Saturday, 6 February 2021

Bringing Fake News into the Gospel


We all have it. All of us. That desire for something more. That desire to not trust one source alone but to look to others. That desire to think that it is too good to be true. We all have the desire to believe in the unbelievable even when the unbelievable is nothing but fake news.

In all of this, we need to know one thing – the gospel, the good news, is not fake news being brought into this world, but our insatiable desire for some more means that all of us, at times, risk bringing fake news into the gospel. When we do this the good is lost in all of us.

And while the words “fake news” only really entered our vocabulary in the last seven years, the reality is, the desire to believe that there is more to the gospel story than the simplicity that is the gospel. A God who loved us so much he gave his only son to live amongst us, to die for us, to rise again and to ascend to Heaven to sit with the Father; all this, so that we could have a relationship with a Father God. It is a simple gospel – all you have to do is believe – but we want to think that we must have to do more, do something different. And this desire, the desire to find what is more to this story, has meant the good news has been tainted with fake news time and time again. And we are not immune from bringing our own fake news into the Gospel even today.

Paul wrestles with this throughout his letters. And often the fake news, Paul wrestles with are when the cultural views of the day or the cultural rituals of a group are pushed onto, and added to, the gospel story. In letters like Colossians, Paul is wrestling with wacky ideas about spiritualism, self-help, regimes and a Jesus who has been turned from human to a mystery that is beyond the physical. Paul is responding to a Greek culture of mystery and spiritualism being pushed onto, and added to, the gospel.

And in Galatians, he is dealing with a very different cultural influence on the gospel. The gospel has been tainted with the fake news of a ritualised Judaism which had moved beyond God’s intentions. For Paul, the Gospel he presented the Galatian church of a loving God, found through a simple faith in Christ, and followed by living in Christ had been lost; it had succumbed to the fake news of the only way to the Father was through the Torah.

And how did this Fake News enter the church. Well it came through the stumbling apostle we love so much – Peter.  Let’ hear what Paul had to say. We are going to hear this very differently and while our focus for today is Galatians 2: 11-21, we are going to read from the beginning of Galatians finishing in Chapter 3: 5 to give context.  We are going to read these verses in email form, from a paraphrase version of the Bible, Addy introduced to us years ago in his sermon about David and Goliath: The Street Paraphrase



Subject: Moses’ rules, and now?

I’m stunned! How come you wander off from God so quick? He personally picked you to be on the gift list for all the Saviour’s freebies, and now you’re into a different package, which is just bad fake news. It’s obvious someone’s messed with your heads by twisting the Saviour’s news – they’ve got your addled.

The guy who is doing the twisting should go get lost. I got the Good News direct from the Saviour when I was on the road to Damascus. The Good News is now being polluted, it is no longer liberating. And how did this all happen?

Pete shows up at Antioch and I stand up to him and give it to him straight – I wasn’t about to tiptoe around him; he was so far out of line he’d forgotten where the line was! Before James’s lot turned up, ol’ Pete was stuffing himself full of non-kosher food like there was no tomorrow. But when tomorrow came and brought James’s crew with it, Pete backtracked and went all strict kosher; ‘cos the Jews had him under surveillance, and he was scared stiff. Of course, all Pete’s Jewish mates followed suit, such a U-turn, such spin, so two-faced, it even had Barny caught up in it.

And soon as I spotted they were out of line with the good news, I said straight to Pete’s face, and loud enough for the whole crowd to hear, ‘You’re a Jew, but you normally live like you’ve never seen inside a Jewish HQ! How come now you’re trying to turn everyone else into a Jew? The Jesus Liberation Movement is completely different to Judaism. It’s not about working your way into God’s good books. It is about taking Jesus as, and at, his Word.

I’ve have been executed with the Saviour. I’m dead. Well, physically I’m still breathing, but it’s his breath filling my lungs. I’m ‘under new management’. My new life is run by God’s Son, who loved me so passionately he actually died for me. I’m not going to snub God and throw his free gift back in his face: if I could get a clean slate by keeping the old Rules, then the Saviour went through all that grief for nothing.

You Galatians, are you demented or what? Who’s hypnotized you? Who’s interfering with your brainwaves? You had the full works on how and why Jesus the Saviour died: I gave you the full presentation – live and interactive. So answer me this one thing: Did you get pumped full of God’s Spirit by keeping every single Rule in Moses’ book? No, you got it by taking God at his word. Are you really so daft that you’re going to start off with God’s Spirit running the show and then switch to manual and go for it on your own? After all you’ve gone through, don’t jack it all in for nothing. Again – why did God dole out his Spirit? Why did he do supernatural things though you? Was it ‘cose you had a perfect record and could tick off every Rule as ‘done and dusted’? No, it was because you took on what you heard.

If Paul was wanting to present a challenge, a message and teaching today, he would go straight to email, hitting his points as quickly as possible.

And what do we know. Well from last week, and the opening verses of this letter, or email, Paul is stunned, the Jesus Liberation Movement of Galatia had completely lost the point and direction of the Good News they originally received. Last week, we learnt how Paul himself was a testimony to this Good News. And now the Good News had something fake about it, Paul wanted to address it up front.

This is where we come into the message today. We learn in Chapter 2 from Verse 11 that Peter was the one to blame. I don’t know about you, but I really feel for the blunderer of this disciple and apostle. Peter, the one who Jesus praised as knowing deeper truth because he could see Jesus for who he is – the son of God. Peter the one that Jesus then turned to and said ‘Satan get away from me.’ Peter the one that guaranteed Jesus that he would never deny him, then later denies Jesus three times.

Peter the apostle in Acts 10 who received a dream in which God tells him that all animals are made clean by the creator and are therefore kosher to eat. Peter who church tradition tells us died a martyr for his faith on a cross that was upside down as Peter did not feel worthy enough to die like his saviour.

So let’s be Frank. Peter was a great man. Peter was a passionate man. And like most highly passionate people, Peter would run in guns blazing without thinking it through. So, like most of us highly passionate people, Peter was prone to stuff-ups.

And Paul points to a stuff-up. Peter, the apostle who knew all food given by the Father is clean, became in the eyes of Paul, a hypocrite because he was afraid of how his Jewish brothers would judge and receive him. Peter’s actions saw other Jews follow suit, the message that was given to the Gentiles here was direct – entry into the Jesus Liberation Movement came with its own rituals and if you want to get closer to God, follow the old ways of the disciples.

After all, Jesus was the son of Yahweh. Yahweh was the God of the Jews. Jesus was a Jew. So, for Gentiles to join the banquet table set before them by the God of the Jews and the God of Jesus, Gentiles would have to enter into the same rituals. Peter in a moment of pear pressure demonstrated this first-hand. As soon as James’s lot showed up and made evident the difference between Jew and Gentile and reminded Peter who he was, Peter returned to the customs of his culture.  

We shouldn’t knock Peter too much here. Yes, he mucked up. But I love the picture of Peter in the Bible, it is a picture of each of us and we know that Peter lived for Christ, and he died for Christ. We all engage in hypocrisy. All of us, especially when it involves the groups we were once a part of..

