Towers, Armies and Mission

Jesus is somewhat uncharacteristic today as he tries to win friends and influence the crowds by declaring that they will not be worthy to be his followers and disciples unless we hate the most significant people in our lives, including ourselves, take up our cross – which means to prepare to die – and give away all that we possess. Such strong stuff. To drive home the message, Jesus uses two images – both of which are very appropriate for Father’s Day – the Bunnings/Masters friendly man doing the DIY project of building a tower, and the very Game of Thrones friendly reference to two kings going to war against each other. The stakes are certainly raised. Jesus is deadly serious that this discipleship business will cost us everything. At the beginning, we must be ready to learn and grow – but he will ask everything of us – because it is only when we are free to follow him that we will find any freedom in life.

This weekend also marks the beginning of my second year at St Paul’s. So this Gospel provides the basis for this call to respond to the great commission that Jesus gives to us – to go, make disciples, baptise and teach. Only one of the four elements of the commission is central – and it happens to be the one part that the church has not been especially strong in – we have faithfully baptised people over the centuries, and built schools and educated children, and we have sent missionaries to new territories – but we have often failed to do the one essential thing – which is to make disciples. This has to change – because the central call of the church – the reason that the Church exists – is to evangelise and make disciples – which means that the reason that this parish exists is to evangelise and make disciples. So as we begin this new season of Spring, let us also make this a new springtime in the parish by embracing this call to make disciples.

Recorded at St Paul’s, 9.30am Mass (13 mins)
Sunday 23, Year C. Luke 14:25-33


Discipleship 3 – Moments of Conversion

Jesus today sends out the larger group of his followers to become disciples – those who have learnt from the master and now share in his mission to proclaim that the kingdom of God has drawn near. It is this passage of scripture (Luke 10:1-9) that was the inspiration for the new logo for the parish, that was launched last year during Advent in the first message series that I preached at St Paul’s – the Law of Four. The logo is broken up into four quadrants around the cross, the identify the various stages in our journey – stages that continue as we journey and mature. Surrounding the cross are 72 circles of various sizes, to represent the call of this parish community to be the disciples that Jesus calls us to be, moving in and around the cross as we call others into life in Christ, and go out in service and discipleship.

It is important that we understand the various realities of what being a disciple is all about and the dynamics of our journey as friends and followers of Jesus. Fr James Mallon in his book Divine Renovation (2014) describes a disciple as “To be a disciple is to be a learner. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be engaged in a lifelong process of learning from and about Jesus the master, Jesus the teacher.” (Kindle edition, location 248) But the reality is that many people in our generation, although they may have even had a significant spiritual experience, are deeply disconnected from God and the Church. Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples (2012) describes the spectrum of belief that we find in our world:

  1. I don’t believe in God – atheist
  2. I don’t know if there is a God – agnostic
  3. I believe in a higher-power or impersonal force – deist
  4. I believe in a personal God but have no relationship with God – census Christian?
  5. I believe in a personal God and have a relationship with God – believer

Even within the final stages of this progression, many variations exist, especially in the degree to which a person builds and maintains a healthy and life-giving friendship with the Lord Jesus. Weddell describes five thresholds of conversion – stages that I have been able to recognise in my own conversion and that initial movement towards faith that I experienced between the ages of 15 and 20.

  1. Initial trust. Can I trust you? There is at least a positive association with Jesus Christ, the Church, a believer, or something specifically Christian. Unless there is a bridge of trust in place, people will never move to active personal faith.
  2. Spiritual curiosity – a person is intrigued by or desires to know more about Jesus, his life / teachings / the Christian faith.
  3. Spiritual openness – a person begins to acknowledge an openness to the possibility of personal and spiritual change. Not yet a commitment to change.
  4. Spiritual seeking – a movement from an essentially passive position to an active seeking to know the God who is calling her/him. Something like ‘dating with a purpose’ rather than marriage! There is a seeker who is engaged in an urgent spiritual quest to know if they can commit to Jesus and his church.
  5. Intentional Discipleship – the decision to ‘drop one’s nets’ and make the conscious commitment to follow Jesus in the midst of the church as an obedient disciple with all that this involves – including reordering one’s life around this commitment.

Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples (2012) – chapters 5-8

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Recorded at St Paul’s AP, 9.30am (16mins)
Sunday 14, Year C.

Called to go on exodus to the others

shepherdThe image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one that has endured across the centuries of the Christian Church. The image of the young Jesus as the shepherd bringing home the stray or wounded lamb has been found on the walls of the catacombs, and a statue of the Good Shepherd has also been found dating back to only 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, despite its popularity – or perhaps because of its popularity – there have been two unfortunate elements that have entered into our understanding of this image.

The first is the propensity of Christian ministers to adopt the title of pastor and this understanding for ourselves. But what is clear in the Gospel of John 10 is that there is only one Shepherd who is noble or beautiful (better translations than ‘good’) and that is Jesus the Messiah. All Christians are as sheep in comparison to the Lord – which means we are all rather stupid, smelly and tend to wander away and get lost. All of us need to be pastored by the Lord.

The second has also always been a problem, but with shrinking church attendance and membership is becoming more problematic. This is the tendency to understand the image of the shepherd in very safe and friendly terms. We picture the shepherd as the one who leads the sheep back into the nice, safe and warm sheepfold of the church. But in fact the image that is used at the beginning of John 10 is of Jesus leading the sheep out of the sheepfold into the broad and good lands that lie beyond the safety of the church yard. It is out in the wilderness that the church really needs the safety and protection of the Lord.

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Fourth Sunday in Easter, Year B. Recorded at St Col’s (Vigil and 9am)

John the witness as humble evangelist

IMG_20140903_145639_15137057752_lIn the Gospel of John, like in the other gospels as well, the figure of John the Baptizer is deeply significant. But here in this gospel, the story and witness of John is interwoven into the magnificent 18 verse prologue. The first section of the gospel then moves onto the testimony that John offered about the one who was coming after him as he made a straight path for the Lord. When we first meet both Jesus and John together, John declares that Jesus is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’ He then concludes his witness by declaring that the Spirit of God has descended upon Jesus and that he is the very Son of God. So when we get to our passage for today – John 1, verses 35-42 – we already have heard much from John the Baptizer.

We are introduced to two of his disciples, and he again points them to look at and follow Jesus, because he alone is the Lamb of God. In the other gospels we meet the first disciples of Jesus and know only that they are common fishermen who leave behind their professions in order to follow after Jesus. But here we see that they already had a teacher and master in John. But John demonstrates his strength of character and conviction by directing his rightful followers to the true master, Jesus. “When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.”

And what happens to John the Baptizer after this? He simply disappears from the Gospel story. He has done all that he needed to do. He has prepared disciples to make them ready to meet the Lord. He introduces them to Jesus, the son of God – and then he steps away to allow them to be formed by their new master.

This holy detachment immediately bears great fruit. We are told that one of the two was Andrew, who goes to find his brother Simon Peter to introduce him to the Lord as well. First he shares with Simon all that he knows about Jesus, but then he brings him to meet the Messiah personally.

What extraordinary figures to guide us as disciples of Jesus in this new year!

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Sunday 2, Year B.


Sharing Talents

A GiftThe parable of the talents has a number of unusual qualities. Unlike most of the parables, which seem to be aimed at farmers and fishers and other country folk, this parable is aimed at people who are familiar with the workings of a market economy. So while it was good, prudent and standard Jewish practice to bury treasure in a field to safeguard it, within the market-based understanding that operates in this parable’s worldview, all that results in this practice is the diminution of the market value of the item – in this case a single measure of money called a talent, equivalent to 15 years of wages of a labourer (4500 denarii). This is a rare parable because it praises the risk-taking activities of the first two traders who both manage to double their master’s investment. The problem is that this pro-capitalist reading also tends to leave us wondering if the Christian life is simply going to culminate in a great test that will measure how great a return on the Lord’s investment we have managed to make as the basis of our salvation. Such a reading tends to move in the direction of a heresy called Pelagianism that imagines that we are essentially responsible for our own salvation. As a more careful reading of this parable demonstrates – which is confirmed by the rest of the gospels and the Christian scriptures – the God that we worship is a generous and gracious God who freely offers us all that we need and more. We cannot claim to truly possess anything that we can offer – since all is based on what we have received directly from the Lord. (All that we can claim any credit for is our own sin!) What we can offer in return are acts of thanksgiving and service that flow out of our experience of salvation.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm (11min 5sec)

