Previous Letters from the Clergy are available on this page.
HOSPITALITY TO THE TAX MAN
As 5 April has past, let us reflect on St Matthew the Tax Collector, Apostle, Evangelist, genealogist and witness by his testimony and blood to our Lord Jesus Christ. St Matthew was all of these things, and he and a few of his colleagues as well as sinners outraged the Pharisees when Jesus was seen enjoying their company at table. Recall that being at table with Jesus is central to his ministry then and now. A visit from a tax collector such as Matthew was not like an audit by HMRC. It was more like a legal visitation from a local mafia boss and his associates, who would demand ‘protection’ above and beyond the taxes already being exacted by the government (which in Rome were much higher than ours). No one enjoys paying taxes, most of all to an occupying foreign power, and no one likes having to spend time with representatives of such an oppressive force. Yet Jesus not only spent time with tax collectors and sinners, he specifically called one of them—Matthew—to follow him, as he calls each of us individually and then corporately as the Church to do the same. To follow Jesus is to take up our own bespoke crosses and follow him wherever he leads, come what may: We must ask ourselves, what does it mean to follow Jesus—the Christ, the Son of God, fully human and fully God, the visible aspect of the Father?
If we’re looking for a quick answer, we will read the Creeds as illustrations of our faith in Christ. Yet the Creeds might be deconstructed into mere words and even empty signifiers if we do not speak from the position of intention in which they begin: “I believe…” Speaking in such wise means when we say we believe, we do so because we incarnate the very tenets of the faith we claim is so dear to us—so much so that speaking them retroactively names and affirms the manner of lives we have always-already been living: lives transformed by the redemptive power of Christ at our baptism, justified by our faith, strengthened by each devotion and reading of Scripture and each reception of Holy Communion. In other words, lives of love—specifically working themselves out in acts of hospitality to the greater Glory of God.
The hospitality of which I speak is that practiced by Jesus, specifically at table with those who were most unlike him: sinners and tax collectors; a motley crew of people in all shapes, sizes and world-views. Yet Christ welcomed them and welcomes us with the same intention of offering redemption from the sin that binds us.
As is traditional in classical hospitality, Christ does not ask a person’s identity beforehand to discern his or her worth; he welcomes all and demonstrates what each can become. This is what Christ means when he states that he requires mercy and not sacrifice. If the sacrifice is meant to appease, it is redundant. If it is filled with praise and thanksgiving, it is adequate, yet not required. Yet if it can be passed by because humanity realises it is already made holy by Christ’s Incarnation, then we can be merciful—something lacking in the world these days.
If we already have begun to identify areas where we are succeeding in Christ-like hospitality, then we have made a good start in witnessing to Christ as our Lord and Saviour. The harder part is to believe what we say we do, to reconcile what we call Christ with what we actually do in practice. As disciples of Christ, we must be hospitable and welcome those who not only are not like us, but are repugnant and irritating to us… in the Name of Christ. Can we stop judging others for what they presently appear to us to be and instead look to what we all may become through Christ? If Christ invites us to eat and sits in our midst whenever two or three are gathered in his name, how do we dare to look at others with prejudice and decide whether they are worthy to eat at a table which is not even ours?
The Rev’d George M Rogers
St Thomas seems to be a skeptic, asking for proof of Christ’s resurrection merely to score a point: perhaps that the disciples who report seeing the risen Christ are mad. He says clearly, “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” After appearing to Thomas and the rest of the disciples, Jesus says, “Happy,” or “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have come to believe”.
Are we to assume that Thomas was unhappy? Not exactly—when Thomas was confronted by what he demanded—the risen Lord in his midst and the opportunity to feel his wounds, he became the first to proclaim Christ as Lord and God. Let this be a lesson to all of us: you’d better be careful what you ask for—especially from God, because you just might get it! Looking closer, we begin to see that St Thomas was not looking for mere proof of a phenomenon he had no interest in—like proof of the possibility of life on other planets or reports of Elvis Presley sightings—being a disciple of Christ, he was predisposed to believe, and in his predisposition to believing in Christ, he was making a claim not only for the present but also for the future.
What was Thomas asking to see? Christ resurrected from the dead or the fulfillment of the promise that Christ made to his disciples? He was not merely interested in a report about Christ’s resurrection, he was interested in a first-hand experience of this revolutionary act of Creation—an experience of God’s Providence. When are we acting as Thomas did—not only realising that doubt might be the underside of faith—but that faith is the action and substance of our relationship with God, meaning that even when we’re in doubt, we are still in active dialogue and relationship with God. It’s all right to doubt so long as it doesn’t become an eternal condition—it is a conversation with God, and it will always lead us closer to him. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t doubt, we’d swallow all doctrines, tenets and creeds in one go without ever feasting on them, digesting them and letting them become the holy sustenance for our living.
I think that it is essential for us to recognise when we ourselves are acting as Thomas did—when we’re looking for God’s Providence in a world that seems so unaffected by Christ’s rising from the dead almost all of the time.
Perhaps we act like “Doubting Thomas,” with friends and loved ones go through hopeless unemployment, when we interact with the poor, when we suffer with loved ones who are sick, when we’re victims of addiction, when we see the suffering in the world, the crime, conspiracy, wars and rumours of wars—and especially when we recognise evil in ourselves… is this not enough to make us demand to see an Easter vision, to demand from God to live up to his Holy Name and to show himself resurrected and give us that dose of grace so that we too can make good on what we’re predisposed to do, to have faith?
An agnostic makes no claims and plays it safe—this is not a position of great responsibility in the beginning or the end. An atheist posits God then negates him; always already operating from a secondary position of negation, thereby undercutting and preempting all of his atheistic claims with theological premises.
The Christian doesn’t merely know about something and doesn’t hold back in claiming what is known. He/she doesn’t merely know about Christ as a kindly moral teacher from ages past but experiences him. The Christian knows the truth—perhaps nothing but the truth, because he/she meets the truth and recognises the truth because he/she knows and is in relationship with Jesus Christ. This is to say that there is a chasm of difference between knowing the truth in Jesus Christ and hearing about truth from some other source. Christ is nothing but the truth itself and presents himself and his teaching for those who have ears to hear and souls to redeem at first hand—we receive the truth from God first hand.
This receiving of the truth at first hand has revolutionary consequences for us, because in receiving the truth in this way, we are established as contemporaries of Christ—in the same generation as Thomas and all of the disciples about whom we read in holy scripture. The claim that we make as disciples of Christ warrants that we will demand to see God’s Providence at work in our lives. We know the truth—the resurrected Lord, and we are predisposed to proclaim this truth not only with our lips but in our lives.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
SEEK AND YOU SHALL FIND…
If you have ever wept over the loss of someone beloved – parent, child, partner, dearest friend – then you can understand Mary Magdalene’s grief over Jesus’ death. Lost in the confusion of grief’s pain, Mary Magdalene is unable to comprehend what has taken place. Finding the stone removed from the mouth of the tomb fills her with fear. Panic-stricken she runs to Peter and the beloved disciple to tell them what the evidence suggests: someone has stolen Jesus’ body. Peter and the other disciple race, in a mixture of terror and anger, to see for themselves what further violence can have been done to Jesus’ body. Had he not been mortified enough, humiliated enough, disgraced enough? Yes – his body is gone. What can it mean? The men examine the tomb with its grave clothes strewn across the floor, only the head covering rolled neatly in a place by itself. Wanting to believe but unsure of what even such belief might mean, the two return to their homes leaving Mary to weep.
