The Beatitudes – Matthew 5
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
– Jesus of Nazareth
God Is Love – A Transformative Truth for the World (and Church!)
Someone asked me recently what it is we really stand for as a church, a congregation. It wasn’t a critical question but a curious question that had behind it the reality that things have changed a great deal over the years. We talked a bit about how the world had changed and the church as well. Growing up decades ago, there was more certainty about what was true and what was not. The Bible was held high and proud and rarely questioned. God was in the sky somewhere, real or metaphorical, it didn’t matter because God was up/out there. The hymns reminded us of God’s love in Jesus and in Jesus’ sacrifice for me, you and those who believed. Everything reminded me that this love and grace was to be believed, received and shared because it was the way the truth and the life. There were no ‘ifs, buts or maybes’. Everything seemed more precise and defined and we all knew where things fitted.
Today there is not this certainty, the clear, precise and defined truth that we receive, hold onto and believe, and then pass on. In our world today there are different cultures and different faiths, that weren’t part of my life decades ago. The presence of these people raises other questions that were never part of my life or faith. There are deeper questions and understanding around sexuality and people are more open to talking about issues that were taboo decades ago. Science has shed new and critical light upon these and many issues that faith had neatly tied up decades ago. Many people have felt that faith has been squeezed into such a small area of truth and reality that it is all but irrelevant – these people have drifted away. Others have wanted to discuss and debate and explore faith in this new world of scientific discovery, technological revolution and mass communication. They want to open up conversation and talk to people of faith about spirituality in this new world but we find it difficult because our traditional faith answers don’t allow for such questioning nor do they provide a framework in which to explore faith in the new and emerging world.
So I was asked the question: What does our faith stand for? What is it we are on about and called to be and do? This is a fundamental question that many in our congregation and many more beyond are wrestling with. Whilst there are those in the wider church for whom this seems irrelevant, for the world beyond it is a vital question. What is faith about? Why do we feel as though the faith of our childhood and early adult years (and even through much of our lives), that was so special and vital, that seemed so real and defined, no longer seems so validated in the church – at least in the manner it was? Why do we feel that the faith and church life that was so real and ‘successful’ in previous decades is no longer front and centre, no longer important – and, if we’re honest, no longer working? What if we brought back the good old hymns and songs? What if we brought back the good old preaching or other things that were so real and important in our earlier lives? Would it revitalise the church and bring back something of those golden days we may remember and yearn?
How do I respond to these deep and very real questions, especially when I have been at the heart of some of the local changes and I myself have moved from some of these traditions that were part of my own earlier life? Firstly, I need to affirm the faith of those of you who are asking these questions and confused as to why everything seems to have changed so much over the last decade or two. The faith you received was/is real and special, important and has sustained so many of you through so many parts of your life – joys and pain. Your faith has brought you closer to God and helped you pray more deeply. Your faith has been celebrated and filled your life with joy. Your faith helped you to care and stand up for good and important truths and to offer yourself in service. These are important things. So why the changes that lay behind the question I was asked?
For many centuries Christian faith was aligned with and protected by the power of the Empire. The reality of the ‘Empire’ and the particular expression of ‘Empire’ that we experience has changed but the relationship with the powers of the Western World has remained for 1700 years since Constantine. When Constantine embraced Christian faith into the Roman Empire everything changed overnight. It may have seemed to many that all their dreams and hopes were realised in this moment. Persecution ended. The church went from relative poverty and struggle to power and wealth. Christianity obviously brought a great deal to the Empire, which is partly why Constantine was so pleased to embrace it in the first place. But as we follow the story of the dominant forms of the church we can begin to recognise that it moved away from the community of faith that Jesus began and Paul continued. The things that Jesus taught and his life actions and ministry became difficult for the Christians under the Empire. Jesus stood against the temporal powers that lorded it over the people and that were violent and unjust, but now the church stood alongside them. Jesus warned of wealth and power as the most corrupting influences for people of faith and that the path of faith is the way of simplicity, of giving up rather than accumulating and owning. We don’t have to look far to see how difficult this teaching of Jesus is for us who are wealthier than any previous generation in history! Jesus engaged with the poorest people and aligned himself with the lowest, inviting his followers, rich and poor, to follow him into these lowly places and find life and relationships there.
