Nathan – 13 May 2018

I’m standing in the biggest shopping centre in Tasmania – the ground floor of all two levels of it. I had attended a conference through church. The topic? Street evangelism. We had learned all morning about the art of getting to the topic of spirituality from a cold start. We are now in the practical component. We are here to talk to strangers about Jesus.

I take a seat on a bench shared by one other gentleman. “Benches outside shops are rife with bored husbands,” we had been informed that morning. From the word, “G’day,” there is an unnatural air of awkwardness. Incredibly, a conversation develops, and even moves through a few topics, and eventually lands on discussing this gentleman’s Catholic parents. He leaves the conversation, and I am left sitting alone. I had at least succeeded in stealing his bench.

I have no idea what happened to this man. If I saw him on the street today, I wouldn’t even recognize him. So what was the point? What was the lasting fruit of both that conference, and my very forced conversation? I don’t think there was any. In processing this, and other early experiences of mine, I have come to realise that pursuits like street evangelism **in general** are really about trying to skip that annoying ‘relationship’ part.

Mission is not about converting people, though, I have come to understand. It’s not about getting people to say a certain string of words. I think ‘mission’ is actually Missio Dei – the mission of God. It’s about God! It’s about a Creator whose heart is bleeding for those children of His who are estranged. I think mission is about John 10:10 –  Jesus has come so that we all may have life, and have it to the full! Mission is about the reality that anybody who doesn’t know God for themselves is missing out. Not missing out on life, or meaning, or purpose; these things can be constructed without God. People have jobs, and families, and passions. But anybody without God is missing out on God Himself – the very source of life, purpose, meaning and vitality in all their fullness.

An atheist once said to me that at least evangelism is a measure of a particular message’s worth. Do you truly believe in a message, if you don’t think it is worth someone else knowing about it? Knowing the immensity of relief, joy, peace, and life that God brings to me every single day… it is impossible for me to think that this message is not worth carrying to others. That, I believe, is mission. We don’t have to have all the best theological answers ready – how many satisfying answers are there anyway? Mission is about just knowing that God is good – and if He is indeed good, then surely He is worth sharing. Not in ways that are artificial and rushed – but in ways that are reflective of His own character: patient, slow, gracious, and ultimately, simply loving of people.

Belinda – 6 May 2018

My middle daughter made this comment after last Sunday’s sermon. She said, “Mum, that was a reasonably interesting sermon, but I still don’t know what the ‘e’ word – evangelism – is.”

And it struck me that that might true! Do you remember that spectrum of Christian views towards evangelism that I quoted from the book we’re using for our pop-up series, Holy Conversations: Talking about Evangelism by D. Mark Davis?

– Some persons of faith zealously spread the gospel but seem to trample on other people’s sensitivities and to act un-Christian in the process.

– Some persons of faith pointedly reject the language and activity of evangelism altogether, no matter how biblical or germane to Christianity it seems to be.

– [And] some persons of faith simply take a very passive approach, neither actively rejecting nor actively practicing evangelism.

My assumption was that most of you might have fallen into the last category, having had experiences like mine: growing up being taught that the story of the Ethiopian eunuch was an example of taking every opportunity with every stranger to go through the four spiritual laws; going out in pairs to ‘evangelise’ random sunbakers at Beach Mission; or completely failing by riding all the way from Sydney to the Gold Coast on a bus once without converting the person next to me. (Being a strong introvert, I didn’t try very hard either which only made me feel more guilty!)

Then discovering that the gospel might be more than the message that Jesus died for our sins; that Jesus might also have died showing us how to live lives of compassion for those who are vulnerable and resistance to the forces of oppression.

And struggling to reconcile these two! ‘The Great Commission’ that seems to be about “forced, coercive activity, unfitting for those who follow Christ” and ‘The Great Commandment’ to love God and to love our neighbours.

But not struggling hard enough to reconcile the two that we have spoken very much about evangelism (or defined this word which simply means sharing the joy and justice of the gospel) for our children – or in our churches!

In the month ahead, however, I want to have a lot of conversations about what should be a lovely and loving activity. We’ll be hearing how words and actions align for a number in our church, and you are invited to come to one of the pop-up groups – over the next six Sundays, or Tuesday afternoons or Thursday evenings – to join in these ‘holy conversations’ yourself.

May God’s peace be with us as we gladly share it with others.

Nathan – 29 April 2018

The ‘schoolyard pick’ was the bane of my existence, for a long time. I am sure you are familiar with the scene: a group of kids playing together. Everyone lined up, and two ‘captains’ were selected. The captains took turns choosing who would join their team. Every time, I would look to either side of me, as one-by-one, people were chosen; joyfully running to join their new comrades. Finally, the last name would be called, and there I was; the only one left. Over my time in primary school, and even early high-school, I grew accustomed to this. One time, the worst it ever got, is etched into my memory. Someone said, “You have him this time. I was stuck with him yesterday”. I couldn’t hold back the tears.

There is something deeply troubling about being excluded. I am sure we have all been there at some point. The whole experience screams to some deep part of us, “This is wrong”. Humans are made in the image of love; the divine community, existing in such marvelous romance as to be truly called “one”. It is no wonder that being excluded grates against us so powerfully; it is against our very nature. We are inexorably designed for intimacy.

One of our lectionary readings today is that of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. It is a profound story. A God-fearer, this Ethiopian was part of a sexual minority, and as such, had been excluded all his life from the congregation of God… sound familiar?… As much he wanted to call himself a Jew, he simply was not allowed to. Even his high status could not break him into the ‘in-crowd’. He travels along the road to Jerusalem – a pilgrimage that is indicative of his devotion, despite the difficulties he has faced. Phillip meets him, and explains the Scriptures he is reading, in light of their significance to Jesus. The Ethiopian official is eager to respond, but his question is extremely telling: “What can stand in the way of me being baptized?”… Can you hear the question of his weary heart? “What is it this time? Am I to be excluded from this as well?”. It is a harrowing insight into the heart of a devoted, yet broken man. Yet, Phillip baptizes him.

No longer is that Ethiopian official the last in the schoolyard pick. In a single moment, he reaches out in faith, and for the first time in his life, is welcomed into the community of God just as he is. No stares. No conditions. No barriers. This is the church, is it not? The community of people who are so deeply accepting of everybody, just as they are, that paradoxically, it changes people.

I wonder if you know what it is like to feel this kind of acceptance? If the church has not been what she ought have been to you, then please, allow me to offer a humble apology. We are called, each of us, to shine the unconditional love of God to any and all.

May we all follow in the footsteps of Phillip that day. When there is someone before us for whom there may be a thousand excuses preventing us from accepting them, may we be people who cast them all aside for the sake of a beloved child of God.

Belinda – 22 April 2018

When I hear today’s readings, my mind goes back to our time on Iona last year and to the pilgrimage we did around the island. On our way to St Columba’s Bay and back, we passed the sheepfold (in the picture) and I noticed that it originally had no gate. (The gate on the left is – obviously – a modern and rather mismatched addition!)

 

I love that idea, that a shepherd did not erect a gate and leave the sheep, but that, in traditional settings, the shepherd was the gate. Having moved the sheep into the sheepfold he (or perhaps she) would take up the place in the gateway and sleep there.

 

When we read the words, ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11) they come from a real context. Jesus is our ‘good shepherd’ who demonstrates God’s love for us by deliberately laying his body on the line, laying in the gate for us. And in doing so, becomes another kind of gateway, one that reveals how we should love and behave.

 

But there is always a human tendency to want to set up a big galvanised steel farm gate, so we can control who belongs to Jesus’ fold and who doesn’t. The writer of John is writing at a time when the transition from a Jewish dominated church to a Gentile one was well underway and people were struggling with how this was going to work. Those tensions are found in this text, but the message is that there is but one flock and one shepherd.

 

And over and over and over in Jesus’ ministry he went to the outsiders; to the Samaritan woman (and all the other women who followed him), to the tax collectors, to the lepers and the sick and the injured. Time and time again Jesus welcomed into his fold those whom his culture declared unworthy and unclean.

 

Who are we reluctant to welcome into the fold? Is it those who don’t dress like we do (I heard a story about this this week) or those who don’t worship as we do (and a story about that). Are there barriers we are erecting – even unconsciously – that block people from other cultural or ethnic groups or socio-economic groups? And how do we go about welcoming people with different lifestyles or theological positions?

 

Somehow, we need to keep in mind that we are the sheep – not the shepherd – and that our shepherd is the shepherd of the open, welcoming gate.

 

Peace be with you!

Nathan – 15 April 2018

I am not alone; You are here with me.