And we have to remember, Paul is not addressing Peter as the problem. Peter is the reason that the problem occurred – yes. But he is not the problem. The problem is the message that the Galatians accepted in their response to seeing and responding to the mistakes of Peter.

The churches in Galatia had obviously started to think that there must be more to the Gospel story that they were encouraged to just believe. The Gospel story that pointed to a God of Grace, who simply asked – have faith in my son; know that belief in my son will take you closer and closer to me because if you live in my Son, my Spirit will live in you.

The Galatian churches were young and fervent. They wanted more of God and they wanted to do more for God. And like many young Christians and churches they looked to those with more experience and who has more experience than the apostles and the Judaic faith. After all, at this time in history, Christianity was not a separate religion it was a sect of Judaism so it is only logical to look to the core rituals of Judaism to find the rituals and behaviours that will bring you closer to God.

And what would make this even more confusing is the pull that would have existed in Galatia at this time, and a pull that exists today even for us, what would make this even more confusing is the pull that we have to know that we are on the right path. That the journey that leads us to God, is in fact the way, the Truth and the life.

Recently I was listening to a Christian podcast called “Unbelievable.” The podcast featured a rabbi and a minister of the Church. The rabbi pointed out that in Hebrew, they do not refer to the Torah as the Law, they refer to it The Way. Jesus directly tips this all on its head in John 14:6, when he says “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one can get to the father except through me.”

And what really got me when I was listening to this podcast was listening to the rabbi who again and again kept saying – it is too simple, the Christian way, is too simple and therefore can’t be right. And then he hit the nail on the head when he turned to the Christian minister and said – I cannot believe that Jesus is the Messiah; Judaism is an exclusive faith. The story you are painting with your Messiah is of a universal faith – a faith for all.

At that point my heart and my spirit wept. Even my own simple reading of the Hebrew scriptures talks about the Hebrew people bringing God to all nations. Our creator God is not an exclusive God that we can learn more about and become closer to if we follow a set of rituals that keep as defined as separate to others.

And then I find myself reflecting even more on this simple passage – ten verses – that reference a table, a ritual and the actions of Peter and his crew and then I understood why Martin Luther King Jr. found the letter so important in his fight for Black rights in the USA. The man who is famous for the I have a Dream speech – a speech that also refers to a table “I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

And I realise that there is so much more to these verses. Especially when you know the place of the table in early Christian church history. In Alan Cole’s commentary on Galatians, he points out a startling and heart-pulling point – the piece of worship that these verses are pointing to is something called the “common meal”. Something called agape – the word for brotherly love – meal – Martin Luther King Jr’s Table of Brotherhood.

Alan Cole points out that if Peter refused, even under pressure, to join with his Gentile brothers and sisters in a common meal, he would also cease to join them at the Lord’s Table. At the communion table. Now, I want you to shut your eyes here.

Imagine this. You are a member of a Church in Galatia. Every Sunday, the Lord Table is a core part of your worship together – breaking bread and sharing wine. And, every Sunday, if Peter is in the building, he joins you at your table.

Then a wider group of Christians come, all have walked closely with God. Keep your eyes shut but your hearts open here. Imagine now what it would feel like if this group of esteemed people set themselves a table apart from you. You were not allowed at that table until you accepted the rituals of the group. Then Peter, the one that you thought would naturally sit with you, turns his back and sits at the other table.

Keep your eyes shut, your hearts open, and your ears ready to hear. Imagine how it would feel to have a divided Communion Table at church where each person did communion in their own way. Imagine how it would feel like to have someone refuse to take the Lord’s supper with you because of who you are.

“I have a dream that one day out in the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

“I have a dream that one day out in the green hills of Pukeatua, Wainuiomata, the sons and daughters of the lost and the sons and daughters of privilege will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Let this really sink in – because this is where the nails of fake news hammer Jesus back on the cross. He died for the unity of creation, for the unity of Jew and Gentile, for the unity of the lost and the privileged.

A couple of weeks ago, I stood here and challenged the concept of Togetherness. Not because I disagreed with it but that I could see another side of the coin. One thing I said was this “. Together, the culture we create, we can also use as a measuring stick to compare and disregard others to ourselves.”

You know the Law of the Torah is a beautiful thing. David speaks of meditating on it day and night. When Jesus asks a Lawyer what the heart of the Law is the Lawyer responds Love the Lord your God and Love your Neighbour as Yourself. This is the heart of the Torah, the heart of the Gospel and the heart of Grace extended to us. The problem was, in their togetherness, each fraction of Judaism had created a measuring stick to judge others – for the Pharisees, the rituals they created to ensure that they were on the way were that measuring stick. And it made them an exclusive club.

We know also from the first 15 chapters of Luke, Jesus didn’t come for this exclusive club. He came for the outsiders.

And let’s face it, universally as a church, we have created measuring sticks to exclude others. Even here in Aotearoa NZ. A clear fact in our history here is that we started with mission churches and settler churches. Two different communion tables with one culture applying a very cultural and western measuring stick against another. A divide that still exists today.

However, one of the most startling measuring sticks evident in countries like Aotearoa New Zealand, is the divide between conservative Christians and liberal Christians. The measuring sticks are real, and we use them against each other regularly right to the point of making judgements about a fellow Christian because who they voted for or what position they took on moral issues. Even I have been guilty of this.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for redress, repentance and forgiveness. But there is not a place exclusivity. But it is important to hear this – if you would never have a fellow Christian around to your common table for a meal, then how are you positioning that person at the Lord’s Table. Have you created a measuring stick for an exclusive Christianity which only involves people like you who follow your cultural traditions and rituals?

Martin Luther King Jr is famous for two other quotes: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” And “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

I feel like I have to apologise for delivering two hard messages. It’s a struggle. But at the same time, it is understanding what is bringing us together is not a tool to measure each other. And it is not just grace – it is the other side of the coin – mercy. To quote Andy, who probably got this from someone else “Grace is having something given to us that we did not deserve; mercy is having something taken from us that we did deserve.”

I want to finish this word with Paul and then I would love us to really sing into the Gospel Truth that joined us as together as one today at the Communion Table.

1 Cor 15: 10 “God treated me with undeserved grace! He made me what I am, and his grace wasn't wasted.” (CEV)


Saturday, 23 January 2021

Radical Togetherness: Luke 15

Together – a powerful word
We can do all things in Christ, if … we are … together
We can support one another and be a strength for each other, if … we are … together
We can establish a powerful and radical culture for Christ, if … we are … together
If we know each other, and connect to each other, we can stand as one, if … we are … together

But I want to pose this.

Together is also a dangerous word

Together, we run the risk at seeing ourselves as better than others, better than the people outside of the walls of our church
Together, we can be so closely connected that when new people come, we are so busy supporting each other that we don’t see the need walking in our door
Together, the culture we create, we can also use as a measuring stick to compare and disregard others to ourselves
Together, if we know each other, and connect to each other, we can stand as one and the outsider has no place to join us

Together is both a powerful and dangerous word.