As the story further unfolds, the risen Lord stands behind Mary asking, “Whom do you seek?” It is this question he had asked of his very first two disciples, at the beginning of his ministry. It is the same question he had asked of the chief priests, Pharisees and soldiers the previous Thursday evening when they had come to the garden to arrest him. Now, supposing him to be the gardener, Mary pursues her single-minded thought: the whereabouts of Jesus’ dead body. Who of us does not feel her aching, empty longing when she says “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away”? He calls her by name “Mary!” And we reverberate with the mixture of wonder and joy which form her cry of recognition as she surges forward to embrace him. He is not dead. He is alive, he is risen! He had said he would be taken away and they would weep and mourn, but their pain would be transformed into joy. She had not understood; none of them had. He had said “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” So this is what he had meant. Like their friend Lazarus before him, he was alive again.
But not quite.
Like Lazarus, Jesus has come forth from the tomb in flesh that is absolutely recognisable. Without any doubt Mary knows who he is and seeks to embrace him. But he is quite unlike Lazarus. Lazarus emerged still wrapped in the grave clothes, awaiting Jesus’ command to unbind him and let him go free. Jesus has left the grave clothes behind, scattered throughout the tomb. Lazarus would die again. Jesus has left death behind him forever.
The risen Jesus emerges from the tomb with a body quite unlike what Lazarus knew. This is a body which will never die again. This is a body which will never again know the limitation of time or space. This is a body which will never again know pain, sorrow or tears. This is a body fashioned for a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, a body which is flesh and blood of a different order, fit for a reality of a different order. The disciples had feared some kind of violence. And in a way, they were right. This is violence all right – a Holy Violence – not so much the undoing of death, as an entirely new act of new creation. God has stretched the cosmic number of creation from seven to eight. In the old seven day cycle, death appeared, entering through the first Adam and remains on the scene to this day, the vanquisher of us all. But on this eighth day God has done a new thing – created life beyond death – stripped death of its triumph, vindicating not only Jesus’ life, word and identity but demonstrating for all who will look, that the new day is dawning, the new age unfolding. Easter – the eighth day of creation – Jesus steps from the tomb revealing God’s new thing. Death has been left behind, resurrection has broken forth. Christ is the first fruit, his empty tomb the foretaste of what awaits each of us.
At Easter we shout “Christ is risen, the Lord is risen indeed!” as affirmation, not only of the empty tomb, but as an assertion that the tomb of death contains none who belong to Christ. The grave is not a final resting place. It is but a marker of transition into God’s new reality – the new heaven and earth – the new creation. Those who have gone before us have stepped through the door of death, led by our risen Lord and now find themselves held firmly in his awaiting arms. Their lives are hidden in him, awaiting that day of his return when all the saints – all those gathered about him at the celestial table – will appear with him, and will be found to be just like him. We gather to remember not only his resurrection. We gather to remember that because he lives, they live as well. Because he lives, we too shall live. As the Apostle Paul reminds us “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
But if for the next life only we have hoped in Christ, then we are to be pitied as well, for then we are missing the power of his resurrection now. Christians worship not some distant Lord, separated by the past, as though our object of hope were the historical Jesus. Nor do we worship some distant Lord obscured by other worldly celestial transcendence. We worship Jesus Christ, the risen Lord who is present to us now in word, in sacrament, in the community and fellowship of faith by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
We worship the risen Christ who comes to us in our loss and confusion, as he came to Mary: to comfort, to give hope and power for new life.
When Jesus said to Mary, “Do not hold onto me….” he was not prohibiting her from touching him. Later that evening he would invite his disciples to do precisely that. Rather, Jesus was saying that his work was not yet complete. He must return to the Father. Mary is to tell his brothers and sisters that he goes forth to complete his work. For there is yet more for him to do. There are still enemies of this gospel afoot in this world. There are still those in life – principalities and powers, soldiers and sovereigns – who are set against the purposes of God’s redeeming and transforming love. The power of death is still very real in the world. Jesus returned to the Father to be able to deal with them, to put them “under his feet,” to defeat them, as he has defeated the tomb. Only then – when he has destroyed death, once for all – will he hand the reign back to the Father, his own work complete.
But Jesus ascends for another reason. He returned to his Father that he might reach out to you and to me, to everyone who calls him Lord to give us power to live beyond death now. As he called Mary by name, amid her tears, he calls us by name when overwhelmed with the death of those we love, to remind us that they are not dead, but live hidden in him. When he appears, they shall be with him. He calls us by name when overwhelmed with the death around us, to remind us that the tomb is empty – he has power over those things that entomb us. New life is to be found in him. He calls us by name to transform our lives, to turn our pain into delight, promising a joy so powerful, so eternal, that it will never be taken from us. He calls us by name in the frantic pursuits of daily life and asks his continuing question: “Whom do you seek?”
The Rev’d George M Rogers
Prayer & Fasting in Lent
Lent is a season when the people are more conscious of their spiritual character. The passages of the Gospels and the Epistles, the hymnody and prayers, the spirit of the Church all endeavour to help the Christian cleanse himself spiritually through repentance. “Repent” is the first word Jesus Christ spoke in His proclamation to the people, as the epitome of His Gospel. Repentance is the main motivation of the Christian which acts to free him from sin. One’s recognition of his sin, contrition over it and lastly the decision to make an radical change of disposition are the steps of repentance. During the period of Lent the Christian is called to self-examination and self-control by the radiance of the Event of the Resurrection of Christ. This is why the Church designated such a period of time be observed before this great feast day.
Fasting in its religious setting is abstinence from food, always in relation to a religious event or feast. Fasting in itself has no meaning in the Christian Church and is not to be accepted as a mere custom without a spiritual purpose: “Fasting was devised in order to humble the body. If therefore, the body is already in a state of humbleness and illness or weakness, the person ought to partake of as much as he or she may wish and be able to get along with food and drink,” (Canon 8 of St. Timothy of Alexandria, 381). Thus fasting is understood as a means of temperance and sobriety, especially in relation to prayer, devotion and purity. It is also understood to be related to giving alms to the poor. The roots of fasting in the Christian Church are to be found in the Old Testament and the Jewish religion—both for certain days and certain foods. As a general rule, fasting precedes a religious feast. Such verses in the Old Testament refer to this: “Thus says the Lord of Hosts: the fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts; therefore, love, truth and peace,” Zechariah 8:18-19.
In continuation of the practice of fasting, the Christian Church determined the period of Lent to depend on the great Feast of Easter, as set forth by the First Ecumenical Council in 325. The Church determined the day on which the Resurrection of Christ would be celebrated, according to the conditions that existed at the time of this Event.
Thus, the Council set forth that the great Feast of Easter would be celebrated on: the first Sunday, after the full moon, after the Spring Equinox (March 21), and always after the Jewish Passover. Thus, this great Feast is a moveable date in the calendar. Therefore, Lent, which depends upon the date of Easter, also is moveable, each year being celebrated on a different date, (Sunday), depending on the above conditions.
The disciples said to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” And our Lord did not respond with a lecture on spontaneity. He gave explicit, practical advice, including a model on prayer. Seven specific suggestions which have been commended by many Christians throughout the ages:
- Pray each day at the same time. Treat it as the most important appointment in your day, and don’t let anything intrude upon it, or crowd it out.
- It is helpful to have a regular place as well as a regular time for prayer. Jesus recommended a closet, perhaps in a modern home it ought to be a bedroom, study or other quiet place. Lock the door if possible, for your ability to concentrate is directly related to your assurance that no one will see, overhear or interrupt you.
- The posture you assume in prayer does not matter to God, but it may make a great difference to you. Kneeling is a physical act of humility, yet an uncomfortable position may be a distraction.
- Prepare for prayer with a brief period of devotional reading. It helps to make the transition from the hectic world to the quiet mood of prayer and focus your attention on God—an act which is both the precondition and purpose of prayer.
- Pray as long as you need to or want to and no longer. Our Lord warned that long-windedness is not a virtue in prayer and the model prayer he gave us is only 67 words long.
