Today's sermon is taken from the reading Luke 14:25-33.
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
Jesus certainly knows how to stir things up; he tells the ever adoring crowd that they must hate their family if they are to follow him. Is Jesus using hyperbole, overstating what the crowd have to do for effect? Did he want to attract attention and warn the crowd that following him needs total commitment? Or, did he mean you have to hate your family; which sits uncomfortably with most people?
I believe that Jesus wanted attention and wanted to stop the crowd in their tracks. They had been amazed by the healing, bedazzled by the miracles and bewildered by the parables, but Jesus wants them to understand that following him means to change everything about their life: renouncing all possessions, looking again at your priorities, and removing all distractions.
Families are central to the Jewish way of life. They are integral to the Jewish community. They nurture and nourish but Jesus is saying, the commitment you give to a family must come second to the commitment you give to him. Jesus is being very upfront, laying it on the line that if you wish to follow him, you have to pick up the cross every day. This is not a jolly ride, this involves real hardship. It involves real focus because it will bring a split in the family and a split in the community when it is already hard enough living in a land oppressed by a burgeoning Roman Army.
Following Jesus is not an add on, there is a cost to discipleship: a cost of money, a cost of time and a cost of energy. Jesus warns us in two parables to sit down, stop what you are doing and think this through: is the cost of following of Jesus, despite the risk, worth the reward? Jesus is not into numbers, he is deliberately trying to whittle down the thousands into hundreds and tens because he does not want half-hearted disciples but those who truly believe Jesus is the Son of God.
The Luke passage is offering us the choice to follow Jesus or not. It is saying we have to prioritise, reassess our commitments and sit down and think of the true cost of following Jesus. The two parables put forward the suggestion of planning, of forward-thinking and making sure we go into this commitment with our eye wide open.
Our second reading is from the very short letter to Philemon 1:1-21.
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
This letter has been used in the past to advocate slavery. Paul does not condone the economic use of slaves who were indeed indispensable in society. What Paul does do in the letter is give the runaway slave Onesimus an equal status because he is a brother of Christ, as is Philemon following his conversion by Paul.
We believe the letter was written when Paul was under house arrest and that he was released shortly after writing this letter as well as letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Philemon was a wealthy member of the Colossian church and a Greek landowner converted by Paul. The letter shows us how the early Christians met in people's houses and that to have a slave or slaves was as common as having a car is today. We have no idea what Onesimus has done wrong, whether he has stolen things or worse, but we do know he has run away and that, therefore, Philemon has the legal right to kill his slave if he so wanted.
Onesimus means "useful" and we must not lose the humour of Paul in using the word "useful" a couple of times in his letter. We do not know what happens but presume Onesimus returns, what happens to him then is unknown. Did he return to slavery? Was he given an exalted position because he was a Christian and had the personal guarantee of Paul? What did the community think of his return and what did the community think of Philemon? Slaves must be punished and know their places, I can hear angry chants being cried. But Paul is building bridges, he is trying to remove hate and create a new relationship where all people are seen as equal, whether they be rich landowners or slaves. It is about transforming relationships and the way we associate with each other. Slaves should not be possessions but free children of God.
I was shocked when researching for this sermon to discover that there are said to be 27 million slaves in the world today. Internet research tells me that various industries depend upon slavery. One example is the seafood industry: I read that Thailand, which is the third-largest exporter of seafood in the world, has been accused of crewing fishing boats with Burmese and Cambodian men who have been forced to work as slaves.
The internet further advises that cannabis factories and nail bars use victims of slavery. In the UK, there are as many as 13,000 who have been trafficked from Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam and Romania. The Sex Industry is a huge source of sexual exploitation and forced begging highlights how victims are exploited by being forced to beg on the streets by criminals and give all the money they receive to gangs.
If this is true, then we have to think very carefully about our lifestyles and how we shop and who we support. We should be ever mindful that if products and goods are so unbelievably cheap, we should ask how the shops make a profit.