As we journey into 2021, let us not just become closer with each other but let us be self-reflective on our togetherness. Let us question what ties us together. Let us challenge ourselves collectively and become a church that is truly open to outsiders, just as our saviour was open to outsiders.

Today, I am going to be preaching from Luke 15. A chapter with three parables. A parable about a lamb, a coin and a lost son. I won’t read the whole chapter, but you are welcome to read it as I share from the chapter.

But as we begin, let us watch the events coming up to Luke 15 and the final parable in Luke 15 from the Bible Project

Watch: The Prodigal Son, Luke 9-19 - Luke-Acts Series Video | BibleProject™

The Pharisees were a tight-knit religious group that supported each other. They created their own powerful and radical culture. The pharisees were a group that stood as one.

They had to. In the years between the Old Testament and the New, Israel had gone through some of the roughest times it had ever faced. The persecution of the Jewish people in this time would have been comparable to what the Jewish people faced in World War Two. And what is one question, we all ask when we go through hard and trying times – Why? Why God Why?

The Pharisees came up with the answer. We, the people of Israel, have lost favour with God because we fell away from the life he called us to live through Moses. For things to change, we need to return to God and his Law. We are a people of the Law, we live under God’s Law, if we want to receive the redemption of God, we must strictly adhere to all aspects of the Law. Every letter down to its last core. They had established a powerful and radical response to the times that they lived in. They believed they had the right answer and that the path they walked was right. They became a tight group, together, bound by their own concept of togetherness.

As such they expected their messiah would be one that would come and say to them – my sons, I am proud of the work you have done. My sons, I am proud that you saw the light and you turned to my Law. But Jesus didn’t. He dined with them, yes, but he dined with the sinners as well. He dined with the rejected. He dined with the people that the pharisees would never allow to sit at their table.

So, they asked Jesus, why do you choose to dine with sinners? And his response came through three stories.

And this is where our challenge to togetherness comes through. Because we often treat these stories separately. The lamb, the coin, the son. And, we often read these stories as if they are directed at the lost when they are not. Now, don’t get me wrong here. They are about the Father’s love for the lost. But reading these stories to celebrate our foundness was not the original intention of Jesus in telling them. Jesus used these parables to explain to the religious leaders of the day why he chose to dine with the lost and not just with the found.

A bit of the hook in the story here, is the pharisees are the older brothers in the last story. They stayed at home and diligently kept the Law and felt angered when the brother who had gone off the rails was celebrated for returning home.  If the pharisees, really knew the heart of the Law and their place in the story, they would welcome the restoration of the lost. But just as the last parable finishes, the really twist is found – just really who is lost in this ultimate story? It’s the older brother, the one who lost sight of grace and love. But, that is another sermon in itself – a sermon on how the found can become lost and never see it coming.

Back to these parables and their place.

By Luke 15, the pharisees were outranged with Jesus. Together as one they had diligently put God’s Law above all else. They held strong to their faith and yet the Son of the God they worshipped treated them no different to the ones that had gone astray.

And Jesus tells them three stories. And it is like a trilogy with the climax building and occurring in the last of the stories. In the first story, there are 100 sheep, one goes missing and instead of leaving it the shepherd looks for it; in the second story, there are ten coins, one goes missing and instead of leaving it the woman looks for it; and in the last story, there are two sons, one becomes lost, but when he finds himself, his father welcomes him home.

That is the greatness of God’s love for the lost. But for the pharisees these stories meant so much more. They were offensive stories because of the characters that were central to each – a shepherd, a woman and a disgraced son. Each story featured an outsider who the pharisees would never dine with.  It wasn’t just the objects that were lost, it was the reality that these people, in their own ways, were lost.

The stories weren’t just about something being found, they were about the attitude we have to those who are lost.

The stories are about how we treat outsiders. Those that offend our togetherness.

When I was researching this sermon, I tried to think of modern-day equivalents. If I were to take a moral stand, I could probably list some straight up – homosexuals, abortion supporters, child abusers; the list goes on. But sometimes outsiders are simply those we don’t want to be seen with.  

Andy has already shared with us in his series on advent the outside position of shepherds in the urbanised Israel in which Jesus was born. And our Sunday school pictures of shepherds really don’t cut it. So, I tried to think of a job which most of us, okay maybe just me and not you, would not want to do because it comes with shame.

I also tried to think of modern-day equivalents to groups of people who are excluded from many activities in a society because of factors of birth like gender. Phil has already shared with us about the disregard women faced at this point in time in history. While, Jewish culture would not do this, it was not uncommon in the Roman world of the time for female babies to be put out with the trash.

Finally, I tried to think of shame occurring to a family in the context of a chosen life-style of a child. And outside of church culture, and a return to moral examples, I found it hard to come up with equivalents of lifestyles that bring shame into families.

After thinking, researching and reflecting, I think I have something, well someone to be exact. Meet Kenny the plumber. Well, he really isn’t a plumber. He drives human waste trucks, disposes human waste, cleans out septic tanks used for human waste, and oversees portable toilets at major public events. He drives the truck you don’t want to be behind on the commute to work. While he is proud of his job, his choice of employment is a factor in his divorce and he brings shame to his proud father.

Now, I am certain that none of us here would say that having a Kenny in our lives would offend us. I am certain that none of us see a person being defined by their job. Afterall, Kenny really isn’t a plumber, here in New Zealand he would be called a “Portable Toilet Service Operator”.

But, in New Zealand, we do have a bit of a problem in that we often try to start up a conversation with – where are you from and what do you do. Both questions are asked to position others to the groups we associate with. Now let’s be honest, our reaction would be slightly different after we have shaken hands with a Portable Toilet Service Operator, as opposed to a plumber.

And as a parent would you be proud to say, my son, my daughter, is a Portable Toilet Service Operator. And even if you have said yes here, would you be encouraging them to find a different job, have different career aspirations, or would your heart secretly jump with joy when they came home and said, they have been given a different job with Spashdown – same pay and hours but now they are Accounts Manager.

Kenny is an outsider. He is in a job that still has shame attached to it. Now I know that we would accept Kenny and others like him into our group. He could be part of our together here in Wainuiomata Baptist. I do think we have a culture that Kenny would love and I can see him connecting in with groups here. But I think there is more to this.  And I do think that for some people, those of different cultures, backgrounds and political positions, the challenge is real.

Outsiders are people we avoid, they are people we are afraid of, they are the people we chose not to see. 

The movie Kenny starts with a quote “None are less visible than those we decide not to see.” Who are the Kennys in our lives? Who are the people in our communities that we are ashamed of? Who are the people we teach our children not to see – these are our outsiders. What message are we giving about our group and our own concept of togetherness when we decide not to see particular groups, or types, of people.

To use an extreme example; I personally find it so hard to avoid the eyes of the homeless begging in Wellington. For me personally, when our eyes connect, I am obliged to give – I see Jesus in their eyes. Now this giving might not be money or food, it just might be an ear and a relationship. It might be just to shake their hand and listen to their story. It might be to treat them as human. But there are times when I am in a rush, there are times when I even had children with me, and the context means I find myself actively avoiding eye contact and crossing to the other side of the footpath.

