-eyed, two-handed men around the room, we know instinctively that interpretation of the passage is important. Was Jesus really expecting men to gouge out their eyes or cut off their hands if they lust after women? Probably not. Rather, the emphasis upon this teaching, and the teaching around it, is upon the attitude that lies beneath.

Call someone a fool? Well, you may not have actually murdered them but you’ve considered them less worthy than you and treated them with murderous contempt. Look upon a woman lustfully? Even if you haven’t committed adultery with her in your heart you’ve treated her as an object that is there for your sexual gratification; not a human made in the image of God, worthy of love, respect, and honour. Promise to do something and then not follow through? Your word is worthless and your integrity is lost.

These teachings are about love. Love for others. Love for women. Love for yourself. Whilst that may not be immediately clear within this reading today it becomes even clearer as we read on. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (5:43). The expectations are high and they go beyond behaviour to attitudes of the heart.

And the most difficult expectation of all comes right at the end. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:48)

How is that even possible?

We might have attained something close to perfection if Jesus had just said “Be perfect,” but then he went and made the comparison that makes this imperative well beyond our reach. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

How? Is this even possible? Is Jesus just setting a bar that is infinitely beyond our reach and then expecting us to jump over it? Is that what is happening here?

Again, context is critical here.

Back at the start of this section, in the passage that was read last week, Jesus gave us the word of hope. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (5:17).

That word “fulfil” is a major theme in Matthew’s account of the gospel.

Matt 1:22 “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”

2:17 “Then what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled.”

8:17 “This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

26:54 “But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”

Jesus came not to abolish the law, and the attitudes and ‘heart’ that lay beneath it, but to fulfil it. To do for us what we could not do for ourselves. This is the word of grace. This is the word of hope. The expectations are not lowered making grace something cheap and easy to attain. The expectations are raised and then fulfilled by Jesus on our behalf. This grace is costly and expensive; costing Jesus his own life.

Now, the good news keeps getting better. When Jesus says “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he’s not raising the bar to a level that is impossible to attain. No… he’s giving you a gift. The perfection that is rightfully his becomes gracefully ours.

“Be perfect”

This is grace. Even “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” When we are united with Christ his perfection becomes our perfection. And so even a failed, former minister of religion, whose fall from grace was very public, can stand again, restored and renewed, perfect, in Christ, as his heavenly Father is perfect. But only by his grace.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Sermon: Luke 19:1-10

“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it.”

Jesus is on the move. It’s a journey that, according to Luke’s account of the gospel, began back at the mount of transfiguration. Immediately following Jesus’ encounter with the Father, along with Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John, we’re told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Lk 9:51). From that point on Jesus is on the move. Progressing closer and closer to his destination. The cross and the tomb.

Just moments before entering Jericho Jesus had reminded his disciples “we are going up to Jerusalem” (Lk 18:31). Now, he stops. “Zacchaeus... I must stay at your house today.” The shock for the crowd, and for us reading this story today, is who Jesus chooses to stay with – a “sinner.” Jesus is “welcomed” by a sinner, into his home, for a meal.

Who does Jesus welcome to his table and to whose table is Jesus welcomed?

In the context of Luke’s gospel this story fits with three other stories of rejection and welcome. Families bring the children to Jesus but it’s the disciples who try to stop them. But Jesus calls for them. He welcomes them. One of my favourite moments every Sunday is when the children come out from Sunday School and gather with us all at the table. Watch their faces; the joy, the simple trust, the excitement. Us adults take it all so seriously but the children don’t know the customs and the “right way” to eat at Jesus’ table. They just come with simple expectation and faith. It's no wonder Jesus used children as an example of how to receive the kingdom of God (Lk 18:17).

Then there is the blind beggar sitting by the roadside at the entry into Jericho. He calls out to Jesus to get his attention but other people around him try to silence him. He’s persistent. He calls out even louder – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops. He listens. He heals. And the blind man sees, follows, and praises God.

