Monday, 17 February 2014

Why do you persecute me?

Epiphany 6 year A Sermon 

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Acts 9:1-4  
What will Paul choose…life or death…
Continuing the metaphor we encountered in last week’s sermon…Jesus is about to invite Paul on a fishing trip…just like the disciples were invited…

But before he can become an effective fisher of men… Paul has to make a choice… between relationships that bring life and relationships that bring death.

Just like the Hebrew people passing through the Jordan River into the promise land. When Moses tells them…
Slide words
I have set before you…  life and death….blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…

Blank slide
For the ancient Hebrews it’s a choice between life for the community or death…for Paul nothing less is at stake than life for Jew and Gentile alike in the Kingdom of God.

Paul would later write…that his encounter with the risen Jesus… was an apocalypse – remember that word
from our series on revelation … revelation
is what apocalypse means

Paul writes… ‘God revealed his son in me.’ Right there on that dusty road…
when Paul was hell bent… on the destruction of the new break away Jewish sect… of Jesus followers…

And right there in a flash…there’s a sense in which the deep molecular structure… of this rabid rabbi …
the heart of this religious assassin…was changed.

In the blink of an eye…Paul’s entire way of thinking is shattered and rebuilt...on a new foundation…Jesus… the to the Corinthian’s Paul writes… ‘
slide words
For no one can lay any foundation… other than the one already laid…which is Jesus Christ.’ The way Paul had perceived and directed his life up to that moment…
was entirely transformed. 

The book of Acts records that Paul was blinded by a dazzling light. Would  you say Paul converts to Jesus
and is saved and promised heaven when he dies?
Is that what really happened?

Not by a long shot.

Jesus doesn’t ask  Paul if he’s heard of the four spiritual laws. Jesus doesn’t ask him to be born again…Paul  isn’t even asked if he’d like to become a Christian convert

What does Jesus ask him… [ask and wait for replies] 

He is asked about his violence…
Slide words
‘Saul…Saul…Jesus says… why do you persecute me?

This was the big question for Paul. Why was he persecuting Jesus by persecuting Jesus’ followers?
What was it about Jesus… that deserved persecution?

Paul speaks to this question… in his letter to the church at Philippi …in a rare autobiographical remark Paul writes…

If anyone else things he has reason to put confidence in the flesh I have more… circumcised on the eighth day…belonging to the people of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin…a Hebrew of Hebrew’s…in regard to the law – a Pharisee
Slide words
as for Zeal… for heaven sake I was a persecutor of the church…as for legalistic righteousness – I was faultless!

Paul’s religious pedigree is excellent.  His zeal can be measured in concrete terms…is was a persecutor …Saul’s zeal knew no limit…even death…

What was Saul’s zeal for?  For Torah…for the Law
as the Pharisees interpreted it…such a zealot was unconditionally prepared to use force…in order to turn God’s wrath away from Israel…for their understanding of God… was of a wrathful God.

Saul… could follow the logic of his understanding of scripture perfectly…he could watch Stephen stoned to death – and still be a model of perfection…
when it came to fulfilling the requirements of the Law.

And through the blinding light…the risen Christ
speaks the question Saul needs to hear
right into his heart…why do you persecute me?

In the coming days while still blinded… Paul would have a lot of time to ask himself this question…if I thought I was doing everything right…but now I know I was doing something very wrong – including how I read my Bible…then everything I used to think about God now has to be changed…

in light of God exalting Jesus of Nazareth
to the right hand of majesty.

Christian thinker Michael Hardin warns…if we are going to call this a conversion, it certainly isn’t Paul’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity
Paul doesn’t change religions

It’s his conversion from persecutor to persecuted…
from villain to martyr…from blameless Pharisee…
to in his own words…least among the apostles and chief among sinners. This moment for Paul doesn’t bring about
a change in his faith tradition. Paul was a Jew just like Jesus…they never ceased being Jews…
and from the beginning to the end of their lives
they expressed their faith in a Jewish way.

