Posts Tagged ‘gospel’

Getting our attention

May 30, 2020

Pentecost – 2020
John 20:19-23
Marian Free

In the name of God who enlivens, empowers and equips us for ministry. Amen.

One of the things about Covid-19 is that is has got our attention. Globally and locally, most of us were caught by surprise. While some countries had plans (and resources) to cope with a pandemic, many among even the richest nations were not well-equipped to meet the demand of thousands of seriously ill people and an equally horrendous number of dead. In Australia, the lock-down not only helped us contain the virus, but it also bought the nation time to ensure that our hospitals and our medical teams were prepared and equipped to meet a worse-case scenario. Panic buying of such items as toilet paper demonstrated that as individuals and as families we too we were caught off-guard.

No one would wish such a situation on any community yet, as people reflect on their experience, some have wondered whether or not the virus was the shock that the world needed – to give the planet a rest from pollution or to reassess whether what we knew as “normal” is the model that we hope will emerge when all this is over (or under control). Others are commenting that, on a personal level, the enforced isolation has made them re-think their priorities and to re-assess how they live.

I would not for one moment suggest that God sent the virus to make us sit up and take notice, but it is certainly the case that often it takes something unexpected and dramatic to get our attention and to force us to make long-needed changes in our lives.

Such seems to be the case of that first Pentecost. God was very clearly trying to get the attention of the first disciples – to move them from fear to boldness, from inaction to action. Whether or not the event took place as John describes – on the day of resurrection; or whether, as Acts suggests, the Holy Spirit arrived on the Feast of Pentecost the disciples were caught unawares and their lives were turned upside down as a result. According to John, Jesus miraculously appears to the disciples even though the doors to the room are locked. He says: “Peace be with you” before showing them his credentials (his hands and side) and then he breathes on them and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John doesn’t tell us how the disciples respond but, given that there is a community to receive the written gospel some 40-50 years later, we must assume that the disciples were emboldened and empowered to share the gospel with others.

Luke’s account of the coming of the Holy Spirit is quite different but equally, if not more, dramatic. Again the disciples were gathered. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind filled the room and tongues of fire rested on each of them. Once more we are left to guess how the disciples felt, but Luke’s account does tell us how they reacted (or were spurred to act). The scene changes from the room to the street and, amazingly, what the disciples say can be understood by people from a multitude of nations. Peter, as the disciples’ representative, not only addresses the crowd, but delivers a sermon that is sufficiently eloquent and powerful that many of the listeners (3,000) are baptized.

Of course, the sending of the Spirit is so much more than an attention-getting device on God’s part. It is a completely transformative event in the lives of the disciples who are changed forever as a consequence of their experience. Not only are they pulled up short by the power of God’s Spirit in and among them, they are also changed – emboldened, empowered and enlivened.

According to Acts, the disciples are impelled to preach the gospel to strangers. The Holy Spirit gives them the courage to speak and the words to say. Peter, at least, seems to have been given a knowledge of the scriptures such that he can trace the story of Jesus form creation to the present. The confusion and lack of understanding that characterized his discipleship have simply disappeared. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, he finds that he has the wisdom to communicate with all manner of people in such a way as to bring them to faith. He and his fellow disciples learn too that God is blind to colour, race and religion. Peter preaches without prejudice to a crowd that has come to Jerusalem from all over the world and those who seek baptism are not refused – regardless of their background.

The consequences of John’s more subtle account of the giving of the Spirit are no less extraordinary. In giving the disciples the Spirit, Jesus is commissioning them for ministry – not it must be noted, ministry on his behalf but ministry in their own right. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Through the work of the disciples Jesus’ presence and mission in the world will be continued and at the heart of this mission will be the authority to forgive or retain sins. (See below)

In both accounts the disciples are transformed from followers to leaders and are equipped by the Spirt of God, the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the gospel – to open the eyes of the world to God’s loving reconciling presence. In Jesus’ absence they are to continue the work that he began.

What has happened in the succeeding centuries that we no longer have the confidence to share the gospel with those around us? Why is it that we find ourselves to be timid or inarticulate (or both). When did we as individuals and community lose confidence in God’s presence in us?

In these strange and uncertain times, many of us have the opportunity to reflect on our lives and on our faith. On this, the two thousand and twentieth anniversary of God’s sending of the Holy Spirit there are a number of questions that we could ask ourselves.

How does God our attention?. What does it take for us to take heed of the Spirit within? And what could we not achieve if only we trusted the power of the Spirit that has been given to us?