In between those two stories of rejection and welcome is the story of a rich ruler. He comes to Jesus wanting to inherit eternal life. There are many parallels with the story of Zacchaeus and this unnamed man. They’re both wealthy. The call to give away that wealth to the poor is echoed in both. As is the theme of “salvation.” What is different for the rich ruler it is that no one else hinders his progress to Jesus. He has free access to ask Jesus his question. Those around him know and respect him because of his status in society and no one gets in the way… except himself. When Jesus instructs him to “sell all you own and distribute it to the poor” he became sad.  

“That’s too hard. That’s… impossible.”

When we come to Zacchaeus Luke gives us some insight into this man’s life. He’s wealthy, but he’s not at all popular like the rich ruler. Being wealthy gets you status in society but how you make that wealth is very significant. We have popular rich people in our society – celebrities and sports stars. Entrepreneurs who work their way to the top. We also have unpopular rich people as well. Those who exploit their workers, or the environment, or the tax system for their own personal gain.

Tax collectors worked for the enemy – the Romans. Yet, they were not necessarily Romans themselves. Tax collectors were recruited from amongst the Jewish people to collect taxes on behalf of the Roman empire.  And this made them very unpopular. So despite Zacchaeus being a ruler, and wealthy, he’s an enemy of the people. So the crowd collectively exclude him from the procession; blocking his path to get access to Jesus.

But Jesus has already shown an affinity to tax collectors in Luke’s gospel. In 5:27 one of them, Levi, even becomes one of his disciples. Immediately after this Levi throws a party for Jesus, his followers, and all of Levi’s tax collector friends. This draws the attention of the religious leaders who question why Jesus would “eat with tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 5:30). It’s the same accusation that the crowd makes when Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house and is welcomed by him. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (Lk 19:7).

So, why does Jesus welcome tax collectors and sinners? Why does he eat with them?

These were particularly important questions because of the significance of religious purity in Jesus’ time. You see in order to participate fully in the worshiping life of first century Judaism, particularly as it related to the Temple and sacrifice, a person was required to be as pure as possible. The purer you were the greater access you were given into the Temple. The entire Temple was constructed around this idea of purity; with the Most Holy Place in the centre reserved for the most pure person only (the High Priest) and that only on one day a year, outside of which was the court of Israelites, then the court of women, then the court of Gentiles, all of this sits within the city of Jerusalem (the Holy City), which is situated within the “Holy Land.” Purity was gained by getting as close as possible to the centre of Jewish life; the temple, but paradoxically you also needed purification to move in closer. Access to the temple was restricted based upon things like gender, physical health, ethnicity, recent sexual activity, whether women had been menstruating recently, and so on. This is why the stories of Jesus’ interaction with the bleeding woman, the woman who washes his feet with her hair, the healing of the demon-possessed man who lived amongst tombs and pigs outside of the holy land; these stories are scandalous because Jesus is breaking the purity code in all of them. And here he is, once again, eating with a sinner. Doesn’t he know anything about purity? If you eat with a sinner you sit at the same table as them, you get your food from the same plate and your drink from the same jug. You’re going to catch their sinfulness!

We’re just beginning to emerge from two years of Covid-safe restrictions. We know what “social distancing” means. Well this is social distancing at a religious level. Don’t go near sinners. They will pollute you and that will mean you can’t go to the temple. You can’t go to worship. You will need to be purified, recognised as pure by a priest (remember this from the story of the ten lepers just recently?), and then, and only then, you can be welcomed at the table.

So, why does Jesus welcome tax collectors and sinners? Why does he eat with them?

In short, Jesus is turning this world upside down. He is demonstrating that holiness is gained, not through getting closer to the centre of the Temple, but through getting closer to Jesus. It is not that Jesus will catch sinners’ sinfulness by eating with them, rather, sinners catch Jesus’ holiness by eating with him. No longer is the Temple the centre of the religious life of God’s people; now, the centre is Jesus.

