Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Easter morning, 24 April 2011.
Text: Mark 16:1–8
To listen to the sermon, click here.

We know very little about the evangelist Mark. But of one thing we can be fairly certain: he never did go on a creative writing course. What an awful way to end a book:

“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Said nothing? ! Nothing? !

Were afraid? !

What started as the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God—Mark’s famous opening line—ends up with this crushing anti-climax. Jesus is risen, but no one hears about it, because the women said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

In fact, it’s such an awful way to end the Gospel, that some time after Mark had finished writing his, some people came along and tried to make amends for his seeming incompetence by writing better conclusions. If you look up Mark 16 in your Bibles, you will find at least two different endings after verse 8, which break the women’s silence and end the story as it should end. And in more recent times, since it has become obvious that those longer endings aren’t original, well-meaning scholars have suggested all sorts of theories as to why Mark didn’t actually get to finish the gospel, or how his real ending got lost somewhere.

But is it really so bad? Do we need to be embarrassed or even puzzled? Closer examination of the gospel suggests that the opposite may be the case.

One of the really distinctive things about Mark’s account of Jesus’ life and teaching is that he deliberately portrays all the people in the Gospel, from Jesus down, in their full humanity. There are no caricatures, not polished or stylised characters. When the disciples are being thick and slow on the uptake, Mark doesn’t hide that. When they stick their feet firmly in their mouths, Mark makes sure that we know about it. And when Jesus is in agony, suffering first in Gethsemane and then on the cross, Mark gives to us a portrait of a man genuinely suffering: in the Garden, prostrate on the ground, begging for the cup of suffering to be taken away; and on the cross, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! ”

There is a great comfort in this. When we struggle with the weakness of our faith, or when our own agenda takes over God’s will, Mark kindly reminds us that we are not alone. The great apostles were just the same, and yet Jesus chose them to be His ambassadors to the world, bringing about His kingdom by proclaiming His word. He bears with our weaknesses as He bore with theirs, and it is by His calling that we are made into God’s children, just as they were called not because of their excellence but simply because He chose them. And as He equipped the apostles for their ministry, so will He also equip us for our place in His kingdom, whatever that place may be. As the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: His power is made perfect in our weakness, because His grace is sufficient.

More than that, when He took on human flesh, it wasn’t just a bit of play acting, only pretending to be one of us. No, He suffered fear and anguish and temptation as we do. Therefore, He is able to sympathise with our weakness—not only in principle, or because He is all-knowing, but because He has experienced weakness, yet without sin.

And so it is most appropriate that Mark’s Gospel should end the way it does. The women fled the tomb and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Jesus was alive, but they had not encountered the risen Jesus, and so the news of His resurrection was not a comfort but a source of trembling and astonishment. It made no sense, they couldn’t believe really believe it, so they said nothing.

How typical—not only of them, but of every disciple in Mark’s Gospel: seeing yet not believing, missing what should be obvious. I mean, what more did they need? An empty tomb, and an angel explaining exactly what it all meant. The meaning should have been obvious. They should have rejoiced and told everyone, not trembled and told no one.

But, again Mark is doing us a great favour in drawing attention to the women’s unbelief. Because it shows that we are not alone with our doubts and struggles, our fears and our fearfulness. The facts are evident, and we are reminded of them week after week, year after year, as we hear the Scriptures read and proclaimed. There may be no angel from heaven, but angels of God, His messengers, have faithfully pointed to the empty tomb again and again, proclaiming that Jesus is alive and has gone ahead of us.

But where joy and courage should follow, there is trembling and astonishment. Where we should be quick of feet to tell everyone that the Lord has risen, we say nothing to anyone, because we are afraid.

And yet, we know how the story ends. Mark had no need to give the Gospel a neat ending, because everyone knew what happened next. Within a few short hours, the astonishment and fear had been replaced by rejoicing, and the silence had turned into breathless proclamation: He is risen! By the time Mark put pen to papyrus, the news of Christ’s resurrection had travelled thousands of miles all around the Roman empire and beyond, and it is still spreading.

Because it is His Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Death could not hold Him down, and the weakness of the women at the tomb could not hold back the life-giving news of His rising. When they encountered the risen Christ, His voice and His touch melted away their fear and turned their silence into joyful words.

Easter morning will not have been the last experience of fear and doubt for these first witnesses of the resurrection. Even though the encounter with the risen Lord dispelled their anxiety and replaced it with joy, after His ascension there will have been many anxious moments. Anxieties about daily bread, about health, anxieties in the face of persecution, anxiety in the face of approaching and impending death. Anxiety in the face of sin and doubt. The feelings of joy will have been a memory than a reality.

How would they recover the joy and the confidence? How do we gain, and regain the same joy and confidence that was theirs then?

True Christian joy comes from the encounter with the risen Jesus. That was true on Easter morning, and it is true now. The very joy of heaven will be the joy of the presence of the risen Jesus. When fear and anxiety threaten to take over our lives, we need to seek the presence of the risen Jesus. Even as we suffer, we can share Job’s confident hope: I know that my Redeemer lives: my life is no longer defined by my present circumstances but by the future hope made present now.