At this point I have decided not to see the outsider; worse, I have taught others how to not see need when it presents itself. I have been a Christian version of a Pharisee.

And kids, when they are young, don’t have this skill. There have been times when Eric and I have been asked – why are we not giving the person something? Why did we cross the road? We give an excuse from the head and not the heart – they are probably alcoholics. But addicts are welcome in the Kingdom of God too.  God’s heart for the lost extends into addiction.

You know to have faith in God is to not fear. I have been listening to the Holy Post Podcast and it was recently pointed out in the podcast that if you walk in fear it is impossible to do the things that God calls us to – to love our neighbours, feed the homeless, visit the prisoner, speak up for injustice and speak into the Love of the Father for the outcast. Fear blocks and stops us responding as Christ would.

But how can we overcome this fear. How can we open our culture of togetherness to not be one that protects us but one that invites outsiders to be present? I think it starts right here – because even in our church whanau today there are people and families who feel like outsiders.

Our church is filled with mini-bubbles of families, life groups and friends. We should be prepared to expand our mini-bubbles and take the challenge that Royce and Phil have given us. Invite each other into our homes so that we can really know each other. And go further, in church, when you say hi to people at the beginning of church – don’t aim for your bubble – expand it.

In this very action, the action of expanding our mini-bubbles, we are practicing the skill of opening conversations with people we don’t know. And this is key and important. To be welcomed is to be welcomed, it is not to be ignored. It is to make the visitor visible in our eyes and respond as Christ would.

You, I, us developing skills of hospitality enables us to connect more authentically with outsiders. How many of us really do want strangers to come into our building and into our church services? Well the strangers might come, but they will only return if they feel like this group of ‘together’ people are radically different. We are a people who aren’t afraid of outsiders.

The core message of the parables of the lost sheep, coin and son is one of attitude.

We can be like the pharisees as a church, and we can treat those on the outside of our church with indifference. We can just ignore them like the pharisees did with the woman and the shepherd. We can even hate them like the pharisees did with the lost son who had clearly put shame on his family. Or we can welcome them with open arms when they come to us. Or we can take the challenge one step further, we can be like the shepherd and the woman, we can radically seek out the lost.  We can carry the heart of the Father for the lost – a heart of radical love.

To be demonstrate radical togetherness church is more than reading, Bible stories from a position of being the sheep, the coin and the lost son. To demonstrate radical togetherness church is to see the shepherd, the woman and the lost son as outsiders excluded from the banquet table. To demonstrate radical togetherness church, is to hear Jesus say, I have come for the outsiders. If you believe in me, you are no longer an outsider. You are found, create a seat at my table for those who offend you, those who shame you and those you ignore. Be a place of radical togetherness. Because if you don’t, then you yourself will be the most lost in your comfort of being found. 

No rei ra

And just when you think the story is finished – the ultimate twist is found. If we see past ourselves, understanding the Pharisee in each of us, we may just hear the Father in Luke 15: 31 “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”

You see church, when our own concept of togetherness is challenged by others, our Father is still with us – our Father is for us. He is for you. He is for you. He just wants the blessings he has bestowed upon you to extend out to the lost.

Tene koutou, tene koutou, tene tatau katoa


Saturday, 29 February 2020

Removing hostility: The Power of the Cross

Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tatou, katoa

Our history and biblical history show us that as soon as we are separated from God in his fullness, a hostility of sorts enters in. Think of this, the first family act after Adam and Eve leave the Garden fratricide happens – a brother kills his brother in an act of anger against God and his sibling.

So how can we reconcile our history? Is it possible to comes to terms with centuries of hate, centuries of injustice and centuries of hostility? Well if you look at the story that history is telling us, if you look at the horrors of the genocides of last Century, not only the deaths of the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled by the Nazi regime in WW2, but also genocides in Bangladesh, Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq, Rwanda, the Congo and Darfur, history is telling us that reconciliation cannot occur through our works. History is telling us that it must occur by the means of something else – grace enters in.

The answer to the horrors of hostility is in the Bible. In the Bible, we learn how we have created walls of hostility between us. In the Bible, we learn how God desires true reconciliation and unity. This can only happen through covenant relationship with God. So, before we jump into Ephesians fully let us back track in the great Biblical narrative of covenant, or promise, relationships. One of the first covenants we learn about in the Bible is that between Abram and God. In Genesis 12: 1-3

The LORD said to Abram: Leave your country, your family, and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you. I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will become famous and be a blessing to others. I will bless anyone who blesses you, but I will put a curse on anyone who puts a curse on you. Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you. (Gen 12:1-3 CEV)

We see here one man being given both a terrifying challenge and an amazing promise. Leave what you are familiar with, go into foreign places and I will bless you and through you I will bless the entire earth. However, even before Abram sees his life out, a massive division will occur in his own family which would see the beginnings of two great nations who share a story of conflict, division and hostility which continues to this day.

You see in Genesis 15 Abram is growing old and has no children. So, the earlier promise of a great nation to Abraham is just not going to happen. God then reaffirms his promise. Then in Chapter 16, Abram’s wife Sarai doubting that the promise will come through her, has Abram lie with their servant, Hager and they have a son Ishmael, many of the Arab nations today claim a whakapapa to Ishmael. Abram and Sarah would late have Isaac. The nation of Israel has a whakapapa directly to Isaac. These two nations were born in a divided house. The hostility between Arab and Jew continues to today.

Later, God would make a further Covenant with Moses which you can read about in Exodus and Deuteronomy. This Covenant which involved laws and commandments would enable the Covenant made between Abram and God to be fulfilled. Israel would become a great nation and would bless the nations around it because it would be set apart and an example of God’s desire for a relationship with all people.

But this didn’t happen. Israel struggled to keep its part of the Covenant deal and it fell further and further away from God. By the time Jesus was born, out of the twelve tribes, only three really identified as being a part of Israel and within this Israel was broken into fractions with the Sadducees claiming authority through the priesthood, the Pharisees claiming the authority through the law, and the Essenes claiming authority through a yet-to-come messiah. Israel saw itself as the chosen people, all others, called the gentiles, were outsiders. And given that Israel itself was colonised by Rome and was, in itself, an outsider, the Jewish people held onto their identity even further by claiming its God-chosen status and hoping that the forces who oppressed them would be killed by their God.

The racial hostility that existed at the time was so strong that on the Temple grounds a physical stone wall separated the Court of the Gentiles from the Temple Proper. Now this was in the original design. Gentiles were confined to the outer courts; Jewish women could enter but not into the temple proper. But what was not in the original design but has been found both in historical records and archaeological research was the inscription the Jewish people put on the wall to enforce the separation between God’s chosen Israelites and the Gentiles.

Francis Foulkes notes in his commentary that these words physically “forbade any foreigner to go in, under pain of death.”

And this really plays out in the story of Paul and the Ephesians when we read in Acts how Paul was arrested because he was suspected of bringing a Gentile, an Ephesian, into the Temple proper.