You’ve given me Your heart, And You will never leave

Father, You’re always good, And You’re always here for me;

You’ll never leave!

– “Not Alone,” Planetshakers (2018)

 

One of my favourite words has got to be “Immanuel” – “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). Doesn’t that word sum up perfectly the entire message of the Christian faith? God is with us! In Christ, God is a human being, like one of us. He has suffered, like all of us. And He is a friend for all of us.

 

God’s presence is not something elusive; it is not something we have to climb jagged, foggy mountains and meet mystical, aged men in robes to discover. God’s presence is all around us! Even more than that, in a very special and intimate way, God dwells within each of us who call ourselves Christ’s.

 “And I will ask the Father and he will give you a helper, the Holy Spirit. He will be a friend to you, just like me—and he will never leave you.”  -John 14:16

 The Holy Spirit is gentle, gracious and so, so patient. He yearns to draw us nearer and nearer to our true Father, and He loves nothing more than to build strong bonds of intimacy with us, His people.

 

“And in a similar way, the Holy Spirit takes hold of us in our human frailty to empower us in our weakness. For example, at times we don’t even know how to pray, or know the best things to ask for. But the Holy Spirit rises up within us to intercede on our behalf, pleading to God with emotional sighs too deep for words.” – Romans 8:26-27.

 Did you hear that? The Holy Spirit experiences life alongside us, and cries out to God on our behalf, as a rich display of God’s empathy with us. God gets it! He knows what it is like to be you. He knows your trials. He knows you have been misunderstood. He knows your hurts, your grief. He also knows your passions and your longings!

 

Truly, we are never alone. God is always with us, and as the song rightly proclaims, He will never leave.

 

What is it like for you to reflect on this? Is it familiar to you? Do you hear God quietly singing songs of comfort, deep in your heart? Do you sense His whisper of encouragement in your spirit? Or do you suspect all of this might be a little too good to be true? Do you long to hear God’s voice, but find yourself dissatisfied?

 Whatever your experience is, one promise is true: God is with you. You may not feel His presence all the time. You may feel it rarely, or perhaps you have never felt it before! But He is there. Reaching. Waiting. Quietly and gently longing to be close to you.

 Will you let Him?

Belinda – 8 April 2018

One very trivial thing struck me over the Easter weekend. It was far outweighed by my appreciation for our church choir and James and Roz’s combined efforts, and Jeanette’s thoughtful words on Easter Sunday and how wonderful it was to celebrate again the love of God that took Jesus to the cross and the life of God that could not keep him in the grave! But I was also struck by how warm it was this Easter.

As I said, a very trivial thought! But it did make me read an article in the paper on how the date of Easter is calculated.

For those of you who – like me – have never stopped to really investigate this Easter Sunday is held on the Sunday after the first full moon after the March equinox (when day and night are of equal length). This year the equinox was 21st March and the first full moon was Saturday, 31st March, so Easter Sunday was the very next day, the 1st April.

The full moon rises every 29.53 days, and because that doesn’t entirely line up with our calendar, every year the full moons take place on different dates in a cycle that repeats every 19 years. (Just to make this a little more complicated Easter doesn’t even use the astronomical full moon, but the ecclesiastical or paschal full moon which the church calculates using an ancient – and slightly inaccurate equation – which means the pascal full moon can disagree with the astronomical full moon, further complicating the date of Easter!)

Meanwhile there is another cycle taking place – our calendar cycle – which takes 400 years to repeat (so the date will fall again on the same day).

When you put these two cycles together, the result is that the pattern of days where Easter Sunday falls becomes a third cycle that is only repeated every 5.7 million years!

5.7 million years! Isn’t that incredible! But it also makes me think about how eternally creative and infinitely diverse the power of the resurrection can be in our lives.

I grew up thinking of ‘new life in Christ’ as something I would receive in the hereafter, but I have found that ‘new life in Christ’ has had many dimensions in the life I am living, as well as calling me, as part of the Christian community, to bring that ‘new life in Christ’ to others, in many different ways. Jeanette’s account of how she experienced resurrection after David’s death was another reminder of how diverse and wonderful and surprising resurrection can be.