God is love (1 John 4:8) and Jesus' example shows us we have to love everyone and that his love is all-inclusive. But is this too glib? Do the drug traffickers, those who exploit people, and those who have committed heinous crimes, deserve this love? We are told to forgive but are there some unforgivable things? Paul, in Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13, tells us to submit to governing authorities but in that submission, are we giving tacit agreement for the crimes the government may commit?
Luke, in the book of Acts 5:29, helps our thinking when he says that we must obey God rather than men. The whole question of forgiveness is answered in Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:17-19 where it says that it is not up to us to judge, leave it to God and it is God's judgement that will be merciful and fair but incisive on judgement day. It is not up to us to forgive, it is up to God because God knows.
Do not hate but love. Follow Jesus and be committed to Jesus if you feel you can pay the price and leave judgement to God who is our Sovereign Lord.
Luke 12:13-21 (NIV)
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Alongside this text, one should read Paul's letter to the Colossians 3:1-17.
At the heart of this reading, is this truth: a person's life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions. Luke 12:34 reminds us that "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Take a moment for this sentence to be absorbed. Your life is not a collection of possessions.
What makes the farmer a fool? There is nothing in the text to make you believe he has earned his money illegally or through exploitation. The fact that he is a wealthy man is not bad in itself, so why call this farmer a fool? If you look at the text, you will see that I have highlighted all the "I"s that are quoted. He is a fool because he has put himself first. There is no sense of gratitude and there is no thought of sharing. His thinking is, that if he built bigger barns, his future is secure and he can eat drink and be merry. The foolishness is in thinking that possessions come before God.
We have to ensure we know who is truly God in our lives. Do we bow to the god of money, to the god of time, to the god of family, to the god of holidays? Or, do we bow to the true God from which grace and salvation come?
So, we must check our priorities. Is a million pounds enough or will we always be asking for more money? Are three holidays a year enough or should we be looking for four or five? We must consider what "enough" looks like.
Colossians 3 helps us answer what we should be collecting. We should be getting rid of anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language, and building resources of compassion and kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
The other issue the text indicates is when we have so much money or possessions, we move away from God. This is because we fail to understand our need of God, there again, making us fools.
In Genesis, you will be reminded of Joseph building bigger barns to hold seven years of bumper crops. This, of course, was not for Joseph's gain but to help Egypt through the seven leaner years that followed.
I do not believe that the text in Luke is anti-wealth but it is questioning what you do with your wealth.
I read that there are 194 nations in the world. The top ten nations possess 80% of the world's wealth. Therefore, 184 nations only possess 20% of the world's wealth. The question of knowing what is enough and of sharing our possessions and of putting God first, who has entrusted with us the wealth of the world, seems ever more important in today's world. The text questions our lifestyle choices. Do we, as Christians, make different decisions in comparison with the rest of society?
Today's sermon is short but vital. We must make sure we are not rich fools. We can eat, drink and be merry. We can have wealth. God does not want us to miserable Christians. God wants us to look after all of His children, all 7 billion-plus, so if we are lucky, and have more than enough, remember a sense of gratitude and that sharing is part of God's kingdom. At the end of the day, "We can’t take our riches with us." (Ecclesiastes 5:15 NLT)
Luke 10:38-42 (NIV) At the Home of Martha and Mary
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
This passage should not be separated from the Good Samaritan reading (Luke 10:25-37). The lawyer asked the question, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds with two answers: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus illustrates the latter with the well-known parable.
The story of Mary and Martha is an example of how to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. So, in my opinion, these two pericopes must always be read together. Martha is an independent woman with money and owns the house. Jesus is not in any way saying that offering hospitality is not important. Indeed, Greek civilisation was oiled by the giving of hospitality, and so it was in Israel.
"Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:2 NIV)
So, hospitality is vital but it is also true that Martha had distractions and worries. It is this that Jesus focuses on when Martha says that Mary is not helping. Mary, on the other hand, has chosen to listen to Jesus. She assumes the position of a disciple at his feet. It is because of this that Jesus says that Mary's priority is the right one.
Both Mary and the Samaritan were outcasts. For the Jews, both these people would not be considered worthy of hearing God's word and being a disciple. Yet, these two stories told one after the other highlight the inclusivity of the message of Jesus.