When the period of seven days for the ceremony was almost over, some of the Jewish people from Asia saw Paul in the temple. They got a large crowd together and started attacking him. They were shouting, "Friends, help us! This man goes around everywhere, saying bad things about our nation and about the Law of Moses and about this temple. He has even brought shame to this holy temple by bringing in Gentiles." Some of them thought that Paul had brought Trophimus from Ephesus into the temple, because they had seen them together in the city. The whole city was in an uproar, and the people turned into a mob. They grabbed Paul and dragged him out of the temple. Then suddenly the doors were shut. (Act 21:27-30 CEV)

Can you hear, can you feel, the racism and hostility to the Ephesian Gentiles here? Let us face it. If we understand the Jewish people and the Gentile people as separate races (which they were), there was real hostility going on at the time Paul was sharing the gospel with the Gentiles. Not only did the Jewish people experience racism but they used their privilege as God’s chosen nation to inflict judgement and racism on others. God had made a Covenant with them that should have enabled them to demonstrate to the world that God desired a relationship of peace with all people. But this was something that they couldn’t achieve through their works alone. They/We needed a Godly intervention. If we come to Ephesians, especially Ephesians chapter 2 verses 11-22 with this kind lengthy background story, and we hold that story in our heart with not just knowledge but an understanding that our history is not one of unity but conflict, injustice and disunity, then we just might understand what Paul was impressing on the Ephesian church:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)--remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.

His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph 2:11-22 NIV)

Now let’s be frank. Most of us in this room, would probably whakapapa back to the Gentile races. Now, think, what it would have been like back then. Most of us would have been the exception, not the norm of this new gospel story. And in these early days, like these verses refer to, the new gospel story was part of the larger Covenant story we talked about.

For the Ephesian church back then, Paul is clearly telling them – remember how it felt. Remember how it felt to be excluded from the promise. Remember how it felt to be labelled and treated as an outsider to the promise. Remember how it felt to held at a distance. Remember what it felt to see those words physically on the wall in the Court of the Gentiles telling you – come any closer to the Holy of Holies and we will kill you. Paul is a man of knowledge and understanding. It is no mistake that he actually refers to a “dividing wall of hostility”. It existed. It was real.

To cut to the core, Paul is telling his Gentile audience, remember what it felt like to be born into the wrong family. Simply because of your birth, you were excluded; you were not born into the privileges and opportunities given to the Jewish people as God’s Chosen People. You, my friend, were born at a distance from this privilege.

And even in the hard times, and Israel had its fair share of hard times, Israel could always live in hope. They were the nation in which God had promised a messiah would arise from. For the bulk of us here, for us Gentiles, we were not born into this promise. We were “foreigners to the covenants of promise.”

And those of us here in retrospect know the greater story. But I don’t know if we live it. And if we take ourselves back to the time of this letter, we just might understand the deepness of this message. We would have known that there would be no way for us to be as one with the people of Israel, not by their efforts nor by our own. We would know that our differences define us, and we would be caught up in the power play of power which we seen throughout human history.

And here is where Paul comes in – the great leveller is not the actions of ourselves but the sacrifice of Jesus. His blood makes it possible for both Jew and Gentile to come near to God. And the crazy thing that happens in this, is that as we become near to God, we become near to each other. The previous covenants found their fulfilment in the sacrifice of Jesus; in his blood spilled out for us. The divisions that existed between us would not be resolved through any action but God’s grace.

In this story, Jesus is the ultimate reconciliation between our differences. He is our Prince of Peace. This whole passage is about reconciliation. Reconciliation first to our Creator through his Son and then with each other. In this act we become a living organism of diversity. Each of us plays a different part but we are together, and we are strong. In this space, God’s Spirit can dwell. And where God’s Spirit dwells his glory covers the surface.

This is about community. The concept of God’s spirit dwelling in us is not about a personal relationship with God. It is about our relationship with each other and how we reconcile ourselves together with the Father through the Cross. When we do this together, then God ‘s Spirit can and will dwell within us.

But I think, no I know, that we could be doing this better. There are two ways I could do this. One way would be to challenge us with judgement-based questions – questions that look at who we exclude and include. The rules and the practices that we put on ourselves as Wainuiomata Baptist Church which keep most of us together but also exclude others.

The second way is to actually speak to the hearts of individuals here.  Church we cannot have an impact on our community, in a community that experiences divisions of the highest, without first having an impact here in this space – in the dwelling of God’s people. Remember that together we are that dwelling, the church is us together as one (not as individuals and not the building that we occupy).

All of us come with stories, with histories; all of us here have experienced those words of exclusion written on a physical or spiritual wall which has created a distance between us and the cross. So, if the basic principle of Ephesians 2:11-22 is that the sacrifice of Jesus has removed that distance and if we are reconciled with Christ. Then the next step is to reconcile with each other.

History is full of walls of hostility – both visual and non-visual. All of these walls, walls of brick, walls of words and walls of hurt have driven divisions between us all.

Slide show stopping on te Tiriti

You know I wrote this sermon on February the 6th. This is the day that we remember Te Tiriti. The story of the Treaty is deeply tied up in our Church History. It was the missionaries that wrote the original treaty – in both translations. It was the missionaries that translated, and mistranslated, the document and it was the missionaries that persuaded the Maori people to sign. The chiefs that signed did because they saw the Treaty as promising something completely new. For the chiefs, the Treaty was a promise of protection written in the form of a Biblical Covenant.  It promised one thing, unity. That yes, Maori would retain their rights, but they would share the same access to the protection from the sovereign of England as the English settlers had. It was a Biblical promise of unity. It broke down a wall of potential hostility and enabled partnerships. And it saddens me deeply that this has not resulted, instead we do have a divide in our church between te Ao Pakeha and te Ao Māori – the Pakeha and Māori world.

It makes we wonder; most people would argue that the church has moved culturally from being an institution reflective of eastern culture to one that is westernised and has shifted with western culture of the centuries. Most of you here would have noticed that as we work our way through Ephesians, each preaching person has reminded you that the word ‘you’ in Greek is plural – it does not refer to the individual – but to the household, the community and the people. So, I wonder whether we have the lost something in the gospel story and the metaphors that we use to share the gospel. Let me give you an example:

The metaphor that is often used to talk about God’s love and the cross is the concept of a bridge. We were separated from God and trapped in death and God’s sacrifice enabled us to have eternal life. All of this is true, but it is missing some of the story.  It also shows our relationship with God as an individual one. Of individuals, not households or communities, coming to repentance and reconciling not just with God but with each other; hear that, ‘with each other’. And this is the story of Ephesians. The walls of hostility between us come down – we can all draw near to God and become one with him. But this requires us to see the Gospel is more than a story of me and God, it is about seeing a story of reconciliation between ourselves as a divided creation of God. A divided humanity that God, our Father, wants to bring closer both to him and to each other.