Everything that Jesus taught flew in the face of the early church when it aligned itself with Rome! The church developed new doctrines under the leadership of Constantine, who owned the bishops. They wrestled with the issues of Jesus and tended to put lines through Jesus’ life and ministry. Take a look at the Apostles Creed, written in this era. It says:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified. Died and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
This creed takes us directly from his birth to his death and says nothing of Jesus’ life or teaching. It was too difficult and embarrassing to neatly correlate Jesus’ life with life and living under the Empire. As Jesus, himself said: ‘You can’t serve two masters!’ The focus of the church became the afterlife and the sole purpose of Jesus became getting us into heaven. This was particularly definite in my earlier years where life as a Christian was about being forgiven and set free from judgement and hell when I died. The ethic of my early Christian faith was about believing and receiving Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for my sin and living a good life. Certainly there was an expectation I would care for people: love was important. There was also the expectation of witnessing, sharing faith and converting others because this was the only way. There were questions such as, ‘if you were to die today, where would you go? Heaven or hell? How can you be sure?’ In many parts of the church these questions and themes remain strong and firmly a basis of their life and faith. What changed for me? For us?
Personally, I started to read the Bible for what it was and to hear what was there rather than what I had been taught. I was shocked to find Jesus didn’t speak of many of these things, or if he did, they were very minor in the gospels and Paul. I began to feel the discomfort of Jesus’ words about justice and the lengths to which love must go if it is really love. I found that much of what I believed didn’t always accord with Jesus’ words and that became deeply difficult and confronting. I suppose I had always read books and listened to people who affirmed the things I’d been taught and believed – until I was challenged and was lost for answers. I remember a time when I confidently proclaimed that Catholics, if they believed everything in their doctrine could not get into heaven! I was sure because I didn’t know any better and I came from a culture that helped me define who was in and who was out. The shock for me was that when I really read the stories of Jesus, those who were in were not the ones I thought should be there and the ones who were out – well they were often me.
I was deeply challenged by Jesus’ command to love God with everything we are and to love our neighbour as ourselves. I thought I knew this because we used to sing it in a round but as I thought more deeply I wondered if I really knew what this was about – saying/singing it and having it expressed in my life were two different things. What did it mean to love others? Was going around condemning them, as I had done, love? How was I to truly love all people, especially when faithful life was lived predominantly in the church? I had to get out a bit and talk to people, listen to people and learn from others. I had to broaden the stories and teaching I read and listened to. I had to pray differently and learn to hear God speak rather than just confirm my own thoughts and ideas. I had to be challenged and confronted and put myself into positions where faith would be challenged and questioned. That isn’t a comfortable place to be but it was a growing experience.
As I struggled with my mother’s death and came to grips with the realities of deep pain and struggle in life there were questions, often without answers. Where was this all-powerful God, whom we kept proclaiming was in control and loving and all the rest? Why did mum die when we prayed? What was happening? I felt confused and didn’t understand – some of that was part of the grief process but some was part of an emerging questioning and exploration of faith. I felt God close to me but I also felt something of my faith was no longer there, something of my belief system no longer worked.
Over the years I have become less able to name God with the absolute certainty I was once able to do – or at least thought I could. By this, I mean that the mystery of God, the depth and breadth of God beyond what I can comprehend has grown. God is bigger, more mysterious and even uncertain than I once believed. God is impossible to completely comprehend and know fully. I don’t believe that my limited human mind can contain very much of God nor even understand how and where God is moving and at work. I cannot see the ‘whole picture,’ nor can I comprehend the true complexity of life, the earth or the human race – I am not God.
I confess that this has become very comforting and a relief. When I felt I had to know everything about God or that I had to be able to say with certainty what God was doing and on about, it was very difficult because I truly never could be sure. I can relax and let God be God. I don’t really have to feel I need to defend God because God is big enough to do that if necessary.
I remember being confronted and deeply challenged by the issue of justice. It simply wasn’t in the broad vocabulary of my faith – it was there as a word but not a requirement. I rejected it and argued against the notion that we weren’t truly just in many ways. I still fight this, even though I know intrinsically that life isn’t necessarily just in our world and we participate in injustice – much through ignorance! I have been gradually worn down until I now recognise that justice is the essential reality of God and God’s Reign. Justice and righteousness are one and the same, even though we were strong on righteousness growing up because that was about doing the right thing. I do remember that the ‘right thing to do’ generally applied to alcohol, tobacco and drugs, sex and language. Learning to look at the world (and my own life!) through the eyes of God has been hard, confronting and liberating.