We need to challenge ourselves by looking at our everyday routines. Are we allowing distractions to come before worshipping God? We should be truly present in God and feel in as much the same way as we do listening to a piece of music that galvanises us and take us into a different place, transforming us momentarily.
We have to prioritise putting God first and align our lifestyles and our life choices with showing God the glory. What distractions do we have? Are we being too ambitious? Do we spend too much time chasing money? Are we weighed down with worries? By putting God first, these distractions can be sidelined and our focus will remain on God.
We have to rethink our image of God not as a domesticated, tame father but one who challenges us. The true purpose of God is to receive our worship and as Psalm 15 (NIV) says:
Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent?
Who may live on your holy mountain?
2 The one whose walk is blameless,
who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from their heart;
3 whose tongue utters no slander,
who does no wrong to a neighbour,
and casts no slur on others;
4 who despises a vile person
but honours those who fear the Lord;
who keeps an oath even when it hurts,
and does not change their mind;
5 who lends money to the poor without interest;
who does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things
will never be shaken.
God's purpose for his creation is to be healthy and loved, hence we not only have to look after this wonderful world but also the 7 billion+ people who live in it, each of whom is known personally by God.
As we go out into the world, we know God loves us and cares for us, therefore, our lifestyle and life choices are such that we do what God wants, which is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbour, just as Mary and the Samaritan show us.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan Luke 10:25-3725 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
This is a famous story, which in some respects has lost its shocking end because it is so familiar. In the third century AD, Origen of Alexandra in Egypt (184-253) thought the Samaritan story was an allegory and proposed the following:
The man who was going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise and Jericho is the world. The robbers are hostile powers. The Priest is the law, the Levite is the prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the beast is the Lord's body, the inn, which accepts all who wish to enter, is the Church. The manager of the inn is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And, the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the Saviour's second coming.
This reading was universally accepted for centuries but it was John Calvin who made us rethink the story.
It is very easy to dramatise this text and one would benefit taking a role and getting a sense as to how the story unfolds. You could be the innkeeper coping with the nuisance of a wounded man, which would be a hindrance to his business with only the promises that the Samaritan would return. You could be the Priest or the Levite thinking of excuses as to why they passed by on the other side and did not help. The story says that the road was from Jerusalem to Jericho, suggesting they had already fulfilled their temple obligations.
Martin Luther King Jr really enjoyed this parable and visited the actual road where the action of the story took place. It was indeed notorious for its danger and difficulty and was known as the "Way of Blood" because of the blood that had been shed there. In his "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech, on the day before his death, he described the road as winding and meandering. If the Priest and the Levite looked over at the man, they would wonder if the robbers were still around or perhaps the man on the ground was merely faking, to lure them over. So, the first question the Priest would have asked is, "If I stop to help this man, what would happen to me?"
MLK goes on to say, "On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
MLK is saying we need to do more than just help the beggar by actually transforming the whole situation in which these robberies occur. So, we have to look at the social infrastructure that supports poverty and creates an underclass. This parable is far more than what it seems and challenges us far more deeply than just asking who is my neighbour.
The second book of Chronicles 28:15 would have been well-known to people of Jesus' time. In essence, the Northern Israelite Army based in Samaria invaded Judea and took many women and children, creating carnage. When the captured women and children were taken to Samaria, the prophet Obed confronted the army, saying that they were no better than their Judean enemies. The army in Samaria, therefore, reclothed, looked after and returned their prisoners to their homeland. Knowing this story puts Jesus' parable into context.
I was fascinated by the difference between the Jews and the Samaritans and why there was this hatred. The Samaritans descended from the tribe of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph's sons, as well as from the Levites. The Samaritan religion centred on Mount Gerizim, which they considered to be the true place for God to be worshipped. In the book of Joshua 8:30-35 and Deuteronomy 7 and 8, we read about the importance of this mountain and how earlier on in the taking of Canaan, this mountain was so important a temple was built. The Jews, on the other hand, made Jerusalem their centre of worship.