For Zacchaeus, the transformation was immediate and obvious to all. This short-statured man, previously hidden away by the crowds and forced to humiliate himself by climbing a tree, in stark contrast to the rich ruler who walks away from Jesus sad, now he stands tall amongst the people. He gives away half of his possessions to the poor and repays any fraudulent taxes he’s taken four-fold. He goes above and beyond the expectation of the law which required only a repayment of the amount taken plus 20% (Lev 6:5; Num 5:7). What seemed impossible to the rich ruler became a spontaneous and joy-filled response for Zacchaeus and nothing, not even his money, was going to get in the way. Salvation came to his house that day.

Today, as we prepare ourselves to eat with Jesus at his Table, let us come with joy; receiving the kingdom of God like the children do. Let us join with the blind beggar and those around him in praising God for all he has done. And let us respond to Jesus with open hands, open hearts, and even open wallets; not letting anything, including our wealth, get in the way of our connection to Jesus. For in him, and through him, we are made whole; we are made holy. May we each find that this day salvation has come to this house, to our house.

Will you welcome Jesus today?

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Human sexuality and "sin"

Is it a "sin" to be LGBTI+?

This is a question that is much more important now than ever before. Whatever our answer to this question is, “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know,” there are significant consequences to be considered.

If we answer “yes” then nothing much changes. We will continue along still experiencing the significant problems that face the church today. Those problems include a loss of people, a continuation of the rejection of the church by those within the LBGTI community, and a rejection from within the church of the suggestion made by science that sexuality is biological. Simply saying “love the sinner, hate the sin” is a superficial answer to a complex problem and does nothing to provide an actual answer to the question. Even if a homosexual person were to become a part of our fellowship, is welcomed unconditionally, becomes a Christian, and makes a church their home, for as long as we name homosexuality a sin then at some point their journey towards wholeness must include an enforced celibacy, the rejection of any existing partners and the possibility of future ones, and the acceptance of a belief that a key part of their identity (their sexuality) is intrinsically sinful.

This is what pains me more than anything else; the vast majority of an entire section of our community is rejecting the church, and with it the gospel, because we continue to label their sexuality sinful and, as a result, reject them as people.

Are we prepared to continue on that path? If so, we need to think carefully of how we navigate it. Because that road will continue to cause a lot of hurt to a lot of people.

The alternative is that we answer “no.” We cease to call homosexuality a sin. Now, there are a whole range of biblical and theological questions that arise in answering in this way. Can we legitimately do this? How are we to interpret clear prohibition passages from Leviticus, for example? Are we just enforcing culture upon Scripture? These are serious questions and a significant and complex situation we find ourselves in. We need to think theologically about this and carefully interpret Scripture in the context of the canon, not just proof-text with individual verses. That latter approach is simply insufficient.

There is a biblical precedent for interpreting Scripture that bears some parallels here. It commences with a look at the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that are set in the time period immediately following the Exile of the Jews. The people joyfully return to Jerusalem but there is a complex issue that accompanies them. Many of the Jews had married Gentiles during the period of the Exile. Now that they were back in Jerusalem the people are rebuilding the city but they are also rebuilding their national identity. Exile had been a punishment for covenant unfaithfulness and so they were very keen to not fail again. A significant question arises - “Can we allow for interracial marriages or not?” They read the Book of the Law and it is interpreted amongst the people. The decision they come to at the time is that no, marriages between Jews and Gentiles are to be rejected. The Priest Ezra stands before the people and declares:

“You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now honour the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:10b-11)

The decision was made to send away the women and children from marriages between Jews and Gentiles. Of course, it’s not the men sent away. It's the women and children who suffer. I find this one of the most difficult and tragic passages of Scripture. Picture the heartache. The children wondering why? The wives left to fend for themselves and raise their children alone. The pain. The rejection. The abandonment. Yet, there it is printed in black and white in the book we call Scripture.

This passage provides some perspective on the inter-race relations that existed between Jews and Gentiles; specifically, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. To help us understand them better we should read passages like John 4 and Luke 10 with Ezra and Nehemiah in the back of our minds. For the Jews, contact and interaction with Gentiles was considered sinful and highly contagious. They were to keep themselves physically separate from them; they certainly did not accept, let alone ask for water from them, nor assist them if they were injured on the side of the road. Herein lies the power of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan as well as his interaction with the woman at the well. At the heart of these interactions Jesus is challenging the status quo and what was accepted as a normative understanding of purity at the time.