There is nothing airy-fairy or abstract about this encounter. Jesus is not your imaginary friend. No, the risen Lord is present here and now. He it is that is speaking to you, as He spoke to the startled disciples on the first Easter Sunday. His crucified and risen body is about to enter this room, as it entered through locked doors on the evening of the first Easter. You can touch His body as Thomas touched it and was transformed from doubting Thomas to believing Thomas. And as you encounter Him in the Divine Service, and through faith recognise that it is indeed He and that He is indeed living and present here for you, your doubts, fears and anxieties will go the same way that the doubts, fears and anxieties of the three women at the tomb.

Jesus is risen, and you too shall rise. Whatever havoc death is playing with your life now, Christ has overcome death—and so you, too, who are in Christ, will be victorious over death. It can only inflict temporary wounds, cast temporary shadows, provoke temporary fears. In Christ, you can stare all the failures and successes of this present life full in the face and declare with faithful Job:

I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

Alleluia, He is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

A sermon preached on Quinquagesima Sunday, 6 March 2011 at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham. (Typos and all)
[Click here for audio]

1 Samuel 16:1–13
1 Corinthians 13:1–13
Luke 18:31–43

If you have read John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, you may recall the trial of Mr. Faithful at Vanity Fair. The trial is a travesty of justice, because the sinful inhabitants are intent on getting rid of the godly voice that has appeared among them. The jury consists of Mr Blindman, Mr No-good, Mr Malice, Mr Love-lust, Mr Live-loose, Mr Heady, Mr High-mind, Mr Enmity, Mr Lyar, Mr Cruelty, Mr Hate-light, and Mr Implacable. To emphasise the injustice, and perhaps to get a few laughs to boot, Bunyan is unable to resist the obvious pun. The jury’s deliberation opens thus: “Mr Blind-man the Foreman, said, I see clearly that this man is an Heretick.”

How absurd: a man’s fate hanging on what the blind man sees. Bunyan, in none-too-subtle tones, describes the blindness of sin. How sinful people, blinded by their own sin, think that what they can perceive is all that there is, that the truth is that which lies before their darkened eyes, and who refuse to see anything other than the darkness which they mistake for light. As at Vanity Fair, so in the real world it’s an absurd, perhaps even offensive, notion: that the blind should instruct the seeing on what can be seen clearly.
Yet this morning, the evangelist presents just such a situation before us. As usual when Jesus went about His earthly life, He was surrounded by a crowd, so much so that as He approached Jericho, it brought about a small commotion. At the very least, the sensitive ears of the blind beggar of Jericho, could tell that something out of the ordinary was going on. But, being blind, he could needed others to fill in the details, namely that Jesus was coming to town. Up to this point, the story seems to confirm what I have just said: blindness is impotence, blindness brings about ignorance. Of all the people at the gates of Jericho that day, everyone knew what was going on, except the blind man. Had it not been for his curiosity and the kindness of the other bystanders, Jesus may well have passed by this unseeing beggar, unnoticed, never to return―since Jesus was already on His way to Jerusalem and the cross.

Apart from the word spoken to him, identifying Jesus as the cause of the strange stir, Bartimaeus―although Luke doesn’t mention it, the Gospel of Mark names the man as Bartimaeus, meaning the son of Timaeus―without the word, Bartimaeus would have remained in the ignorance of his blindness. But the moment he asks for an explanation and the word is spoken to him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by”, Bartimaeus springs into action, crying at the top of his voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ”
What a beautiful illustration of the power of the Word of God to break in on the ignorance of the blind. From birth, Bartimaeus’ world had been restricted to his four functioning senses. He was able to live, and to get about, but only just; safe in the familiar terrain of Jericho but ever to leave. Incapable of working, he was reduced to begging, a miserable and often short-lived existence at the mercy of others, in extreme hardship and extreme humiliation. It’s not for nothing that Scripture speaks of life lived in sin as darkness and of unbelievers as those blinded by sin. For such a life is just like that of blind Bartimaeus: people are able to live and get about, but only just: always one illness or accident away from death, capable of navigating the familiar terrain of this earth but unable ever to leave. Incapable of doing real work, loving God and the neighbour, work that sustains one eternally, they are reduced to scraping an existence that is sufficient in happy cases for some decades, before being snuffed out. As some anonymous realist put it: life is hard and then you die.

But when the Holy Spirit stirs such darkened lives with God’s word, blessed are those who, like Bartimaeus, have neighbours and by-standers at hand to declare the cause of these stirrings: Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. And blessed are those who, like Bartimaeus leap up and cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ” For Jesus never passes by anyone crying for mercy: there is nothing He delights in more than stopping to help such helpless beggars, showing mercy and giving impossibly rich gifts. Restoring sight to the blind, He literally gives them the life they could otherwise never have had. And how tragic it is when the blind have none to point them to Jesus, no one that will take them to that fountain of mercy, so that they are left in their dark ignorance. And how tragic it is when the blind are contented with their blindness and never cry out for mercy, allowing Jesus to pass by, ignoring the call of God’s word and turning their backs on the mercy and life He desires to give to all.

