30 May 2004
Written by the Rev Dr Phillippa Horrex of Wanganui
There are any number of creative ways to present the Pentecost story, from dance to readings or hymns in different languages. The reading from the Book of Acts may even be an opportunity to ask a congregation “What are your dreams and visions for the parish?” Pentecost for me has tended to be a time to experiment with the service of worship but I was intrigued when a friend attending a Pentecostal church commented that her church never celebrated Pentecost Sunday as a special day – the reason being that worship each Sunday was regarded as a time to celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In light of this, a possible question to address this Pentecost is: “What does it mean to be a Pentecostal church?” This can be a challenging issue, especially for a more traditional Presbyterian Church, with set ideas of what being “Pentecostal” means!
A starter might be this quote from a sermon by Rev. David W. Russell, pastor, First Baptist Church of Ames, Iowa USA, preached on June 11, 2000.
“Every church, if it is really a church, is by definition a Pentecostal church. The church was born at Pentecost. Without Pentecost, there is no Church. The Church exists by the power of the Spirit. It is the Spirit that makes us more than a collection of individuals, it is the Spirit that makes us one in the Body of Christ, and so if we are really a church, we can’t help but be a Pentecostal church.”
Another way of exploring the wider meaning of Pentecost would be to examine the issues of diversity vs. unity found in the Old Testament reading, as opposed to the unity in diversity which appears in the Epistle reading.
These verses are a response to the conclusion of the genealogies in Genesis 10 (vvs 5, 20, 31) which mention that Noah’s descendents had their own languages. The story of the tower of Babel not only explains how this came about, but also how the various peoples, once united, came to be scattered.
While it might seem strange for God to be destroying the unity of humanity in this way it must be recognised that the unity of these people is focused around the wrong thing - their own ability to establish themselves in the world apart from God. Therefore it was God’s way of humbling their pride in their own self-sufficiency. There are plenty of examples in today’s world to demonstrate that the unity of humanity will never be achieved while individuals or nations attempt to put themselves first.
Pentecost has often been called Babel in reverse. Because obviously the major point of contact between the Genesis story and Luke’s description of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost, is the diversity of language. In Genesis the diversity of language was an attempt to illustrate the confusion that results when human beings attempt to go their own way without God. In Acts, while the focus is still on the diversity of language there is also an emphasis on the unity brought by the Holy Spirit. Although God’s gift of the Holy Spirit in power at Pentecost does not make all people speak the same language there is a unity created in the midst of diversity in as much as God enables the disciples to become witnesses of God’s grace. Communication is restored, not only between humanity and God, but between peoples of many languages.
It may be stretching the point but possibly the Holy Spirit as “advocate,” “paraclete,“ or “Spirit of truth“ as found in the Gospel reading John 14: 8-17 (25-27) could be described as “the helper” who maintains the unity within the diversity of humankind. Jesus makes it clear he is going to the Father, but there is the promise of the coming of the Paraclete, who will be with us forever. Notice that this continuing presence of the Paraclete is with the community rather than a promise to individuals. There is a contrast between the group with the Spirit's presence and those who are without it. In other words those who try to be self-sufficient and manage without God in their lives will not know the Spirit of truth. They will not know the peace Jesus promises.
(It appears the Psalm for today, 104: 24-34, 35b is used because of a brief mention of God’s creative Spirit in v 30. This reading may be used to examine this aspect of God or as a starting point for a sermon on ecological issues.)
Lord God, thank you for this day of Pentecost
when we celebrate the coming of your promised Holy Spirit.
We give thanks that in eons past you poured out your Spirit on the earth, fashioning men and women in your image
to enjoy the wonders of nature you had created;
that you kept rescuing us from ourselves despite our foolish ways
and our lack of understanding of what it means to be your children.
Lord, we give you thanks that you have kept your promises throughout the ages, even when you despaired of our ever grasping the importance of placing you first in our lives, and that you took steps to show us the futility of our actions.
At Easter, through your Son, Jesus the Christ, you were glorified;
At Pentecost through your Holy Spirit you set the early church on fire
and led the disciples into the world to preach your Word.
May all praise and worship be yours!
6 June 2004
Written by the Rev Dr Phillipa Horrex
Many preachers will do all they can to avoid preaching about the Trinity, undoubtedly because it’s a challenge finding words to explain or explore the concept of Three in One. The idea that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each fully and equally God, is hard for the human mind to grasp. The Trinity is one of the mysteries of the Christian faith. However, mystery ceases to be mystery if it can be explained – maybe the Trinity is meant to be known only through revelation.
There are some analogies that can be used from every day life to try and explain how One God can be three. Examples might be:
A good example from the New Testament to illustrate the Trinity is the baptism of Jesus which presents the distinct aspects of the Trinity - the Son, who comes for baptism; the Dove/Holy Spirit descending from heaven; and the divine Voice of God, the Father.
The doctrine of the Trinity emerged largely from the experience of the early believers and so Trinity Sunday as a special day in the church calendar is unique in that it is based on doctrine not scriptural basis. The scriptural readings for today nevertheless provide Bible backup for a nonscriptural word: Trinity.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Wisdom is often equated to the Holy Spirit, but connections can be drawn through these verses between the claims of Lady Wisdom and the reality of Jesus Christ. The writer uses child imagery to represent Wisdom as God's precious child begotten prior to God's works in history. The New Testament picks up on this account of creation and applies it to Christ. John 1:1-14 presents a pre-existent Word that is the agent of creation. Hebrews 1:1-4 also presents Christ as the creator. Colossians 1:15-20 also uses the same idea of Christ as the first-born.
Proverbs 8:31 tells us that God and wisdom were in the beginning “delighting in the human race”. This leads us to Psalm 8 which expresses wonder over the miracles of creation, but also that God the creator should have made humans only “a little lower than the heavenly beings…” (v.5)
(Note: A suggested hymn in relation to Psalm 8 is “How Great Thou Art” which is a paraphrase of the Psalm )
To gain an understanding of these verses in Jesus’ discourse to the disciples it is essential to refer back to v. 7 in which Jesus says:
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you."
From the perspective of the disciples, Jesus’ talk of departure seems disastrous, but Jesus reassures them that he has made provision for their needs. They will not be alone. In fact, the world will gain by Jesus' departure and the Spirit's arrival as the gift of the Spirit removes the limitations of time and space which bind Jesus to the world. The Spirit will be a continuing presence throughout the world and throughout history.
In vv12-15 Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit will continue to guide us after his death. The Spirit of truth can be relied on to show us the right way to live in relation to God’s truth.
God has given us peace through Christ and hope through the Holy Spirit.
A last interesting thought about the Trinity comes from a Greek Father of the Church, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-89) who has this to say:
“The Old Testament has clearly manifested the Father, obscurely the Son. The New Testament has manifested the Son and has made known the divinity of the Spirit. Today the Spirit dwells among us and makes himself clearly known. It might have been perilous, as long as the divinity of the Father was not recognized to preach the Son openly, and before the divinity of the Son was admitted ... to overburden us with the Holy Spirit” (Oratio theologica 5, 26: PG 36, 161).
God who created the world,
Jesus the Son given for the world,
Holy Spirit ever present in the world,
be with us in our worship that we may know the fullness of the Holy One.
As God lives in Triune community,
so may we live in communion with God and each other.
13 June 2004
Written by the Rev Dr Philippa Horrex of Wanganui
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
The story of Naboth and Ahab is a simple one – it is about greed and evil doing. We have a grown man who behaves like a spoiled child when he doesn’t get his own way; an evil woman who misuses the power of politics and economics to arrange a murder; and an ordinary citizen who makes a principled stand against the system. Enter Elijah who reproaches Ahab and prophesies his death along with that of Jezebel and any heirs to the throne.
Psalm 5: 1-8
In this psalm a contrast is drawn between evildoers and the righteous. God hates all those who are evil and deceitful, who boast and lie or are murderous. (It doesn’t look too good for Ahab and Jezebel does it?) On the other hand, those who turn to God and are guided by God’s righteousness, worship in awe.
In the context of a difference of opinion between Paul and Peter over how one becomes a Christian, Paul makes it clear that salvation depends on faith in Christ, not on the Law of Moses. To insist on external observances of the Law negates Christ’s death on the cross, and repudiates God’s grace. Those who come to Christ may be recognised as sinners but that does not make Christ an “accessory to sin.” (The Message//Remix, Eugene Peterson, p. 2112) Rather the spirit of Christ gives the believer the grace and strength to conform his or her life to that of Christ.
Luke’s account of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with her tears and ointment is an example of the very justification and sanctification by faith that Paul was describing. Here we have a woman known to be a sinner (although we are never told what her sin was, tradition has labelled her a prostitute) who breaks all the rules because she believes in Jesus for the forgiveness of her sins. Because she is forgiven much, she loves much, and is prepared to show her gratefulness, even if it brings her into further disrepute with the teachers of the law.
Loving and merciful God, we come before you confessing our sins.
Hear our cries for forgiveness.
We confess that there are times when we behave like Ahab –
pouting and sullen when we don’t get our own way.
Forgive us for our selfish and childish behaviour.
We acknowledge there are times when we hurt others
in order to get our own way.
Forgive us the hurt we inflict on others.
We confess there are times when we judge others on their past behaviour,
overlooking the possibility that they have changed.
Forgive us for judging others.
We confess there are times when we hide behind
rules and regulations to avoid examining our own motives.
Forgive us for being dishonest with ourselves.
Through the grace of God in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
our sins are forgiven.
Thanks be to God.
20 June 2004
Written by the Rev Dr Philippa Horrex of Wanganui
There is a tendency for some Christians to believe that they should always be happy; that it shows a lack of faith if depression and hopelessness overwhelm them. Today’s readings are pointers to the reality of the human psyche but offer the assurance that God is always available to help us cope with those inevitable dark times if we but ask.
1 Kings 19: 1-4, (5-7), 8-15a
Elijah the Prophet had just organized one of the greatest public displays of the unique power of the God of Israel. And yet, as soon as the demonstration is over, Elijah is running for his life. Jezebel, the evil queen of Israel, is intent on killing Elijah for the undoing of the Ba'al cult that she had established among the Jews. Elijah flees to the wilderness convinced he has failed to communicate the truth about God. Overcome with depression, he prays to God to end his life. God does not desert Elijah – angels/ “messengers” are sent to feed him, and he is instructed to stand on the mountain, some believe in the same place Moses had generations before received the ten commandments. Elijah can be expected to have assumed he was going to receive an overwhelming revelation that would convince him of God's power. But he did not find God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Elijah did not even come out of his cave to witness those things. It was the sound of sheer silence that drew Elijah to a point where he could finally respond to God.
Psalms 42 & 43
Within these psalms we find both retrospection and introspection, common features of a loss of hope and a feeling of depression. However total despair is not to be found in these psalms – despite the disquiet and foreboding there is a longing for God, and a conviction that God’s grace will keep the psalmist going.
Galatians 3: 23-29
There is the suggestion in this reading that the promise of God is available for all, and that through faith in Christ, all become the children of God. This offers hope to all, including the lowly and lost, such as the man possessed by demons.
It is not easy to address the concept of demons in today’s scientific world. We do not usually talk about demon possession or unclean spirits in a literal sense, although it has to be acknowledged that there are Christians who do accept the existence of such supernatural beings. An approach many people find more comfortable with, is to speak of demon possession as the ancient understanding of mental illness; or to talk about evil or destructive powers that dehumanise and destroy people.
Within the context of today’s theme the story of the man possessed by demons could be used to illustrate the total despair of one overwhelmed by their personal “demons” who comes to a place of inner peace through the healing love of Christ. Note that the word in v. 36 translated “healed” in NRSV, is sozo in Greek - a word that is frequently translated “saved.”
However it is not just the demon possessed man who attracts our attention in this story – the “fearful” people of v37 raise some interesting issues. Why were they afraid? One suggestion is that the people were fearful of change; that the healing of the possessed man disturbed their comfort zones. Jesus threatened the status quo through his actions and the thought of the changes that Jesus could bring about in the people of this region led to the request for him to leave.
There would be few people who have not at some time been weighed down like Elijah with depression and despair, or who have not faced some “demon” or another in their lives. Jesus told the healed man to “declare how much God has done for you.” (v.39) – the sermon could become a personal tale about what Jesus has done for me at such times, or an encouragement for people to consider what God has done for them, especially during bad times.
Recognition that Christians are not immune from depression and stress could include references to John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, in which Gray describes the male tendency to go into their “caves” to cope with stress. Both Elijah (literally!) and the possessed man are prime examples of this behaviour. A reminder that no cave is immune to God’s presence leads to the reality that while we might escape from the world we cannot escape from the love of God.
An examination of the “demons” that plague human beings could be valuable – for example greed, lust, drugs/alcohol, misuse of power, dishonesty to name a few. The demon possessed man cried out for release – to change. How willing are people to change and turn away from those demons possessing them? Who do they cry out to? Who are the “messengers” who help those in despair?
God does not necessarily work in a showy way in our world. More often than not it is the small, still voice of God which comes in the silence that is of the most comfort to us. Recognise however that when we are in crisis and most need to pray, it can be difficult to be patient, or even to still ourselves enough to hear what God is saying. Encourage an active prayer life in the “good times” so as to be able to turn readily to God when depression or stress threaten to overcome us.
Use the song “As the deer pants for water” or the hymn “As pants the hart for cooling streams” (With One Voice 29) as a sung prayer in response to the Psalms.
27 June 2004
Written by the Rev Dr Philippa Horrex of Wanganui
2 Kings 2: 1-2, 6-14
These verses describe a test of commitment. Elijah, God’s prophet, knew his time on earth was almost over. He also knew God wanted a replacement for him. Elisha had been a faithful follower, but Elijah needed to ascertain how ready the younger man was to step into his teacher’s footsteps. As they journeyed to the Jordan, Elijah gave Elisha three opportunities to stay in towns on the way. Each time Elisha refused to be parted from Elijah even though he had been told by other prophets of his teacher’s forthcoming death. Devoted to and loyal to God’s calling, and committed totally to ministry, Elisha determined to go wherever he was led.
Elijah’s parting of the waters of the Jordan was an expression, not only of his God-given powers, but a lesson for Elisha – just as God had enabled Elijah to do this, so he would give Elisha the potential to do likewise if he but had the confidence and trust in God. Elijah’s question, “ Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you”, indicates his endorsement of Elisha’s position as his successor. Elisha’s reply shows his readiness and willingness to pick up the responsibilities before him–he asked for Elijah’s permission to inherit his important ministry.
With Elijah’s disappearance in the whirlwind into heaven, Elisha took up his teacher’s mantle and showed his readiness to carry on the work Elijah had been engaged in. By striking the waters of the river as Elijah had done, he is demonstrating his faith in God’s power and provision.
Psalm 77: 1-2, 11-20
This psalm is a testimony of God's everlasting grace. The writer tells of his anguish and despair, but then goes on to recall God’s past commitment to his people, and takes comfort from that.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Paul in these verses is talking about service as the Christian goal. Our commitment should be to live by the Spirit so as to enable us to serve one another. The “works of the flesh” are the very things which work against caring for one another; they are about self-gratification and thoughtlessness towards others. The “fruit of the Spirit” on the other hand, are gifts of grace from God. They are the marks of the committed Christian and represent what humans can become when the human spirit has been energized and enlivened by God's Spirit
Luke 9: 51-62
There is considerable cost to discipleship, and the second half of this reading explains clearly the commitment needed to follow Christ. It actually appears that Jesus is driving away potential followers as he indicates to all three men that there is a conflict of interest between their wish to be his disciples and their actual readiness to follow him. They have put other things first – home and family. In his response to them, Jesus is putting their commitment to the test.
It seems that Jesus is saying that anything that distracts us from a total commitment to him should be shunned. Nothing must compete with Christ for our loyalty.
There are a number of issues raised by these readings about commitment to be explored, although I have asked more questions than given answers!
In light of the Elijah/Elisha story what is our willingness to serve in the church or community? Are we ready to go the extra mile? Or are we easily distracted from serving or ministering to others? Elisha could have simply stayed in one of the places he and Elijah passed though. How committed are we?
Sometimes we find reasons for not being committed as Christians. It has been suggested that Elijah and Elisha’s crossing of the Jordan can be likened to the removal of barriers to fulfilling God’s call. The question could be asked “What are the Jordan rivers that act as barriers to your commitment to God?” Some of the works of the flesh mentioned by Paul in Galatians could be mentioned here.
A difficult issue is raised in the Gospel reading regarding the importance of family. Jesus is saying that family is not our number one priority and yet many people, both Christian and non-Christian, would argue against this. Society and the church have put family on a pedestal – how can we justify this in light of Jesus’ demands for total commitment from his followers?