Consider now the book of Acts and, specifically, Acts 10 – the story of Peter’s interaction with Cornelius. The background to this situation is that following an intense persecution lead by Saul (Acts 7-8), the Lord intervenes and converts the leader of the opposition in a dramatic and history-altering way (Acts 9). Following Paul’s conversion the church experiences a time of peace and strengthening by the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31). This peace is significant. There had been persecution, including the stoning of Stephen and others, and now the relationship between the Jewish leadership and the budding church was at rest.

For the time being.

Following this Peter and Cornelius experience their visions from God. Peter’s is a vision of food descending from heaven; food that he was previously not permitted to eat. It was considered unclean and Peter knew this well. But now pork chops, prawns and lobster were on the menu!

Hallelujah! Pass the bacon!

For Peter, a Jewish man, this was unheard of. This wasn’t like he’d travelled to a foreign country and was eating something different while on holidays, this was a challenge to his entire worldview. Three times he is confronted with this vision and three times he was told the following:

            “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)

Take note that Peter struggles with the meaning behind the vision (10:17 and 19). He realises that it’s not just about what he can and cannot eat yet he can’t figure out what the deeper meaning is.  “While Peter was still thinking about the vision” he is instructed by the Spirit to go with the men that are about to arrive. He is obedient and goes to the house of Simon the Centurion; a God-fearing Gentile. Peter states openly the problem that he faced. He was a Jew and he was breaking Jewish law by being inside the house of a Gentile. We, the readers, are meant to pay close attention to this because it relates directly to the meaning of the vision:

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28)

The meaning of the vision that Peter had previously struggled with becomes clear to him by virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit descending on these people before him in exactly the same way it had happened for him at Pentecost. Peter states:

“I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34)

Peter shares the gospel with them and he and his companions are astonished to see that the Holy Spirit is poured out on these people, even though they are Gentiles. For them as Jews it turns their previous well-known status quo completely on its head. In the light of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the interpretation of the Law that had been established and upheld from that date on, Jews did not interact with Gentiles. Yet here and now in front of Peter and his companions the Holy Spirit itself was descending upon Cornelius and his household simply by virtue of their faith in Jesus Christ.

The vision becomes a reality. It’s not about the food. It’s about the people.

Peter returns to Jerusalem and is called to account for what he has done. Remember the peace between the Jews and Christians referred to in Acts 9:31? The leaders of the church are aware just how fragile that peace really was. The fact that Peter had gone into the household of a Gentile and eaten with them could well result in the re-emergence of the persecution they experienced under Saul. So, they challenge him to respond to the accusation that he “went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:3).

Peter recounts the story from start to finish. If it wasn’t clear for us as readers at this point we are reminded of the key change that has taken place in Peter’s mind; the instruction given directly from the Lord. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 11:9)

Peter tells them how the Holy Spirit came upon these people in the same way that he had come upon Jewish believers at Pentecost. Peter asks a powerful and pertinent question:

“So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17)

Here is what we need to carefully consider today. Could it be that we are faced with a very similar situation to that which confronted Peter? In recent years I have come to know several Christians who identify themselves as being homosexual. These very same Christians have been blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit just as equally and extravagantly as I have been. If God has given them the same gift that he gave me, who am I to think that I can stand in God’s way by labelling “impure” someone whom “God has made clean?” This is why I answer the question “Is it a sin to be LGBTI+?” with a firm “no.”

Peter realised that there was a connection between the previously unclean foods and the previously unclean people. Perhaps, then, we need to consider that there is a similar connection for us with those who identify as LBGTI.

At a later date the church wrestled with the question as to whether Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). This was the first of many councils where the church considered its response to new and sometimes complex situations. Peter, reflecting on his interaction with Cornelius and his family, spoke on that occasion.

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:7b-11)

As I read that I cannot help but substitute the word “Gentiles” for “the LBGTI+ people.”