Over these last years the stories of Jesus such as the Good Samaritan, Prodigal Son, Sheep and the Goats, Beatitudes, the Rich Ruler and many others have become challenges and the source of inspiration. They speak about God’s Reign (God’s Kingdom) which was absolutely central to the life of Jesus and his teaching. The Reign of God, interestingly, doesn’t appear in the Apostles Creed at all and yet it figured in everything of Jesus – his life, teaching and ministry. His death and resurrection were about the Reign of God and revealed it. I suppose that it was very difficult to speak of the Reign of God when the ruler of the Empire was now your boss and overlord and was, in so many ways, the antithesis of this Reign. This Caesar thought he was the son of God and Jesus something less. I guess the early church’s life that revolved around God’s Kingdom and serving God as ‘King’ was no longer workable and so this new expression of church under Rome took all reference out of the creeds and other doctrines. Power, wealth and authority in the temporal world was now found in Caesar, not God. I recognise that this is where we have been until a few decades ago when the world around us suddenly realised we were still there and they didn’t need or want us! It happened slowly but truly – the world and the powers of the world cast the church aside. We no longer find ourselves in the place of power or privilege. We are no longer in the place of authority and many no longer expect the church to have any relevance in life or society. They believe in science or materialism and find their meaning in other places. They don’t believe they need the church or faith any longer. Part of this is that they don’t believe the church has anything to say about life in this world or about the problems of this because our creeds and many doctrines are largely silent on the world in which we live. The church in its evangelism has more often than not focussed exclusively on heaven after death than the Reign of God now. It ought not be an either/or but a both/and proclamation. The Reign of God extends beyond material space and time and embraces the existence that is suggested within the biblical stories and narrative and which even modern cosmology speaks of in its own way. The reality, however, is that the church’s rhetoric has been more exclusively related to eternity more than justice on earth, now, as Jesus described, proclaimed and invited us to be part of.
So, the question: What do we stand for? What is our purpose and message? What do we proclaim to the world?
I believe that the essential reality for Jesus (and Paul and the early church) was that Love is the central functional and decisive characteristic of Christian faith. He spoke of loving God with everything we are – every part of ourselves. We express this love most deeply through loving our neighbour (that is, anyone to whom we can be a neighbour) as we love ourselves. I understand that this is the all-encompassing rule or law – do this and everything is fulfilled. Jesus stated this simply in a couple of commandments whilst Paul articulated this in his famous chapter on Love – 1 Corinthians 13. There he says that we can do, believe, think… anything and no matter how deep or profound if it is not grounded in love it is meaningless!
Love and justice go hand in hand – ‘Justice is what Love looks like in public!’ The Old Testament literally reverberates with themes of God’s justice. God clearly indicates to all and sundry that God does not want worship and sacrifice if those who offer these things do not live just lives. It is not enough to believe or worship or sacrifice if you are not just in how you live in the world. So justice and love are companions in this life of faith. Our work for justice is not limited to what we or even the wider church does but we work with all people who stand for justice and equity, peace and the common good. Our involvement in the Sydney Alliance, for example, has affirmed this as we have joined with people across the breadth and diversity of society to work for justice and the common good.
The essence of Jesus’ ministry was relationships and community, where love is practically expressed through welcome, hospitality, inclusion and equality. He believed that God’s Reign brought people together into relationships of love and trust. He invited all people into this gracious community, whether they had clear ideas of what he was talking about or not. All were welcome! Inclusive community is absolutely vital. It sometimes seems strange that we would welcome people of other faiths or no faith into our fellowship, welcoming them as we do each other and embracing them into God’s gracious community alongside us. That is God’s way, Jesus’ way and the way that expresses God’s Reign in this world. Relationships are essential and the currency of God’s Reign. If you want to know what evangelism looks like then it is about developing relationships with the people around you but who are beyond the church. Listen to them, learn from them and develop deeper trust. Allow your faith, love and hope to inform your relationships and others will want to be part of the journey you are on. If it is real in who you are, expressed in the way you live and interact with people, they will get it! The early church was told to ‘love one another as I have loved you. By this all will know you are my disciples – if you love one another.’
The life of faith and love is sustained through prayer and reflection and the life of community where we encourage and nurture each other. These are vital and more difficult for people who are more readily distracted by the various stresses, noises or voices, activities and demands in our lives. We need to take time and space away from mp3 players, phones, email, Facebook, twitter, radio, TV… and ponder where God is present in life and what it means to live in the awareness of God’s presence. Behold the sacred in your midst, within the ordinary things and events and the beauty of the world around you, in relationships and community, in the face of people who are created in God’s image. When we gather with one another it ought to be around significant conversations of faith and life, that challenge, nurture and encourage. We will find ways to work together for the sake of God’s Reign in our lives and the world.
Over the last few years I have been drawn more and more to Romans 8 (various parts of this passage have seemed to meander through my life for many years) and Psalm 139. Both passages, written centuries apart, express the deep and beautiful truth that God loves us deeply and profoundly and nothing can come between us and this love of God. Psalm 139 has the beautiful section that describes and proclaims that we are known by God. In our most intimate being, God knows us and loves us for who we are. This love is deeper than even that of a parent. I wrote these words, reflecting on this Psalm and the latter part of Romans 8.
Our Lives Are Lived In You
If we fly on the wings of morn, to a far off place beyond the dawn
You are there!
I we soar into deepest space or descend to the lowest place
You are there!
Wherever we go, whatever we do we’re living our life in you.
Our lives are lived in you.
If right or wrong, clear-sighted, blind, if questions fill our troubled mind
You are there!
If we’re weak or don’t belong, keep falling down, can’t sing the song
You are there!
Whatever we feel, whatever we do, we’re living our lives in you.
We live our lives in you.
Formed from Love, in wonder made
You know who we are!
We have our life in Holy Love
You know who we are!
In air we breathe,in sacred spaces, in nature’s wonder and human faces.
You are there!
In poems and music, stories, art, the thinking mind, the feeling heart
You are there!
Everywhere around, everything we do, our lives are lived in you
Our lives are lived in you.
This psalm is a beautiful reflection of God’s love for us all and reflects the father in the story of the Prodigal Son. This father embraces the son who was lost – it is grace, pure and wonderful! There is nothing that we can do that will stop God loving us and nowhere we can go to escape God!
So, in answer to the question: What do we stand for? What is our purpose and message? What do we proclaim to the world?
- We are deeply, deeply loved by God in the most profound way and there is nothing we can do to stop God loving us! This is the source of our sense of meaning, purpose and well-being.
- We are included, invited, nurtured into this way of love – loving God with all we are and this through loving the neighbour we encounter on the journey of life – as we love ourselves!
- This love seeks justice, and is peaceful, compassionate, inclusive and draws people into a community that is gracious, healing and a sign of God’s Reign in the world.
- The inclusive community of God’s people works together for the well-being of the world (the whole Earth) around us. We don’t discriminate but work together with people of good will and incarnate (make present in our being) God’s Reign in our midst.
- Through worship, prayer and reflection we become more attuned to the Sacred and Holy in our midst, in the small and ordinary, the big and spectacular. We are able to celebrate and name the Sacred (God/Spirit) in and around us for ourselves and others.
- The hope we hold within us and share with those around us is the hope of God who loves us now and forever. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love and the very worst that can happen will never extinguish God’s love for us. In the darkest darkness and the brightest joy, God is with us and will not let us go! This truth sets us free to live fully now and believe in the hope of resurrection.
May this hope, peace, joy and love be with you now and always!
Ecclesiastes 3 – A Time for Everything
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
God has made everything beautiful in its time.
I know that there is nothing better for humans than to be happy and do good while they live.
That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that all will revere him.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind and your strength.
And, love your neighbour as you love yourself!
(Mark, Matthew and Luke)
Without God, we can’t!
Without us, God won’t!
“I do not know how to love God except by loving the poor.
I do not know how to serve God except by serving the poor….
Here, within this great city of nine million people, we must,
in this neighbourhood, on this street, in this parish,
regain a sense of community which is the basis for peace in the world.”
– Dorothy Day
Howard Thurman Meditation: Christmas Blessing
I will light candles this Christmas
Candles of joy, despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage where fear is ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all my living.
Candles that will burn all the year long.