In Ancient Hebrew, Samaritan means guardian, keeper or watcher of the Torah Law, but in Modern Hebrew, it just means inhabitants of Samaria. The Samaritans, who may well have numbered up to 1 million in population, believed it was on Mount Gerizim that Abraham offered Isaac to show his total obedience and, therefore, the reason for God's blessing. The Samaritans believe in one God and that the Torah was given by God to Moses but that Mount Gerizim is the sanctuary of Israel's God. They believe in resurrection and Paradise, that the dead will be raised by a restorer who will probably be Moses, but that post-Babylonian exile works, such as the Tanakh and Talmud, which is so authoritative to the Jews, have no authority. It is said there are 6000 differences between the Samaritan Pentateuch and that of the Masoretic Jews. Even the Ten Commandments have differences, for example, the tenth commandment for the Samaritans is that they keep the sanctity of Mount Gerizim.
The Samaritans believe their descendants come from North Israel, either before the Syrian conquest in 721 BC or are part of the repopulating of the area following Sargon II of Assyria deporting 27,290 inhabitants. The Samaritans, therefore, were confident in their God, believing their history went right back and that theirs was the true religion.
One can now understand why the Jews and the Samaritans were so different and yet could have been so similar.
Where are you in the story? With whom do you most resonate? Would you take help from an archenemy and forever be beholden to them? Is there any sympathy for the Priest and the Levite? Read yourself into the story and understand the characters and how they interplay. The lawyer was asking honest questions to which Jesus the Rabbi responded appropriately but the challenge He gives remains. Who is our neighbour? If it is the person who showed mercy, then how do we go and do likewise? Good questions that demand individual answers. Amen.
We were delighted to welcome Dr. Keith White as our worship leader on Sunday. His family have owned Mill Grove in South Woodford since 1899 when they opened their doors as a safe place for people to stay within a Christian community.
It was an excellent service and, therefore, we asked Keith to share his sermon notes with us, which were based on the Parable of the Lost Son. Whether or not you were there on Sunday, we hope you enjoy recapping on the famous reading.
Exclusion and Embrace
Luke 15: 11-32
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his propertybetween them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The title of this sermon is taken from the harrowing experience of a Croat whose country and fellow-citizens were being attacked, raped, systematically murdered by Serbians. The burning question was put to him: “Can I, as a follower in Christ, embrace one who has done such evil to me and my people?” He wrestled with it in a book with exactly this title.
It is a question that is relevant to all of us all throughout our lives, but there are times when it becomes painfully acute. We are to love our neighour as ourselves. And that, according to Jesus, includes our enemies, Miroslav Volf turned to Jesus’ story of the Father with Two Sons, as the very heart of Christ’s calling and example. It is well known, but there is a feature that is little noticed: the father is never recorded as saying anything to the younger son, though he speaks to his servants and also the older son. Everything is conveyed in body language, actionsand instructions to others. And there is one action that so encapsulates the essence of the story that it has drawn people like Rembrandt and Henri Van Nouwen to it irresistably. It is the embrace. Here it is again: “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Let’s ponder that in order to understand two things afresh:
Opening the Arms
I long for you. I am not content with being merely myself, without you. You are already in my heart though you have been away from me. So I am making space for you. There is room for you in my heart and life. I am not so cluttered, or so full of myself that every part of me is already occupied. And I invite you to respond. The open arms are rather like an open door. There is no need to knock. You are welcome. And this is risky. The nature of grace is that it is always a gamble! (Volf: 147 quoting Smedes)
The abiding image or picture we have of Jesus is on the Cross with his arms wide open. This is what opening His arms means, and costs. And this is what he calls us to do.
Embrace is not a taking hold, arresting, invasive or a one-way initiative. It’s not even a caress. Before it can proceed it needs the arms of the other to open. By opening our arms we have conveyed a message, but we will not force our way. It is the very opposite of violence. If embrace starts with the initiative of one person, it can never reach its fulfilment without reciprocity, the movement and response of the other. And there may be all sorts of reasons, experiences, traumas, fears, that require patient waiting.