Longing for a new breath of life in the Holy Spirit

HolySpirit-doveIt can be the case that when we think about the early experience of the Church, that we compress it into a rather monochromatic history. In fact the disciples were probably more like us than we think. Even though Jesus gives them rather clear instructions that they are to wait in Jerusalem upon the Holy Spirit to receive his power, then they are to go out from there and proclaim and share this new life in Galilee, Samaria and indeed to the ends of the earth. What you in fact find, is that the disciples after Pentecost are filled with boldness and zeal – but they remain in the city of Jerusalem. It takes a very mundane act – the need to appoint new leaders to look after the needs of the Hellenistic followers of the Way (the Deacons) which results in two extraordinary men of God stepping up – Stephen and Philip. It is the provocative preaching of Stephen which results first in his execution, but second in a persecution that breaks out against the disciples. It is only in answer to this that Philip goes out from Jerusalem and begins to do what Jesus had instructed all the disciples to do – to leave Jerusalem and proclaim the message of the Messiah – in a Samaritan town. As is the case across the centuries, great signs accompany his preaching and the people rejoice and receive the message and are baptised. Even so, something is missing in their life and experience of God – something that only is awakened in them through the ministry of the apostles Peter and John, when they also leave Jerusalem and come to lay hands and pray for the release of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these believers.

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Recorded at St Mary’s, Leppington. (7’38”)
Easter, Sunday 6, Year A. Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; I Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21.

Thirsting for relationship and meaning

desert-sunset-streamThirst is one of those basic human needs that is hard to ignore. When you have worked hard on a hot day, or you have returned from a vigorous run or work-out, or you simply out in the heat of the desert, the need to drink and quench your thirst is usually significant. So, even though the Hebrews had escaped from the slavery of Egypt, the concrete possibility of dying from thirst drove them to want to return. In answer to their pleading, Moses is instructed to go to the front of the people and to strike the rock with the staff that he used to part of the water of the Sea of Reeds. Thirst – when it is experienced acutely – can be so basic that it will drive a person to all kinds of things that aren’t the usual. Although we thirst for God, the incredible truth that the Gospel reveals today is that Jesus not only thirsts for water, but he also thirst for our faith and response to his invitation to worship and love.

“O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water. So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory.” Psalm 62 (63)

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Recorded at St Mary’s Leppington, 8am (10’29”)
Sunday 3, Lent, Year A. John 4:5-42.

Woe is me yet here I am

fishingI consider myself to be rather good at designing and maintaining websites, so perhaps the equivalent scene in today’s gospel (Luke 5:1-11) would be if – for example – Bishop Peter happened to drop into the parish office after a frustrating day of work, where new components or installations were not working on the Diocesan website. Although he doesn’t have any experience of programming, perhaps he might suggest that I move from my chair and let him have a go at seeing if he could fix my problem. I suspect that I would have good reasons to be hesitant in taking the good bishop up on his offer to fix the website, just as Simon-Peter was hesitant in putting the freshly cleaned nets back into the boat so that he could launch out into the deep. But the difference in this scenario, is that Simon did allow the Lord to call the shots and he did pay out the nets for a catch – despite the fruitless effort of the whole of the previous night. It is that decision that changed everything in his life, just as the decision that Isaiah makes to move from ‘woe is me’ to letting his unclean lips be cleansed.

Recorded at St Mary’s, Leppington 8am (11’39”)

Sunday 05, Year C. Isaiah 6:1-8.

Elijah as model of the evangelising church

Today in I Kings 19, we meet a very different Prophet Elijah then perhaps we are more familiar with – especially from the dramatic story that unfolds in the previous chapter when he single handedly takes on the 450 prophets of the false Caananite god Baal and defeats them. This does not please Queen Jezebel who sets out to destroy Elijah. He is so afraid of her and the warriors that she sends after him, that he flees for his life into the wilderness of the Negev Desert. It is here, lying under a tree that we find him in our reading. (more…)

Hope of New Creation 5

The final session in this 5-week course. Building for the kingdom of God – we look at putting the great hope that new creation theology offers us into practice by looking at the areas of justice, beauty and evangelisation. (25’17”)

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