So, I want to suggest that a different metaphor – a metaphor that acknowledges our separateness but also our reconciliation is a powhiri – a cultural welcoming. You see, in both a powhiri and a reconciliation with the Father, we have to gather together and recognised ourselves as manuhiri (outsiders, alien to God), we then have to be prepared to accept the wero (the challenge) and the karanga (the call) of the spirit to come in peace and be one with the people of the marae, in our case the father. We have to accept that just as in a powhiri, a karanga, or call, is a spiritual call, it is a spiritual call to ourselves.

Once we have entered into the house of our father as manuhiri (outsiders) we have to be prepared to respond and to give ourselves together to him as an act of koha (giving) acknowledging that the act of welcoming us is one of grace and mercy; our gift of ourselves does not match the grace and mercy of the Father. We then have to be prepared to hongi, to breathe the life of the father into ourselves and become one with him. We have to be prepared to hongi with each other. To hongi is to not only share the breath, but to share the lifeforce and become one with each other.

Tihei – Mauri Ora – for the breath is the substance of the spirit; the breathe is the substance of life.

Christ’s death of the cross is the act that brings peace to both parties. It enables the wall to be broken down and for mauihiri to be tangata whenua. People of God’s house and God’s nation. For just as in the Kingdom. It is recognised in te Ao Māori, that the marae is not a building but the living parts of its body – it’s people who are one with each other.

A powhiri is a process to enable people to be no longer foreigners and aliens to a space and place. A powhiri is a process that enables everyone to be as one, to be members of one household and citizens of on nation. A powhiri joins us to the spiritual marae or temple that is being built in Christ Jesus. With him as the stone – the first word, the first call, the first karanga that called us back into relationship. When we are joined together then God’s Spirit can dwell.

And what brings us finally together in a powhiri is the breaking of bread. So just as Christ broke bread with his disciples just over 1000 years ago. We will join with the disciples and the prophets and break bread together now.


No rei ra, Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tatou, katoa

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

What needs to change?

We now live in a world of multi-media. But if we really look at it we have two types of media: mass media which edited for public consumption by big media companies and community/alternative media which is created by individuals and shared without any form of editorial control. There are problems with both. In the mass media market, the key problem centres around two factors: 1) it has to make money to stay in production and 2) where the source of this funding comes from can create bias. In the community/alternative media market, anyone can have an opinion and lies can quickly become truth with the right twist. In community/alternative media opinions drive the medium; in the mass media market the sustainable funding through either advertising or sponsorship drives how and what news is shared.

Mass media has always published opinion. We have seen this in editorials and cartoons. However, what I have observed this year, particularly in Stuff, but yesterday in the Otago Daily Times is the increased use of opinion pieces to drive sales. When this occurs opinion pieces are often provocative and set up in such a way to put one group of people up against another. In the Stuff example, we have had two sets of opinion pieces this year. One regarding the uplifting of a Māori child which resulted in several opinion pieces from unnamed social workers saying that this type of practice had justification. The other, and more recent, regarding generations and who is really the greedy generation – baby boomers or millennials? Both have been divisive. I personally have been caught up in the second one as a generation sitting in between both the young and old, I can see the hints of truth in the millennial argument but I also see inequality in the boomer generation and I see an older generation that is not prepared to acknowledge that their very name ‘boomer’ hints at a time in which they were born and a period that we will most probably never see again – a time of boom.

Yesterday, the featured opinion-based cartoon in the Otago Daily Times really was a sign of how opinion pieces hurt and offend people. It is not okay to associate the spots we see in the virus called measles with tourist spots. But, unfortunately, it is understandable how this cartoon slipped through. It was an opinion piece after all. And this morning on National Radio, we could really hear the unconscious bias of the cartoonist as he defended his work. Further to this, Aotearoa – this is a wake-up call. If you are white and middle-class and reading this very opinion-piece and you are now saying in your head: this woman is PC-Gone-Made. I want to wake you up to a very real fact. For over a century, Māori and other minorities (including Pākehā poor) have been at the forefront of your jokes and they have been very politically correct by taking these jokes as a slap on the face and not for what they are – full of isms and a reality of shame that we should all feel.

So back to my original question: what needs to change?

I will argue that what needs to change is the approach that mass media takes to opinion pieces. There needs to be a targeted and focused plan from our big mass media outlets focusing on Aoteaora NZ news – Stuff, NZME, APL, TVNZ and RNZ – to lead the way and ensure that opinion pieces move from being divisive putting the majority worldview (which is full of isms) against minority peoples in the aim of being provocative to being politically correct (yes I will use these terms in the positive) and ensuring that the most vulnerable and marginalised are not scape-goated for sales. We need our senior editors (who are often white middle-class) to be culturally competent, to be prepared to challenge the isms within themselves so that change can occur.

Our mass media can be something different in this age of opinion. It can be focused on telling the ‘news’ through mechanisms of truth. We do live in a world where some people have the skills to turn an opinion piece into something that looks like a truth by falsifying it through claims to truth that have been disclaimed by good solid research. Our mass media can be a bastion against this miss-information. It can tell the news as it is and reduce the reliance on opinion pieces written and drawn by those who are clearly drawn to creating discussion through their own bias. It can be at the forefront of challenging the isms that have become so entrenched in Aotearoa NZ.

Today, I call the mass media to account. It is time that a shift occurs. Build your cultural capacity within your editorial rooms. Understand that opinions might matter but opinions also hurt and they reinforce inequity and inequality. Strengthen your editorial practices around opinion pieces. This is not just a review of policies, but a hard and very real question – when we can find opinions all around us through community/alternative media, should mass media hold up a different light? In the face of so much opinion, can mass media stand strong and true and aim to do something different – aim to tell the truth, rather than sharing opinions, even if it means being politically correct?

An opinion piece by Fiona Beals

For those of you who are interested here is the opinions of the unashamed cartoonist who still sees no issue with his opinionated cartoon

Saturday, 23 November 2019

The Power of Unlearning Comfort Zones

Last week Phil spoke into our presence a truly profound statement. Many of us clapped when he said it, repeated it and talked into it. But did we really know what he was saying. The statement Phil gave was:
“God loves me as I am.
God saves us as we are.
Therefore, I can stay as I am.”

Hear it again: “God loves me as I am. God saves us as we are. Therefore, I can stay as I am.” When Phil said this, he challenged us on the last part of his statement, the “Therefore, I can say as I am.” He said this was wrong, that in our belief and faith in Jesus we had to let go of our sinful nature. Last week, we all agreed. And if this is right – we should be in agreement that change has to occur. But I think the change that is required is profound. It is a whole change in lifestyle. And it is required of all of us.

Just to give you an illustration of how profound this change can be for us. Imagine if you lost the use of your dominant hand overnight. The next day, your world is profoundly different. You have to write, tie shoe-lacers, cut your meat and just live life with dependence on your ability to make use of something that you are not used to depending on. Think of the difficulty here. Even right now, start to take notes with your pen or on your phone with your dominant hand behind your back. I can pretty much guarantee that only a handful of us could stand the course of this sermon without returning to our dominant hand because it is just so so hard.