Another abiding picture of Jesus is Holman Hunt’s picture The Light of the World. Jesus is knocking at the door of our hearts. And he has been standing outside and waiting for a long time…He is listening for a response.
Closing the Arms
This is where there is complete reciprocity. Each is holding the other; and each is held by the other. They are both active and both passive. It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace. In an embrace the host is a guest and the guest is a host. And this means a soft touch is necessary. Rembrandt gets this perfectly (worth looking at the picture again!). Not a bear-hug either way. An attuned response to each other, so that both feels comfortable, and understands that the other is comfortable too. And this requires the recognition that neither understands the other fully. There is an otherness about the person we close our arms around, a mystery. This is the beginning of a process of understanding and knowing that starts with the realisation that I do not fully know the other. In fact I have much I don’t know and much more to learn. This may be my enemy, but do I know her story?
Another picture of Jesus is as the Good Shepherd: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; He gently leads those that have young.” Isaiah 40:11
Opening the Arms Again
We cannot live in permanent embrace. We have not become one. This is not about the welding two others, so that they have become indissolubly one and can never be free of each other. Each is still “I” and “You” in relationship, and neither has ceased to be as a person, each with their own agency. This is where the real dance is in the relationship: we are not the same person, we are different, but we are open to each other. And the truth is that none of us in an island entire of itself: our identity is actually made up of our experiences and relationships with others. If we are to be and to develop, we need to be open to others, to realise we are strangers among our family and community, at home with “others” who we thought were our enemies. In embracing an other, outside can become part of our inside. Home and away are re-imagined. This is a journey of adventure, and who knows the outcome?! If broken relationships are to be restored, then the identitites of each must be rethought and reshaped.
The last words of Jesus to His chosen disciples are apt here: “Go into all the world…and I will never leave you nor forsake you”. This is the genuine opening of the arms! Any parent or teacher is not wanting the child or pupil to remain forever tied to the apron strings, or sitting in the classroom. There is always the desire to see the other explore in her own way. We know that this is risky, and safety or success are never assured.
All this is in the story, and much more. Not least the chilling self-exclusion of the older son, who misses out on the whole embrace. A total stranger at home. The silence of his response is perhaps the most deafening in recorded history. “All I have is yours…Come and celebrate the return of your brother, who was lost and is found, who was dead, but is alive again.” These tender and loving words echo in the stony silence which forms the end of the story.
Reflecting on embrace helps me to understand what Mill Grove is all about.
And surely this is what church is about?
This is how it is for all of us who are rooted in, inspired by, and ultimately redeemed and embraced by Jesus Christ.
On my first Saturday as an undergraduate at Oxford University, I played the piano to accompany the singing of the hymn, Jesus, the name high over all. For some reason the predominantly male sound coupled with the occasion meant that the words have been indelibly imprinted on my heart. They include these:
Oh, that the world might taste and see, The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me,
Would all mankind embrace.
Keith J. White
M.A. (Oxon.), M.Phil., PhD
I was not at Gants Hill this weekend, instead, I was preaching at Wanstead URC. I thought you might like to read a summary of my sermon.
Reading: Luke 8:26-39 (NIV)
Jesus Restores a Demon-Possessed Man
They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.
Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.
A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.
The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
Doctor Luke wrote this Gospel around AD 60. It is fascinating a reading, posing questions, such as:
Jesus was clearly pushing the boundaries; he appears to have been deliberately trying to become ritually unclean: he was meeting Gentiles in a graveyard. Jesus has disturbed a community, he has disturbed the status quo and he is about to change one man's life forever but, in consequence, many people's lives will be changed, unwillingly.
Jesus drove the demons out of the man. Commentaries say there may have been between 2000 and 6000 pigs nearby and it is into them that the demons chose to go. The following destruction of the pigs to save the man was not welcomed. For the farmers, the economic cost of losing so many pigs must have been immense. I think Jesus freed the man and it was the demons who chose to enter the pigs, therefore, Jesus is not to blame for the subsequent financial disaster, however, I note that Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), an African theologian, and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), an Italian theologian, interpreted this story to claim that Christians have total dominion over animals.