Again we need to be careful how we use this word ‘conversion’ ….when we’re thinking about what it means… to become fishers of men and women…

fishing slide
When Jesus passes by Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John on the sea-side in Capernaum… and calls them from their boats and their nets …to follow him…
to  become fishers of men
they are just as Jewish as Paul is…

Conversion is the wrong way to describe what’s going on …Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John
are being called… to follow.

Was Paul’s Damascus Road experience a conversion or a call? If it wasn’t a change of religions but a call...
then to what was he being called…

a fishing trip…in his own words… ‘called to be an apostle… sent not from men nor by any man…
but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.’

Paul’s language echoes the calling of the Jewish prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah…my friends Paul isn’t converted from Judaism…he’s changed within it. Next week our guest speaker, Jacob Damkani has had the same experience and is now possibly the greatest messianic Jewish evangelist in the world.

Paul slide again
No if Paul was converted from anything… it was his zealous interpretation of Torah…which was leading him down the road… of death

before his encounter with the risen Christ…Paul’s zealous interpretation of the law lead him to identify Jesus… as an heretical teacher and a dangerous agitator
whose deeds had brought him to justice…on a Cross. [Pause]
But face to face with Jesus on the road to Damascus… Paul recognises this to be a false judgment …
a judgement… he must abandon.

When Torah…when the Law was interpreted from the perspective of the persecutor…it seemed to authorise social retribution in the name of God
That’s what Paul saw in it…

But interpreted in the light of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth…the law demands love…
through the lens of what Jesus says is the greatest commandment
love the Lord your God with all you’ve got
love your neighbour the same way…
in fact love your enemy the same way
the law’s ultimate demand is love.

When the persecutors selected their texts
the law became a death dealing instrument
allowing the community… to sanction death.

But as we can see from Jesus choice of greatest commandment… the problem lay not with the Law…
but with human interpretation of the Law.

Later in his letter to the Galatians… Paul draws a sharp contrast between the blessing/promise voice of God
and the cursing/enslaving…. voice of the Law.  

Following his encounter with the risen Jesus…
on the road to Damascus…
for Paul the law is now secondary… to Christ.

While many of Paul’s contemporaries… and even some of ours… interpret God through the scriptures…
as retributive and punishing of sin…
Paul now understands… that God revealed in Jesus…
is compassionate and forgiving.  

Later Paul would say… it’s all about how you read the scriptures …you can read them veiled… or unveiled.

He writes… followers of Jesus aren’t like Moses

slide words
who put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It hasn’t been removed because only in Christ is it taken away.

Paul writes…
Change slide words
even to this day when Moses is read a veil covers their hearts…but when anyone turns to the Lord the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.
slide words
And we who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory are being transformed into his likeness with every increasing lorry which comes from the Lord…who is the Spirit.

Blank slide
When the scales finally fell from his eye…Paul saw clearly…It’s not the letter of the text that is revelation…
but the interpretation of the text
in the light of the Spirit… who is Jesus. [pause]

Will you and I read through the veil of zeal
that authorises killing in God’s name… or will we read through the lens of Christ...who was killed in the name of the text?

So like Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John…
Jesus asks Paul to let go of something…
so he can grab hold of the net of God’s love
for the salvation of the world. 

And when he lets go he becomes the greatest evangelist to the Pagan world who ever lived…the one whom Jesus would call… my chosen instrument… to proclaim my name to the Gentiles… and their kings
and to the people of Israel.

 My thanks again to Michael Hardin for inspiration for this sermon. His book The Jesus Driven Life can be purchased on Amazon.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Taking our place at the net

Epiphany 5 year A Sermon 
Matthew 2:18-23  and 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Did you catch that? Paul says to the Corinthians …summarising all the wisdom… all the good news he brought to them during his fishing trip to Corinth…

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ… and him crucified.

Yes… Paul’s was a fishing trip!!!…just like the one Jesus invites Simon Peter…Andrew, James and John to go on …there in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee …the sort of fishing trip which is… part of any Christian’s personal mission statement…right we’re to fish for people aren’t we.