When we come to God, we have to change the way in which we see the world. We have to see it through his eyes and heart and not through our sinful human nature. But really, is this really that easy? If you are so used to doing things one way and thinking in one way is it really that easy to completely change the way that you see the world? And if it is not that easy, then what do we need to do so that we can stay on track as we work out the story God has for us?

I am going to say, that it may be easy for some, but for many it is quite difficult. Even if we have had a profound experience of knowing Jesus personally. Even if our name reflects our calling – even if our name in Greek (Petros) or Peter translates into the word rock. You see, the key is, the barrier is, the hardest but most necessary thing to do is, even when we are given a new name, the hardest thing to do is unlearn the old way of seeing the world, our comfort zone world, to relearn a new way of living.

And we see this in the life of Simon, also known as Simon Peter and as Peter. We first meet the Rock, or Peter, in Matthew Chapter 4, verses 18-20:
One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers--Simon, also called Peter, and Andrew--throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, "Come, follow Me, and I will show you how to fish for people!" And they left their nets at once and followed Him.  (Mat 4:18-20)

Now I do not know about you. But reading this in retrospect, when some of us know the story already, doesn’t really allow us to grapple with some of the weird things the Bible throws up at us. I can understand the metaphoric idea Jesus is using saying that brothers will fish for people. But really? Think about how hard this would be for both brothers. Both brothers are used to the hard labour (not to mention smell) of the fishing industry; the fishing industry is not known for its people skills. I was personally raised in a fishing seaport on the West Coast, and the biggest people skill fishermen have there is the ability to raise a pint at the local pub after a good catch.

So, Simon, later called Peter, the fisherman was going to have to change his whole profession. He was going to have to unlearn what it meant to fish in a human sense and relearn this skill in a Kingdom sense. This is not an easy thing to do and he would be bound to make mistakes. He was so use to using his dominant hands for physical fishing, that using his hands for something else would cause him to struggle at times.

The NIV Student Bible describes Peter well:
You can’t miss Peter in the four Gospels. He stands out like a bumpkin, pushing to the head of the line and blurting out loud, outrageous assertions. Every list of disciples has Peter as the first name, and Peter is often seen elbowing his way to centre stage.
He was likable enough, with a big heart and unlimited enthusiasm. He just had too many rough edges. He swung like a pendulum, bold and courageous at one moment yet, cowardly when it really counted.

With a description like this, you got to wonder what was in Jesus’s head when he gave Simon a new name especially as the flip-flop nature of Simon would see him hearing from God but giving into his human nature within the same conversation. He definitely doesn’t come across as a rock in any way shape or form:
Mathew 16: 13-23: When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" "Well," they replied, "some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets." Then He asked them, "But who do you say I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus replied, "You are blessed, Simon son of John, because My Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means 'rock'), and upon this rock I will build My church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven." Then He sternly warned the disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah. From then on Jesus began to tell His disciples plainly that it was necessary for Him to go to Jerusalem, and that He would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day He would be raised from the dead. But Peter took Him aside and began to reprimand Him for saying such things. "Heaven forbid, Lord," he said. "This will never happen to You!" Jesus turned to Peter and said, "Get away from Me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to Me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's."

Here is another set of verses with great irony. Jesus speaks to Simon and tells him that he is blessed because he has listened to the Father in heaven. And as such, he will be given the name Rock. It will be on this rock that the church is built. Jesus then goes onto a conversation he has often with his disciples – that of his own death. Peter or the Rock, pulls Jesus aside to tell him off and correct him. Now Jesus is calling him Satan because he is seeing things from a human point of view. You see Peter here in the real moment of slipping slowly into his learnt comfort zone. Peter’s ability to see Jesus through the eyes of the Father has meant he has unlearnt the way that he sees the world. But it is hard for Peter to stay in this place and he slowly reverts back to his learnt comfort zone of seeing the world through his own eyes.

The Rock was no perfect disciple. And this plays out right until the Cross itself when the Rock stands solid and tells his master Jesus, I will not deny you by any means. But what happens, the Rock crumbles, not one but three times and denies having any relationship whatsoever with Christ. Then, in his last act in the Gospel, he takes up a sword to protect Jesus, cutting off a soldier’s ear. Jesus is quick to correct him – those that live by the sword die by the sword. Simon has yet to learn how to let go of his rough and tough fisherman ways to really follow his Lord and Saviour. Peter has yet to unlearn the ways of Simon and relearn his destined role of being Peter.

The story of the Rock, of Peter, is a story that most, if not all of us can relate to. Peter is not perfect. At times he comes across as an idiot. Those of us as outsiders reading the story find ourselves saying – why did you say that? Why did you lose faith here? Why did you do that? Peter you had Jesus with you! Gees you are a bumpkin aren’t you!  But we are all bumpkins. We all do the Peter and say one thing but find ourselves doing another. It is so hard to follow Jesus especially when we have to unlearn our comfort zone of understanding and habits.

There is a reason why following Jesus is hard. It is not because of the things we have to do but in that the simple act of following Jesus requires one thing from us. We have to step outside of our learnt comfort zones, our human nature. This was the first act that Jesus required of Peter – Peter follow me, and I will make you fish men. Following Jesus is discomforting to us all at times because it requires us to say no to our human point of view and see the world through God’s point of view. We have to see ourselves through God’s point of view and see others through God’s point of view.

I really want to dig in here to this concept of learnt comfort zone and give you some real physical examples. One of which is this valley. The valley of Wainuiomata is a comfort zone to many of us. Some of us dread going over the hill, even if we have to. It feels more secure, not safer, but secure and certain in the valley because we know what to expect and we have our homes here. We have learnt an aspect of security in our comfort zone which needs to be challenged.  

A second example, which relates to Peter, is work. Our professions create learnt comfort zones for us. I loved it a few weeks ago listening to a testimony being shared here on this as I too are going through a season of change in work. Ron talked to us about being a trained accountant and the challenge he got from God to move from being a back-office worker to a person who worked directly with people in the real estate industry. He had to unlearn his ability to work with, and for, people. That move required a challenge to Ron to move outside of his comfort zone into another job; he had to relearn a new way of living. For some, like my mining friends on the West Coast, often a loss of job really throws you as every aspect of who you think you are is thrown up in the air.

Biblically we find two strong examples of learnt comfort zones. The first is in the story of Israel and their failure to truly step into the promise God had for them. We read stories in which the people cry out to return to Egypt. We read prophecies in which the people are warned to repent and follow their God. But again, and again we read about a “stiff-necked” people who refuse to change and unlearn their traditional understandings and ways. They always want to hold onto something of the past as it gives them comfort and assurance. In fact, the words “stiff-necked” feature 19 times in the Bible. 18 of which in the Hebrew books with the outliner being used in Acts to talk about the people of Israel.

The second is in an understanding of the concept of learning. Throughout the Gospels and later in the Revelation of John there is a common phrase “those who have ears, let him hear”. Now you might think that this phrase has nothing to do with learnt comfort zones. But a keyway we keep ourselves comfortable is in only allowing ourselves to be challenged by the things that align with our own personal feelings and perspectives.