Some questions to consider

Could it be that labelling homosexuality as “sin” places an unnecessary “yoke” around the necks of the LBGTI community; a yoke that they are unable to bear?

Do we need to remind ourselves that it is “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are?”

Is the fact that LBGTI Christians have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit evidence enough to suggest that God has made them clean and, therefore, we should no longer call them impure?

If we continue to label being LGBTI+ as “sin” could we be “standing in the way of God?”

Significantly, we are left wondering what to do with the verses, such as Leviticus 20:13, which clearly prohibit homosexuality (and specifically male to male homosexuality in the case of this verse). Well, I am going to suggest that the same approach be taken to this verse that is taken to the ones just a little earlier in the same book, such as Leviticus 11:7-8, which clearly prohibit the eating of pork. It is not that we ignore their presence, or apply an editorial hermeneutic and just “read on by.” No, the reason we can happily eat bacon and eggs for breakfast is because God himself has declared these foods to now be clean. Remember, though, that Peter’s vision wasn’t just about food. It was about the people. Now, by virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit freely poured out upon all people, including both Gentiles and Jews, that the dividing wall that previously existed between these two groups of people has been destroyed. The evidence for this, for Peter and for us, is the presence of the Holy Spirit upon all people. It is the presence of the Spirit that makes a person clean. 

This includes LGBTI+ people.

I have come to the conclusion that the presence of the Spirit upon any person makes them clean, regardless of race, sexuality, gender, age or status. If God gives the same gift to them as he’s given to me then who am I to think that I could stand in God’s way?

Concluding thoughts

A little earlier in the book of Acts we find the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. We are told, in Acts 8:27, that this Eunuch had gone down to Jerusalem to worship. What he is likely to have encountered, though, is rejection. For according to the Law, specifically Deuteronomy 23:1, anyone like him was not permitted within the Temple.

Restricted from entering into the place of worship because of a difference in his sexuality.

We’re not told how he acquired a copy of the scroll (something that intrigues me) but on his return home he is reading from Isaiah 53:7-8. Philip is taken to this man by the Spirit and aids him in his interpretation. The Eunuch is baptised and as a result the person who was once excluded is now included.

Praise God!

We don’t know anything more about this Eunuch but I like to think that he hopped back into his chariot and joyfully resumed not only his journey but also his reading of Isaiah. If he did so it wouldn’t have been taken him long to come Isaiah 56:4-8. I can only imagine the smile on his face when he did so. There he would find the promise of his inclusion within the temple. Not only that, there he is promised a name that is “better than sons and daughters.” He would have known, too, that on that very day that name was his.

This is the hope of the gospel. The hope of salvation for all people. That everyone would know that they are welcome in the Kingdom of God. That still others will be gathered besides those already gathered. My prayer is that this will include many, many LGBTI+ people.

Lord may it be so.

For this is what the Lord says:

“To the [LGBTI+] who keep my Sabbaths,

    who choose what pleases me

    and hold fast to my covenant—

to them I will give within my temple and its walls

    a memorial and a name

    better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

    that will endure forever.

And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord

    to minister to him,

to love the name of the Lord,

    and to be his servants,

all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it

    and who hold fast to my covenant—

these I will bring to my holy mountain

    and give them joy in my house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices

    will be accepted on my altar;

for my house will be called

    a house of prayer for all nations.”

The Sovereign Lord declares—

    he who gathers the exiles of Israel:

“I will gather still others to them

    besides those already gathered.”