So, as I reflect on this Easter (and how warm it was) I am also keeping my eyes open for the way God is bringing new life – in new ways. It wouldn’t really be resurrection if it was just the status quo! After all, we don’t even get the same day on the same date in the same order – except every 5.7 million years!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Nathan – 1 April 2018

He is Risen! Today, alongside literally billions of other believers around the world, we celebrate the core truths of our faith: that evil does not get the final say, that life and goodness triumph in the end, that there is hope for humanity, that God is a God of passion and intervention, and that all this is reflected in one simple, historical fact – that Jesus is alive!

Jesus’ resurrection brings hope to all of us – hope in the fact that death’s sting is gone (1 Corinthians 15:55) once and for all.

We all experience the power of death – and I’m not just talking about the inevitability of our physical demise, although that is a part of it. Death is a universal experience, even whilst we are alive. We have all had relationships die. We have all had ambitions and dreams die. We have all experienced the death of a loved one, and the profound grief associated. Even children learn about the power of death, from the earliest of ages. When I was 4, my great-aunty Dolcy died. “What do you mean she died?” I remember asking my parents. “Well, her heart stopped beating, and she’s gone now,” they answered. For a week afterwards, I remember squirming in bed, moving as much as I could, until I was exhausted. I knew that exercise made our hearts beat faster, and I was terrified mine was going to stop if I didn’t!

Resurrection cuts through the fear of death, in a way that nothing else can. Resurrection provides the unique and powerful hope of always, in every situation, being able to whisper to ourselves, “This is not the end.” Relationships die – but they can be brought back to life, and forging new relationships is possible. Ambitions die – but they can be brought back to life, or even replaced with better ones. Indeed, people die – but through Jesus, we too, can be brought back to life; both now and in eternity.

 

What, in your life, is in need of a little resurrection? Do you long for a fresh breath of life to enter your weary bones? Is there a broken relationship you would love to see healed? Are you facing difficulties that you feel may be the death of you, your hopes, or your dreams? Jesus has been there. Jesus died there. And best of all – Jesus conquered all of it. Through his victory, we can too.

May you and your family be blessed on this very special day of celebration.

Belinda – 7 October 2018

Last Sunday we read in Acts 15 of how the early church wrestled with Gentiles becoming Christians as Gentiles. In other words, moving to understanding that faith not only included non-Jews, but went beyond being Jewish.

It was an incredibly difficult transition, and although we read Acts 15 as though it was all done and dusted in one council meeting, it probably took decades of thinking and talking and reading (and re-reading) the scriptures and discerning the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives before they reached the conclusion of Acts 15:11: We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.

It was also interesting to read Acts 15 in the light of our discussions around sexual diversity and same sex attraction.

Are there parallels? Does the conversation we are having shed light on the real wrestle that happened there? And does the way the early church conducted that wrestling – coming together to seek the Spirit’s direction together – rather than retreating to their separate corners – shed light on how we can continue to be Christ’s body in our discussions?

It was the second time that scripture had leapt off the page for me last week.

The first time was Wednesday night, at the vigil for Aboriginal deaths in custody at St Simon’s Anglican Church, Kaleen, where Acts 16:20-37, the story of Paul and Silas being imprisoned in Philippi, was read.

In that context hearing that Paul and Silas were beaten with rods took on new meaning. As did their response – singing hymns while being held in maximum security. I wondered what hymns I’d sing in that situation? And then the courage of Paul’s demand for justice upon release, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.”

 

We prayed a prayer written by the sister of Wayne Fella Morrison, whose death in custody has just been investigated by the South Australian Coroner. “We pray for our family,” it went. “We pray for the Coroner and for our lawyers. We pray even for those who were involved in the incident and who are response for Wayne Fella Morrison’s death…. We pray that through [this inquest] justice will be had in some way that causes change…” And then, like Acts 16 she prayed, “While I know that ultimate justice and salvation rests in God and in Jesus’ return, I want to call down the powers of heaven into the space… of the Coroner’s Court to cause something completely supernatural to occur that has never occurred before. We pray for a miracle and we pray for healing…”

Can we continue to pray that the Holy Spirit comes down on the struggles we face – bringing healing and wholeness? Yes, Lord, Amen!

Martin – 30 September 2018

An article in ‘The Age’ dated 18 September 2018 discussed the decline of Western Christianity. It was referencing the problems of the Anglican Communion in general, but the Episcopal Church in the U.S. in particular. The author, Tim Stanley, a Catholic, says mainstream Christians now offer a kind of validation to Western society such that the distinct Christian message is smothered, and the Church is now ‘something anxious and introspective’. We could well take notice!

One of our members, when I asked what they thought of our church, said: ‘We are on a precipice’: meaning that our numbers are declining, and that our younger ones don’t seem to connect as they once did.  Should that concern us?  Yes and No.  Yes, because we hold that faith does bring strength and solace in the deep wrestles of life. No, because the critical call is to follow Jesus and not be so concerned with numbers – though the former can affect the latter!

Graeme Garrett in his book ‘God Matters’ talks about speaking credibly about God in the contemporary world.  He suggests that ‘secularization, demystification and the hermeneutics of suspicion’ (and perhaps a huge distrust of institutions) means that people find it difficult to make sense of faith or engage in ‘God-talk’.  Faith, says Stanley, helps us deal with life and death, and the Church still is a repository of culture and ethics, but non-believers really don’t care.

Last week 4 women visitors from Surrey Hills Church of Christ, my old church, came to visit Canberra and attend Floriade. During an evening meal together, one of the women, Cathy, mentioned that she had just seen a Tim Winton play based on his book ‘That Eye, The Sky’.  The title for the story comes from a young boy who tells of his love for his chook, and how he likes to look at the sky wherein he sees a great eye.  It is a lovely mystical story, apparently, of this boy’s vision of the world and his wrestle with trauma and faith.  And a key thread is based on Tim’s actual experience, and his family’s conversion.  Tim’s father had a motor cycle accident and was very ill.  When he returned home the family had to care for him with no real income.  But then a stranger turned up who heard about the accident and said he wanted to help.  Almost every day for a time, this man came to the family house and gently carried Winton’s father to the bathroom to wash him.  The man was a Christian and not long after the family ended up attending the Church (a Church of Christ says Cathy).

Tim says this man and what he did was an act of grace for the family; that if there was a hero or a way to picture Jesus in real life it would be him.  While it may be true that Christianity is in decline and our numbers down, and while we need to address our problems of engaging the world in ‘God-talk’, what impacted the Wintons was tangible ‘grace’.  What we can ‘hear’ is that faith still matters and the call for each one of us is to continue to live it, in words and deeds, and let God do the rest.  

Salud

Nathan – 23 September 2018

Genesis 1 is filled with evocative metaphor, and stunning poetic imagery. God is seen hovering over the surface of chaos. Science agrees, by the way, that the Universe -even the early solar system- was certainly chaotic. Drawing on the accessible metaphor of a human working week, we see God setting His divine work of creating order, where once there was chaos. This is a concept that summarises God’s work throughout the rest of Scripture, and indeed, today – a work that we humans are given the honour and dignity of being invited into.

 In a beautifully poetic expression of love and provision, God sets humankind down in a garden – a paradise of food, shelter, and even comfort. Is this ‘garden’ an elaborate depiction of the African savanna, from which humanity seems to have emerged? Is it simply a description of Earth in general? Either way, it applies strikingly. The image of, “The Pale Blue Dot,” taken by Voyager 1, comes to mind. This ‘garden’ is our home, our slice of paradise in an otherwise hostile cosmos. All provided by a God of love and grace, whose key desire is simply to walk with us in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).

 

Those joining in our 10:30am gathering will find themselves standing in a tiny expression of that great garden – an expression that is now 10 years old! Just as God’s desire for relationship and creativity found expression in a garden, so too, does ours. This community garden began as an exploration of one way the church could build relationship

  with her surrounding community. What it has become, is an expression of community and creativity, reflective of the divine nature humanity is invited to participate in.

 In these days, most of all times in history, it is increasingly apparent that the neglection of our human duty to oversee the prosperity of this green Earth has real, lasting consequences. Climate change is happening, as a measurable result of our mistakes – and the repercussions reach far beyond our own species. This garden may be small in the grand scheme of things, but it is an expression of much larger, transcendent truths. People can come together in creativity and concern for mother nature. We can find meaningful connection in a society that becomes increasingly disconnected by the day. Together, we can find God in our pursuit of His interests – the welfare of His “very good” creation being one of them.

 As we reflect on all the meaning this garden has brought to the community we find ourselves in, let us be encouraged to continue working in it. For here, there is something marvelous – ‘bloomin’ marvelous,’ to quote my dad’s gardening idol. Here, there is creativity. Here, there is relationship. Here, there is a nurturing concern for our planet. Here, there is love.