And so, it turns out that, though blind in his physical eyes, Bartimaeus wasn’t the blind man of Jericho at all. Like Mr. Blind-man of Bunyan’s creation, he was able to say―but he without a hint of sarcasm or irony―, “I see clearly where my hope lies.” Everyone else that day could see Jesus with their physical eyes, but the eyes of their souls looked right through Him. They could see His form and recognise Him―without ever seeing who He really was and what it meant that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. Even the twelve, when Jesus reminded them, not for the first time, of what was about to happen to Him, of the fate which was the whole purpose of His earthly life―Luke tells us that they “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They knew Him better than anyone else, they were His closest companions, yet they were blind. Jesus’ death, His sacrifice for them and for the whole world, took them completely by surprise because they failed to perceive the purpose for which He was sent by the Father.

The crowd outside Jericho recognised Him and were excited enough to create a small scene. And yet when Bartimaeus began to cry out for mercy, they showed themselves to be blind to who Jesus is by trying to silence Him. As if Jesus would be annoyed by the temerity of the beggar of Jericho, as if it was somehow an indignity that someone as important as Jesus should be disturbed or interrupted by someone as insignificant and miserable as a blind beggar. Even today, it’s not uncommon in many parts of the world that when something important happens in a city―a state visit, or some sporting event or an international summit―the potholes are filled, an extra lick of paint is splashed along the main streets … and the beggars are bussed out of town so as not to embarrass the hosts or to hassle the guests.

You see, it’s a timeless truth that beggars make us uncomfortable, especially the ones in genuine need. They are insistent, out of necessity, and get in our way. Their disabilities and hardships―the mangled limbs, the clouded eyes, the crying babies―intrude into our comfort zone, unwelcome reminders of the injustice of their suffering compared to our good fortune, producing guilt, resentment and, eventually, the necessary hardness that puts up the hand and says, “Sorry. I won’t help you.” And isn’t it true, that the more insistent the beggar, the harder it is to remain sympathetic?  The longer he goes on, the less likely he is to get a sympathetic hearing, until we stop our ears―or give something, not out of love to help the needy in his need, but out of frustration, just to shut him up. “Love is patient and kind; it is not … rude. Love is not irritable or resentful … it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Who loves like this?

Well, clearly the people of Jericho didn’t seem to think that Jesus did. They assumed that Jesus was like them, and like us, finding beggars an embarrassment, a nuisance. They were blind to His love, to its nature and its depth. In the crowd that day, only the blind Bartimaeus saw clearly, saw that Jesus of Nazareth is neither embarrassed nor hassled by Bartimaeus. Jesus does not get riled by the insistence of those who beg of Him, but the very contrary is true. Jesus longs for us to beg, he desires our begging. To Him, it’s not a nuisance but a joy and a delight. Notice how impudent and insistent Bartimaeus was: the more they tried to shut him up, the more he cried. And notice Jesus’ reaction: unlike about everybody else, He wasn’t repelled by Bartimaeus’ begging, but drawn to it. Bartimaeus threw himself at the mercy of Jesus―and Jesus never turns away such beggars. That day, his eyes were opened. He found healing for his physical eyes because he had already been given the eyes of faith that recognised in Jesus his only hope. And so he not only received sight and a radical improvement in his quality of life, but through faith he received an eternal gift of sight and life. That’s why we know his name: Mark referred to him by name, because when Mark wrote his Gospel, Bartimaeus’ name was still recognised among the Christians for whom the Gospel was originally written.

And so, on that day in Jericho, Bartimaeus alone gave Jesus the royal welcome that was due to Him. In the ancient world, it was customary when the king visited a town for the populace to line the streets, and they would cry out, “Lord, have mercy”, in the hope that the king would hear their petitions for justice, a water supply, new roads, or whatever their immediate needs were. When the King of Kings entered Jericho, many were impressed, but only Bartimaeus gave Him His royal title, Son of David, and the royal welcome, “Lord, have mercy.”

And that cry still rings throughout the Christian church. In every Divine Service, we too cry out, “Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Lord, have mercy! ” It isn’t a cry for forgiveness―after all, the Kyrie comes almost immediately after we have been absolved of our sins. Rather, in the Kyrie, we come to Almighty God, as Bartimaeus once came to Jesus, with our petitions, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the Church, and the world, entrusting our needs to the mercy of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The longer form of the Kyrie we sang this morning with its petitions, make this particularly clear. Likewise, this is why the petitions of the Prayer of the Church always conclude with an appeal to God’s mercy: ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’; ‘for this and that, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy’.

And like Bartimaeus, we are invited to beg openly, boldly and insistently―because Jesus does not pass by beggars in need, beggars who recognise their dire need and their only hope in Him. He sees all our needs, He delights in our asking for His help, and He delights in satisfying our needs―even though that sometimes means that He doesn’t give us what we ask when we would like it.

May God give us His grace that we will never tire of begging for His mercy, that at the last we may inherit the one thing that is needful, eternal life through the merits of His Son, our King and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham on 23 January 2011, Epiphany 4 [typos and all]

Naaman is one of those characters in the Bible whose story is familiar to almost everyone who has been to Sunday School for any length of time. Every time I read or hear the story myself, images of the fuzzy felt storyboard from my own Sunday School in the early ‘70s and ‘80s come flooding back.

And like so many of the biblical characters we encounter through Sunday School, Naaman gets a bit of a rough deal. He comes across as something of an anti-hero: he is the enemy general who has vanquished God’s people in battle, killed their king, kidnapped a poor Israelite girl as a slave, who shows no faith in the promise God makes through His prophet, and who is saved only after his servants persuade him to listen to the prophet. However, even a brief moment of self-scrutiny should make us realise that this is hardly fair on Naaman: he is certainly no worse than us. At every turn his reactions are just what you would expect from any normal, rational person. This passage is not a story about Naaman’s foolishness—it is a story about God’s foolishness, about how God saves us through wonderfully foolish means.

(more…)

Homily preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on Sunday 9 January 2011.

Text: Matthew 3:13–17

Baptism of JesusIt really made no sense. John the Baptist had been preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in anticipation of the coming of the kingdom of God. The Lord’s Messiah was coming and he would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire, with his winnowing fork in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff.

And so they came. Matthew tells us that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”. It was one mighty washing: the waters of the Jordan being stained with the crimson sins of the repentant sinners of Jerusalem and Judea, all of them eager to be found to be gathered as wheat into the Lord’s barn at the coming of His kingdom, not be burned up as chaff.

So what was Jesus doing, asking to be immersed in these same waters of the Jordan, to receive the sinners’ baptism? The pure lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, asking to be baptised by John, who has come to prepare the sinners of Israel for His coming? John’s reaction is not only understandable; it’s the only reaction that makes sense: “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me? ”

(more…)

A homily preached on 21 November 2010 at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Oxford Lutheran Mission.

The Last Sunday of the Church Year
Proper 29C
Luke 23:27–43

Have you heard of Gladstone Gander? A character in Donald Duck short animations and comic books, he is Donald Duck’s cousin, rival and nemesis all at once. The thing that most infuriates Donald about Gladstone is that he is the luckiest bird alive. He never needs to exert himself or make any effort—he wins every raffle or lottery going, stumbles on wallets dropped by their owners and in every way enjoys improbably good fortune. In the meantime, his luckless cousin spends his days working hard for very little reward—and resenting both his bad fortune and Gladstone’s luck.

They are hardly serious works or profound literature, but the tales of the two feathery cartoon characters genuinely strike a cord with the human condition: both the desire to be ‘lucky’—to get good things without the effort—and the resentment for the fact that there others luckier than ourselves. How else do you explain the National Lottery: people spending their hard-earned money on a competition where you are statistically more likely to die on the way to buying the ticket than you are to win the thing—because who knows, you might be lucky this time. Whether it’s relationships, careers or wealth that we value, I suspect we all would would prefer to be Gladstone Gander rather than Donald Duck. Who wouldn’t want to be the luckiest man or woman alive?

In today’s Gospel, we also encounter two classes of people who fall broadly into these two archetypal categories: those doing well and those down on their luck. At first glance, it seems obvious which people belong to which category. On the one hand, we have Jewish leaders, ordinary people, Roman soldiers. On the other hand, we have three condemned men led to the Place of the Skull to be executed. It’s no hard to spot the unlucky ones, the ones on whom fortune is no longer smiling. At least two of the men had brought their bad luck on themselves. The evangelist describes them as ‘evil-doers’. In the case of Jesus, it’s an even more tragic story: His downfall is the result of the schemes of others, a judicial murder born out of envy and malice.

It’s not for nothing, then, that the women of Jerusalem are moved to tears as they watch the pitiable down-and-out heading towards his grisly end.

And it’s not for nothing that we shed tears for those who walk the same road today, having met with the sharp end of the world’s wrath. Writing to the Romans, Paul quoted the psalmist’s despairing cry:

“ For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

If that was the case in the first century, how much more so today. Christians today in Muslim countries daily risk their lives—and too often, lose them—when they confess Jesus as their Lord, while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. More and more, Christians in Western countries are under pressure from society and government—and sometimes even from church leadership—to abandon the Word of God in exchange for a message that is more palatable to an increasingly pagan society.

And where there isn’t hostility, the Gospel is met by a deafening wall of indifference, as it is among so many of our family members, friends and neighbours. More often than not, we don’t even have the privilege of meeting the enmity of the world, as a sign that the Word and our testimony is having an impact on people. We are not being killed, just ignored.

It can be hard not to feel that the Gospel has run out of steam, run into a brick wall—whether that brick wall is violence of silence. It’s easy to weep for Jesus, on His way to another defeat.

But Jesus did not accept the pity of the women. Not because He was stoical or proud, but because He saw things very differently. It is not He who was to be pitied. Yes, He was about to die an agonising death, and that unjustly. Yes, to the eyes of the witnesses of those events, His very fate was proof positive that He was a failure, another would-be-Messiah who in the end couldn’t save others because He couldn’t even save Himself.

But He needed no pity. He had chosen His path, He was carrying His cross willingly and ultimately by choice. It was the women themselves, all the people of Jerusalem who were to be pitied. Because they, too, would feel God’s wrath as Jesus was feeling it then. In a very short time, Jerusalem would be destroyed, and it would lead to scenes far more atrocious and pitiable than the death of one man on a cross. A city that was chosen by God as His holy habitation had turned its back on Him by rejecting His Son: that would be the real tragedy.

Even as He was mounting the hill of Calvary, Jesus knew how the story would end: in His glorious resurrection, His vindication and the salvation of all who trust in Him. Whereas the end of unbelieving Jerusalem would have no happy end.

The fate of Jerusalem was a local tragedy for a small group of people in the corner of the Roman Empire. But as we heard last week, the destruction of the Holy City had a far greater significance: it was a dress rehearsal for the fate of the fallen, unbelieving world. Just as Jerusalem was destroyed amid terrible scenes, so the world too will be brought to a cataclysmic end when God finally allows His righteous judgement to fall on it. The world will end, and the end will not be happy. Those who now cause Christians to weep because of their unbelief and their hostility will one day weep for themselves as they are forced to acknowledge in the face of His coming in glory: that Jesus Christ is Lord, who has come to judge the living and the dead.

Weep not for Jesus, and weep not for His people—because He is already victorious over death, and so is His body, the Church. Even death cannot defeat the bride of Christ, because death no longer has dominion over us.

Jesus was most definitely not down on His luck on that terrible Good Friday. It looked like a defeat, an ironic proof that He had failed. He saved others, but He cannot save Himself. Whereas it was the greatest victory of all: He saved others by refusing to save Himself. His failure to save Himself wasn’t a failure—it was precisely that that was the means of His victory, the completion and fulfilment of His saving work. His death may have looked like the death of the other two, the criminals on His left and His right, but it was the precise opposite: they came to a nasty end as a reprisal for their evil deeds. He came to a nasty end—but which wasn’t the end—for our evil deeds.

So it wasn’t Jesus, who was having a Donald Duck day outside Jerusalem on Good Friday. That misfortune was yet to be played out, and it would fall on those who seemed to have got their way with Jesus that day, who rejected Him.

But who, you may ask, was the Gladstone Gander of Golgotha? Who would you say was the luckiest man alive that day? Was it Pilate, who had managed to avert a potentially disastrous riot by some careful manoeuvring? The chief priests, who had got rid of their nemesis after all? The soldiers, who had another victim to amuse them in the midst of dreary garrison life, and some new clothes to boot?

None of the above? The luckiest man alive that day was none other than a thief on the cross, a dying criminal suffering at the hands of earthly justice. A man who had got what he deserved and was feeling it. A man who was on death’s door, a man under the curse of law, the curse of society and even the curse of God’s law—for cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. He had nothing left of his life. He would leave no legacy except his crimes and their just desserts. He had nothing left to offer to anyone, except a bloody spectacle. It was curtains time for him.

Except for one thing: he was crucified next to Jesus, and at death’s door, knew what that meant. He alone recognised in Jesus the means of his salvation. He had nothing he could bring to Jesus, except this plea: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me—because you can save others. Jesus, remember me—my only hope.

And he discovered that fact, which is also our only hope: that sinners with nothing left to offer who pin their hope on the mercy of Jesus are in the best place in the world. Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. You have placed your faith in me: by faith, you are mine, and I am yours. Wherever Jesus is, there is paradise. In his wretchedness, in the moment of the shipwreck of his life, this criminal was the luckiest man alive: he was in paradise even as he hung on that cross.

He was the first to enter paradise after Good Friday. But he was not the last. Over two thousand years, millions of sinners have heard the same voice of Jesus: today, you shall be with me in paradise. At every baptism, Jesus speaks these saving words. He spoke them to you at your baptism. When your sins assail you, when your conscience troubles you, when you run into the hostility or indifference of the world, Jesus invites you to say after the thief on the cross: Jesus, remember me. And in His word, He repeats to you, again and again: today, you shall be with me in paradise. I did not save myself so that I may save you. In His Supper, you will participate in the feast of His kingdom, reminding you of the fact that you already are in the kingdom.

There is no need to weep for the Church. Even as we grieve the earthly damage wrought on the body of Christ and its individual members, we need not weep as those women wept, bereft and disappointed. Rather, we may rejoice that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. We may rejoice that every Christian who endures suffering for the sake of the cross is thereby displaying the saving cross of Christ in his life. We may even rejoice, as the apostles did, when we share the suffering for the sake of the name of Christ. Because He remembers us—because He has reconciled us to the Father by His blood—because in Him, we have overcome the world. We are the luckiest people alive.

The Festival of All Saints
A Homily Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on 7 November 2010
1 John 3:1–3

Who do you think you are?

What makes you who you are? How is your identity forged?

Of course, these are difficult and complex questions with no simple answer. However, at least in one way, the television programme that has our question as its title, Who Do You Think You Are?, has got the approach spot-on. In case you are not familiar with the format, Who Do You Think You Are? follows various famous people as they go in search of their roots, digging through their family history in order to understand better who they themselves are. The premise is simple: we are in some significant way products of our past—our personal histories, and the histories of our forebears.

And so it is. Every new day, we wake up at the end of a string of days stretching back the length of our lives, and the kind of day it turns out to be is determined at least in part by what has happened before. Our state of health, our state of mind; our bank balance, and how we hope to occupy ourselves; our families and friendships: they are what they are because of what has already happened. A good investment, a missed opportunity, a life-saving operation, an unexpected injury, a chance encounter, a relationship carefully nurtured, our sins, the sins of others—all these happy turns or dark shadows of the past have left a mark on us, and made us who we are. Some of you can look back at our pasts with pleasure, grateful for how a succession of happy events and circumstances have made our contented lives. Others will contemplate difficulties and hardships and wonder what might have been if things had gone differently.

And, humanly speaking, all of us have every right to be conscious of the unpredictability of life, of the great unknown that the future is. Just as we are made by our pasts, every day we are making our futures by our decisions and having them made for us by our circumstances.

Perhaps this is why in some languages, people speak of looking forward to the past—at what we already know and is laid out before us—and of looking back to the future—because it’s behind our backs, as it were, waiting to come to view as we travel unsighted into time to come.

Humanly speaking, that is.

When we examine ourselves in the light of God’s word, things look very different. In fact, they couldn’t be more different. According to our Epistle reading, it is not the past that is significant but the future; and it is the future, not the past, that defines who and what we really are now.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

In Christ, we are not products of chance, nor are our identities shaped by what we or someone else has done. In fact, to understand who we are in the Kingdom of God, it is not the past but the future that we are to consider. For while all of our pasts are chains of unpredictable events, our future is certain and guaranteed.

It used to be the custom, and in some places still is, that a child would not be named until its baptism. Likewise, people baptised later in life would receive a new, baptismal, name. This is a concrete way to mark the fact that in Holy Baptism, we all receive a completely new identity. In Baptism, we are united with Christ’s death and resurrection; in Baptism, we are clothed with Christ. And so we become by adoption what He is from eternity: children and co-heirs of the Heavenly Father. Being God’s children, we are members of His household, citizens of His kingdom.

However, we are always being tempted to think of this reality only as a future blessing: that one day, we will join the twelve tribes of Israel and the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” in the heavenly kingdom. After all, our daily lives are hardly heavenly. And I am not referring to the circumstances of our lives. Rather, more often than not, each of us finds that it’s not the image of Christ that is shining forth in our lives. Even in church, we squabble and snap, play home advantage and judge one another as if we were just another social gathering. We measure our worship by our tastes and experiences rather than God’s word, we seek pleasure rather than God’s will, and ultimately prefer the promises of this fleeting life to God’s eternal and unshakeable ones. Such a far cry from the happy throng crowding around the throne of the Lamb. Thank God that one day we will go to heaven and it will all be different.

And in some ways this is precisely what John writes in his letter: we are God’s children now but what we will be has not yet been revealed. We are God’s children now, but what we are now is not the sum total of what God has in store for us. By no means! One day, we will not only be given the outside righteousness of Christ as a possession—one day, we will be righteous and pure as He is. One day, we will be part of a happy throng around the throne of the Lamb, pure and without blemish, united with Him and, through Him, with one another. Every time the Church on earth gathers around God’s gifts, she looks forward to the new creation when this sin-ravaged world will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no sin. Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the banquet at the wedding feast of the Lamb with His bride the Church, in unending joy.

But that’s precisely it: the foretaste is already here. We are already children of God, because He has already given us that name. We already gather at the throne of the Lamb—because He comes down to us, to establish His throne at this plain altar by His bodily presence. Only now we are living as dual citizens. Our sinful flesh is a product of our past and the past of our forebears. The only certainty for the flesh is that which is unchangeable because it has already happened or inevitable because it cannot be prevented—death.

But that is not who you really are. Since you were given the name of a child of God, that sinful self began its death and an entirely new life began. A life already determined by the certainty of a future guaranteed by Christ. While we live in this sinful flesh, we cannot imagine what it will be like to shed our mortal garb and to enter fully into life in the new creation. But we have the sure hope, the cast-iron promise that in Christ, that is our destiny.