Jesus cousin John had emphasised repentance during his ministry…but Jesus adds new dimensions doesn't he …teaching, healing and bringing about the reign of God.

I think Jesus’ choice of fishing trips…is a good metaphor
for the work of discipleship… don’t you?  Using it…
we can imagine the community of Jesus followers
like a boat…a vessel of God’s Shalom…
of well-being and equality…and peace with justice…

a new kind of family…formed by people who've heard and accepted the good news embodied by Jesus Christ…
that everyone is welcome at the Table…and loved by God … where everyone is served and celebrated...

There’s a strong sense in which all of us here today
well…we are this boat…this vessel… of Shalom…
not our building of course…but our community of faith. Called to follow Jesus…we as a people… are to be
a place of healing and restoration where no one is left out….

That’s why the invitation… to learn to fish for people
made so much sense to Simon Peter… and Andrew and James and John…and the metaphor worked for them… because they were used to fishing with nets…not hooks

As Jesus disciples their aim would be… to get all the fish they could into the net…so the more the merrier
could celebrate God’s grace and invite even more people in.

Jesus parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin make it clear that no one is… to be left out. In Jesus revelation of the will of God…and in Jesus interpretation of the Hebrew Bible… it’s clear… God doesn’t want anyone to be left out …God wants every last one in the boat.

This becomes a problem when we wrongly identify the boat with a church building…because… then our mission becomes getting people into the building…getting people to worship with us here on Sunday morning…
getting people to join our church…

Those are great things to  do…
But the boat we’re trying to get people into…
isn’t a building at all…it’s a new way of being family
side by side with… others created by God…learning to live and love like brothers and sistersall those
made in God’s image. A family…a kingdom… of love

And the nets in Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John’s
method of fishingwell these nets…help them understand what Jesus means …we’re not just fishing for a particular variety of fish…as you would with a carefully selected lure
We’re not just fishing for good people or people from a particular ethnic groups or religious backgrounds …
because Jesus’ good news is for everyone

That’s why we’re using nets and not fishing rods.

And just as Paul did in Corinth…you and I are holding onto …a part of the net of the good news…of the Gospel…
you and I… take our place at holding onto the net …
when we decide to be an obedient follower of Jesus

…side by side… you and I… grasp the net of God’s love
and walk the walk Jesus taught us to walk… until every last person in the world is scooped up…until every last person in the world…understands the meaning of the incarnation and the cross of Christ…until every last man and woman and child… knows God loves them…and joins us
in holding the net for others. [pause]

But before we can go on this fishing trip… before we can take hold of the net… we may have to let go of
some of the things we’re already hanging onto…otherwise our hands are full..

letting go of these things…turning from these things…
are one way to describe repentance…letting go of whatever prevents us from talking hold of the net of God’s love.

Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John…
all had to leave some things behind…they had to walk away from some of their security…let go of the cultural and religious prejudices which… kept them from becoming fishers of men…the way Jesus’ meant it…

They had to learn to accept people they’d kept away from before…and hold on to the net
right beside people who were different…even offer God’s net of love…to their traditional enemies

They had to leave behind what they’d always considered to be normal attitudes and ways of living… ways that weren’t consistent… with life in God’s kingdom.

Instead…just like Paul…they had to adopt ways…
that by the standards of the world are foolish – loving mercy, living justly… sharing what they had…so everyone has enough…forgoing arrogance and pride…walking humbly with God…and forgiving others…just as they were forgiven

In other words… in order to fish for people
they had to be the good news for them…embody the good news…personify the good news…to the poor and the sick and those living in darkness. [pause]

You see there’s no bait in a net is there…only the net

…the net…the lived example…of the community of good news…the community of love…the community of the Gospel…and you might just say…fish know they’re in the net…because they can’t find a way out

In the same way people know they’re in the net… because everywhere they turn…there is love…[pause]

Some find taking hold of the net easy
they look forward to participating…in the net of love that catches people up in the good news. But others are afraid to go fishing…because they’ve misunderstood
what fishing for people is…and they shy away
Slide words
Today I want to look at three misunderstandings or false beliefs… that may be… preventing you
from taking your place at the net…

First is the false belief that God doesn’t love you unconditionally …that you’re not good enough to be a disciple.
Second is the false belief that fishing for people means converting them so they won’t go to hell.
The third is a fear of contamination from extending love to the wrong kind of people…unclean people…

If any of these three false beliefs can prevent you from taking your place at the net…If you suffer from one… you might like to note that one down on your service sheet. We’re going to deal with them one by one
along with the remedy provided by Christ.