Jesus has performed an extreme makeover and now the man is at peace, wanting to follow Christ. Jesus, interestingly, sends him back, merely asking that he tell people about what Jesus has done to save him.
After this event, the disciples must be feeling very confused. In the previous chapter, Jesus healed a Roman centurion's servant at long distance, raised a widow's son from death in Nain, had his feet anointed, redefined what family meant and calmed a frightening storm. All this, as well as healing a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and raising a girl to life, showed the miraculous power of Jesus. His disciples must be wondering, "Who is this man?" They too, in Chapter 9, will be sent out in the name of Christ to do similar acts. What are the disciples to think? What would we think if we had witnessed the same miracles?
The reading does not ask us to convert anyone to Christ but simply requests that we tell people what Jesus has done and what difference he makes in our lives. That is all we, today, are asked to do; it is the Holy Spirit that converts, all we are asked to do is to proclaim the Gospel and tell of the difference Christ has made to us.
I have recently seen the film Rocketman. It was most enjoyable and Elton John, alongside being a musical genius, certainly had his demons, including drugs, sex, food and alcoholism. Having realised the destruction these addictions were having on his life, he took action to rid himself of these constraints. The film ends saying that he has been sober for twenty-eight years. This led me to research a little about Alcoholics Anonymous and the Twelve Step programme they use as a framework of healing. Five of these contain God, with number three saying, "Make a decision to turn your will and your life over to the care of God as you understand Him."
It was also interesting to note that the AA uses the Serenity Prayer at the beginning of their meetings. This prayer is written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the most well-known part being, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference." The prayer, I believe, is on the back of medals that are given out when people have achieved six or nine months of abstinence.
This lovely reading from Luke challenges us to look at our own lives and to examine our habits and the powers that control us. As Christians, we are encouraged to have values and beliefs that give hope for the future. The reading alongside Luke is Galatians 3:23-29 where, in essence, we are reminded that we were imprisoned by sin but our faith in Jesus is the key that has set us free. We must ensure that we grasp that freedom, enjoy God's love, allow ourselves to be clothed in Christ, which Colossians 3:12 reminds us is compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness all wrapped in love.
So, as we go about our lives, may we proudly show Christ's clothes as we live free of demons, and not fall back into the prison of sin.
Star Wars and Christianity; the Parallels
In order to engage with those who don't come to church, I thought I would write a sermon that would help connect a successful film franchise with that of the greatest story ever told.
Call to Worship: Isaiah 60:1-3 (NIV)
1“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn."
The story of Star Wars from episodes 1-6 is about a child called Anakin with special skills being adopted by a Jedi knight who, as Anakin grows, believes him to be the chosen one, which has been written in their legends. Jedi knights are there to protect the republic and democracy from all enemies and they do so using special powers, which they call the force. The force is available to everyone but not everyone can use it, it needs training.
Anakin grows up and because his own ambitions, is being held back by the Jedi knights. He is manipulated into turning to the Dark Side primarily to save his wife, who he believes would die in childbirth, as he saw in a dream. Anakin becomes the most evil person in the universe, controlled by a mysterious Sith Lord. The plot revolves round Darth Vader, who represents evil, and the Republic, which is defended by Jedi knights representing good. Knights must lead selfless lives and dedicate themselves to keeping the peace.
The films, containing lots of action, lots of fun and lots of escapism, have been seen by millions of people. This sermon is to show the parallels between Christianity and the films with the aim of spreading the word of Jesus using the Star Wars world, which people know about as a platform from which to explain why Jesus is so vital in todays world.
1. Anakin has no father. He was a midi-chlorian. Similarly, Jesus had no father. Isaiah 7:14 (NIV) "Therefore, the Lord himself with give you a sign; The Virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son ..."
2. Anakin is a slave in the desert hoping to set his people free. Compare to Moses. Exodus 1:11-14 (NIV) 11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
3. Jedi knight Qii Gon Jinn believes Anakin to be the chosen one. Compare John the Baptist proclaiming Christ. In front of the Jedi council they ask, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” Compare Matthew 11:3 (NIV) “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4. George Lukas says that people are reading too much into the movie but the original writer who started the Star Wars franchise was Joseph Campbell, a philosopher of religion and an ex-Catholic.