And the promise is cast-iron because it is in Christ. Yes, we are a motley collection of rat bags of varying degrees like any motley collection of children of men always will be. But in Christ, we are God’s dearly beloved children, spotless and without blemish—because He has taken all our spots and blemishes upon Himself and given us His perfect purity. As His children, we are called to purify ourselves from the sin and filth to which we are so attached. But not as a condition but as a consequence of our heavenly calling.

Moreover, we have been not only been given the command to purify ourselves but also means of purification. Earlier in His letter, John writes, “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” And the motley crowd from all the tribes of Israel and from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the Lamb’s throne had this one thing in common: “They [had] washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

On this feast of All Saints, we remember with thanksgiving the saints that have gone before us and are now free from the shackles of the past, from every sin, suffering and evil. But we don’t only rejoice for them. We also rejoice with them. There is only one, holy, Christian and apostolic church. They have triumphed over death, we are still engaged in battle. But like them, we gather around the throne of the Lamb, to be purified by His very blood, and praising Him with angels and archangels, while we await the resurrection of the body, when sin, death and the devil will be no more and “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (29 August) 2010.

Luke 14:1–14

The daily ritual must have been incredibly wearying for the poor driver. Every morning at 8.20, he would approach the bus stop where I was waiting, together with a couple of dozen other young teenagers. In the three years that I was part of the experience, not once did he actually manage to get the bus all the way to the stop, as the herd pushed forward like so many wild animals in a fierce race to be the first at the door. It’s amazing that no one got seriously hurt, or that the driver never actually hit a child in frustration at such idiotic behaviour.

And the price for the winner, the goal of the death-defying race? A place on the back row of seats and the right to allocate the remaining seats as he or she wished. 15 minutes on top of the world, 15 minutes as the king or queen of all that one could survey from the back of that dingy, clapped-out school bus. And the same scenario repeated in a mad gallop across the school playground when the bell went at 3pm. With the hindsight of maturity, it’s amazing that we thought it worth it, that we didn’t see both the stupidity and the comedy of the whole enterprise.

But there was more to this crude ritual. Once or twice, some scrawny first-former would manage to wriggle to the front of the heaving mass and dart to the back of the bus. The moment of triumph would rarely last longer than a few seconds, before the natural order of things was restored and the back occupied by whichever rightful contestant—someone bigger and stronger than the impudent runt—got there to eject the miserable upstart. No one made that humiliating mistake twice.

In today’s Gospel reading, we have a scenario, which looks very different from the school bus crush of my youth: the learned and honoured ranks of a town gathered for a dinner party at the home of one of their number, with Jesus among the quests. However, underneath the respectable veneer, these respectable folk are playing exactly same game. Luke tells us that Jesus “noticed how they chose the places of honour”. This is the polite way of putting it. To be more precise, Luke tells us that Jesus noticed how they kept trying to choose the best seats. There was an outwardly respectable dance as the Pharisees and biblical scholars tried to do subtly what we used to do in the death-defying push for the bus door: to get to the best place, the seat recognised by all as the summit, whose occupier was the king of the castle—by virtue of sitting where he sat.

This is not something that is particularly familiar to us modern Westerners, for whom the social etiquette of the meal table has lost much of its significance. It is mostly at weddings that we still find our ranking published to the present company in the form of the seating orders. However, in the world where Jesus lived, for people who cared about their social standing (which was most people), these things were of utmost importance. A social faux-pas, or a public humiliation, could do huge damage to a person’s reputation and standing in the small and intimate communities where most people lived.

In this light, Jesus’ advice is healthy common sense: instead of risking humiliation by over-exalting yourself, you are better off aiming low. That way, you will avoid the risk of the terrible climb-down, of being put down in your place in front of everyone; and perhaps you will get to experience the opposite, of being elevated to a place of greater honour in front of everyone. It’s sound advice for anyone, and not only in the context of first-century social conventions. Aim too high and you’re set up for a nasty fall; keep your ambitions modest, and you may well be in for a pleasant surprise.

However, to hear Jesus’ words as mere sound advice about how to behave in polite society is to miss the point, and to let ourselves off the hook. What the Pharisees and the lawyers were guilty of wasn’t just unwise or risky behaviour. Their real mistake wasn’t that they were taking social risks, or behaving in a manner unsuited to men of their standing. Far more serious was the way they sought to assert their own honour and prestige at the expense of others by fighting for the outward signs of honour and prestige. They agreed with the society around them that what mattered most to a person in society was their position in that society—that the most treasured thing one could possess was to be held in honour among one’s peers.

And when we see them in this light, it’s not such a great leap to recognise ourselves in the jostling, self-promoting Pharisees and lawyers. The way we judge ourselves, the way we judge others, is by the yardstick of various social and other conventions about what makes a person honoured or worthy. Wealth, education, job, family background, the kind of house or car one has, the kind of company one keeps, fashion sense, accent, nationality, manner, manners, the behaviour of one’s children or grandchildren—the list is endless: little, or not-so-little, markers we use to evaluate ourselves and others; to determine the kind and extent of honour we show to others or expect others to show to us. And so we use them to seek and to allocate the right places in the different circles we occupy in life.

