Reflection: "Actions Speak Louder Than Words"
The book of James is an unusual book in the New Testament, as in many ways it is more like the book of Proverbs from the Old Testament and it’s considered to be a part of what is called the “wisdom literature” of the Bible.
Unlike most books of the NT, which are letters, this one is a book of worthwhile sayings strung together.
It was not written for any particular congregation - like most of the Epistles were.
It’s thought to have been written between 50 and 60 AD, two years before James (brother of Jesus) was martyred, and its audience would have been the Jewish Christians scattered throughout the regions outside of Israel, as James was considered a Pastor to those groups.
He didn’t write, as Paul did, to the gentile Christians, but to the Jewish Christians, who were in disarray and needed to hear again the authoritative voice of the Jerusalem church’s leader.
His aim was to instruct those who were experiencing tensions between their allegiance to the Torah and their newfound faith in Jesus.
James knew that it was tough for many of the followers of Jesus scattered around the known world and his advice was to look for the joy in the trials they faced.
The reason for the joy was that enduring these trials would build up faith, as it does when we put our trust in God.
Faith was vital for James and we have seen many times that real faith results in real action.
Faith wasn’t something airy-fairy to James – he believed that if faith doesn’t result in everyday action, then we’re just kidding ourselves.
Real faith results in real works - and not necessarily overly “religious” works either, but real works - like being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.
Real works like caring for the orphans and widows in need.
Just over 100 years ago, the Australian Inland Mission, which later became Frontier Services, was established, with the Rev. John Flynn as its leader.
I’ve heard that John Flynn very nearly didn’t become a minister of religion, because he kept failing Hebrew.
However, one of his professors stuck up for him because he knew that John had such a good pastoral heart.
I think Flynn must have been paying attention to the Letter of James in theological college, because he showed what practical Christianity is really about, when he ministered in body, mind and spirit to all whom he met across the outback.
And, surprisingly, his lack of Hebrew wasn’t really an issue!!
One reason I support Frontier Services is because it shows the practical Christianity that James was so keen about.
There’s another reason why this practical type of Christianity is so important.
When we’re under pressure, the best way of finding some joy in the midst of the trials we face, is to get to work on showing love to others in simple down-to-earth ways.
James says when we do that, we not only pass on God’s love to others, but some of that love rubs off on us on the way through, and we then know the joy of the Spirit of God in our life.
James gave the Christian Jews some practical and concrete examples of how to live their lives.
He gave them a list of empathic behaviours described in this section of the letter (empathic meaning to put yourself in the other person’s shoes) like:
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…”
To treat people this way is a generous way to allow others to fully express themselves in a relationship.
To be open to people is to be open to God; and to be open to people is to participate in, and make known, God’s purposes – to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” – in all aspects of life.
There’s a story about St. Francis of Assisi, who, in the 13th century, gave up his life as a wealthy man, to live in poverty.
He was praying in an ancient church, badly in need of repair, when he heard a voice coming from above the altar.
He heard: “Francis, go and repair my church, which you will see is falling into ruins.”
Francis went to get his tool chest, but God told him:
“Not the bricks, Francis, the people are in need of repair.”
So, Francis went out and took care of orphans and widows.
The voice of God still speaks to us, telling us to go and repair the church - which is falling into ruins - and we know that he’s not talking about fixing the guttering, but he’s talking about the people in Lane Cove, in Forbes and other places – i.e. the people who make up his church throughout the world.
So, we should be grateful to James for plainly expressing what we’ve all sensed: namely, that God is the source of all goodness, all blessings and all generosity.
To the secular mind it makes no sense, for example, to thank God for the food on the table - when it was so plainly earned, purchased, and prepared by human hands.
Yet the men and women of faith perceive the behind-the-scenes truth: that all our blessings originate with "the Father of lights" that we read about in Deuteronomy.
I mean, we don’t confuse the one who sorts letters in the mail exchange, or the postman who delivers the letters, with the person who wrote the letter, do we? So, too, we recognize that God is the actual author of our blessings.
Also, we’re well-rebuked by James' insight on anger.
His joining of "slow to speak" with "slow to anger" is a sobering message to us, because we recognize in ourselves how often quickness to anger is accompanied by quickness to speak our mind.
When we’ve been hurt, indignation always seems like the righteous way to act.
Therefore, we’re tempted to give full vent of our anger to others, convinced that it’s justified and righteous.
James, however, invites us to consider the question of just what our anger produces in the end.
I’ve learned that very lesson, when I look back with regret on what I know my anger has sometimes produced.
Meanwhile, James invites us to ask ourselves how an alternative to anger would produce God's righteousness in any particular situation.
Think before you act!
In another story about St. Francis, a woman went to him to ask what she could do to be forgiven for her gossiping.
St. Francis told her to take feathers and place one at the doorstep of everyone she had spoken ill of in the town.
She did so and returned to the wise saint.
Francis told her to then go and retrieve all the feathers.
When she attempted to do so, they were all gone.
By that time the feathers were scattered by the wind - all around town.
Once again, she returned to St. Francis and told him about the feathers.
He said to her,
"It is good that you wish to repent and be forgiven of your sin, but the damage of your words is done and cannot be taken back."
Do you remember the old aftershave commercial on TV, that featured a startling slap on the face, followed by the recipient saying, "Thanks, I needed that!"?
So it is that James gives us a bracing, but sometimes well-needed, slap.
His sobering critique is not of people who have no religion, or a different religion.
No, his "slap" is across the faces of those of us whose "religion is worthless" simply because our tongues are uncontrolled and our hearts deceived.
If we are to heed the words of James, then we must ensure that we don’t become too comfortable with our religion and start taking for granted that we have it all together.
We must be vigilant and keep looking for ways that we can manifest God’s love for his people in tangible ways.
Less talking and more doing is a good motto for us to decide to live by.
God made us with 2 ears to hear, 2 eyes to observe and 2 hands to do things with, but only 1 mouth to speak.
So let’s try to remember to only speak half as much and to never speak angrily to, or ill of, other people.
In other words: “Preach the gospel daily and if all else fails, use words.”
God’s richest blessings on you all……………..Pastor Rick
Reflection: "Living a Courageous Life"
Last week, I encouraged you to live a “thankful” life,
but this week we’re looking at living a “courageous” life.
One quality that we don’t like about ourselves, as human beings, is our willingness to engage in war.
Throughout history, we’ve killed each other in the name of our nations, our religions, or many other vague ideals.
No other species on the planet kills their own kind in the same numbers that we do.
Human beings engage in war on each other unlike any others in the plant or animal kingdoms.
Because we humans are so warlike, some have an interest in the weapons of war, creating newer and better ones.
In generations past, it was knives, swords, and spears, but now we’re interested in guns, bombs and aeroplanes.
An occupation synonymous with past wars was that of the blacksmith.
Many of you will know someone named Smith and they are named after that famous village smithy.
The smithy was the person who manufactured the weapons for war, made of iron and steel.
But every smithy knew that there were two kinds of military arms: defensive and offensive.
Armour to protect life and weapons to take life.
I’m pretty sure that most of us wouldn’t describe ourselves as soldiers, fighting battles, but that’s exactly how Paul describes us all, in his letter to the Christian people around Ephesus, two thousand years ago.
We tend to think of soldiers as people who fight other people in battles.
People who wear armour for protection and who carry weapons of war.
But the type of warriors that Paul is describing here, are people who fight against the forces of evil, personified by Satan and his fallen angels.
We know that this war has been going on since Adam and Eve were first tempted in the Garden of Eden and it’s shown no sign of abating over all that time, so we must remain vigilant and ready to take our places in the front line.
Even though most of us would call ourselves “reluctant” soldiers for the Lord, we can’t afford to be complacent and just leave it to someone else to protect us, because evil forces are working on us every day and we must be vigilant.
Luckily for us, we’re not just left to our own devices in these battles.
We have been well equipped by God with both defensive and offensive items.
True Christian strength is not of the body, but of the spirit - measured in faithfulness, trust, and perseverance.
Any knight who’s ever worn a suit of armour would know that they need to put on ALL the pieces of armour.
How foolish would be the person who didn’t protect their head, shoulders, arms, hands, legs as well as feet.
Paul advises and motivates us to put on the whole armour of God, to use all the resources we have, to protect ourselves from the cunning onslaughts from the powers of evil.
Satan is keenly aware of where we are most vulnerable and he’ll always attacks us where we don’t have any protection, where we don’t have any armour.
But how do we apply Paul’s lesson, and analogy about the armour, to those of us who live in Australia at the beginning of the third millennium?
Firstly, we have to understand that we’re living in a battlefield and that we’re engaged in a vicious warfare.
Paul tells us that we’re fighting with the powers of darkness, the powers of evil, that live inside and around us.
Inside, we’re fighting with our own egos, our own selfishness.
We’re not merely fighting battles with alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or other material pleasures.
The Bible says that we’re also fighting with an external force, greater than ourselves - the very powers of darkness.
Who do you think causes all the wars around us and has done so throughout all of human history?
Who causes starvation in the world, where the majority don’t have sufficient food and water, yet all the while there’s plenty of food and water available?
It’s the powers of evil.
It certainly isn’t God who caused all these enormous devastations around the globe.
The power of evil is insidious, it’s global, and there’s no place to escape it.
So, Paul gives us another, alternative, battle plan.
Paul talks about Christians living in a real world, one filled with evil and injustice.
But we’d be wise to put on the whole armour of God when engaging in battle with the evil one.
Paul then lists seven qualities, seven pieces of armour that we can benefit from.
In biblical times, the number seven was seen as a symbol of wholeness, the whole armour, the full suit of armour.
Paul tells us to first put on the belt of truth -truth in all relationships, truth about God and God’s love, truth in our relationships with our spouse, our children, our parents, our grandparents, our neighbours.
Finally grasping the truth about ourselves – that we need to live truthfully and not to live a lie.
Then, he says to put on the breastplate of righteousness.
Right relationships, healthy relationships, good relationships with all those around you and even with yourself.
Be in right relationships and not wrong and demeaning relationships.
Paul then says to put on the foot protectors of peace.
In other words, don’t go looking for a fight with yourself, your family, or others.
Try to work through the legitimate conflicts that are always found between people and nations and ethnic divisions.
Try to be a peacemaker, working hard for peace and aiming towards peace in all relationships.
Next, put on the shield of faith, trusting that God is with you, strengthening you for every situation you’re facing.
You can’t prove it to anyone else, you can’t prove God’s inner strength, you can’t prove eternal life.
But you’ve been given the gift of trust and you must trust in your inner spiritual self.
Then, put on the helmet of salvation.
What a gift it is, to know that you can be saved - it’s a gift from God.
Next, put on the sword of the Spirit - that is, the Word of God - because there’s power in the Bible.
The words of Jesus, Paul and the Old Testament are not merely words printed on pages of a dusty book that we pull out when we have the occasional Bible study, no, God’s words are living words, intended to live in us.
We learn them, memorize them, recite them spiritually in our brains, so that God’s words are constantly inside us.
And finally, Paul encourages us to put on praying in the Spirit.
There isn’t a piece of armour mentioned with this seventh quality, but the quality is just as important.
Do you sometimes have a problem with focussing on your prayers and curse your wandering mind?
Like all good habits, we need to persevere in our conversations with God.
Praying in the Spirit is another great resource, another piece of armour.
But no suit of armour is worth anything without a good heart beating inside.
So where do you get such armour?
At the armoury, of course!!!
No, not the one at Newington, near Silverwater, but at church, with the people of God.
From the people of God, we learn much about life, and we take from these people the qualities we need for life.
From the church, we learn about faith…
and right and good relationships…
and the Bible…
and praying in the Spirit.
These qualities actually can be found in God’s armoury.
And so, Paul clearly and wisely says to us today:
Put on the whole armour of God, so that you’re able to stand tall in the day of Jesus Christ.
In order for you to be strong, in order for you to fight the good fight of the faith, you must put on faith, righteousness, and salvation and you must use the gospel, which is the Word of God, and lastly, you must pray.
So, I challenge you to pray, be faithful, trust in the Lord and rest in his provision for victory in Christ.
It’s your decision and it’s up to you to act - to live that courageous life.
I encourage you to put on God’s armour and prepare yourself for the fight that is the rest of your life.
Reflection: "Living a Thankful Life"
If I asked you “How’s your walk going today?” you may look at me strangely and remind me that, in fact, you don’t actually go for a COViD-lockdown walk every day - maybe only 2 or 3 times a week.
We normally think of walks as a means of perambulation – a way to move ourselves from one place to another.
Our walking is something that develops quite early on in our lives, somewhere around the age of 1.
However, there’s another sense in which this word is used.
it can also refer to a person's journey through life.
That is, your walk can be described as what you do with your life and how you live it.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul uses the word "walk" 6 times.
Each time he does, he uses it in the sense of one's conduct or manner of living their life.
He’s writing to these Ephesian believers to show them how they should live their lives as they pass through this world as pilgrims and strangers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, what Paul told these believers over 2,000 years ago, is still valid for us, in our world, today.
Let's take a few minutes to look into these verses and learn how to “Walk Like an Ephesian”.
(vague comical reference to a 1986 song by the Bangles: “Walk Like an Egyptian).
But seriously, what would it have been like to walk in the footsteps of an Ephesian Christian?
In the first century, Ephesus was a major trading port in Asia Minor (that we now know as western Turkey) and it was a mixture of peoples from all major trading nations, who each brought with them their own religious ideas.
The largest temple in Ephesus was dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis (also known by the Romans as Diana).
In the time of Paul’s visits, the temple generated huge revenues from the sales of idols of the goddess.
The building was so large that it was, in its time, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
The fact Paul even managed to get a foothold in such a city and establish a Christian church there, was a testament to his ability as an orator and the power of the Holy Spirit that moved within him.
The local worshippers of Artemis (or, more probably, those who made money in the temple) were totally against the message that Paul preached regarding this new Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and how there could be only ONE god, YHWH, not the plethora of gods that the pagans were worshipping.
So, Paul’s small (but growing) band of Christians were not popular with the non-Christians and Paul saw it necessary to write to them, reminding them how they needed to live their lives differently, now that they had decided to follow Christ.
Earlier in the 5th chapter of Ephesians, Paul tells them that, that to be worthy of their “walk”, they must exhibit three characteristics.
1) They must walk in love
2) They must walk as light and
3) They must walk as wise ones
By exhibiting these 3 traits, people will be emulating how Jesus behaved when he was here on earth.
Paul emphasises that should they fail to do these things, they’ll be living their lives as the evil ones, drunkards, etc.
He reminds them that the world has perverted the meaning of the word “love” and seems to take pleasure in living in darkness, stumbling around aimlessly like drunken, debauched fools.
Sounds a bit like the description of the disciples on that Pentecost morning, when the people thought that the disciples were a bit tipsy on wine, whereas, in fact, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
Paul had already had to have very stern words with the new Christians in Corinth, who had been getting drunk at the communion table, so he was quite touchy regarding this topic.
Instead of filling themselves with wine, Paul suggests to the people of Ephesus that they fill their lives with the spirit of Christ - singing psalms and making melodies to the Lord in their hearts - and always giving thanks to God the Father through his son, Jesus.
In other words, being thankful to God for everything that happens in their lives.
Just because we decide to follow Christ doesn’t mean that our lives will always be a bed of roses, or that we won’t be troubled from time to time.
But that doesn’t mean that we should not always give thanks to God.
Remember, everything we have is a gift from him and he is always looking out for us.
So, getting back to my theme, how do you think your life’s walk is going?
Have you seen ways that you could make it better?
Are there things that need to be fixed?
Even ones needing attention this very day?
If so, you’re in luck, because Jesus is in the business of giving spiritual tune-ups to his flock.
In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that he is the bread of eternal life and that any other type of sustenance will only be of a transitory nature.
To get the sort of nourishment we need for our life’s walk, we need to remember the passage from John, feed on Jesus and be thankful that he loves us so much.
So, by putting our trust in him and living our lives in the manner he has shown, he’ll work with us to ensure that our life’s walk is a spiritual walk with a God.
And there can’t be a better one than that, can there?
Vaya con Dios (in Spanish, walk, or go, with God)
“God is with us, so go out into the world with certainty.
Live with gratitude,
Love God’s people,
Listen to Wisdom and
Act with kindness.
Make good use of every opportunity you have and delight in it the moment,
For God is there before us.
The Peace of God be with us all.” Amen
Reflection: "The Bread of Life"
It must have been an amazing sight, thousands gathered, listening, learning and then - all of a sudden - hungry.
And when the disciples were asked to "care for those gathered", all they could come up with was 5 loaves and 2 fish.
But Jesus took this food, gave thanks, and fed those who were gathered there.
Even more amazing was that when they ate their fill, there were leftovers, and they wanted to make Jesus their king.
But as it often happens in the Gospel of John, not everything is what it seems.
What were these people “really” hungry for, what were they really looking for?
It turns out that the "word made flesh" is more than just a miracle worker, or just the son of Mary & Joseph.
He is the one who shows us God the father, the one who connects us and makes us participants of the divine life.
It’s not uncommon for us to confuse the thing with the person, the symptom with the problem, the want with the need.
Those who were fed on that day, came looking for more than just food and Jesus presented them with the reality of his identity, and with the opportunity for a different life, if they choose to participate in it.
Those of us who claim Christ as our Lord, find ourselves being fed by Christ's own presence, and it’s in the feeding that we are participants in the divine life – of God reaching out to us, providing a way for grace, opening the doors for the holy to live among us - again and again and again.You can't get much closer to something than when you eat it.
The taste, smell, and sight remind us - tell us - about who God is, teaching us something about Abba, our father.
And it has been like this from the beginning.
Imagine the rich earth that produced fruit, as described in those early chapters of Genesis.
Hear the stories of people gathering around that food and the promise of a land full of milk and honey.
Also hear the prophetic call for us not to forget about those who hunger.
In our eating and our drinking, we also participate in this long story of a God who feeds and a people who serve.
Of a God who gives of himself and a people who follow in the way.
Those of us who eat this bread, do so at our own peril: for we can’t just eat this bread and then forget.
In fact, when we eat and when we drink during the sacrament of communion, the central reason for our gathering together, we’re saying that God's will for all of us, and all the world, is to be restored, saved, healed, made whole!No simple "devotional" practices, or pious "memorials" of some far, distant, reality. NO WAY!!Instead, we come to the "bread of life" again and again with the promise that God will come, that the spirit we’re calling, will actually show up, that the claim we make will be made present, that you and I will find ourselves part of a new reality, transformed into God's own people.
Maybe if churches spent more time and attention in becoming a "feeding people", if they put their attention into becoming a community of the "bread of life", if they took more seriously the reality of God's own presence in the meal, then they might spend less time and attention on things that divide and separate them, that exclude others, that close their doors, and that questions God's image in others.
Eating assumes that people are hungry, that they’re in need of sustenance.
Part of the challenge of the Christian life is the recognition of our dependence and our interdependence.
Because in eating the bread of life, we’re recognizing our own dependence on God, no longer relying on signs and wonders, instead, we’re recognizing our own need.
We recognize that, in this eating, in this drinking and in this gathering, we’re able to experience God's self.
We have a need of sustenance, a need of something more - and we need to truly see God.Because that same God has called us to care for one another, having left his glory in order to reach us.
We, too, can leave the comforts of life and leave our pews - those comfortable places of worship.
We, too, can walk out of the doors of our church services, ready to align ourselves with the life that is life eternal.
So, do we gather in churches like those who on that day who came looking for another sign, but missed it entirely?
Do we gather around the Lord's Table looking for the "magic", for that spiritual "fix", ignoring the life transforming power of Jesus' own presence in the bread and the cup?
Or do we think of it as something personal and ignore the plight of those around us?
Part of the challenge is for us to recognize that there are many around us that go each day, every day, without the sustenance they need, while we gather for feasting day after day, week after week, month after month, there are many who don’t have such sustenance.
As we go about our internal Christian posturing and ideologies, there are many who go without.
As we discuss who has worked enough, who has had enough initiative, as we argue with one another about what it takes to be "successful," as we battle as church congregations across Australia, wanting to draw the line as to who's in and who is out, we miss the point, we miss the invitation.
We, like those who came back on that day thousands of years ago, are still unsure of whom it is that we have encountered in this Jesus of Nazareth."I am the living bread!" says Jesus . . . Open your eyes! See the light!
Maybe now we can recognize that we, too - you and I - have been beneficiaries of an amazing life.
We have found our sustenance and instead of using it to propel us into the neediness and hunger of the world, instead of finding that sustenance and having that energize us into speaking on behalf of those that have no voice, instead of having that sustenance call us to task again and again into the ways that our own life is part of the problem, we have continued eating our fill, acting as if we've earned it, and ignoring the plight of those who need this sustenance the most.
Our community, called the church, is at its core a community of people who hunger.
A community of people called together around the table, whose own identity is rooted in what it means to be sustained by the presence of Christ's self, each and every time we gather together.
From the very beginning of the story of faith, God has been giving us of himself and inviting us to take this sustenance and use it as a source of being the light of the world on behalf of God's kingdom.
So, part of our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is our recognition that when we and leave our gatherings of prayer and praise, we are to walk out of the doors and work tirelessly for the sustenance and feeding of a hungry, hungry world.
May our congregations, may our gatherings, may our conversations, become the centre - the active centre - of creating this future, of creating a reality – which is the time when Jesus comes again.
May we, together, begin to make a way to the father, in our eating.
May we become a people that begin to extend life eternal, a people who live out the meaning of sharing in the life of Jesus to a hungry world.
There are many who are looking, many who are hungry; there are many who are searching.
May we become the body that feeds them.
May we become the body that proclaims the identity of the bread of life to this broken and hungry world.
Then as we participate together in the sacrament of communion, we will be sharing in the life of Jesus in the world.
As we mediate whilst being served, we can pray for those in need, who haven’t yet come to know the love of God.
Let us pray that as we are refreshed in the spirit, we’ll find someone who is in need of refreshing
and encourage them to join us in God’s kingdom.