- Pray whether you feel like it or not. Everyone, even the most saintly, go through frequent dry periods when they do not feel the least bit prayerful.
- Do not be ashamed to offer selfish prayers or seek God’s help in the little things of life. Jesus included in his model prayer a petition for daily bread, which is about as mundane a request as you can make. But do not let personal petitions dominate your prayer. There are four other kinds of prayer that you might practice deliberately: intercession, confession, thanksgiving and adoration.
Intercession is described as loving your neighbour on your knees. Confession is the prayer in which we acknowledge our sins and accept God’s forgiveness of them. Thanksgiving means counting your blessings. Adoration is the highest form of prayer, meaning to lift up your heart to God and say in whatever words you find most meaningful, that you acknowledge him to be worthy of your utmost love and obedience. The Lord’s Prayer begins with a simple expression of adoration—“Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
Ask yourself how regularly do you pray. Have you ever thought of prayer as a holy habit to be cultivated like any other habit? Would praying at the same time and same place help you to cultivate the prayer habit? Analyse the content of your own prayers. What proportions are devoted to petition, intercession, confession, thanksgiving and adoration? Are there types of prayers in which your rarely or never engage? Let prayer help you to keep a holy Lent.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is a major feast which occurs in the Epiphany season, but it is connected to Christmas and actually brings the observance of Christ’s Nativity to a close. This feast also has another old title, the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin. Let us look at each title’s meaning.
First and most obviously, there’s the Presentation of Christ in the temple. According to the Law of Moses, every first-born son had to be dedicated to God in memory of the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt at the Exodus, when the first-born sons of the Egyptians died and those of Israel were spared or “passed over” by the angel of death. This Presentation of the son occurred forty days after the child’s birth; thus the actual day, 2 February, falls forty days after 25 December. The Presentation required an offering to be made for the first-born son, an ongoing sign of the miracle of God’s preservation of Israel since the Exodus up to the present moment. It is worth noting that in the story of the Presentation by the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph took the option offered by the Law for a poor family. The Law prescribed either a lamb, which was the rich family’s offering, or, for the poor, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, as the offering to be made for the child.
Secondly, the ritual of Presentation included the rite of Purification for the mother who had undergone the blood shedding involved in childbirth. As a daughter of the covenant she was delivered from the dangers of pregnancy and restored to a more normal or at least less delicate state. Present at the scene with the Holy Family were two old saints, Simeon and Anna, who prophesied concerning Jesus. Simeon said he could now die in peace, because he had laid eyes at last on Israel’s Messiah. He also said Jesus’ career would mean the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and would pierce the heart of his own mother Mary. Anna gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of Jesus to all who looked for Israel’s redemption.
So it was that when Mary placed her infant Son into Simeon’s arms, the dispensation of the Old Testament encountered the new dispensation of the Gospel. Seen from the perspective of our faith in Jesus Christ, we can see Christ, God’s gift to our Lady, being presented and offered back to the Father by his Church, personified by Mary and Joseph.
If you think about it, we have here the image of the way Christians pray and worship and witness and work at all times. Looking far ahead from Christ’s infancy through Lent to Holy Week, we come to Good Friday where Jesus completes his self-offering. He takes us from his Presentation in the Temple to the Altar of the Cross.
When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple, God revealed how it is that we have access to him. This access was brought to perfection on Good Friday, when it was no wonder that the veil covering the Holy of Holies of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. When Mary underwent the old purification rite as Christ’s mother, she was prefiguring the purification all Christians receive as we learn more and more to live and grow in Christ, bearing him to the world.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
Feast your Eyes!
The Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord takes us back to the crib. On Christmas night it’s angels who sing out the praises of God and shepherds who leave their flocks to come and worship before the Christ-child. At Epiphany it is a star shining in the heavens that proclaims this most special of all births, and mysterious visitors from a far-off Eastern land come seeking a king—and find him, and kneel before him, but not where they’d expected…
Today we get another look at the Christ-child. We’ve moved on since Christmas, it’s 12 days later. This isn’t a picture frozen in time, and anyone who has experienced a child’s development will know how rapidly they grow. Mary still nurses this child Jesus but she also needs to be able to put him down and get on with the tasks of daily living. That’s our calling too: that as we return to routine, perhaps with some New Year’s resolutions, we do so ready for the new growth of Christ in us.
And when we look at the child growing in the Christmas crib, we’re aware that we’re not the only onlookers. This is the day of that disturbing visit by the Magi. When not in lockdown, this is usually the time of year when we are most likely to encounter those people we see only rarely, perhaps just once a year… And the Magi come out of the blue, or at least those mysterious lands which are called simply “the East”. The truth is we don’t know where they came from really, how many they were or who they were. “We three kings…” fits well in the carol, but the number “three” is the number of the gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, rather than of those who bear them.
As for their being “kings”, “Wise men” is probably a bit better as a translation, but you might also call them philosophers (people trying to find meaning in what they observe). These days they might describe themselves as “consultants”, and their specialty as consultancy to royals and heads of state. Their journey takes them first not where God might intend but to Jerusalem. If the star is about the birth of a “king of the Jews,” then for them the obvious place to offer their services is in Jerusalem.
There is never a shortage of good advice where money is to be made. Is this what they hope to offer when they tell Herod they have come to pay homage to the new-born king?
Herod himself says that he would like to do likewise if the Magi can find him—but we know his motives are far from well-intentioned. And we don’t really know why these mysterious visitors from the East made their journey…
Except we can say that they found what they needed, even if it wasn’t what they had expected. Not in a capital city but in an outlying village… Not in a grand palace, but in what was at best a modest home… And not one who bore the appearance of a King’s son, but true royalty in the child whose first crib had been an animal’s feeding trough. In the palace of King Herod, the Magi had come with questions and received only partial answers from scribes searching through scriptures. But now, as they find the Holy Family in a humble Bethlehem dwelling, they are simply “overwhelmed with joy”.
What they thought they knew with their heads is now revealed to their hearts. The dignity they bore with their wisdom has to be put off so they can find the truth in humility, kneeling in worship before Jesus. As we see the glory of the Christ-child revealed to them, so we can worship beside them as fellow-Gentiles, people called from afar by the love of God which beckons us. As we see them offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, we can make our own offering to Jesus of our hearts and lives.
Then, they leave. They rejoice at what they have seen, but we know that the darkness of the world is closing in as Herod plots to remove the threat he perceives to his kingship. It’s a foreshadowing of the injustice and the violence which we know quite well in today’s world. The Magi recognise in the child of Bethlehem the one they call “the king of the Jews”. The next time that phrase will be used by Gentiles in St Matthew’s Gospel is almost at its end, by the Roman soldiers who crucify Jesus. At his birth and at his death Jesus is seen for who he truly is. The invitation to us today is to perceive his glory also.
Remember that Christian discipleship means working out our faith in daily life, seeking the simplicity of faith in the complexities of the world, and recognising and knowing God’s love even when appearances deny it.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
SERVICE WITH A SMILE
One wonders where James and John have been as Jesus has been making this journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Where were they when he put the small child in their midst? Where were they when he welcomed those who were powerless and empty handed, and said that unless one received God’s reign in such a way they could not enter it? Where were they when Jesus challenged the rich man to give up his status of wealth, power, esteem and privilege in order to follow him? But here they are, fresh on the heels of all of that, asking for special recognition. Did James and John not hear clearly? Or did they think themselves excused because they were on the inner circle?