To really listen is to have our hearts and ears open for messages that make us uncomfortable. It is not to treat everything we hear as equal and as truth, but it is allowing the voices and perspectives of others to truly challenge ourselves. It is to know that we are not always right and that maybe, just maybe, the story, the parable, the testimony has a challenge for us that will make us uncomfortable to the point that we are prepared to unlearn our traditional understandings and ways.

So to walk with Jesus requires us to step outside of our comfort zone and unlearn to relearn.  And to do this, requires us to do something that Jesus encourages us to do. We must humble ourselves as children. And if you think about it – children are very good at stepping outside of comfort zones sometimes to terrifying levels as we try to hold them back to protect them from the world. It seems that as we get older, our comfort zone is tighter and more confined. It is probably not too bold for me to say, but as we get older the drive over the hill gets harder and harder. This is the comfort zone effect.

It is also a natural effect of getting older. We do become more stiff-necked; we do become more selective in the knowledge that we hold as truth outside of the Bible. And we need to challenge this. We need to be prepared to unlearn the comfortable in order to relearn God’s story for us.

You see, I don’t want to get too technical here, but it might give some real sense as to where this message is heading. You see, we all have these things called brains. And the science of brains has been able to tell some key lessons. One of which is that we have two periods of time when the brain experiences significant growth – the first is in the first two years, and the second is during adolescence. Knowing this alone can help us know why it is important to ensure that our babies are exposed to the right foods and environments. It can also explain why we get up to so much mischief as teenagers – always testing boundaries and challenging the status quo. Brain scientists talk about the young brain being elastic and flexible in its learning capabilities. You hear this in worlds like ‘neuro-plasticity’ and ‘plastic’.

Compared to the young brain, for us oldies, the brain slowly becomes less and less elastic. It becomes more rigid in fact as we enter into our 30s. So, we do become set in our ways. And, we do run the risk of becoming stiff-necked and close-minded. But we don’t have to.

But understanding the story of the brain can help us understand some key underpinnings in the Bible. If you look at the stories that we love to teach our children – they are often of young people who are prepared to challenge the status quo and the comfort zone of Israel and unlearn to reset their ways or they are of people who God has clearly had a hand on them since birth and are prepared to challenge others to unlearn their comfort zone to relearn another way. It is as if God needs the elastic brain of youth to bring radical change.

But we do have stories of adults as well who take the challenge to completing change their lives. We have the radical conversion of Paul (who talks about his own thorn in his side) and we have the bumbling disciples. Peter is one of these. If you take the brief science lesson of brain development and then Peter’s story, the bumbles along the way make more sense. He has been set in his ways as a fisherman. The picking up of his own cross to follow Jesus has difficulties because he has to learn new things and unlearn the old. And as Phil noted last week, Peter struggled later on to understand fully the grace of God in place of the Torah or law of God. Peter struggled, but Peter would also accept a challenge.

And this is key. Peter is a real learner when it comes to being a disciple. He is not afraid to give things ago and unlearn the past. He is not afraid to walk on water, even if fear cripples him at a point; even then he asks Christ for help. He is not afraid to ask Jesus what a parable means, even if it means that 200 years later people with hindsight wonder why he didn’t get it in the first place. He is not afraid to admit it when he gets something wrong.

These are key lessons for us here today. If we feel the call of God to do something different, something radical, are we prepared to give it a go, unlearn to relearn? Are we prepared to ask for help when we need it from each other and from the Father? If we sit in confusion, are we prepared to ask for meaning even if others think us a fool? Most of all are we prepared to admit it to others that we mucked up and got something wrong.

Believe it or not, if Peter as an adult was to have a brain scan. Scientists would remark on how elastic his brain was for his age. We know now, thanks to brain science, that the keyway to keep our brain outside of a comfort zone mentality is to keep it unlearning and relearning. Peter knew that he had the knowledge of the truth of Jesus but he did not have full understanding and this would take an unlearning of his world.

For Peter like for many of us, when we try to walk in the knowledge of the gospel truth, but we don’t have a full understanding of what it means and stay limited to our own comfort zones then it feels like this:

Okay, bringing this back to this space and place. When we are called to follow Jesus, we are called to get out of our learnt comfort zone. This requires us to change the way that we see ourselves, each other and the world. It requires us to change the way we interact with ourselves, each other and the world. This is true. To follow Jesus means you have to see and do things differently; you have to be prepared to feel at times that you are using your less dominant hand or are using a backwards bicycle. You have to be prepared to go back to the key message Jesus gave Peter in Mathew 16:23 we have to stop seeing things “merely from a human point of view” and start seeing things from God’s point of view.

To give you a bit of a story. Years ago, as a teenager I had to leave my home permanently because my life was at risk. I had become a Christian and so the church supported me by finding homes for me to stay in. I felt that my childhood, which was not a happy one, was what defined me, and I carried it.
And I mean I carried it. I remember one place that I lived in, I was challenged. A good friend of my said to me – do you realise that you carry a darkness around you and that every time you walk into a room you bring the room down. I didn’t realise this. I had thought that it was my story of rejection which meant that others in the church would love me. I was scared that if I let that story go, then the church would reject me. Fortunately, I was a teenager then, so it was a lot quicker to take the cloak of darkness off my back. I could unlearn and relearn how to relate to others just because of my age.

However, as an adult, and as many of you know, I experienced crippling PTSD and major depressive disorder. I was very suicidal and was an absolute mess. I had years of therapy. And, years ago, I even tried to heal myself by returning to worship but I didn’t last a month in the worship team, I was so lost. I was in the worst of places. During this time, a therapist said to me that I did not need to be in therapy forever. That some people would struggle with mental illness all their lives, but I had a choice. I couldn’t find this choice, even as a Christian. As things were so bad, I accepted the fact that God had created me as a victim. It was the story I had learnt to live.

Later, I was in church and Carl Dickson was preaching about healing. He had been going through his own journey and had not received the healing that he originally asked for. He later asked the church for testimonies of healing. It was the first time in years that I was sitting in the auditorium. At that point, the spirit prompted me to declare that I had been healed from my illness. I did that and realised right then that God does not create victims. He creates opportunities for victims to become overcomers. From that point I had to relearn my story through God’s eyes. It has been a hard journey, and even this year, with dramas at work and home I have had moments when my old story and worldview were tempting to grasp onto again.

Those of you who know me, will know that this has not been a perfect journey. But when I compare my journey to Peter’s. I am thankful that God walked alongside Peter. He did become the rock on which the church was built. His letters testify to this. He did enable the church to stand strong under persecution. He would die at the cross as well. Hung upside down on a cross in Rome – martyred for his faith.

Over the last few weeks we have heard a lot about stepping into the promise that God has for us and challenging the views that we have of ourselves. God used Peter. The first words Jesus spoke to Peter were “Come, follow me” (Mark 1:17). The last words he spoke to Mark were “You must follow me” (John 21:22). Are we each prepared to follow Jesus, even if it requires us to step out of our learnt comfort zones unlearn out understandings of ourselves and others and our habits and relearn a new way of living and seeing ourselves each other? Are we prepared to elastify our brains for God?