In the same way we, like Jesus’ host on the Sabbath evening and almost any respectable person in that society, we too surround ourselves with people who are either like us, or who can benefit us, or whom we can benefit in some sort of mutual arrangement. Most of the dinner parties we attend or host are likely to look more like the one hosted by the ruler of the Pharisees—a gathering of like-minded people of a similar social standing—than the one hosted by Levi on the day he became a disciple of Jesus—a ragbag of tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners—and Jesus.

Worse still, too many churches are no exception to this rule: gatherings of like-minded people of similar backgrounds—and all too often with the same unwritten rules and pecking orders. Because we are just as beholden to the same worldly standards of what constitutes wisdom, worth, honour and power.

How different things look from Jesus’ perspective! When He watched the dance of the status symbols that Sabbath evening, what he saw was not the aspiration for honour and prestige, the struggle for treasures of precious worth. Rather, what he saw a sad ritual, like a beauty contest in a pigsty or a freedom march in a high-security prison: it made perfect sense within that little world, but was totally ludicrous from an objective, outside perspective. Instead of men of varying degrees of honour, what Jesus saw was a group of modest little men, with much to be honest about, to borrow Churchill’s phrase.

For Jesus sees us as God sees us, since He is God incarnate. The standards of honour and respect that are so cherished to us are of little worth in His eyes, since God sees into our hearts. Hearts, where even righteousness is just so many filthy rags. Try to exalt yourself in God’s company, to present your honour and your worth to Him, and you will find that you will not just be shown a lower seat at the table, but will find yourself thrown outside into the great darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth. All the things that we cherish in ourselves and admire in others, are ultimately like us: perishing. And while they may have their value and uses in this life, they are of no consequence at the banquet hall of the kingdom of God. For, as Scripture tells us repeatedly, God shows no partiality, but looks into our hearts. Which is why everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. Because we all are humble little people, with much to sin to be humble about.

If we saw ourselves and others from this perspective, perhaps we would be less keen to create and maintain are various pecking orders, less keen to seek the best seats or to make sure that no one steps out of line. After all, none of has much to write home about when it comes to true worth and honour.

* * * * *

But when God looks at us, He sees us in another way as well. He doesn’t only see the shame that our sins bring on us, the filthy rags of our best moments and all the other moments worse still than the filthy rags.

When God looks at humanity, He doesn’t only see an ocean of sinners: He also sees an ocean of people for whom Christ died. Every person born of a woman: Christ died for every man, woman and child, from the humblest embryo to the President of the United States of America and beyond. He had pity on His creation and sent His Son into the world, into all the humility that is ours as a birthright since the Fall. And Christ humbled Himself, taking on the form of a servant and dying our death on the cross. Not because you’re worth it: you’re not. But because His love for you is so great. And as He is now exalted and has been given a name that is above every name, so that every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father—so too all who are found in Him, united with Him in baptism and through faith, will be exalted and given a place of honour at His victory banquet, when sin, death and the Devil are finally destroyed.

This is how Jesus sees you: a humble little person with much to be humble about—and a precious, rebellious child for whom He died. Jesus did not seek the company of those who were like-minded and of a similar standing to Him. That He had from eternity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The love of God, like an overflowing spring, cannot contain itself but seeks out creatures to love. He loves us because of His love, even though in ourselves we are as far from lovely as heaven is from earth.

And now we have a seat at the High Table, where every seat is a seat of honour. We already have the honour here and now. Every time we come to Confession and Absolution, the scenario painted by Jesus takes place: we take the lowest place, the place of the wretched sinner, which by right is ours. God looks at us, sees the name of Jesus written on our hearts, and says, “Friend, move up higher.” And so we are honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with us: angels, archangels and all the company of heaven, together with our fellow-saints here and in glory. Thus elevated to the High Table, we feed on the finest food and drink: the very body and blood of Christ, food that strengthens and nourishes, drink that refreshes and gladdens in equal measure.

This is how Christ treats us. Not in order to receive something in return from us, in order to be reciprocated—not even primarily for His own glory (though He is indeed glorious in His display of mercy). Rather He does it for the sake of His love, in order to elevate the humble, in spite of themselves.

In the end, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who humble themselves, because they have much to be humble about, but are exalted to the highest heavens because of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ; and those who also have much to be humble about yet insist on being rewarded on the basis of their merits, in this life and the next. But as far as we are concerned, these two types really belong to one and the same group: those for whom Christ died.

Which is why there is no place for worldly distinctions and systems of honour in the Church: because all have fallen short of the glory of God and are in themselves without honour, and are only made righteous by grace, as a gift, through faith rather than anything they have done. And there is no place for judging people outside the Church by these worldly standards either: because all are sinners, inside as well as out, and because Christ died for all.

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

We—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, unable to repay—are the chief beneficiaries of this policy. Having been loved so, shall we not share the love?

Lord, have mercy! Amen.