As Jesus strides ahead of the twelve and his other followers, James and John push on to catch up to have a private word with Jesus, asking for a position of preeminence in his messianic reign. Jesus tells them they don’t know what they are asking, suggesting the hardships he is going to face before coming into his glory through the use of the imagery of the cup of suffering and the baptism of death. But their thirst for glory is strong, and, they insist, “We are able”! One wonders if James and John remembered this pledge as they were running into the night to abandon Jesus at his arrest. But the craving for power, position and glory drives us to make some extraordinary promises, does it not?
Jesus responds that they will indeed share his cup and his baptism—they will know suffering, persecution, even death because of their loyalty to him—but to sit at his right or left hand is not his to give. That belongs solely to his Father. By now, the other ten have caught up and break in on this conversation with an anger that bespeaks jealousy more than anything else. They too share a thirst for authority and power, and want their share of the privilege that seems so important in this world. Jesus tells them they have a choice. They can live in that world, or, they can live in his. They can behave like the Gentiles, whose leaders lord it over them, and all too often turn to tyrants, or, they can follow his example of sacrifice. Those who wish to become great must become servants, those who wish to become first among them must become a slave of all. This is about a kind of service defined by Jesus’ own—sacrificial—a word fallen on hard times.
An earlier generation was constantly aware of the sacrifices made by their parents that they might have a better life. It has become customary again to speak of those who die in war as having made the “ultimate sacrifice”. In ancient religious terms sacrifice often meant something offered to the god.
In Christian terms, we speak of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself, as the great high priest who offered himself to God on behalf of all people, as “a ransom to set others free”. Sacrifice at its root, means “to offer to God”. It has to do with giving over something of value to God, our time, our resources, our lives. The apostle Paul writes “I appeal to you brothers and sisters to present your bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”. This is precisely what Jesus is saying to his disciples. If they wish to follow him they must abandon the way the world does business and take up lives that are sacrificial—offered to God through service that is more than a matter of convenience or more than a strategy for demonstrating how hard they are trying to be good.
Do you hear, “I’m just trying to be a good person”? Remember Jesus’ words to the rich young man: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone”. Jesus doesn’t want us to be simply good people, as though such a thing were possible. Jesus wants us to be God’s people! He is calling us to a form of service offered to God in gratitude for our redemption—sacrificial service. Such service is a rarity. There was a time when people went into public service, whether medicine, law, education, public safety, the military, diplomacy—even politics—out of gratitude and an attempt to give back. More often than not today it has turned into a bigger or better way to get. Physicians, teachers and public service personnel go on strike and people enter the military for its career opportunities. Service has become something offered to us, which is good or bad, depending on how well it meets our needs or expectations. Rather like the Gentiles Jesus speaks of, we “lord it over” those who serve us. Even the image of the servant leader—a concept that was popular in management circles some twenty-five years ago, has become simply a management tool in order to achieve institutional goals more efficiently, suggesting that giving priority to people over projects, addressing people’s needs first, is an effective strategy for co-opting them to work more effectively toward organisational goals. In other words, such servant leadership is ultimately self-serving.
Notice that Jesus’ model of servant leadership is different. Understanding his purpose, not to be served but to serve and set others free, Jesus does not bind himself to what people ask of him. He binds himself to doing what needs to be done, using his life as a ransom to authentically set others free. In Jesus’ day, a ransom was a payment made to redeem a prisoner of war, a slave or even a criminal. Jesus knew that the bondage to sin that held human life captive would not be broken by his teaching nor his healing.
He came to do more than talk about God or demonstrate the power of God’s reign to those who would strive to follow him. He came to ransom human life from sin and its power. That is why he strides so determinedly to Jerusalem. He is going there to die. But notice that Jesus’ words to us about sacrificial service are not about death. They are about living. What Jesus will need ever after from those he has ransomed is lives that reflect their deliverance. And so he is not calling us to follow him to death—he says nothing here about taking up a cross—but rather, calling us to lead ransomed lives in this world, lives grateful that they have been delivered from the world’s captivity. The sacrificial service to which he calls you and me is different than his own. Ours is to point to him in ways that model his service. Ours is to live out a life of service, not as a means of co-opting people to achieve our own ends or demonstrating to others how good we can be, but simply as what we offer to God out of gratitude for the gift of lives redeemed and set free by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Jesus calls us to be a people of sacrificial service—using our time, our talent and our treasure to witness to our redemption. He wants us to be a community in which those who have been ransomed by Jesus’ death not only know it, but live that way. He calls us to give up trying to be good in order to live in ways that reveal we have been ransomed and now belong to God.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
ON THE LEVEL WITH CHRIST
Mary’s beautiful song of praise is commonly called the Magnificat, from the Latin for “magnify.” Mary magnifies the Lord, proclaiming God’s greatness and rejoicing in God as Saviour. She begins with God’s actions in her own life, for in choosing her to be the mother of the messiah, the Mighty One has indeed “done great things for” her. Elizabeth has just welcomed and honoured her, saying, “blessed is she who believed.” Now she recognises with awe that not only Elizabeth but all generations will call her blessed.
In our culture #blessed has become a meme, and “feeling blessed” makes regular appearances in Facebook posts. People tweet images or post pictures of themselves enjoying a delicious meal or an exotic holiday or a shopping spree at their favourite shop. “Blessed” has come to mean living a life of privilege and comfort. Using the term has become a way of celebrating those moments when everything is going well and all seems right with the world—or at least one’s own little corner of it.
The blessedness that Mary celebrates stands in stark contrast to our culture’s attitude. By our standards she doesn’t look at all blessed. God has chosen her to be the mother of the messiah, but in practical terms what does that mean for her? She isn’t from a rich family or of any social standing. She’s a peasant girl from a small village. Her friends and neighbours see her as a disgrace because she’s unmarried and pregnant. Further, as she will soon learn from Simeon if she hasn’t perceived it already, being the mother of the messiah is scarcely an unmixed blessing. She will bear the unspeakable grief of watching as her son is rejected, shamed and crucified: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too”. Despite all this, Mary praises God for honouring her.
She perceives God’s action in her life as consistent with God’s saving action in history. The Mighty One’s agenda differs radically from the plans of human rulers. Mary’s celebration of God’s strong arm recalls Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. Like Mary, Hannah experienced a miraculous pregnancy. Like Mary’s son, Hannah’s son Samuel spoke God’s word. Both Hannah and Mary praise God for overturning society’s structures by bringing down the powerful and lifting up the powerless. Mary’s song doesn’t share Hannah’s militaristic imagery, however, for Mary’s son will bless not the makers of war, but the peacemakers.
Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people. The God she celebrates isn’t content merely to point people toward heaven; God’s redemptive work begins here now. God fills the hungry not only with hope, but with food. Rather than being satisfied with comforting the lowly, Mary’s Lord lifts them up, granting them dignity and honour, a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation. At the same time, God shows strength by disrupting the world’s power structures, dethroning rulers and humbling the mighty.
Clearly such saving acts are good news for the poor and lowly, but what does Mary’s song mean for the rich and the powerful? Is there nothing but judgment for them? Though judgment and salvation may seem like opposites, they go hand in hand. Those who stand in awe only of themselves and their own power will be judged. Yet if the wealthy and powerful can only see it, by bringing them down — by emptying and humbling them—God is saving them. When they turn their gaze from themselves and their own accomplishments, when their awe is directed to God—then there’s mercy for them, too.
Both in Mary’s song and in Jesus’ ministry we see the God who loves us as we are but doesn’t leave us that way. Zacchaeus shows us God’s saving love in action. As a tax collector Zacchaeus is wealthy but he’s also a scorned outsider. When Jesus invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s house, the encounter leaves Zacchaeus welcomed into community, emptied of his wealth and profoundly changed. His gaze is redirected from himself toward Jesus. He no longer sees only his own needs and desires. Now he sees those whom he has harmed in his quest for money and security. Jesus brings Zacchaeus down from his wealth and up from his shame. In the process he frees him. Salvation has come to his house.
When God empties the rich of their excess and fills the hungry with good things, the result isn’t social reversal, with the powerless and the powerful changing places as much as it is social levelling. The rich and powerful are stripped of their arrogance and taught to love their neighbours as God loves them. Thus God provides for the poor and honours the humiliated. When the arrogant are scattered and the powerful brought down, then every person has access to enough of the world’s resources, and no one has too much. Every person is treated with dignity and respect and no one uses power to harm.
Mary’s song magnifies the Saviour who loves the world with a love that makes creation whole. God’s saving judgment is for all of us, bringing us down from the pride that fills us with ourselves until we can’t see either God or neighbour, bringing us up from the shame that distorts our worldview and convinces us that no one—not even God—could love us. The mother of the Messiah has experienced God’s blessing. She is not #blessed. Her blessing, like ours, is a cross-shaped blessing, “a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)” as T. S. Eliot so memorably said, yet bringing true freedom, the priceless gift of God’s salvation.
Rev’d George M Rogers
If you grew up in the church, you’ve heard over and over that idols were bad. Some churches go so far as not to allow pictures of Jesus for fear that the picture would accidentally turn into an idol. For some, false idols are a point of fear—to the point of fighting—it seems as if a lot of power was assigned to those false idols. They’re wood, metal or nowadays, plastic. They have no power and can’t cause problems apart from what we humans cause the problem to be. There is a bit of freedom in knowing that objects hold no power; God has all the power. Our job is to remember that God is what we worship and that those objects can’t hurt us!
Idolatry distorts, exaggerates and mutilates something true. Idolatry is above all a negation of worship. If idolatry in theological terms is a heresy, it’s primarily a heresy about humanity. It’s the negation of humanity as a worshipping being: the one for whom worship is the essential act, which ‘posits’ his humanity and fulfils it.” No one is capable of eradicating the yearning for God from one’s soul. Therefore, we either learn to come before the true God in prayer and solemn feast or we delude ourselves with the worship of idols.
It’s easy to place our identity in something or someone other than God. Whether it is our social media following, our position at work, our skill-set or the achievements we pursue, many have their identity wrapped up in the wrong thing, which is a difficult way to live. If your identity is in your work, your skills, your looks or anything else, you will constantly feel like you don’t measure up; these things are harsh masters. But when our identity is secured in God, we can live in freedom. While we will still fall short, God’s love will never fail us and will square up any difference, abundantly.
The pursuit of money and the acquisition of things is also an idol. Many trust their money more than they trust God. But hear me on this. Money isn’t bad, it’s a tool. And like any tool, you have to use it correctly; otherwise, it can be lethal. Money isn’t the problem. It’s how we use and view it (if we love it) that can become a problem. Many have placed their hopes and dreams on money. They trust it to provide for them, care for them and protect them.
The problem is, it can’t live up to what we’re trying to get from it. Money has become the ultimate thing for many of us. If the motivating factor in our life is money and not God, that’s an idol.
We’re obsessed with being entertained and it comes in many forms—from Netflix to holidays and video games to podcasts, but it’s not that entertainment is bad. When our lives become all about the search for entertainment and chase of the best experiences we can find, then it has become an idol. It has become more important than God. I would argue that entertainment is good and a gift from God but we should worship the giver not the gift.
We’re obsessed with sex in our culture. It’s everywhere. It might be the only thing we think about more than money. We’ve taken a gift from God and made it into the god of our lives, and for many, their lives are controlled by it. To even question the sexual ethic in our society will bring a slew of accusations, showing how tied to our idol we actually are. Our sexual identity, sexual practices and sex lives are sacred to us. Perhaps the church shares some blame. Rather than portraying sex as a good gift from God, in recent history, it has heaped guilt upon shame. You could argue this is one of the factors that brought the over-exaggeration of sex. But regardless of how we got here, for many today, sex is an idol. We value it more than we do God.
There’s an endless list of products promising to simplify and add comfort to our lives. We’ve made our lives much easier and more comfortable than at any other time in history. Tasks that used to take all day can be done in minutes. Many simple tasks are now automated. While that’s a good thing, our pursuit in life shouldn’t be comfort alone. Jesus tells a very different narrative for his followers. He says that his followers will face trials, persecution and difficulty. As a sidebar, comfort in the classical sense of the term, as in “comfort and joy” means building up; strengthening. Quite a different meaning from today’s. While today’s notion of comfort isn’t bad, it can become damaging when it becomes the main pursuit in life. When comfort is an idol, we will struggle when God calls us to something difficult.
Mobile phone addiction is an increasingly worrying trend, especially for Gen Z and Millennials, and it’s certainly not confined to them. For many, we simply cannot live without our phones (or online presence). The problem isn’t our phones or social media or any form of technology. It is the value we place on it that makes it a problem. When our lives revolve around how many likes we get, what our following looks like, or if we can’t sit in silence for 5 minutes without refreshing our newsfeed, we might have an idol in our hands. Anything that takes the place of God in our life, anything that becomes more important than him, is an idol.
This isn’t a list of things to avoid, a weapon we should use to beat ourselves down or munitions to shoot at others. This is a list of things that can take the place of God in our lives. When a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, ultimately it becomes a destructive thing. That’s idolatry. What we should do with this list is use it to prayerfully evaluate our lives to make sure nothing has become more important to us than God. So how do we know if something has become an idol? Here are 4 questions to ask ourselves to help us to identify idols in our lives:
Where Do I Spend My Time?
Where Do I Spend My Money?
Where Do I Get My Joy?
What’s Always On My Mind?
Let’s really think and pray about those questions. They’ll lead us to what either is an idol or what we might be tempted to make into one. Idol worship today might look different from how it looked in Biblical times, but it still exists and must be avoided.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
TOUCH & GO
Jesus was someone people wanted to touch and be touched by. Jairus doesn’t simply ask Jesus to come and heal his daughter, he very specifically says, “Please come and lay your hands on her.” In St Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already performed a number of miracles that didn’t involve physical touch. Yet Jairus carefully requests the laying on of Jesus’ hands to bring about his daughter’s restoration.
In the midst of all this is the account of the bleeding woman. As Jesus makes his way to Jairus’ house, a woman in the crowd touches Jesus to relieve her of a hemorrhage that had clearly consumed her life. Just after Jesus walks past her, she reaches out, grabs a piece of his cloak, gives it a quick squeeze, lets go… And is healed instantly. Jesus notices that power has gone out from him; many were touching him and jostling him at the time, but none of them was tapping any divine power. That’s why the disciples are rather incredulous when Jesus asks, “Who touched me?”
The woman in question is mortified: She didn’t belong in the crowd to begin with. She too had been forced to jostle as she jockeyed for position. What the others didn’t know was that according to Jewish law, every person who came into contact with this woman had been made unclean. For the good of all, she needed to remain far away from others because so long as her problem persisted, she carried the contagion of the profane. So when Jesus singles her out as having touched him with a purpose, her joy at having been healed turns to instant dread: just as her life was about to begin anew, it looked like it might end. That’s why she appears before Jesus with fear and trembling.
To her credit, she tells what Mark describes as “the whole truth.” She could have lied, but she admits the nature of her condition. Suddenly every person wondered if they had rubbed shoulders with this unclean woman, but before the imminent panic starts, Jesus calls the woman “daughter” and sends her away with a benediction. Jesus restored her to the community and conveyed to everyone that the holiness he bore was more powerful than any potential contagion of the profane that anyone else could bear.
Meanwhile, Jairus had come to Jesus on the most urgent of errands. Time was of the essence, yet Jesus has stopped. Even as it looked like Jesus was ready to move on, men with tears in their eyes came rushing in. Jairus perceives their message from the pained look on their faces. Jesus ignores the messengers and turns directly to Jairus, speaking words that were either
the dearest thing any person has ever spoken or the very height of folly: “Fear not, only believe.” The account shifts from one daughter to the next as Jesus heads to Jairus’ house. The role of touch comes in again in that Jesus takes the little girl’s hand as the prelude to raising her from the dead. Twice Jesus touches someone unclean. Yet not only is Jesus not contaminated, the ones who had been unclean are made holy. Jesus re-establishes the boundaries that once defined the community. What does this account from antiquity mean for the Church today?
In St Mark’s Gospel, two dead daughters appear before Jesus. They come to Jesus “just as they are”—dead—but they leave their sacred encounter changed—alive. Still today, the Church faces the challenge of being both a welcoming community and an agent of transformation in the name of Christ. One without the other will never do, for if we welcome without hoping for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we display the love of the Gospel but none of its power. If we insist on transformation to take place before we welcome someone in Christ’s name, we hold out for the power of the Gospel, but fail to display its compassionate love. The compassion of Jesus Christ forms the context into which everything flows, and we cannot be Christ’s representatives if we cannot muster that welcoming presence in the Church today. Neither can we display Christ if in the name of welcome we adopt some casual “live and let live” approach to the shape of our lives.
In St Mark’s Gospel, a new community bursts onto the scene because Jesus wasn’t going to let anything stand in his way to let that community be established and grow in grace. In and through all of this reaching, whether we know it or not, we’re still reaching for Jesus’ hand. That holy hand is still available, but it now comes through my hands and yours. When those around us touch our hands, can they feel Christ’s love and power, his welcome and grace?
In the end, it doesn’t matter whom we encounter in this life. In all cases we’re called to say the very words our Saviour spoke to those deemed beyond hope: “Fear not, only believe.” New life begins right there.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
THE FAITH OF OUR FATHER
It was a simple request, the kind that parents make of their children all the time: “Son, go and work today in the vineyard”. Parents have good reasons for asking their children to do as they say. It’s helpful when they let their kids in on their reasoning, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they just say “Go. Work. Today. That vineyard”. That is a parent’s prerogative, and a child has to decide what to do in response.
Sometimes, a child responds like the first son in Christ’s parable. The father says, “Son, go work today in the vineyard”, the son listens to his father’s request, looks his Dad in the eye, and says: “I will not”. This sort of push back is fairly common. Kids say “NO” or “I will not” to their parents for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s out of a determination to assert their independence: “I will not be home by ten”. Sometimes it’s to express their fearfulness. Sometimes children say, “I will not” to get attention or express their grief. Other times it is simply to get their way—whether that way is right or wrong. Jesus doesn’t tell us why the first son verbally defied his father’s will. But Jesus does tell us something interesting: “Later, [the first son] changed his mind and went” to work in the vineyard.
Sometimes, everything in us wants to yell NO to the call of our Father. God calls us to go and work, to live by different principles, to develop new patterns, and we often say: “I can’t do it; I won’t do it; I don’t want to do it; you can’t make me do it”. And then later, we come to church, because we’re trying to do it. Maybe it’s partly out of fear of what might happen if we persist in defying God; that’s wise. Maybe it’s partially out of curiosity about where the path He’s pointed might actually lead; that’s good. Perhaps we change our mind and do what He says out of gratitude for all He’s given us; that’s only right. Maybe we go out of partial devotion—because experience teaches us that, even where we can’t see clearly, our Father has good reasons for what He asks; that’s true.
Holy fear, curiosity, gratitude and devotion are all different aspects of humility and humility is the absolute requisite for growth as disciples of Christ. We can only grow big by recognising how small we are before God’s great mind and heart. It’s only as we know that we’re simply in God’s Kingdom—that we’ve got a long way to go to become truly mature—that we start to get big. The reason is that as we become humble, we start putting our trust more in God and less in ourselves. We start obeying His commandments, even where a part of us is still saying, “I don’t want to”. We take a step of trust and that leads to a step of obedience and then one more step of trust and another of obedience, until suddenly we’re actually walking with God.
Jesus doesn’t say what got the first son up and walking toward the vineyard in the end. Maybe it was holy fear or curiosity; maybe gratitude or devotion. The important thing is that he went. Jesus tells us: “Then the father went to the other son, and [the father] said the same thing—‘Go and work today in the vineyard’”. And “he answered, ‘I will, sir’.” No hesitation or whingeing. No, “I’ll get to it in a minute” or “Do I have to do it”? Just an instantaneous ‘yes’ to his father’s instructions. “But he did not go” and work in the vineyard, says Jesus. He makes this beautiful profession of commitment to his father, but then he does not do as he promised. Great talk without the walk. Maybe he just liked the idea of doing the right thing but lacked the will to do it. Perhaps he had very good intentions but was easily distracted. Maybe he wanted to please his father but lacked a full sense of what really was pleasing to him. Perhaps he thought that saying yes was the same as living yes.
But that’s not true. Jesus finished his parable and then turned to the chief priests and the elders and asked this powerful question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted”? It’s obedience not oration that makes the Father proud. Jesus goes on to say that God looks more highly on the genuine repentance and obedience of somebody who’s been a low-life-tax collector, a prostitute, a rebellious son—than he does the pseudo-piety of someone who’s been an upstanding, courteous person but perseveres in being disobedient to his commands.
How does this apply to us? Are we more like son #1 or son #2? Every study suggests that Christians are remarkably articulate when it comes to claiming faith in God, belief in the Bible, respect for Jesus Christ but do we really trust and obey? Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven”. With whom, specifically, are we doing that? Christ commands: “Go and make disciples”. Whom have we personally led to Christ or mentored in discipleship in the past year? God the Father says: “Bring the whole tithe into my storehouse”. Did our giving of time, talent, and treasure in the last six months approach 10%? The Father also says: “Put away perversity from your mouth; keep corrupt talk far from your lips”. How is our language these days or the words we speak behind others’ backs?
These are just four areas of discipleship—our behaviour towards difficult people, our nurture of faith in others, our personal stewardship, and control of our tongue. Doing the Father’s will encompasses much more than this of course, but let’s focus on these; let’s pick one part of the vineyard of discipleship to which the Father calls us and start doing less “talking about” and more “walking about” there. Some will say: “I’ll do it when I have more faith, when God gives me more reason to trust”. Yet God says, I’ll give you more reason, when you do it. It is impossible to know the reality and dependability of God by merely paying lip service to the Father.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith, and they’re not two sides of the same coin. The disconcerting fact is that the opposite of faith is sin. Initially faith is not a feeling of certainty and impregnability, it is a fact that is embodied in the action of obedience. The action of obedience is building our lives on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ. The more we obey him, the more positive results we’ll see—in our lives and in the lives of those we touch. These results will then spill back as positive feelings that will encourage us to obey even more. Faith in God and obedience to His commandments are the very legs of discipleship. They are the way by which a follower of Christ moves through life and grows. The more these legs are exercised, the stronger they become, and the more ably and prosperously will walk into the stature that the Father wills for us.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
The Last Word
Logos—Greek for word of God, wisdom, computation, reckoning, measure, sum-total, esteem, consideration, value, relation, correspondence, proportion, explanation, inward debate of the soul, continuous statement, narrative, particular utterance, expression, speech, plea, pretext, ground, theory, argument, rule of conduct, principle, law, reason, formula (ten commandments), tradition, relationality through the person of Christ—the Word of God, the Holy Spirit of whom illumines the codified writings called Holy Scripture.
This community lives by the word of God, no other is needed. This word is given to the community through human agents whose task it is to make clear the purposes of God through the word they speak. They are to do so in and out of season, remaining faithful to their task whether the word is welcomed or not. What Moses said to Israel echoes to us today: we are to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The Church’s very identity is built around the dynamic presence of God’s word amongst us to form us, free us in relations amongst ourselves through Christ, to sustain us in all of the challenges and threats we will encounter in life.
This assertion is difficult to live by. There has always been the temptation to live by another word, another power source, another means of identity. The temptation to seek words that comfort rather than confront, words that side with cultural and political preferences rather than question their validity, words that are toned down to make accommodation—rather than words that may disturb or discomfort. To fall into this temptation is to ignore our call as God’s people, not only as those who know God’s word, but as those who bear God’s word by what we say and how we live. When we abandon that word which forms us and gives us our identity, we stop being the people of God.
There are times when knowledge is not enough. There is a higher principle that must be at work in the community of the word than mere knowledge of it, even superior knowledge. This principle is relationality—to God and others through his Holy Covenant: a place where the spirit behind the word makes itself present. Recall that St Mark tells us of this in the story of the exorcism in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath. As he does, his teaching is met with astonishment. There is an authority about his word that has a ring of truth unlike any other teacher they’ve heard. Jesus speaks as though the truth of this word were his very own—nothing but the truth.
In the midst of their astonishment, a man possessed by a demon cries out, “Jesus of Nazareth, have you come to destroy us?” In the pain of recognition he shouts, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” We know the rest. Jesus silences and exorcises the demon, leaving the man convulsed on the ground. St Mark—unlike the other Gospel writers—does not tell us what Jesus was teaching or what Jesus said to the demon to cast him out. He doesn’t tell us anything more about the man who had been possessed.
Instead St Mark presents us with the witness’s curious question in the wake of the demon’s departure: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” The question means nothing unless we hear it as a proclamation intended for those reading this story. St Mark is telling us that the power by which the demon was cast out is the very same power at work in Jesus’ words, in his teaching. St Mark will continue to speak of Jesus stilling a storm, raising a dead girl, feeding a hungry crowd, curing an epileptic and cursing a fig tree—all as a way of demonstrating the power of Christ’s word in the community that bears his name.
Jesus has entered a world where the demonic power of evil cripples, alienates, distorts and destroys life, in order to silence, bind and cast it out. His words have that power. But knowing about those words—even knowing them—is not enough. We must understand them as God’s word to us, God’s word for us, God’s word in us, so that they engage us and begin to silence, bind and cast out those demons that cripple, alienate, distort and rob us and those around us of life.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
Are you saved? Not only the question, but the word itself makes many of us queasy. It has the capacity to cull up memories of shouting hell-fire and brimstone preachers, or, encounters with self-assured Christians whose very asking that strongly implies they are and we’re not. The question reeks of an attitude of religious superiority and smacks of religious exclusivism contrary to what Jesus was about. Yet salvation is a common concept in the Bible, the words “saved”, “salvation” and “saviour” appear about 280 times. As we are now into the Easter season, it is a good time to review what we mean when we say “Jesus Christ is the saviour of the world”, what Biblical faith means when it speaks of being saved, how such salvation can be personal—how that happens—and its results. Are you saved? Why?
What is salvation? In the Bible the word has a broad range of meanings. Salvation means wholeness. It suggests an event so dramatic that it fills the blank places of our lives, while restoring those who have been crushed, maimed or destroyed. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus healing, restoring sight, mobility, hearing or speech and reaching out to those who have been rejected or crushed by life, acting in such a way that they can be restored both to life and community. Salvation means wholeness.
Salvation also means deliverance, as was the case with Israel. Because of their rebellious complaint against both Moses and God, God has sent fiery serpents to punish the people. As they begin to die, they repent and cry to God for help. God instructs Moses to fashion a poisonous serpent of bronze and set it on a pole so those who have been bitten can look at it and live. God, who can punish when scorned or mocked, saves when embraced. The Wisdom of Solomon, recalling the event in prayer, says “the one who turned toward [the serpent on the pole] was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Saviour of all… For you have power over life and death; you lead mortals down to the gates of Hell and back again”. Salvation means deliverance, and in its most dramatic instances, deliverance from death to life.
But salvation is more than being saved from something, even if that something is death. Salvation is about being saved for something. Unfortunately, when we hear the question, “Are you saved”, we almost universally fall into thinking of nothing more than escaping damnation and Hell — concepts which have
more to do with Dante’s Inferno than with the Biblical witness. What’s important for us is knowing that the Biblical notion of “being saved” is far more dynamic a concept than escaping eternal death. More than being saved from death, salvation is about being saved for life.
Eternal life, as the Bible talks about it, isn’t just life after death. The eternal life for which God saves us is a present as well as future reality: a quality of life that you and I can experience now. Eternal life is life empowered by God, life which can’t be stopped, even by death. Not only is it life that continues into a future beyond death, it’s life that transcends death in our present. Eternal life is what enables a newly widowed person to continue living, and to risk loving another once again. God’s gift of eternal life is what empowers the one who has been betrayed to risk trusting again. It permits one who has been crushed by the defeat of life’s deadly circumstances to begin again. God’s gift of eternal life is what lets someone who was victimised in childhood leave victimhood behind, trust the power of God to give new life, and to risk at precisely the places previously hurt. It gives courage and hope to the person facing terminal illness, permitting those caught in the grip of such illness to suddenly decide that enough treatment is enough, and it’s time to entrust themselves to another. It’s not hope in hope, nor hope in life. It is a recognition that linked to God’s love and power, nothing can destroy us—not loss, not failure, not betrayal, not victimisation, not illness, not even death itself.
Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something sought through our own actions or decisions, much less earned by determined tenacity. Further to this, salvation and its eternal life aren’t rewards for our faith: we’re not saved by our faith. The Bible doesn’t say, “by faith in Jesus Christ you have been saved” (a common misunderstanding of what Christianity professes). We’re not saved by our faith. St Paul says, “by grace you have been saved… this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”
God sent Jesus Christ to establish a relationship with us, to forge a link to God. Like the ancient bronze serpent God gave the dying Israelites, those who look to Jesus Christ are healed in those places where they’ve been poisonously bitten or crushed. The transformation from death to life comes as we embrace God’s gift of Jesus Christ as our source of light and life. In that embrace we die with Christ to the past and are raised with him to new life, not just metaphorically, but actually! That’s the point St Paul continues to press. St Paul is saying that in our looking to Jesus Christ, God joins us to
the risen Lord in such a way that we may now live out of the power of his resurrection. Resurrection isn’t simply a future event. We can be raised to new life now!
How? By welcoming it, by embracing God’s embrace. Salvation and its gift of eternal life is after all, not a status achieved by believing something about Jesus, or an achievement because we’ve confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. It is first and foremost a relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ—a relationship the Bible calls faith. “By grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” Faith isn’t believing this or that about Jesus Christ. It’s simply looking to him as the source of life, embracing him as God’s gift to us and giving ourselves to living out of Christ’s power.
Faith isn’t about creeds or doctrine, though both are important and have their place. Having trouble with the doctrine of the Trinity… with the Incarnation? Not feeling very fervently faithful? That’s not the question. Faith is simply looking to Jesus, and in that gaze discovering a relationship with God so that God fills and empowers our lives and gives us the strength and will to obey him. When that happens, you and I experience salvation, power that makes life eternal here and now. For Jesus Christ not only brings the light of God’s presence, not only enlightens us as to life and its purposes but more, he’s the linchpin between God and us, the conduit through whom God’s life-giving Spirit flows into our lives to defeat the power of sin and death and give us eternal life.
As you and I live into this, the “Why”? of our salvation begins to emerge. The purpose of our lives begins to change. We no longer live for ourselves alone, because we know that the life we live is not ours alone. It’s a gift God continues to give us to be a force for his love and good works in this world.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
Peace Drives Away Fear and Ushers in Life
As the disciples were locked away in fear after the crucifixion, Jesus comes among them, bestowing the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ identity and presence with the frightened disciples brings peace: “Peace is with you.” Jesus is the embodiment of God’s peace now made visible in the nail-torn hands and the lanced side. In these signs Jesus sends his followers into the world in the same way the Father has sent the Son into the world. As the disciples are commissioned, so are we, in the empowering presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus literally “breathes into” his followers the Holy Spirit (wind, or breath). John uses the same verb and tense used in the Genesis account of creation as God “breathed into” Adam the breath of life. The words that accompany the gift of God’s Spirit are words of life, forgiving one another as we have been forgiven. When sins are forgiven, they stand forgiven; when sins are retained, they are retained.
The absence of Thomas from the group on the eve of resurrection occasions Jesus’ appearance to the disciples eight days later. Thomas’ response to the disciples’ witness, “We have seen the Lord”, is his request to see Jesus’ visible wounds. When Jesus comes among them, the words of peace are spoken once again, together with Jesus’ offer that Thomas touch and see. Jesus’ words, “Do not remain unbelieving but believing” express the promise of Jesus’ presence. Thomas’s confession, “My Lord and my God”, brings us back to the beginning of the gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Jesus is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the fulfillment of God’s incarnate word. Jesus’ response to Thomas does not use scolding words as a question might imply, but a statement of reality: “Because you have seen me, you have believed”.
These words stand in parallel with the second half of the verse as words of benediction to all who have not had the experience of Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”. Through the signs or works and words of the gospel and the experience of the disciples and followers of Jesus throughout the gospel, we too have seen and heard the living witness of the word become flesh. The concluding words of chapter 20 express the purpose of the gospel and the evangelist’s selection of signs and words that are necessary for us to see and hear. There is much more not written in this gospel, but what the evangelist has included fulfills the gospel’s intention in a twofold way: (1) “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” and (2) “that believing you may have life in his name”. The heart of the gospel is in the centrality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. In his Son, God has chosen to redeem our lives from sin and death that we may have life beginning now, even life eternal as God’s children in the name above every name, Jesus Christ. This is the message of Easter; this is the incarnate word made present in our world; this is the crucified and risen one who leads us in our daily walk of discipleship.
The Rev’d George M Rogers
From a Dust Heap to a Mountain Top
On Ash Wednesday, recall the words of the burial rite at the committal of the body which read, “We have entrusted our brother/sister N to God’s mercy and we now commit his/her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The essence of these very words will be echoed to you on Ash Wednesday by the priest when he inscribes the sign of the Cross in ashes on your foreheads on the first day of Lent: “Remember O man, that thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.” Like Peggy Lee’s popular song, these words urge us to ask, “Is that all there is (to a life—dust and ashes)?”
The words spoken by God to Adam and Eve after the fall demonstrate the gravity of their offense of disobedience: “Dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return,” and these words resonate with us today, reminding us that by nature and deed we always-already are these living bags of dust and ashes waiting to be buried. Likewise dust and ashes are not very valuable goods: dust accumulates as a result of neglect, and ashes are left in the wake of destruction by fire: dust is dust, ashes are ashes, and the only thing that can be done with these elements is to sweep them up and throw them away. The same can be said of our righteousness—which, at the end of the day when our energy to uphold our hypocrisy dissipates—wears like a threadbare and moth-eaten coat, and of our virtue which tarnishes, decomposes and disintegrates in the short span of a disingenuous, malevolent and spiritually penurious life.
So if it is the case that we are these filthy and useless things, why do we gather on Ash Wednesday and cover ourselves with even more of the same? Perhaps to remind ourselves not only what we are, but who God is, and what he did in and through the incarnation of Christ. Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God demonstrates and offers an alternative to beginning in the rubbish heap, and after a brief, wretched and sinful life, returning there as a final destination. The alternative is “The Way of the Cross,” the paving of which Christ’s death invested worthless dust and ashes with infinite value. And the infinite value of this substance can be immediately realised by changing our purpose—or repenting and accepting what God offers us as an alternative to this tiresome path of doom: his mercy. Changing our purpose entails a change of perspective and disposition—from asking with sardonic self-pity, “Is that all there is?” to asserting resolutely “That’s all there is,” mindful of the fullness of grace. On the one hand, all we can pray for is God’s mercy. On the other hand (which may not know what the first hand is doing), God’s mercy is ALL we can pray for, because it comprises the totality of our intentions and is the very foundation of our faith in Christ.
In changing our purpose, we will also begin to act in surprising new ways—for example in beginning to practice a humble piety that is based on God’s mercy and not on pride or anxiety over the possibility that someone else might be outdoing us. A righteousness built and cultivated on divine mercy continuously checks and obliterates any attempts of rationalising and demonstrating that whatever virtue we might possess is rooted in the dust and ashes that we are. From the foundation of divine mercy, a magnificent temple can be built and we are the living stones of this structure.
God has committed himself to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has given us a sign of this commitment in the cross of Christ, and in each of our own very stylised crosses that he exhorts us to take up and follow him. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the great season of Lent, and we come to take upon ourselves the very sign of the Cross and to commit ourselves to Christ and await his inevitable return. Liturgically we may be preparing for Easter Sunday 40 days from now. But what we are doing is preparing to stand up and be counted: immediately in this place as disciples of Christ and ultimately before the great judgment seat of Christ—humbly hoping to be recognised as subjects of infinite value. Let us reflect further on the words of the burial office, that do not end with “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” but continue stating, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, who died, was buried, and rose again for us…”
To him be glory forever.
Our Saviour is not just for Christmas
The Slaughter of the Innocents is a part of the story of Bethlehem, and the birth of Christ. These killings, into which Jesus is born, designated very young children to be killed—birth to age 2—by military assault weapons and other means; by soldiers who burst in like madmen. These killings happened in Bethlehem, and they have happened in every age. Madness, mayhem, paranoia, zero-sum thinking: these are part of our human condition, which places our selves, fears and desires at the centre. But they’re not all that we are.
The story tells us that the Christ child was born into bedlam, mayhem, the madness which is our world. The child was born because, pervasive as this reality about us is, it’s not all we are. The story was written to give us hope. The story tells us that our salvation is born in the midst of such times, into the heart of our darkness, in a moment when time is shattered and new time begins. And our salvation is brought to us by a survivor of the worst that can befall, by a child whose light was not extinguished, a child who understands deeply what has happened, a child who remembers, a child who was not killed. This is the Child who grows in wisdom and stature, who amazes the rabbis in the temple, who has a perspective unlike anyone’s.
The story tells us that the people of Bethlehem were barely aware of this child. Devastated by the slaughter, picking up their splintered lives, their broken hearts, their stabbing fears, their traumatised surviving children, they also found among the wreckage the words that promise the Messiah will be born to them, especially to them. They carried this promise, in tears, as they buried their dead children.
The story tells us that God does not abandon us to face our peril alone. That God drew Mary and Joseph to this place and this time for this birth. We tend to think the slaughter was later, after the birth and after the flight, but it’s possible that the time frame here is very short, that the star brought the kings to the moment of birth, that Herod’s angry order was given impatiently early, that the rumours of murder were rife in the streets as Mary lay down in the straw. It’s possible that the carnage was beginning even as she gave birth. And so perhaps she gave birth among the slaughtered.
The hope of our time lives among survivors. We cannot outrun, outgun, or outwit what is monstrous in this world. But in facing the truth of our reality, we can see light in its darkness, and hear angels—messengers of God—singing there, for it is into this reality that Christ comes, why we celebrate Christmas.
May we remember that Christmas comes to meet our desperate need of our Lord and Saviour. God with us is the theme.
Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.
And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.
The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.
—G.K. Chesterton, from A Child of the Snows