5. Yet, “May the Force be with you,” sometimes getting the response, “And also with you,” is more or less a direct echo of our “May the Lord be with you,” to which we also respond, "And also with you." Ruth 2:4 (NIV) 4 Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you!” “The Lord bless you!” they answered.
(Latin: dominus vobiscum). Sound familiar?
The story is a battle between good and evil; the Jedi Knights, guardians of justice and peace for the Democratic republic versus Sith Warriors, who are on the Dark side.
Anakin rose quickly to be a Jedi knight and was very special but he wanted too much too quickly and felt the other knights resented him and were holding him back. The weakness of his ambitions were manipulated by the Sith Lord, using lies and deceit. Anakin wanted the power of the Dark Side to save his wife, who he had seen in a dream die in childbirth, and the Sith Lord exploited this good intention. I now transport you to the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3, where the serpent asks innocent questions and manipulates Eve’s thinking by casting doubts. The Sith Lord uses exactly the same methodology as the serpent.
In 2 Corinthians 4:4, Satan is “the God of this age” and has blinded people so they cannot see the light of the Gospel. In Matthew 4:8-10, Satan tempts Jesus, offering the World if he would just bow down to him.
The Force, that is so evident in the story, could possibly be likened to the Holy Spirit, except that the Holy Spirit is used for Good, whereas, the Force can be used for good or evil. 1 John 1:5 (NIV) 5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.
Anakin secretly marries because marriage is not allowed by Jedi knights, for attachment leads to jealousy and split loyalties. Compare the Catholic Church, which does not allow its priests to marry after ordination. Jedi knights must live a selfless life whose purpose is to protect and care for all other life and to dedicate themselves to keep the universe at peace. As Christians, we must lead selfless lives and be a living sacrifice just like those knights.
6. When Anakin went to the Dark Side, he slaughtered many children, which brings echoes of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Matthew 2:16 (NIV) 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
One of the powers of Jedi knights is that they can move objects without touching them. When Luke Skywalker in training failed and Yoda his master showed how it was done, Luke said, “I don’t believe it,” and Yoda replied, “That’s why you can’t do it.” In Matthew 17:20, we are told that faith can move mountains. Is it because we don’t believe it, that our own personal mountains are still there?
On Anakin’s journey to the Dark Side, he is torn between being a spy for the Jedi knights and being a spy for the Chancellor; having to serve two masters is a real issue. Compare Matthew 6:24 or Luke 16:13. They state “What is good depends on your point of view,” but Matthew 19:17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21 clearly tells us what is good in Gods eyes. Similarly, we are told truth depends on our point of view - what is truth? - and we go to John 18:38 to find the answer. We are told fear keeps people in their place, if we go to 1 John 4:18 we read that perfect love drives out fear.
The whole battle between good and evil introduces us to the idea of Lucifer and Satan. Tradition has a story of a rogue angel and that this angel was too ambitious, his heart became proud and he fell from grace and became Satan. Luke 10:18 (NIV) He replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.
Ephesians 6:12 reminds us of our battle with cosmic powers in this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil, which means we have to wear our own armour. Ezekiel 28:14 is directed to the fallen angel who we call Lucifer, as the anointed cherub. An interpretation of Isaiah 14:12-14 is about Lucifer, a fallen angel, making himself higher than God.
Could it be that the Cherubim, the mighty angels who are to serve as guardians, are our Jedi warriors? They, in Genesis 3:24, guarded the Tree of Life with a flaming sword flashing back and forth, was this the Jedi knight's lightsaber? 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (NIV)
The whole background is set within the tension of oppression and with peace only happening because all opposition had been quashed. This seems very similar to Pax Romana where the Romans kept peace by ensuring that all opposition was removed.
In conclusion, the parallels between Star Wars and Christianity are:
© Copyright Martin Wheadon 2019
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon