What’s new about the ‘new’ commandment?

The Text: John 13:31-35

What’s new about the ‘new’ commandment? Let me read to you from the Old3510 Testament, Leviticus 19:18; ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. This is the Old Testament, and there we have the command to love. So what’s new about the ‘new’ commandment? The newness has to do with the person who gives the commandment, our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who ‘makes all things new’ (Rev 21:5). Jesus has loved, and does love us, and so he transforms our love for each other.

As we meditate on this new commandment to love, let’s consider four features of it today: (They each start with the letter ‘s,’ so we can more easily remember them):

  • Love is given a new shape,
  • Love happens in a new space,
  • Love becomes a new sign,
  • Love arises from a new source.

Shape, space, sign and source.

So first is that in this new commandment, love is given a new shape. What does that mean? Love is given a new shape in the sense of taking on a particular focus, and being characterised, in a particular way: namely the ‘shape’ of sacrifice.  

Jesus says, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ If we then ask ‘How did Jesus love us?’ the context of this passage tells us a lot. Jesus is speaking these words on the night before he died. Judas has just left room to begin the chain of the events that would lead to Jesus’ death. Jesus talks about loving as he loved in the context of his sacrificial death. He strengthens this connection as he repeats this command a little later where he says: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ (15:13)’.

This emphasis becomes like an echo throughout the New Testament, where again and again love is talked about in connection with the theme of sacrifice. To mention just one more example, in Ephesians 5:1 Paul writes,  ‘…live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’. The love Jesus calls for is characterised by sacrifice. That means: total and utter self-giving love for another.  

Let’s just think for a moment about how radical this love is. Think of membership at a football club. Actually in a place like a football club there can be some strong forms of love – strong comradery and this sort of thing. Around Anzac day, football coaches might try to inspire the players by talking of the Anzac spirit and so on. But then think about this: when finals time arrives and there are two players were left competing for the final spot in the A grade team, could you ever imagine one player saying, ‘I’ll give up my spot in the team for him’. It’s virtually inconceivable. Not only would it not happen, it would probably be looked on as weakness.

In contrast, this is the very sort of love that is to be cultivated in Christian community. We love by sacrificing our time, sacrificing our money, sacrificing our own desires and pleasures, sacrificing different parts of our life, for others.

So the first thing Jesus does is that love is given a new shape, that of sacrificial love.

The next point is that in Jesus’ new command, love happens in a new space.

Jesus says love ‘one another’. What does that mean? Who is the ‘one another’? Where, and with whom does Jesus want this new commandment of love to happen? The simple answer is that he seems to be referring to the Christian community – to love specifically within the church. Only his disciples are in this room, and he says, love ‘one another’. A parallel passage might be Galatians 6:10, ‘So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.’

Now this can strike some people as a bit confusing. We hear Jesus teach about loving one’s neighbour, as the Old Testament does, which seems fairly general. We even hear about Jesus radical call to love one’s enemies. So then it almost feels to some people like we’re going backwards here, retreating into a “holy huddle” or something. So it’s worth asking, why this particular command to love one’s brothers and sisters within the Christian family?

Here’s one way to think about it. Isn’t it true, that it can often be hardest for Christians, to love other Christians? Think of the sad history of conflict and division within Christian congregations. Think of the various debates we’ve had in our own LCA in recent times, and how quickly our lack of love for one another can rear its ugly head. Now St Paul does always remind us that love ‘rejoices in the truth’ (1 Cor 13:6), so we do need to have robust discussions in the life of the church. But he also calls us to ‘speak the truth in love’ (Eph 4:15). Think, too, of the way we have sometimes acted towards Christians of other denominations and traditions. Maybe Jesus is onto something more important than we at first realise, when he points us to the Christian community as the space for love.

It’s worth noting too, that this new commandment of Jesus is framed in John 13 by two spectacular failings within this first Christian community. Firstly, Judas betrays Jesus, and secondly, Peter denies Jesus! This, too, can help us understand why Jesus focuses on love within the Christian community.

We find a parallel in human family. Most people would say the people they love most in the world are their family. But if we’re really honest, isn’t it also true that our families are the hardest people to love? After all, we’re stuck with them! We live in close proximity to them. We know their flaws and they know ours. We can’t hide things from each other. We expect more from each other.

There’s a specific focus here in Jesus’ new commandment on living in love within the Christian community. Love is given a new space.

Then Jesus gives another reason why this focus on the Christian community, and this is our next point, that love becomes a new sign. ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’. How interesting and mysterious and even seemingly paradoxical, that if we want to reach out to the world with the love of Christ, the first step is that this love is lived within the Church, with each other. Jesus says in effect, ‘people will notice this, and love will be a sign to the world.’

This has been true throughout Church history. The early church father Tertullian reported that one of the things outsiders said about the early Christian church was, ‘See how they love each other.’ One of the Roman leaders said about the early Christians in one of his letters, ‘They love each other almost before they even meet.’ Love truly has been and will be a sign to the world.

Sadly, we know this today also in a negative sense don’t we? When we fail to love, it will likewise be noticed by the world. We know that it can be incredible damaging to the Church’s witness.

Now Jesus presumably teaches us this because it’s always going to be true. But maybe this is true and even more relevant for us in 21st century Australia than at other times and places. Because one thing we are seeing in our culture today is that people, especially young people, are searching for and craving community in which they can experience true love. This is perhaps because so many of our traditional communal structures have broken down.

So love is given a new shape. Love happens in a new space. Love becomes a new sign. Finally, love arises from a new source. All this teaching we covered so far is good stuff, the only problem with it, is that it’s really, really hard! It’s an incredible, if not impossible task to live a life of sacrificial love within the Christian community, and to become such a sign to the world! When we truthfully examine our hearts, do we find much of that sort of sacrificial love within? It’s interesting how central the issue of love is in one of our prayers of confession of sins: ‘We have not loved you with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves.’ That’s the truth of the matter!

But the good news is, is that in Jesus we find not only a new shape for love, but a new source of love. We find not only a new pattern for love, but a new power for love. Jesus’ sacrificial death on the Cross is not only our example of love, it is his love acted out for us. Jesus is pointing to this when he says, ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’. The ‘as I have loved you’ is not only saying: ‘Look and follow my example’, but it’s also saying, ‘By going to the Cross for you, I am actually enabling and empowering you to love. That’s what makes it possible for you to even begin to live these lives of self-sacrificial love.’

Because it’s as Jesus gives his life for us on the Cross, that there is forgiveness of sins for us, and that he defeats the powers of evil for us. So he frees us all from this life turned in on ourselves. He rescues us from the path of love-less-ness. Jesus has loved us and continues to love us, so that we can love one another. Jesus himself is a deep well of love from which we draw. In 1 John 3:16 it is said like this: ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’.

And as we think about how we actually receive his love, it’s worth considering an interesting, or rather vital, connection here. The same night Jesus gives us this new commandment, is the night he also institutes a new meal saying this is the ‘new covenant’ in my blood. There is a connection between the new command of love and the new covenant meal of love. It’s through this Sacrament that all the benefits of what Jesus accomplished on the Cross are given to us, so that we continually receive the love of Christ as we attend this meal. Jesus has left us his meal of love, and he has sent us his Holy Spirit. We remember that the first fruit of the Spirit is… love.

St Paul say in Romans 5 that ‘…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’  This means that this is something anyone can pray for with great confidence when love seems to be lacking. Are you struggling to love your spouse? Your family? Someone in your congregation? Come to Holy Communion. Receive the love of Christ anew. Pray to God, and ask for the Holy Spirit to work in you his fruit of love. In Jesus there is a new source of love. You’ll be amazed at how receptive people can be in reconciling differences after sharing in this holy and love-filled meal!

So, love is given a new shape – that of sacrificial love. Love happens in a new space – the Christian community. Love becomes a new sign – of where Jesus’ disciples can be found in the world. And love arises from a new source – from Jesus himself, for he has loved us all to the end. ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ Amen.

“I know my sheep”

Text: John 10:27
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me”.