Joy Cowley has written in her book Aotearoa Psalms a prayer/psalm that looks at the excuses we make for not answering Jesus’ call.
4 July 2004
Written by the Rev Dr Philippa Horrex of Wanganui
2 Kings 5: 1-14
The story of Naaman, the leper, is a story of salvation. It is a story of healing in the broadest context, for not only is Naaman cured of his leprosy, he finds renewal in God. There is an irony in the significance of Naaman’s name – it comes from a Hebrew word meaning “ be delightful, pleasant, beautiful”. His name becomes a reproach to his reality, but perhaps it is a reminder that however we may be seen in the eyes of others, to God we are always beautiful and worth saving.
Because in Old Testament times leprosy was considered as a sign of sinfulness it has been suggested that Naaman’s leprosy was God’s means of bringing him into knowledge of God. While ultimately it was his physical condition that led Naaman to seek out God, I personally have problems with the concept of disease being a consequence of sin. However a discussion about the significance of leprosy in the Old Testament might be useful in the context of this story.
There are a number of human traits illustrated in the story that compete with faith in God’s healing power- exactly the sort of character failings that prevent salvation. For example Naaman seemed to think he could buy his cure – a “money can buy anything” attitude. There was an arrogance that said because I am commander in the king’s army this prophet should actually be seen to cure me. There was contempt for the simplicity of Elisha’s instruction to wash in the Jordan. (The question could be asked of a congregation “What are the things which prevent a person’s salvation?”)
Alongside Naaman’s failings however, we also see the surprising ways in which God can bring about salvation, by sometimes using unexpected people. Both the little servant girl and Naaman’s other servants had faith that Naaman could be cured if he would only believe. While Naaman’s pride initially prevented his healing the compassion of his servants broke down his resistance. (Ask – “God will use whatever believer is on hand to bring about a person’s salvation – would he use you?”)
As is shown in this story salvation need not be a difficult experience. Naaman was told to wash in the Jordan seven times – how simple is that! It was Naaman’s self-opinionated pride that made his salvation difficult. With encouragement however, his faith in the word of the man of God, Elisha, led to his deliverance – from his disease but also his arrogant self will.
(This is an occasion when testimonies of personal salvation might be appropriate within the context of the service)
This is one of the 41 psalms attributed to David, although there is some suggestion that it dates from a later period. Written in the first person it appears to be a song of thanksgiving from recovery from some illness. (v.2) One can imagine Naaman might have sung this song had he known it, as it gives thanks for the restoration of life. There is also joy expressed at the deliverance from possible death, and the wonder of newness of life.
Galatians 6: 1-10
Here Paul addresses the fact that even one who has been saved can still sin again. The idea that once we have experienced salvation we enter into a sinless state is a delusion. Paul points out that when a Christian falters and commits a sin, the church has an obligation to help that person be restored to God’s grace. This is an instance of our duty as Christians to bear one another’s burdens, to be our brother or sister’s keeper.
However Paul points out we need to understand our own burdens and not judge ourselves against others to be able to help one who has fallen by the wayside. Helping a person to overcome their sinfulness does not mean we can meddle in their life. We can sow the seeds of restoration and salvation by investing in the fruits of the Spirit, but not if we allow ourselves to pursue the works of the flesh.
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Today’s Gospel message concerns the sending out of the seventy (or seventy-two, depending on your translation) to prepare the towns and places for Jesus’ eventual coming. They were to announce the coming of the Kingdom to those who needed to be saved. Their responsibility was to deliver the message, but they were not responsible for the hearer’s response, as while the “harvest” was there to be gathered, God has given everyone the ability to accept or reject the message.
There is a sense of urgency in the way Jesus sent out the apostles which could be translated into today’s context. There are many men and women in our society who need to be reached with the Gospel message and find salvation. A possible way of handling this passage could be to discuss how the church articulates its mission today.
Loving God, we come to you as a people who know your love.
For that we give thanks and praise.
But Lord, we know there are many men and women in our world who don’t know you. We bring before you those who are lost,
who feel alone, abandoned, and hopeless.
Some live in our own neighbourhoods, our own city.
We pray that we may be able to reach them with the message
that through your grace they might know a different life,
in which restored and renewed, loved and fulfilled,
they might in turn go on to reach others.