(It would take another sermon to explain what Jesus means by this. Suffice to note, before we arrogantly take the place in judging right from wrong, ‘sinner’ from ‘saint’, we have to understand John’s use of the word ‘sin’. Essentially, by ‘sin’ Jesus means separation from God or a failure to see or know God. Through the Holy Spirit, the disciples can bear witness to God and thus free people from their ignorance (or their sin).
A similar passage in Matthew is likewise less about judgement but rather about knowing what rules/laws to retain and what can be loosened or done away with.
Neither allow us to put ourselves in the place of God.)

Getting our attention

May 30, 2020

Pentecost – 2020
John 20:19-23
Marian Free

In the name of God who enlivens, empowers and equips us for ministry. Amen.

One of the things about Covid-19 is that is has got our attention. Globally and locally, most of us were caught by surprise. While some countries had plans (and resources) to cope with a pandemic, many among even the richest nations were not well-equipped to meet the demand of thousands of seriously ill people and an equally horrendous number of dead. In Australia, the lock-down not only helped us contain the virus, but it also bought the nation time to ensure that our hospitals and our medical teams were prepared and equipped to meet the worst-case scenario. Panic buying of such items as toilet paper demonstrated that as individuals and as families we too we were caught off-guard.

No one would wish such a situation on any community yet, as people reflect on the situation, some have wondered whether or not this was the shock that the world needed – to give the planet a rest from pollution or to reassess whether what we knew as “normal” is the model that we hope will emerge from this experience. Others are commenting that on a personal level the enforced isolation is making them re-think their priorities and to re-assess how they live.

I would not for one moment suggest that God sent the virus to make us sit up and take notice, but it is certainly the case that often it takes something unexpected and dramatic to get our attention and to force us to make long-needed changes in our lives.

In the case of the coming of the Holy Spirit God was very clearly trying to get the attention of the first disciples. Whether or not the event took place as John describes – on the day of resurrection; or whether, as Acts suggests, the Holy Spirit arrived on the Feast of Pentecost the disciples were caught unawares and their lives were turned upside down. In both instances frightened believers were gathered together in one place. According to John, Jesus miraculously appears even though the doors are locked. He says: “Peace be with you” before showing them his credentials (his hands and side) and then he breathes on them and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit, if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” John doesn’t tell us how the disciples respond but given that there is a community to receive the written gospel some 40-50 years later, we must assume that the disciples were emboldened and empowered to share the gospel with others.

Luke’s account of the coming of the Holy Spirit is quite different but equally, if not more, dramatic. Again the disciples are gathered. Suddenly a sound like a violent wind filled the room and tongues of fire rested on each of them. Again we are left to guess how the disciples felt, but Luke’s account does tell us how they reacted. The scene changes from the room to the street and amazingly, what the disciples say can be understood by people from a multitude of nations. Peter, as the disciples’ representative not only addresses the crowd, but delivers a sermon that is sufficiently eloquent and powerful that many of the listeners (3,000) are baptized.

Of course, the sending of the Spirit is so much more than an attention-getting device. It is a completely transformative event in the lives of the disciples who are changed forever as a consequence. Not only are they pulled up short by the power of God’s Spirit in and among them, they are also changed – emboldened, empowered and enlivened.

According to Acts the disciples find the courage and the words to preach the gospel to strangers. Peter, at least, seems to have been given a knowledge of the biblical story from creation until now. The confusion and lack of understanding that characterized his discipleship have disappeared. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, he finds that he has the wisdom to communicate with all manner of people in such a way as to bring them to faith. He and his fellow disciples learn too that God is blind to colour, race and religion. Peter preaches without prejudice to a crowd that has come to Jerusalem from all over the world and those who seek baptism are not refused regardless of background.

The consequences of John’s more subtle account of the giving of the Spirit are no less extraordinary. In giving the disciples the Spirit, Jesus is commissioning them for ministry – not it must be noted, ministry on his behalf but ministry in their own right. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” Through the work of the disciples Jesus’ presence and mission in the world will be continued and at the heart of this mission will be the authority to forgive or retain sins.

In both accounts the disciples are transformed from followers to leaders and are equipped by the Spirt of God, the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the gospel – to open the eyes of the world to God’s loving reconciling presence. In Jesus’ absence they are to continue the work that he began.

What has happened in the succeeding centuries that we no longer have the confidence to share the gospel with those around us? Why is it that we find ourselves to be timid or inarticulate (or both). When did we as individuals and community lose confidence in God’s presence in us?

In these strange and uncertain times, many of us have the opportunity to reflect on our lives and on our faith. On this, the two thousand and twentieth anniversary of God’s sending of the Holy Spirit there are a number of questions that we could ask ourselves.

How does God get our attention? What does it take for us to take heed of the Spirit within? And what could we not achieve if only we trusted the power of the Spirit that has been given to us?

Mission as mutual enrichment

May 25, 2019

St Augustine’s Day (Easter 6) – 2019

(John 14:23-29, Acts 16:9-15)

Marian Free

In the name of God who goes before us into the world. Amen.

“Dear Bishop, …Suddenly I feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at strategy and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa. I would propose cutting myself off from the schools and the hospital and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. Outside of this, I have no theory, no plan, no strategy, no gimmick, no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked. I will begin as soon as possible.”

In the mid 70s a young Jesuit priest, Vincent Donovan, was sent to a missionary post in Kenya. The Jesuits had been in the nation for over 100 years, but had not managed to convert even one member of proud Masai people. The mission station boasted a hospital and a school. Children came to the mission school to be educated the the Masai brought the sick to be treated. The Jesuits were welcome guests at significant events, but had long since given up any real attempt to bring the Masai to faith. Vincent was young and enthusiastic. He had not come to this far away land to sit and wait for people to come to him. He had become a missionary so that he could share the faith that was so important to him. The Bishop gave his approval for Vincent to carry out his experiment. What happened next was truly remarkable.

In order to begin Vincent sought the permission of the elders of the various Masai communities. They were willing to hear him but, being herders who woke early to take their flocks to pasture, they could only spare the hour before dawn. Undeterred, Vincent rose early and met with the communities before they left with their flocks for the day. His method was to tell the story of Jesus through the gospel of Mark. Each morning Vincent would meet with the people and explain the gospel to them. Along the way he learnt about the culture he was interacting and adapted his teaching to fit. For example, parables that were meaningful in the agricultural society of first century Palestine did not not speak to the pastoral society of the Masai who competed for land with the agriculturalists to the south. Jesus’ teaching had to be shared in another way.

Not only was Vincent sensitive to the surroundings in which he found himself, he was also open to the wisdom that preceded him. He did not assume that the Masai had no culture or spiritual life and was therefore able to learn more about himself and his faith from those with whom spoke. It was clear to one of the tribal elders that at times Vincent appeared to be lost. He took Vincent aside and explained to him that the Masai understood God to be like a prowling lion and he observed that the lion was following Vincent and he challenged Vincent to stop and take stock and to ask himself what it was that he was running away from! Instead of rejecting this advice Vincent took it to heart

Vincent had come to Kenya share the gospel that he loved with those who had not heard it, but he was respectful of their culture and their experiences and willing to learn from those around him. He did not assume, as many have, that he was interacting with heathen savages but recognized that the Masai belonged an ancient culture that had its own beliefs and wisdom. He spoke to their situation and in turn was willing to learn from their experience.

To me the most stunning aspect of Vincent’s story is this. At the end of the process, after endless mornings of pre-dawn discussions, Vincent asked the villagers whether or not they would like to be baptized. Some said ‘yes’ and others said ‘no’. He did not try to persuade those who said ‘no’ to change their minds nor did he use the fear of hell. He had shared the faith, but he was not willing to impose it. The choice was theirs to make.

Centuries before Vincent stepped foot in Kenya, Augustine landed in Kent from Rome. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory to convert the Angles. In Kent Augustine and his band of monks received a cordial welcome. The gospel had in fact preceded them and the Queen, Bertha, was already a Christian. Just as Vincent had a base from which to work, so too did Augustine. In both cases there was a small Christian presence, but most of the people remained unchanged, their culture and their customs untouched by the gospel. We know little about Augustine’s methodology, but from a letter to the Pope, we know that he was unsure what he should do with regard to local practices and holy shrines. In his wisdom the Pope suggested that the holy places be retained and put to use, thereby adapting earlier practices for use by those who now professed Jesus as Lord. Instead of destroying that which preexisted Christianity, Gregory encouraged engagement with it.

The approach of Augustine and Vincent differ markedly from that of many of the colonial missionaries who often sought to conquer and suppress the cultures they encountered, who failed to listen to and understand the peoples whom they desired to change and who, in their arrogance and ignorance, failed to see that God was already at work in the ancient cultures they encountered.

The association of mission with colonialism has given mission a bad name. So much damage has been done in the name of Jesus that we are cautious and timid, anxious not to be seen as those who impose our will on others. Yet we have a great treasure that cries out to be shared – not by tramping rough shod over ancient traditions and wisdom, not by arrogantly assuming that those whose lives are different from our own are necessarily impoverished, not by imposing our will or ourculture on others but by starting where people are, by showing respect for and interest in those whom we meet, by being willing to learn and to have our own lives and faith deepened and enriched as a result. In the end, the gospel belongs to God and God will speak to the hearts of others as God has spoken to us and God will use us if we make ourselves ready and available, humble and willing to learn.


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