“I know my sheep”

How often are you identified with a number?dhuff
At the bank you have account numbers, PIN numbers to access your accounts, and credit card numbers.
The taxation department identifies you by your Tax File Number.
You have a Medicare number.
When you enquire about your power or phone bill the first thing you are asked is, “What is your customer number?”
When you go to the meat section of the supermarket you are required to pick up a number and will be served when your number is called.
If you are in business you need an ABN (an Australian Business Number);
on internet sites and for email you need usernames and passwords, and we could go on.
If you are pulled over by a police officer for speeding, he/she is interested in numbers – your licence number, your registration number, and … the number on the radar gun indicating how fast you were
travelling.

Numbers are so impersonal. Isn’t it nice when someone remembers your name, or when you are known by name rather than by a customer account number?

In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus speak words that give us that kind of warm feeling that we have when someone cares for us, is interested in what is happening in our lives, empathises and encourages us. Jesus tells us about the very personal and intimate relationship that he has with us. He says, “I am the good shepherd. As the Father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me” (John 10:14).

Jesus describes his relationship with us using the closeness and intimacy that he and the Father in heaven share as an example of the personal way he knows us and what is happening to us. However, we can only know the close relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a limited way because our knowledge of the Trinity is very incomplete so Jesus also uses the description of the relationships between a shepherd and his sheep. I believe that this kind of description is easier to understand because it is something that comes from everyday life and in Jesus’ time everyone knew about shepherds and sheep. He says, “My sheep know my voice, and I know them. They follow me, and I give them eternal life, so that they will never be lost. No one can snatch them out of my hand.  My Father gave them to me, and he is greater than all others. No one can snatch them from his hands, and I am one with the Father” (John 10:27-30 CEV).

Talking about shepherds who know each sheep individually, even calling them by name, is not so familiar to us Aussies. The Australian sheep farmer is not one bit like the shepherds we read about in the Bible. The modern day sheep farmer has his large mob of sheep, let’s say a thousand sheep, in a paddock and he occasionally goes out to check if everything is all right. When he wants to shift them he hops on his motorbike and with the help of his dog he drives them to where he wants them to go. He doesn’t call them by name though he might call them names when they act stupidly and go where he doesn’t want them to go, but you wouldn’t say they are affectionate names. This is nothing like the picture that Jesus gives, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27).

A shepherd in ancient times firstly didn’t have thousands of sheep to look after. He had a small flock and he knew each sheep individually. One of the most meaningful pictures in Christian art depicts Jesus as a shepherd. We don’t know if Jesus ever really shepherded sheep – maybe he might have done something like this if he had a shepherd friend when he was a lad and they spent time out in the fields with sheep.  Whatever Jesus’ experience was as a shepherd, he uses an image that everyone could relate to. 

Artists have taken up this theme and pictured Jesus holding a lamb, or carrying a lamb across his shoulders, or watching over sheep. Jesus is the one who cares, the one who saves the lost, and rescues from trouble. He is the one who is intimately and individually concerned about each one of his sheep. He provides his sheep with everything they need. He is the one whose staff and rod defend the sheep if any danger should come their way. We are led to think of what would have happened to a lost lamb if Jesus did not rescue it. Even if that lamb was wild and independent of all help, the shepherd doesn’t give up.

A party of tourists was on its way to Palestine and the guide was describing some of the customs of the East. “Now,” he said, “you are accustomed to seeing the shepherd driving his sheep through the English lanes. Out in the East, however, things are different, for the shepherd always leads the way, going on in front of the flock. And the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.”


They reached Palestine, and, to the amusement of the tourists, almost the first thing they saw was a flock of sheep being driven along by a man. The guide was astonished and immediately made it his business to approach the shepherd. “How is it that you are driving these sheep?” he asked. “I have always been told that the Eastern shepherd leads his sheep.” “You are quite right, sir,” replied the man. “The shepherd does lead his sheep. But you see, I’m not the shepherd, I’m the butcher.”

The sheep depended on the shepherd. They gladly followed him because they knew he could be trusted because he lived among his sheep,
slept among them,
walked with them,
fed them,
guided, directed and protected them,
knew each sheep by name.
All this builds up a mental image of someone with an intense love for our total well-being at every turn of our life. This is a description of how Jesus feels about each one of us. Big business thinks of us as a number. Jesus knows us by name.

By using this shepherd imagery Jesus is connecting himself to the Old Testament imagery that we read of in Psalm 23. The writer refers to the Lord as my shepherd. There nothing else I need. I will not be afraid be you are close beside me.


It’s obvious that the writer is expressing the personal relationship that God has with him. The real presence of God in his life is not something theoretical or even wishful. It is real. Especially in this Easter season we are reminded that we have a living and all-powerful Saviour who is walking beside us every day through thick and thin.

No doubt there are times when it seems that Jesus is a million miles away.
We have prayed for help in times of sickness and the pain is as intense as ever.
We have asked him to guide us through some difficult decisions but we have blundered on making one mistake after another.
We have wanted him to watch over our loved ones, but they have still been caught up in trouble and accidents.
We may feel as if we are losing our faith in Jesus, stop going to worship and lose touch with the people at church.
But the fact is Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. He is right here with us. He knows what is happening in our lives. He knows what is going through our minds and how restless and anxious we are – he will use his power to help and support us. Jesus’ promise is good even when we are doubting and despairing, 
“I am the good Shepherd, I know my sheep”.

Even though we are down and almost out, we are assured that we are in the arms of the everlasting shepherd who lovingly supports and strengthens us in our weakest and most painful moments. Like the lamb that is often pictured in Jesus’ arms, we can be at peace and feel safe in the arms of our loving shepherd.

This reminds me of a passage from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament where the people are in trouble and ask, “Has God forgotten us”? God answers, “Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for a child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on my hand” Isaiah 49:15-16 NLT).
Those words are just as applicable to us today as they were three thousand years ago. God feels the same way about us as he did back then. He even gave his life for the sheep.

The image of the Good Shepherd is one of love, care, protection, intimacy and closeness. This text about the Good Shepherd has implications for us who are followers of Jesus. We are challenged to share his concern for those who are in trouble, for those who suffer injustice, for the sick and for the poor. It is not good enough for us to say to those suffering “You should trust in Jesus to make things work out for you”. As his followers, we share the same concerns as he has, and show our love in very practical ways, as Jesus did. It may be inconvenient to offer assistance, it may cost us time, effort and money, but love demands that this be done.

What I am saying is that we become shepherds to one another. We are to be shepherds to one another as members of this congregation. We are to be shepherds to one another in our families, to one another at work, amongst our friends.
Just as Jesus guides and protects his sheep, mothers and fathers guide and protect the lambs he has given to us in our families.
Just as Jesus shepherds us with patience and love, we shepherd those lives whom God has entrusted to us.
Just as Jesus comforts and helps us, husbands and wives comfort and help one another.
As I said, we become shepherds to one another.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we do know that we have a loving shepherd who walks with us through the good and bad. And one day when we must walk through the valley of darkness and death he will walk with us and lead us to the glorious new life beyond the grave. Because we have a loving shepherd, goodness and love will follow us all our lives and we will live in the house of the Lord forever.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Why were there 153 fish?

The Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.  Three times, Jesus asked Peter: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Let’s  join in a word of  prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, our loving Saviour, by your presence in our lives, you touch us, you teach us, and you renew us.  We continue to celebrate your resurrection and to worship You.  Guide our time together this morning that we may not be overwhelmed by trivial details as we discover your grace and mercy in your presence with us. Loving Lord Jesus Christ, hear our prayer for the sake of your name.  Amen.

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It is so easy to get caught up in trivial messages and interpretations of scripture and miss the point.

We find in John 21:11, that: ‘Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish.’   

Have you ever wondered why there were 153 fish? I must admit that I haven’t. But others have.

Cyril of Alexandria in the 5th century said that the 100 represented the fullness of the Gentiles, the 50 symbolized the remnant of Israel and three of course was there for the Trinity.

Augustine’s theory, also in the 5th century, was a little more complicated. He said, there are 10 commandments and 7 is the perfect number of grace and that totals 17. If you add all the numbers from 1 to 17 together in a series, you know 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 all the way up to 17 you’ll get 153. And not only that but if you were to arrange them with 17 fish in the first row, and 16 in the next row, and 15 in the next row, all the way down to a row of 1 you get a perfect triangle which represents the Trinity.

A third 5th Century scholar, Jerome, suggested that there were 153 different types of fish in the sea and it was symbolic of the church reaching all the people in the world. 

Perhaps it’s mentioned in the Gospel simply because John counted 153 fish in the net. What do you think?  (Adapted from Brett Blair, http://www.Sermons.com, from the sermon “Live for Today” by Denn Guptill.)

You see we can get so caught up in really trivial stuff and miss the point.  That the disciples needed to be obedient to the Lord Jesus Christ, and toss the net on the other side of the boat.  In the same way, we need to be obedient to Christ, today.

When Jesus appeared to the Disciples in the upper room, after his resurrection, he was passing on the baton of Christian faith.  Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”   Jesus never wants us to be startled by his presence in our lives.  Our Saviour wants us to eagerly accept his call to live our faith and share the Good News of Salvation.  And not get caught up in the trivial, overlooking the heart of the Gospel message.

That baton of the race of life eternal has been passed down from generation to generation from Jesus Christ himself, to the disciples, to the patriarchs of the faith, to the families where faith is nurtured from parents to children, to their children.  Faith in Jesus Christ who was dead but is now alive, and is with us forever.

After receiving the baton from Christ Jesus, it appears that  Simon Peter became fearful of their future, and tried  to return to what he knew best.  He  said, “I’m going fishing.”  The other Apostles agreed,  “We’ll come, too.”  So they returned to Galilee and went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.  After which, Jesus affirmed his care for them and his authority, and called them back to what was important.

Jesus told them to toss the net on the over side.  They finally agreed, and as they recognised it was Jesus, Peter rushed to be with him.  I  can imagine a flood of memories filled his head.  During their last supper before his suffering, Jesus warned Peter, “Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”   Then Jesus prophesied, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (Lk 22:31–34 NIV)

Just as was prophesied, filled with fear, three times Peter denied knowing Jesus.  Despite his best intentions.  And like Peter, with the best of intentions, we often fail too. 

No Christian engages with Word and Sacrament with the intention to ignore Christ Jesus, and follow after the trivial matters of life.  No Christian enters a life with Christ to rebel against his plan at some critical moment.  But, being human, we so often do.

After we’ve turned back, like Peter, we repent, regain our focus on Jesus Christ, and live again with confidence that we are following his plan for our lives.  Because God forgives us, accepts us, and through our faith in Jesus Christ he gives us the right to be called his children.

Toward the end of their time together here in the world,  Jesus asked three times if Peter loved him.  After each response from Peter, Jesus guides Peter to stay with the main thing.  “Feed my lambs” and “Take care of my sheep”.  Jesus ends with the same words that he first spoke to Peter when they met at the lake of Galilee “follow me”.  

Like Peter, as modern Disciples of Christ Jesus, we are called not to lose sight of the most important things.  Not to be caught up in the less important things. 

That we continue to strive to share the wonderful Good News of Jesus Christ with each other and with the next generation.  By our everyday actions, words and attitudes.  We can trust that God’s plan will prevail, but we do need to keep our attention on the main thing with a hopeful heart – the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. 

From his letters to us, we recognise that Peter never again lost his attention to Christ Jesus.  Peter begins his second letter with the words, ‘Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ:  May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.’ (2 Pe 1:1–2 NRSV)

We have received the same precious faith as the Apostles, grounded in the person, the life and the ministry of Jesus Christ.   The most important person and the most important message.

Paul discovered these same most important truths.  After being blinded, then seeing the light, Paul was baptised, and engaged with the Christian life with the passion of an Apostle, and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Paul later wrote, ‘I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  (1 Cor 15:1–4 NIV)

As a Worshipping Community, we have a mission and as  individual members of our Worshipping Community, Jesus Christ wants us to further his mission.  To keep our actions, attitudes and words active and obedient to Christ Jesus. Rather than counting fish.

As a worshipping community, we have a calling from our Saviour to be active in each other’s lives.  To hold consistent in his plan for the Mid North Coast.  To fulfil our vision of “Inspiring people to LIVE a purposeful LIFE, growing TOGETHER in JESUS CHRIST”.  And to assist our District in fulfilling its vision of “Going, Growing and Enabling mission for Christ Jesus’.

Christ-filled hope gives us a clear picture of our vision, and energises us to fulfil our mission. The Holy Spirit gives us strength to make the best decisions about what’s important, and helps us to work together as God’s children.  And so we pray that the Holy Spirit will fill our lives and our hearts with a passion for Christ Jesus, to the glory of God our Father. 

May the grace and peace of God keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the most important person in our lives.   AMEN.

Rev David Thompson

Easter forgiveness

Text: John 20:20-21
Jesus came and stood among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. After saying this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

Easter forgiveness

One of the strangest and perhaps most counter allanbcultural aspects of the Good Friday are Jesus’ words from the cross just moments before he dies. He is in extreme agony as the nails bearing his weight tear at his flesh and he gasps to fill his lungs with air; the crowds gathered on Golgotha are mocking with loud laughter and taunting him to come down from the cross if he is truly the Son of God. The soldiers are laughing and joking at the foot of the cross as they gamble for his clothes as Jesus was dying. Most of his disciples – his closest friends – are nowhere to be seen; they are afraid and scatter to find somewhere to hide. In excruciating pain and in his dying moments Jesus says, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing”.

When Jesus says, “Father forgive them” – the ‘them’ are all those who have been involved in his crucifixion – leaders of the community and the church, government officials, soldiers, disciples and friends – those who were mocking, jeering, taunting, gambling, hiding. The ‘them’ Jesus is referring to is every person who has had a hand in causing such extreme pain and torture. He prays that they would be forgiven.

That’s not supposed to be how things work – forgiveness in the face of so much hatred and shame. That’s not normal. Anger, hatred, abusive language, shouts about his innocence, cursing his tormenters – that would be normal behaviour.

Today we hear of when Jesus comes into the room where his disciples were hiding. They had deserted him in the Garden of Gethsemane, one had denied that he ever knew Jesus three times, others had said they were prepared to give up their own life for Jesus but in the end fear overcame them, not one of them stood up to defend Jesus and declare his innocence. Jesus’ first words to them are, “Peace be with you”.

Jesus had come back from the dead and cannot resume talking with them until he says exactly what he said on the cross to his tormentors and his failed disciples, “Father forgive them.” He puts their guilt and their shame and their fear aside and says, “Peace be with you” – “The peace of God that brings forgiveness and reconciliation and calmness fill your hearts and quieten your fear”.

These first words of the risen Jesus to the disciples are so much at odds with the way the world thinks of forgiveness. The way forgiveness works for most of us is like this, “Let the person who has offended me, say that he or she is sorry, then I might be prepared to offer my forgiveness”.

When Jesus appeared the disciples didn’t say,
“Oops, I guess we really let you down;”
or “I’m sorry we ran away when you needed us the most;”
or “I beg your forgiveness for not supporting you in your greatest hour of need – in the garden I couldn’t even stay awake and pray for you;
or “I’m sorry that when Judas appeared my confidence disappeared”.
Neither do we hear any reprimand from Jesus for their betrayal; no criticism of their absence to encourage and support Jesus.

There is none of that. Only “Peace be with you. I forgive you, now let’s talk”. These words indicate more than just peace of mind and the absence of fear and guilt. The peace that Jesus offers heals the desolation, the hurt and sorrow that Jesus himself must have felt as saw no sign of his closest friends from the cross. The peace Jesus offers heals the guilt, the fear, the mistakes and misguided loyalties of the disciples.

The peace that Jesus gives puts all of that in the past; it is forgotten and it’s time to start again. We often think that Jesus’ work of forgiveness was confined to the cross but it’s clear from the Easter appearances of Jesus that Jesus’ work of forgiveness continues after Easter. The first words he says to his disciples are words of forgiveness.

Today we also have this whole incident with Thomas who missed seeing the resurrected Jesus the first time. He can’t believe that Jesus could be dead one day and alive the next. It is impossible. It is illogical. It is stupidity at its worst. He had heard Jesus talk about this kind of thing happening and he had heard the eye witness accounts of his friends but he states firmly, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later Jesus appears again and this time Thomas is there and what are Jesus first words? “Peace be with you”. These are words of forgiveness and grace and Jesus treats Thomas the same way he treated the disciples on his first appearance – with grace and love. That’s enough for Thomas. Jesus offers to let Thomas touch his scars but there is no need. All Thomas needed was to hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness and healing. Thomas’ faith is the result of nothing but grace, the grace of Jesus Christ who did not wait for Thomas to “come to faith” but who came to him.

One day Jesus told a story about a farmer who had a fig tree (Luke 13:6-9). The farmer came looking for fruit. For three years he’s been looking for fruit and there has been nothing. “Cut it down!” he says. His servant pleads, “Master, let it alone. I’ll dig around it, give it a good dose of manure, and then let’s see what happens”. The word Jesus used for “Let it alone” is the same as “forgive it”.

“Cut it down!” That would have been the logical and right thing to do. However, the story ends with, “Master, forgive”. And that’s what Jesus does with us. When we are up to our necks in the muck and manure of sin or we have not been bearing the fruit that comes as a result of the love Jesus has shown to us, he could quite rightly say “Cut it down!” but instead he permits us to begin again with forgiveness and a new start. He did that with the disciples the first Easter and he does that with us.

No matter how you have failed in your walk with God, no matter how you have betrayed Jesus, remember what he said to those who had let him down so badly – “Peace, I forgive you. Sisters and brothers, I still love you”.

But it is not only the nature of God to forgive but it is also the nature of the Christians to forgive. “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’” Jesus breathes on his disciples reminding them how God breathed into Adam and gave him life. Here Jesus is breathing over his new creation and giving the invigorating life-breath of the Holy Spirit to those who will continue Jesus’ work of forgiveness and reconciliation after he is gone.

Jesus says, “I am sending you on a mission to announce the gospel of forgiveness but not only to talk about it but to make forgiveness a part of your everyday life. It is through forgiveness that the Holy Spirit cleanses, makes new, restores relationships and give us the peace that only Jesus can give”. In other words, Jesus is passing on to us the ministry of sharing forgiveness; to deal with others with grace and mercy even though it’s hard work especially if we feel we are the people who have been wronged.

We live as if every day is Easter Day. Just as forgiveness was very much a part of Jesus’ Easter appearances likewise forgiveness is very much part of the life of the disciple as we live out the victory of Jesus’ death and resurrection every day.

Bruce Prewer tells this story. A friend of mine was touring in England.  Among his delights was visiting not just cathedrals, but village churches which were steeped in generations of the joy and sorrow of ordinary Christians. Arriving in one village, he headed for the parish church, opened the door and stepped into its secluded beauty.

Near the back of the building, a man was kneeling and weeping. Without saying a word, my friend knelt a few paces away. When with a heavy sigh the villager sat up, the visitor put his hand gently on the man’s shoulder and said, “My friend, you seem to be doing it tough. Can I be of any assistance?”  The stranger, recognising genuine compassion, blurted out his story. Ten years earlier when he was in his late teens, he had committed a crime, was arrested, tried and sentenced. He had been free for nine months. But he still felt terribly ashamed and came (not on Sunday with others) but alone during each week to pray for the Lord’s help.

The visitor said, “But God forgives you. Forgives you utterly. You know that, don’t you? You don’t need to pray alone, you should be here on Sunday with other Christians.”

The stranger commenced to sob again, and then whispered, “Yes, I know God forgives me, but the people in my church and village don’t. Until they do, I am trapped with a feeling of ongoing disgrace. I cannot face them on Sunday. That is why I come here alone to pray during the week.” 

This is precisely what Jesus was saying to his disciples, “If you forgive people’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” This is where the rubber hits the road and this whole business of forgiveness becomes very challenging. Christ has commissioned us to offer forgiveness when relationships go wrong. And there is no doubt that friendships do go pear-shaped more often than we care to admit. We have a choice – either we make real the forgiveness of Christ in our lives and offer it to those who have offended us or we withhold our forgiveness and so tie everyone involved in the bonds of guilt.

We might say, “I don’t care if he/she feels guilty – it serves them right after what has been done to me”. But is that what Jesus is telling us in his Easter appearances? It’s easier to be unforgiving than to reach out with kindness and mercy and be reconciled with another person. That’s why Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” before he commissions his disciples to forgive people’s sins. It is only under the power of the Holy Spirit that this kind of forgiveness is possible.

To conclude, I’m sure that there are many amongst us here today who have had issues with people in the past and it seems that as much as we would like to do something about it, it is too late to be reconciled with that person. If that is the case, then we need to listen to Jesus as he speaks to his disciples. He knows our hearts and he knows our guilt and he says, “Peace be with you. Your sins are forgiven.”

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy


Sixth Sunday after Easter

The text: Acts 10:44-48 

In Acts 10 we hear about the conclusion of the incident where8f5d0040f261ddb1b3f281e00e1385f0 the Apostle Peter witnesses the way God wanted to include the Gentiles (those beyond Israel) in the promises of his kingdom. Peter witnessed God pouring out his Holy Spirit on the household of Cornelius and he said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptised with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47).

This was God’s way of saying that all people are created equal. But has that message got through to us in 2021? We don’t really treat everyone as equal. If you go to board a plane at the airport you will see two separate lines: one for economy and one for business class. Of course, you have to pay for that privilege.

Money certainly talks loudly in our world. It grants access and rights, establishing all sorts of exclusive little clubs. It impacts on where you can afford to live, on what schools you can send your children to and on what kind of restaurants and shops you can afford to patronise. And it is not just money that creates this exclusivity.

It could be your culture or your bloodline or your level of education or your looks or your system of beliefs or any other number of factors that determine where you find yourself on the different pecking orders of life.

Sometimes there are very obvious distinctions – like in the Indian caste system where you have the untouchables at the bottom of the social rung. But there are also far more subtle distinctions, like ones we make in our society. We might not always be conscious of the way we alter our behaviour toward someone depending on their weight or clothes or hairstyle or whether they have tattoos. But we do it just the same.

But God is above this kind of thing, isn’t he? God is not about to judge us according to our skin colour or our bank balance or our fashion sense or the number of letters we have after our name or any of these other superficial distinctions.

Yet at times in the Old Testament it might not seem like this. From God’s promise to Abraham to “make you into a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:2) came the nation of Israel—God’s chosen ones, the ones he favoured, the ones he rescued from the hands of slavery to the Egyptians and the ones he gave the Promised Land to at the exclusion of all other races and peoples.

By the time Jesus was born, in the land of the tribe of Judah in the line of the great Jewish King, David, the Jews had been reminded of their treasured status as God’s holy nation for more than two thousand years.

But with the coming of Jesus, the global aspect of God’s mission was emphasized. Jesus said that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47) and he commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

On the day of Pentecost, the Old Testament prophesy from Joel was fulfilled: “In the last days, God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people’” (Acts 2:17). The Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in other tongues so that people from all sorts of different nationalities could hear the good news of Jesus.

In today’s reading from Acts 10, Peter proclaims: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34). From a worldly point of view Cornelius had rights. As a centurion he was a VIP in the 1st century Roman world. He went straight to the head of the queue. His position gave him power and prestige. He also appeared to have been well liked and respected in the broader community, including among the Jews. When some men went to fetch Simon Peter to meet with Cornelius they said to Peter: He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people” (v22). 

All of these things counted in Cornelius’ favour in the pecking orders of the world. But none of them could gain him inclusion in God’s kingdom.

Now came the vital lesson that everyone needed to learn, a lesson that was driven home in no uncertain terms. Inclusion in God’s kingdom is always and only at the instigation of God and by his grace and power.

The parallels between what happened in Cornelius’ house and what happened on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem are unmistakeable—which has led many scholars to consider this account in Acts 10 as the Pentecost equivalent for the Gentiles. But we should really see both events as equally significant for Jew and Gentile alike as God seeks to communicate the universality and inclusivity of the Gospel of Jesus. 

In both cases, Acts 2 and Acts 10, the Holy Spirit was ‘poured out’ on the people who were gathered (Acts 2:17,33; 10:45). In both cases one of the manifestations of the Spirit was the speaking in different ‘tongues’ (Acts 2:3,4,6; 10:46). In both cases the response of those who witnessed it was ‘astonishment’ (Acts 2:7,12; 10:45). And in both cases the Spirit was referred to as ‘God’s gift’ (Acts 2:38; 10:45).

The result was a complete change in Peter’s attitude. It was no accident that God had drawn this key leader of the early church to the house of Cornelius to witness this. So Peter said: “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47).

God sent his only Son, our Lord Jesus, to reconcile the world to himself. Inclusion in God’s kingdom is always and only by God’s grace and power. We might differ in the upbringing we have received and in the type of family we are from. We might differ on the amount of our salaries, on our level of education, on the quality of our clothes and homes and the number of tattoos we have. But there is no pecking order in God’s family.

There is no one who has a greater right to be here than anyone else and no one is here except by the work of the Holy Spirit who has included each of us. That should surely impact the way we view and treat each other. It should surely also impact the way we view and treat those who do not yet belong to God’s kingdom.

May we never make a judgment that the message of Jesus is not for any particular type of person for whatever reason. May we never stand in the way of anyone being received into God’s kingdom for any bias we might have. Instead, may we welcome all people equally with God’s love, even as he has welcomed each one of us—completely by grace! Amen.

Fifth Sunday after Easter

The Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

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 Let’s  join in a word of  prayer: Loving Holy Spirit of  God, we are gathered so that you can reveal your presence in our lives to mould us into the people that we are destined to become as baptised children of God. God our Father, guide our time together this morning, that we may recognise your working in our lives in word and sacrament, to prune away all that is not of Christ Jesus.  Lord Jesus Christ, as we rejoice over your presence with us, and continue to live in the glory of your  resurrection, we pray in your name. Amen.

One of our favourite places to visit is the Hunter Valley.  Looking over the vineyards, and the beauty of the area.  Tasting the wines, olives, and other fruit produced in that area.  This week, I was drawn to the illustration that Merrill Tenney provides in his discussion of John’s Gospel, about vines branches and fruit. 

‘In pruning a vine, two principles are generally observed: first, all dead wood must be ruthlessly removed; and second, the live wood must be cut back drastically. Dead wood harbors insects and disease and may cause the vine to rot, to say nothing of being unproductive and unsightly.   Living wood must be trimmed back in order to prevent such heavy growth, that the life of the vine goes into the wood rather than into fruit.

The vineyards in the early spring look like a collection of barren stumps; but in the autumn the new branches are filled with luxuriant grapes. As the vinedresser wields the pruning knife on his vines, so God cuts dead wood out from within His saints, and often cuts back living wood so far that His method seems almost cruel. Nevertheless, from those who have suffered the most, there often comes the greatest fruitfulness. (Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 227-28.)

While a tree or vine is dormant, it’s difficult for most people to see which branches are alive and which branches are dead.   But I’m told that this is the best time to do the pruning.   

When things seem to be going really good in our lives, most people have a sense of confidence.  Whether that confidence is in God or in ourselves. I suspect that God, working through his Holy Spirit, finds this the most difficult of times to prune away all that is not of Christ Jesus and effect real change.

But in those times of our lives when things are going from good to bad to worse, people of faith often confront what needs to change in our lives and allow the Holy Spirit to effect those changes. So that we can regain a sense of joy and peace in living God’s way.

In our lives, I accept that the difficult times are times of pruning.   Clearing away the things in our lives that threaten our existence in Christ Jesus.  Painful times that bring self-reflection, repentance, redirection, and rededication.  We can be sure that the work of the Holy Spirit  is preserving the fruitful branches in each of us, nurturing our living faith.

I discovered that when a tree or vine awakens from being dormant.  Some of the branches begin to show new life.  Leaves, new shoots, and flowering fruit begin to appear.  While other branches remain lifeless.  It is during this time that the difference between the branches become noticeable.

It is during this time that the dead branches can be pruned away to make way for the living, growing, fruitful branches.  It’s clear to me that those around us will see the fruit growing on our branches before they notice the vine that is Christ Jesus.  The only way I can tell an orange tree from an apple tree is to notice the fruit.  The question we ask ourselves is “do we want others to notice the dead branches in our lives or the living fruitful branches.”

Christ Jesus says:  “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Apostle John tells us that ‘if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”   As we abide in Christ Jesus, and live in his love, our Lord bears much fruit in us by his Holy Spirit.  Fruit of “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.    

We see all this being worked out in the Deacon Philip who lived through a time when things went from bad to worse.  A time when Stephen, his fellow deacon, was stoned for proclaiming the Good News of Christ Jesus.  Persecution that arose against Christians from both Roman and Jewish circles. 

The Bible tells us that as the persecution grew, ‘those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.’  (Acts 8:4–5 ESV)

Through the persecution, God was pruning away the fear and anxiety, allowing the fruitful growth of courage and faith through the Gospel message.

As Philip lived that faith, showing the world the fruit of the Spirit, the Lord led him to one who was returning from Jerusalem.  One who had gone there to learn more about the God he found in the Scriptures.  One who would have been rejected at the Temple, and who would have  left the city unfulfilled, but still curious.  So God touched the lives of both Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch as he brought them together. 

One, abiding in Christ Jesus as a fruitful branch, and one seeking to be grafted into Christ Jesus to live as a fruitful branch.  What we learn from this is that we too can make a difference in someone’s life, just as Philip made a difference in the life of this eunuch.

I’m not sure that Philip was excited or even prepared to present Christ Jesus to a Gentile, a foreigner, a eunuch.  But Philip was prepared through God’s gift of Baptism and the precious Gospel message, and also the pruning of the Holy Spirit, to respond to the call of God when it was needed, in just the way it was needed. 

And so it is for us.  Most of us wouldn’t be prepared to stand on a street corner shouting the Scriptures, or even to sit with a group of people gently sharing the Gospel.  But I am convinced that each of us is prepared to follow the leading of Christ Jesus in whom we abide.  To witness the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our attitudes, actions and words, as we engage with those around us every day.  That is all the Lord expects of us.  As we abide in Christ Jesus by the faith he gives us, we can live in the confidence of our right relationship with God our Father, with God the Son and with God the Holy Spirit.

And, if we are ever confused about whether we are connected to Christ Jesus, in whom we abide, we can take a moment to contemplate our own navels.    

Our belly button is a constant reminder that we all started life abiding in another human being.  God’s Holy Spirit is the constant witness that we are abiding in Christ Jesus, by that feeling, deep in our gut, that we are not alone. That we are loved.

As branches, grafted onto the vine, Jesus calls us to be fruitful witnesses of the miracle of forgiveness and love, right here in the Mid North Coast.    To demonstrate our connection to each other by showing our forgiveness, and our connection to God by showing our love.  To join our hearts with a new sister in Christ through the gift of baptism, praising our Savour.

And  so, the grace and peace of God keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the Saviour of all.   AMEN.

Rev David Thompson.

Fourth Sunday after Easter

 (Good Shepherd Sunday)

John 10:11-18

 

I LOVE YOU.

Each sheep is precious to the shepherd. He knows each sheep personally. He20180311_103505 (1) was there when it was conceived, and at the moment it was born. He knows its parents, and its genetic make-up. Each lamb is different with its own name and each recognises and responds to the voice of their shepherd.

This is the way God knows us. Each one of us is different. We each have our own unique DNA (unless we have an identical twin!). We have different personality traits, and different gifts and abilities. We too have a Good Shepherd. We are all precious to him- there’s no favouritism or heirarchy. The Good Shepherd is prepared to fight for his sheep and protect them from all evil.

Jesus fights for his people. There are three evil enemies who would attack us and leave behind only skin and bones.

Firstly, there is the evil within us that would destroy us. Like an evil virus in our computers that would cripple us and leave us empty. A symptom of this evil might be a bout of depression. One sees no way ahead. One feels helpless. One gives up on the future. But the Good Shepherd is always out in front. He knows the way ahead, even when we don’t. He knows the way and will lead us through anything that comes. Jesus is the way ahead.

Jesus knows we need times to rest and recuperate. He leads us to rest in the green pastures, during our times of grief and sorrow. A time of sickness when he reaches out to us through the caring hands of doctors and nurses can also be a time of rest. He gives us these special times of rest, because he loves us.

He can give us rest from guilt. Jesus gives us a peace of heart and mind the world can’t give. Perhaps there is a particular sin we are ashamed of. We try and keep a lid on it so no one knows about it. We hide it deep inside ourselves. We repress it. And the Good Shepherd knows all about and he says in love, “You are too weak to overcome it. It will destroy you. Give it to me and I will fight it. I’ll cover it over and wipe it away with my own blood.” So he makes it disappear from God’s eyes. We can all have a clean sheet and enjoy a time of rest from our guilt. Enjoy the green pastures of life he has led us to.

So the Good Shepherd deals with our first enemy – our sin and guilt. Out of love He cleans it up so we can run as smoothly as a brand new computer!

The second enemy is the Evil One. He wants to separate the sheep from their Shepherd. He wants to put something or someone else in front to lead us astray. If Jesus is not out in front leading us on, then who or what is? Could it be what others think? Could it be our status, urging us on to impress others. Is it Popularity? Or maybe it could be the latest fashions. Sheep follow one another! They love to follow the rest of the mob.

The Good Shepherd assures us we will get all the food and clothes we need. We can trust him, like lamb relies on the shepherd for food, and a safe place to sleep.

It is the Evil One’s work to separate us from the Shepherd’s voice so we don’t hear the words of Jesus. How does he do this? The Evil One comes in disguise, dressed up as a sheep. We might have friends whom he uses to separate us from the Good Shepherd. They get us far enough away in life from the Shepherd so we don’t hear his voice, his tender loving call, or his words of warning.

The scary thing is that just like we don’t see an evil virus coming in an email,  we also don’t see the enemy, or his cunning, or see the wolf behind the sheep’s clothing. But Jesus does. Jesus recognises the Evil One and takes him on. We aren’t a match for the evil powers and forces that would lead us astray, separate us from Jesus, and destroy us. We are hardly aware of them, they are so well disguised. But Jesus recognises them and knows them. He fights the evil and cunning ones for us. He warns us.

When we stay close to Jesus we are safe. There will be times when we think we don’t need a shepherd at all. The Evil One will also assure us we are safe with him. He comes with his lies to entice us to leave Jesus and follow someone or something else. He will promise us the world, just as he offered Jesus the whole world. But Jesus knocked him back. Jesus is out in front. Out of love and care He invites us to follow closely behind him so we will be safe.

Thirdly, there is the evil of death. It is natural that even the mere thought of dying can frighten us. We avoid talking about it. We don’t know what is on the other side.

Jesus knows the other side. He comes from there. It is his home. He came to visit us out of loving care and concern, like a Good Shepherd. “Don’t be afraid!” he assures us.  He rules over there too. In this world he had no place to call his own home. The other side is his home and he wants to take us there to be with him in safety.

Jesus leads his sheep home in the evening, through the dark valleys of the shadows of death. Jesus puts his arms round us. If necessary he picks us up and carries us over the line, like a shepherd carries a tiny lamb: the way you might carry a pet that you love to a place of safety at your own home.

It is not death that we need to fear. It is being cut off from Jesus, on the other side. If that happened we would be unloved, forever. Never accepted, never satisfied. We would have no name and no love. We’d be helpless and completely under the power of evil. Being separated from God is what hell is.

Jesus fights death and destroys its power to separate us from our Good Shepherd. Death can’t separate us from God and his love.

It is God who is love. His love is even greater and deeper than a mother’s love. God has designed mothers to love us too, no matter who we are. “I Love You”. We need to hear those words from our mothers and our families. But most of all we need to hear it from our God.

May the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Third Sunday after Easter

The Text: Luke 24:36-48

Do the words of today’s Gospel reading sound familiar: “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them: ‘Peace be with you’”? If that sounds familiar itallanb is probably because we heard these same words last Sunday in the Gospel reading from John 20. The context of that passage was twofold. First, it was the evening of Jesus’ resurrection; the first Easter day. Second, John also progresses to a week later, when the risen Jesus again appears to his disciples the following Sunday. It makes sense, then, for a reading that focuses on events the week after Jesus’ resurrection to be used in church the week after Easter Sunday.

We seem to be going backwards to the first Easter Sunday. Shouldn’t it be time to move on to something else? After all we know the Easter story well; maybe even too well. Every year that we celebrate Easter we become a little more familiar with it. Maybe the risk is to be so familiar with it that we do start to think of it as a story like those we might have read to our children, and don’t stop to reflect on the depth of the reality of what took place for us.

It is hard for us who are separated by thousands of years and thousands of kilometres to comprehend what that first Easter was really like for those disciples. It was an anxious enough time for them as it is, with the authorities promising the same fate to anyone who declared allegiance to Jesus and confessed him to be the Christ. Last week John told us that the disciples had gathered under the cover of darkness with the doors locked. So just imagine how startled and frightened they would have been when all of a sudden Jesus came and stood among them, hearts racing and throats dry, utterly confused about what was happening, thinking they had seen a ghost.

But it is not a ghost there with them; it is Jesus. He holds out his hands and points to his feet to show them the punctures in his flesh from where the nails were driven through to the wood of the Cross. “It is I myself!” He says. “Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” Just imagine being there, right in front of Jesus! What would you do? Perhaps you might slowly and cautiously reach out with your trembling hand, touching the hand of your Maker and Redeemer. As you make contact you feel the same human flesh that you have. Imagine the blur of emotions the disciples must have felt and all the thoughts running through their mind—one moment gripping fear, the next joy and amazement because it seems too good to be true. But it is true! This is Jesus with them. He has actually, bodily risen. He physically eats some fish, right there with them. The crucified Jesus is now the risen, crucified Jesus!

Easter is not just a story—it is real. God didn’t turn from pain and suffering, injustice, grief, and brokenness but in Christ he faced it and fully absorbed it. Those wounds the risen Christ showed his disciples are real. They encompass everything he endured: his betrayal and handing over to be crucified, the horrific depths of injustice; all the mocking and spitting, the ridicule and bullying, the abuse and brutality, the emotional torment and physical pain and the anguish of being God-forsaken that Jesus suffered. His wounds encompass the grief of a mother losing her son and the fear of those who loved Jesus being persecuted themselves. They are bottomless holes in which all the disciples’ own failings are hidden: the doubts about what Jesus said, the public denial of him. They are wounds that absorb their squabbling about who would be the greatest, their lack of faith, their incomprehension of his ministry and unreliability in it, the rebuke of Jesus when he revealed his mission and of going to the Cross, their inability to stay awake and keep watch with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and keep watch, their denial of him, their inability to recognize him after his resurrection and their unbelief of the women’s testimony on Easter morning.

How deep their fright and fear must have been…not only to see Jesus but then to fear what he might say to them. We share in the same failings and inadequacies of the disciples. We know too well the reality of guilt and shame as Satan comes to attack us with the fiercest of condemnations. It’s an intolerable burden and try as we might all the self-justifications and blaming others and even God—and relabelling what we’ve done or failed to do—doesn’t take that experience of gnawing guilt away. Although Satan is overcome by Christ’s victory, he tries to do whatever damage he can with the limited opportunity he has until Christ returns to make all things new. The devil tempts us to go against God’s word, and even to decide what that word is, thereby denying Christ rather than ourselves.

If we’re honest, we’ve seen that in the 14 days since Easter Sunday in our family arguments, or when we lose our patience with others, maybe even our brothers and sisters in the congregation. In fact it’s often in the congregation we know this most acutely, when we hurt others and they hurt us, because we have judged a matter that is important to them as trivial to us. We can become fixed on what we see in front of us and dismiss what others see around us. We might work harder at preserving our pride than preserving love, which overshadows the desire to gladly hear and learn God’s word and the desire to serve others. We might talk of the church and its worship in terms of consumer language; what we have a right to and how our needs should be met, as if God doesn’t know how to meet human needs. It’s14 days since we celebrated Easter, but the secret thoughts and attitudes of the heart are still there. We still sin, we still have guilt, we still need peace.

The devil loves nothing more than to lead us into temptation and then heap condemnation and guilt upon us when we fall. Then, having fallen, he drives us to look inwardly on how to justify ourselves. But we can’t justify ourselves. It isn’t what we do or say but what Christ does and says that makes us right with God and brings us divine peace. That’s why we need to hear the same words from last week all over again: on the first Easter day as Jesus came and stood among them and said: “Peace be with you”. Like the disciples, we also acutely know that we need God’s forgiveness and peace. Jesus came to bring the benefits of his death and resurrection to his disciples personally by telling them in four short words that their past failings are not held against them and they are in a right standing before God: “Peace be with you.”

If only we could go to that house where the disciples were and see Jesus too and hear his words. Was this experience just for the disciples and the women at the tomb and the 500 people he appeared to? If only we could go back there, somehow. Maybe that’s why the Lectionary compilers take us back to the first Easter three weeks in a row—because we can’t go back there. There is no going back, some 2,000 years ago to Jerusalem so far away.

But in Christ, God has brought Easter to us. We received and share in all of the benefits of Christ’s saving death and resurrection when we were baptised into his death and resurrection, and the one true God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, put his name on us so that we are his very own dear children who belong to him forever.

That is why we can rejoice with the apostle John and say: “See what love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!” God lavished his love on us in Jesus his Son, who is with us, in our lying down in the evening and our rising in the morning. He is with us when we eat breakfast, lunch and tea (whether that’s broiled fish or not). He is with us in our work place, at our school, in our study course. He is with us while we wait in the doctor’s surgery. He is with us while we wait for test results, or as we lie in hospital. He is with us as we travel, with us in our leisure. He is with us in our fears and trials. He is with us even though others sin against us. He is with us as others help us, and with us in our helping of others too. And in church he is with us here in a special way for a particular purpose that he is nowhere else. The risen Christ is here to meet with us and bless us, bestowing divine peace upon us.

We can’t go back to that house where Jesus opened the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures, so Jesus comes here for us every Sunday as he leads us through the liturgy, as we listen to the readings, as we hear the proclaimed word. The repentance and forgiveness of sins that will be preached in Christ’s name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, has even made it all the way to us here. We can’t go back to the house the disciples were in some 2,000 years ago to hear Jesus proclaim peace…so the risen Christ comes in our time, in this space, to this house. He stands among us, his baptised people, as we share the peace of the Lord with one another: “Peace be with you”.

Amen.

Second Sunday of Easter

The Text: John 20:19-31

Humans are suspicious creatures.


We don’t immediately believe everything new thing we hear.


We measure it against what we know to be true.
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We evaluate it by what we have experienced.


We ask questions.

Does it sound possible?

Is it logical?

Ultimately, we like to see this new thing for ourselves, get our hands on it and check it out.  

Those who visited Jesus’ tomb three days after His burial could not believe what they saw and what they heard.

Early on that first Easter Day, Mary Magdalene saw the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb and immediately went and told Peter and John that Jesus’ body was gone. That was new.

No one had heard of the dead coming alive before.

Oh sure they had witnessed Jesus raising people from the dead, but they believed that His body was in a sealed tomb with soldiers guarding the entrance.

Peter and John are shocked and they run to the now open tomb to see this new thing for themselves.

What were they to make of this strange sight?

After all the pain and grief of Jesus’ torturous death, now His body is missing.

Peter and John went to their homes. Mary went back to the tomb, back to the last place she knew Jesus to be.

And there, the risen Lord Jesus revealed Himself to be alive.

His body was not been stolen.

He was not missing.

Jesus is alive and that was the new message Mary takes to the disciples.

But they did not believe Mary’s words (see Mk 16:11).

The disciples are suspicious.

They cannot believe that Jesus is alive.

They probably didn’t know what to believe, given that it is not common place for people to just come back from the dead.

Sadly though, they didn’t trust Mary’s words, even though she spoke the truth, and her words fitted with what Jesus had told them many times.

The only way they would believe is if they could see and touch Jesus for themselves.

Why were their hearts so hard?

Was God’s Word so far from them they could not believe Jesus is risen from the dead?

Was their grief so great that they could not recall Christ’s own words fore-warning of the events of those three days past?

We might criticize the disciples for their dullness in not putting together the words of Jesus and the events of His death and open tomb.

But we do so to our judgement, for we are not so great at trusting His promises and keeping His Word.

Later that day, in the evening, the disciples gather behind locked doors. They were no doubt discussing all that had taken place that day.

They were afraid that the Jews might now be after them, so they locked the door.

Huddling together in fear and confusion Jesus came and stood among them and said to them: “Peace be with you.”

Peace is what they lacked.

Those men were frightened for their lives, confused at what Mary’s words could mean, overwhelmed with guilt for deserting Jesus, afraid what would happen next, uncertain what they were to do.

Jesus comes and gives them what they lack.

Before they can say or do anything, Jesus speaks.

He is not there to condemn or seek revenge for abandoning Him.

Jesus came to grant them the deep abiding peace of God.

He has not deserted them, but comes to show them that He is alive and that He lives to grant peace to forgive their sins.

He is there to take away the barrier that exists between them and God.

By coming to them in the evening, Jesus has given them time to act according to faith.

He was giving them opportunity to trust in His words and understand that He was not dead, or missing, but raised from death to life.

They failed to trust in the Word.

They couldn’t see hand of God at work bringing about the salvation of sinners.

So, Jesus comes to show them that their sins have been atoned for.

He shows them His hands and His side. He invites them to touch Him, to feel the wounds by which they have been redeemed.

Hearing the Good News that Jesus was alive they did not believe it.

But in seeing Him for themselves and touching their risen Lord, they believe.

Mary’s words make sense.

Jesus words about “rising again” make sense.

He needed to die and be raised to life to bring God’s plan of salvation for all mankind into reality.

They were understanding in new ways, who Jesus truly is and what He came to do.

He is the flesh and blood God come to save the world through dying and rising again.

But one of the Twelve, Thomas, was not there, and when the others told him about Jesus’ appearing among them in the flesh, like them, he did not believe.

In fact, Thomas made this firm vow, “Unless I see in His hands the marks of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.”

One week later, Thomas got the opportunity to make good on his vow.

The apostles again gathered behind locked doors and Christ came and stood among them, to again bestow peace upon them.

He invited Thomas to touch and feel and believe that He is indeed alive.

Thomas saw, he believed, and he confessed Christ as his Lord and God.

What about us?

We don’t get a chance to see and touch and believe?

We can’t place our finger into the wounds of Christ.

What we do have is just as sure,

we have the word of those who saw and believed.

We trust in the witness of Mary, Peter, Thomas and the other apostles.

We learn from Thomas that the witness of others can be relied on.

We get to hear and believe and listen to those who saw and confessed Jesus to be alive, to be the Lord.

They are faithful witnesses.

Their words are true, and with eyes of faith we confess Christ Jesus crucified and risen for our salvation.  

This ultimate Good News of Jesus conquering sin and death brings us peace.

Christ’s words grant us peace and forgiveness just as He forgave the apostles.

And He comes to us in His Supper to speak His peace to us and grant us His peace in bread and wine.

The words of Jesus are preserved in the liturgy of the Sacrament.

After the Words of Institution, the pastor proclaims to us, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”

Jesus is our peace with the Father.

His forgiveness is the peace we enjoy.

He invites us to the feast of peace—His body and blood—so that we would know without doubt that we have the peace of God

Jesus places His flesh and blood in our bodies to make us holy as He is holy.

God calls us to faith on the basis of His Word, on the witness of Mary and the apostles.

We are those of whom Christ spoke when He said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”.

We are blessed with faith to see that Jesus is our flesh and blood Saviour.

He has overcome sin and death for us. He gives the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to trust in Christ.

We meet Him in His own words, in the washing of Baptism, in His own Supper.

He comes to give us life, His life.

And it doesn’t matter what we have done, Jesus comes to forgive us.

He forgave the disciples that abandoned Him, and denied even knowing Him.

He forgave the apostles for doubting Him to accomplish salvation through His cross and resurrection.

If they are forgiven, then we are forgiven too.

John says as much when he says of his gospel account; these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.

We all have a doubting Thomas lurking deep inside, a part of us that struggles to believe what Christ’s resurrection means for us personally.

When we have doubts about it all being true, or if sin prevents you from believing that Christ died even for us, don’t try and go to the cross in your thoughts.

He is no longer there.

Go where Christ is found and where He desires you seek Him:

in His Word,

in the promises of Baptism,

in the feast of Eucharist,

in His words that grant us forgiveness and life.

God’s Word is given to us as an anchor in the storms of life.

An immovable rock on which we stand against the temptations of the flesh, the doubts in our mind and this non-believing world.

Christ is our life, and He gives His life through the physical means of His Word and Sacrament.

Get into the Word, receive the Sacrament in faith for the strengthening of our body and our salvation.

We are in Christ and He is in us.

As the bearers of Christ’s body and blood we are His words of grace to those burdened with sin.

We are God’s touch of compassion to those who hurt.

We are witnesses to the power of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.

Our neighbours meet Jesus in our words and actions, in the way we live differently from everyone else.

Jesus is alive, risen from the grave to give us His forgiveness and life through His Word and Sacraments.

Christ has defeated death,

He has defeated hell and sin, and He gives the gift of life and salvation freely to all who believe and are baptized.

With that in mind,

May the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

First Reading:  Acts 17:16-34a Paul in Athens

‍ ‍16‍ While Paul was waiting for them in Athens,bible he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.  ‍17‍ So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.  ‍18‍ A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.  ‍19‍ Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  ‍20‍ You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”  ‍21‍ (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

22‍ Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  ‍23‍ For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

‍24‍ “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.  ‍25‍ And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.  ‍26‍ From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  ‍27‍ God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.  ‍28‍ ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

‍29‍ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.  ‍30‍ In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  ‍

31‍ For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”

‍32‍ When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”  ‍33‍ At that, Paul left the Council.  ‍34‍ A few men became followers of Paul and believed. [1]

Second Reading:  1 Peter 3:13-22 Suffering for doing right

‍13‍ Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  ‍14‍ But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear what they fear ; do not be frightened.” ‍15‍ But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,  ‍16‍ keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  ‍17‍ It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.  ‍18‍ For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit,  ‍19‍ through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison  ‍20‍ who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,  ‍21‍ and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  ‍22‍ who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

[2]

Gospel Reading:  John 14:15-21 The promise of the Holy Spirit

 ‍15‍ Jesus said to the Disciples, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.  ‍16‍ And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—  ‍17‍ the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.  ‍18‍ I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.  ‍19‍ Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.  ‍20‍ On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  ‍21‍ Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”  [3]

[1]The Holy Bible  : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Ac 17:16). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[2]The Holy Bible  : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (1 Pe 3:13). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[3]The Holy Bible  : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Jn 14:15). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

 

Sermon  for 6th Sunday of Easter.

The Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.  Let’s join in a word of  prayer:
This morning, God our Father, may your grace lift us from the grip of our challenges and insecurities to be all that we have been called to be.  May your Holy Spirit inspire us to a renewed confidence, as we see the ending of this first round of Covid-19 isolation.  And may we here together recommit our lives and hearts to following your will, sharing your love for us, and living our lives of faith in your Son Jesus Christ.  Gracious heavenly Father, hear our prayer for the sake of our risen Lord,  Amen.

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Christ Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.”  (John 14:15-17 NIV)

‘Martin Luther once wrote of a dream where he was in his house and saw Jesus coming up the walk toward his door. Luther examined his surrounding and realized that everything was an absolute mess. Clothes were thrown over the furniture, old food was sitting out, trash was everywhere. And he thought, “How am I going to let the Lord of Life, Jesus Christ, come in to a mess like this.” He hurriedly tried to straighten up but the more he picked up the greater the mess became. Finally, Jesus was knocking at the door. Luther, resigned himself to the mess and as he opened the door, he said, “Jesus, come on in, if you think that you can come into a place like…” and as he turned he saw that everything had been put into order, everything in it’s proper place. The house was immaculate as Christ entered in. Oh, people, we make such a mess of our lives when we try to straighten them by ourselves. But if we will submit to Jesus, open our hearts to Him, He will make us immaculate, by cleansing us from sin and giving us the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide and establish us as a new creature.’     

 (‘adapted from contribution by Timothy Smith on Jan 29, 2005)

I suspect there are many in the world today who say that they love God, but when Christ Jesus says, “If you love me, obey what I command,” they might say in their attitudes and actions, if not in their words, “How am I going to let the Lord of Life, Jesus Christ, see the mess I made of things.”

Jesus tells his followers that the role of the Holy Spirit is, in effect, to remind us of Christ’s presence in our lives, as he asks us to keep his commandments.

When Jesus was present, he was the one who instilled in the believers the right words, coached them through the proper attitudes, taught them the joy of doing the right thing. But as the disciples waited for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, I am convinced they would have spent their time in that upper room re-living all that Jesus taught them.  Words like those we find in the Gospel reading for today, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:15-17 NLT)

Some of the work of the Holy Spirit is reminding the faithful of the truth, jogging the memories of the followers of Jesus Christ about all that he asks of us and all he will do to help us so that we can be the people who he has called us to be in love.

It may surprise us to think of the Holy Spirit in this way, as a quiet, active presence in our lives.  Often the Holy Spirit reveals himself in the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit that are active in the believing and worshipping community.   And indeed, the Holy Spirit of God does work in our lives and in our community in so many ways.

‘The Holy Spirit is the person and the power of God drawing people to Christ to see with new eyes of faith.  He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.  Like our eyes through which we see the world around us,  we can only see our own eyes in the reflection of a mirror. The Holy Spirit is the one through whom all else is seen in the light of Christ, and we see Him clearly in the reflection of love of God and the grace of Christ Jesus.  Father and Son revealed in Scripture, and experienced in sacraments, through the presence of the Holy Spirit.’  ( Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). In Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

God knows everything about us.  He knows we are notoriously forgetful. Especially about Him.  And so, at just the right time, God poured out his Holy Spirit upon all believers, to remind us of all that Christ Jesus is and all that he has done for us.    Today’s reading and message is a foretaste of Pentecost.  It’s like  a preview of a movie that will peak our interest to experience that movie in a special way.  In two weeks, Pentecost will once again remind us to experience life with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit in a special way.
 We know that we are created to love God, and to care for one another, but as the pressure builds of living in our broken world, we sometimes forget who we are and what we are supposed to do and to be in life.

The Holy Spirit led the Gospel writers to witness these precious words of Jesus and so much more.  So that whoever has “eyes to see and ears to hear” would be joined with our Lord in this life and in the life to come.  Jesus warned the Disciples that the world would not accept the Holy Spirit, because it neither knows Him nor sees Him.  Just as Paul encountered in Athens a world that recognised an unknown God, we encounter a world that rejects God in any form.  Especially the truth of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, one God eternally.

I have come to understand and to accept that God’s Spirit is always present, surrounding us. The challenge is that we can only recognise that we are covered over with God’s Spirit when we receive this truth in the Scriptures. By faith, we can know him. By faith, he lives within us and joins with our spirit to sing the praises of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. By faith, we come to trust Scripture.  To gain comfort from it.  And to gain courage from it.   Scriptures reveal that God has determined to work salvation in this way.

Jesus wanted the Disciples to have a reality to share.  Their reality – and yet, also his reality.  By God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, their witness became our Saviour’s witness.  From the Scriptures, we discover that these two were inseparable.  Throughout the New Testament, we discover God working in the world through disciples.  He continues to work in the world today through each one of us.  We are Jesus’ disciples to our time and place.  We can make his reality our reality too.  Inseparable from our Creator, our Saviour, and our Counsellor. Even in times of separation and recovery from pandemic. 

By living our reality, with Christ Jesus at our centre, we can witness with our attitudes and actions, what our words often cannot say.  Peter offers us some helpful advice from his first letter,   ‘Do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.’  (1 Peter 3:15 NIV)

God, in His grace and glory, is calling out to each one of us to be living witnesses to the world.  Witnesses that God can be trusted.  Knowing that we have the help of God’s Holy Spirit, who is with us forever.    

The grace and peace of our loving God keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.   AMEN.

 

Rev David Thompson.