Monday, August 22, 2022

Sermon: Luke 13:1-17

Luke 13:10-17

Luke, the writer of our text today, gives a prominent place to those who would normally have been on the fringe of society; the poor, Gentiles, women. For example, in contrast to Matthew who writes “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3) Luke writes “Blessed are you who are poor.” (Luke 6:20. An example of Luke’s emphasis upon women is found in Luke 23 and the first part of 24 which contains his account of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. I would encourage you each to take time this afternoon to read through this section and pay attention to “the women.” From the time Jesus is sentenced all the way through to his resurrection there are some “women” present. Initially they remain unnamed until Luke reveals their identity in 24:10. The men come and go, they have their moment in the story, and then they disappear – Simon of Cyrene, the two criminals on the cross, the centurion, Joseph of Arimathea. But the women, they are there the whole time. The disciples don’t even gain a mention until later in chapter 24, apart from Peter who runs to the empty tomb after the women have been there. They are the eyewitnesses to everything at the most crucial moment in the story, indeed the most important moment in the history of humankind. They stay and watch the trial, the procession to the cross, the death, the burial, and finally they are the first to see the empty tomb.

They are crucial to everything!

In fact, when Jesus says to Cleopas and his travelling companion on the road to Emmaus “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” I don’t think Jesus is referring to prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel or Elijah. I think he means these women. All of this is an example of Luke elevating the place of those who would normally be on the fringe of society to a place of prominence within the gospel story.

Turning to our passage today Jesus is teaching in a synagogue. The synagogue had a different purpose to the temple in Jewish worship. The temple centred upon sacrifice. The synagogue centred upon the Torah. Synagogues began to emerge as the Jewish people spread throughout the Roman Empire. Wherever there were ten respected men a synagogue could be formed. The role of teaching in the synagogue was an important one. Imagine a seat in the front and centre of the room. It is a seat of authority and the place where teaching happened from. When Jesus taught in his home synagogue of Nazareth Luke tells us that he read from the scroll of Isaiah, rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. He wasn’t sitting back in his spot in the congregation, rather he is sitting in the seat of authority teaching the gathered congregation. Jesus would have been sitting teaching again in this passage today.

And in walks a woman.

The English translation we’ve just heard is a little matter of fact about it in comparison to the tone that Luke uses. He really wants to draw your attention to her, to imagine yourself in the synagogue in the middle of Jesus teaching, and see everyone’s heads turn as this woman walks in.

She’s hunched over. She’s been that way for eighteen years.

Jesus sees her. He calls to her.

Can you imagine her reaction? The reaction of others in the room?

He lays his hands upon her and says “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” She stands up and begins praising God. Of course, it’s the perfect time and place for praising God, right? In a synagogue on the Sabbath?

Apparently not.

Up speaks a man. A man in power. A man with authority. Not just one of the ten men who formed this synagogue but the number one. The leader of the synagogue. But does he raise his complaint directly with Jesus? No. He goes to the crowd and speaks to them.

“According to the Torah you can’t heal here today.”

“That’s not in the liturgy. What kind of Rabbi is this guy?”

“He should stick to the preaching. That’s what he’s here for.”

“We’ll have to report this to the synagogue council, I’m afraid.”

“Tuesday afternoon is the healing service. She should come back then. Oh, and bring a plate”

If this guy lived today he’d probably pull out his iPhone and post something on social media to shout his misguided views into his online echo chamber.

The way this man speaks about this woman to the crowd, and not to Jesus or her, serves to “other” her. It’s a tactic used by all sorts of people in power. Consider how in Australian political discourse the language used to describe government policy regarding asylum seekers has used the phrase “Stop the Boats.” The focus is not on the people because the Australian public might actually care about people. No one cares about “Boats,” right? They describe what they’re doing as “illegal” to make them sound like criminals and then call them “boats” to take away their humanity completely.

Jesus is having none of it. In response he speaks directly to him and those who follow him. “You hypocrites!” And then he forces their gaze back upon her. He forces them to see her. Jesus saw her. He wants this man, and the crowd, to see her too. To see this woman who only moments ago was hunched over and had been for eighteen years. Now she is standing upright and praising God. Not only that, he emphasises her place within the family of God. She is their sister – “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham.” It’s the same tactic Jesus used in Simon the Pharisee’s home when a woman of ill-repute walked in and dared to wash Jesus’ feet with her hair. On that occasion, when Simon attempted to “other” her, Jesus forced Simon’s gaze upon her and said to him – “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44).

In this synagogue, in today’s passage, Jesus saw her. He called her. He healed her. And this man tried to exclude her for it.