First let’s say you suffer from the false belief God doesn’t love you unconditionally…you think you’re not good enough to be one of those at the net on a Jesus fishing trip.

Usually we believe this diabolical lie…because we’ve been taught the heresy of a works based salvation …taught there are things we have to do to get God to love us…to earn God’s love…taught that…
if we give God what God wants…God will give us what we want...

but that isn’t what Jesus teaches in the parable of the prodigal son…in face he teaches the remedy for this false belief…in the parable…the father offers love before the son can say or do anything

If you want to ditch this false belief and take your place at the net of love… fishing for people

find someone who understands the grace of God and ask them to pray with you and for you…to help you embrace God’s unconditional love for you.

Once you get it…then your joyful response...will be to eagerly grasp hold of the net…because you want everyone to discover what you’ve discovered. 

Or let’s say you suffer from the second false belief…that fishing for people means you have to convert so they don’t go to hell by getting them to accept a set of spiritual propositions.

But here we need to remember that Jesus is trying to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth …so life wouldn’t be a living hell. The remedy for this false belief about fishing for people is to learn that when Jesus talks about hell, he’s not talking about a place in the middle of the earth where people burn for eternity…and he certainly isn’t talking about saving people from what God’s going to do to them…

Baal temple slide
In Capernaum there was a temple to the Baal…a kind of religious night club where sexual acts were performed with the priests and priestesses…the name of that nightclub was The Gates of Hell…standing right outside their doors is when Jesus says…to Peter…upon you I will build my church and the Gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Gehenna valley slide
Another time Jesus refers to Gehenna… a place outside ancient Jerusalem one of the two principal valleys surrounding the Old City.

Rubbish burning slide
In the Hebrew Bible, the site was initially where apostate Israelites and followers of various Ba'als and Caananite gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire. A place that was considered by the Jews to be cursed.

So if what keeps you from fishing for people is a reluctance to talk to people about hell…you’re not alone…just don’t do it… again find someone who understands the grace of God and get them to help you understand that Jesus came for the salvation of the whole world for God…not to save people from God.

Once you get that…then your response…in joy and gratitude will be to grasp hold of the net…because you’ll want everyone to discover what you’ve discovered. 

3. The third thing that stops us from fishing for people is the false belief that leads to fear of contamination from extending love to the wrong kind of people…unclean people…

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery slide
Now this contamination we fear seems to take several forms. Sometimes we actually fear the people themselves
maybe they’ll hurt us or laugh at us…sometimes we fear
we’ll be judged as unclean for associating with them.

But if we’re simply carrying the good news of God’s love it’s much easier to go fishing…isn’t it. Hi I’m a follower of Jesus…we can say…
and I believe that he revealed God’s love for everyone
calls us to a way to live that will bring about the salvation of the whole world…and from the Cross…spoke the forgiveness needed to end the vicious cycle of retribution and revenge that makes our world such a violent place.

Again if you suffer from fear of contamination or judgment…find someone who can teach you to understand the grace of God…and the perfect love
that casts out fear…

Fishing slide
All the time they followed Jesus…they got to watch how their Master…sought to bring wellbeing and peace to individuals and communities… through his presence with them.

Jesus taught them and teaches us… that we have the potential to participate in bringing about the kingdom of God on earth…to join in the healing of the nations and relationships and play our part in the changing of lives. Teaching us to pull people… out of their deep darkness and up into the boat…

Jesus slide
My prayer is that you will leave behind anything that stop you from taking your place at the net…and join Jesus in the fishing.

Let us sit in silence for a while to hear what God is saying into our hearts.