“You hypocrites!”

And the crowd, and the woman, did what was right and joined with Jesus in the celebration.

We sit together here at Holy Name of Jesus parish. The core values of this parish are listed on our website: 


Traditional worship style

Safe and trusted environment

Multi-cultural and inclusive

Engaged and participatory congregation


I recall the first time I entered this church building. I too was hunched over and burdened by my own brokenness. I experienced a moment when it was like Jesus touched me on the shoulder and said to me “Adam, you are set free from your ailment.” I stood up straight and praised God. I experienced a safe, trusted, inclusive, engaging, and participatory church that reached out to me and made me feel welcome.

I read those core values and honestly feel they are reflected in the lives of the people that are here today. I’m so glad God led me to this parish and that it has become our home. I join with you in trying to live out those values every day.

Those values suggest that we are a church where everyone is welcome regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, physical ability, intellectual capability, sexuality or past Christian experience. Welcoming, safe, trusted, inclusive. All of these words are important and I think consistent with our passage today and the gospel of our Lord that we proclaim together.

The challenge is to live these values out. To be a place that is genuinely these things all the time towards all people.

Otherwise, we’re just hypocrites.

So let’s be a welcoming, safe, trusted, inclusive, engaged and participatory congregation. And let’s join together, with Jesus, in the celebration of the wonderful things that God is doing in this place. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

"Please sir... I want some more"

For seventeen years I was an Officer in The Salvation Army. I was very grateful for the opportunity I had to serve in this way. Leaving Officership was incredibly difficult but I'm also happy with the new life I'm living now. 

In financial terms, I didn't receive much by way of an allowance as an Officer. In fact, it was below minimum wage. Around $500 per week. I also grew up hearing many stories of Officers scraping by each week on a meagre amount of money and living "by faith" week in, week out. That was part of "the calling". I knew what I was getting into when I signed up and so I 'endured' this 'life of poverty' as a good soldier of Christ. 

I never openly complained about it but I also didn't refuse help from people where it was offered. If someone offered to pay for a meal I never said no. Sometimes someone would provide a gift of some kind. I always accepted. On the surface I did and said the right things, but in reality I was also playing into a cultural expectation of what Officership is like. 

As I reflect on it know I realise that the reality was very, very different. As an Officer I was provided with the following

  • A house, rent free
  • A car, lease free
  • Petrol for the car
  • Health insurance (hospital) for me and my family
  • Officer's Health Assistance for extras for me and my family
  • Guarantee of employment and appointments within that employment. 
Having left Officership and now in regular employment I have come to realise just how valuable these things are and just how much I took them for granted. I have come to realise that the allowance I received was really disposable income and I was able to afford many things then that I would have no hope of affording now. 

I'm now working for a small Catholic theological college where I work with many people who are part of religious orders. They have committed themselves to ministry and taken on certain vows associated with the different orders they are a part of. The "vow of poverty" usually appears high on the list. 

In a conversation around the coffee pot a few weeks back one of the lecturers jokingly commented 
"It's easy to take on a vow of poverty when someone else is paying the bills." 
I've been reflecting on that ever since. It really struck a chord (and prompted this post). I've considered my life of poverty as an Officer in The Salvation Army and, if I'm honest, I had it easy. Someone else was paying most of my bills. Whether that was the organisation paying for my rent, car lease, petrol etc. Or friends and family offering to pay for dinner if we went out for a meal. In many, many settings my 'vow of poverty' was easy because someone else was paying the bills. 

Now, I have deliberately framed this using personal pronouns because I don't want to universalise my experience. Single officers, for example, I imagine would have a much more difficult time making their allowance cover everything they needed. However, there is a cultural norm associated with Officers that they take on a life of poverty to fulfil their calling and serve Christ through The Salvation Army. 

As I look back I realise that's a lie and I perpetuated it with ease. 

Because someone else was paying the bills. 

Sermon: Matthew 13:1

I love questions. Many here would be aware that I’m working on a PhD in theology. I’ve also been a teacher of theology, worship, and critica...