Forgiven much

Luke 7:36-50
She acts with much love because much has been forgiven.
Who is this story about? And what does it mean for us, following in the steps of the Master?
So who is this story about? Ignore the usual heading and ask, who has Jesus got in focus? Who's the parable told for?
It's Simon, the Pharisee who has invited him to dinner – they were not all total adversaries. A good person; someone committed to living God's way.
He's interested in Jesus but he seems also a bit sceptical – if this man were a prophet, he would have known. But the key thing is his feeling, revealed by Jesus' parable for him, that he hasn't got much that needs forgiving. He's “righteous” in the old expression – all is right with him and God, and others, and life generally, and he knows it to be so.
He's all good, and yet he didn't do any of the usual care and attention things. Offering water to a guest to wash hot smelly feet is standard cultural hospitality, and something a person focussed on others would have thought of. But he didn't. A bit smug. Self-righteous, a word we do still use generally, and maybe our contemporary reluctance to use the word righteous is that it too easily gains the add-on “self”.
Serendipitously (but again a sign of Simon's lack of hospitality, not ensuring the woman are welcomed somewhere separate from the men), a woman enters who becomes a teaching moment for Jesus in relation to Simon. She's the kind of person many people wouldn't want to hang around with. Generally presumed to be a promiscuous slut, she's someone whose company Jesus clearly appreciates, enjoys even. We can enjoy being with sinners (we are all sinners, after all!), but the thing with Jesus is that he has no feelings of superiority with it, that becomes self-righteous arrogance. That's what I reckon we find difficult – I do. A subtle feeling or assumption keeps sneaking in, which seems to go naturally with feeling okay about myself, blessed in the life I live and the benefits of background and circumstances. These things are real and good, but they keep encroaching as a comparison when with people for whom life has been different. In contrast, Jesus would be so much more natural and obviously respectful with them.
The step to take to get beyond this righteous mind-set comes in the lesson of the parable.
The woman acts with much love because much is forgiven. Note that she's not forgiven because of the love she shows. The forgiveness came beforehand.
She is the person in the parable who was aware of having much to be forgiven for, the person whose debt, whose burden is that much greater, so being able to let go of it is a really big relief. (The Greek word for “forgive” has in fact the root meaning of “let go”.)
The loudest message in the parable is what is unspoken. The one to whom little is forgiven loves little. The one not consciously carrying as big a debt burden, the one not aware of as big a load that needs to be let go of, doesn't get the chance to experience big forgiveness and therefore the surge of love that naturally follows. Like the woman's tears, like rain (a Greek word is used for her considerable weeping that is usually used for rain), love flows out a person who receives forgiveness.
It happens in being forgiven, and in giving forgiveness to another. The release, and then the love. This is genuine right relationship, “righteousness”, which can only come through openness to one another.
Let us open up ourselves to one another
without fear of being hurt or turned away
For we need to confess our weaknesses
To be covered by our brother's love, our sister's love,
To be real and learn our true identity.
Pat Bilbrough ©1980 Thank You Music

Used by permission CCLI licence number 78945 Scripture in Song 2 168


Come Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
Come Holy Spirit! Good words for everyday, and particularly for church good words for every time we gather.
Come Holy Spirit! Think what that might mean in your terms, however you understand things spiritual.
What puts “wind beneath your wings”? These may be words of a secular song, but they're Bible words too: wind is a primary way of imagining Spirit. Wind and fire. Powerful things: can be destructive, definitely disturbing, also essential for life.
When we put “Holy Spirit” in our own terms, in relation to our own experience, we probably think support. Support in the sense of advocacy, solidarity from others. We think encouragement – giving courage. Energy. Inspiration. Also we think peace. Spirit of peace, and the peace of understanding. Being at peace.
Come Holy Spirit, we need you right now. For Holy Spirit also connects with things like wisdom and insight, everything we need to make good decisions. Trusting the Holy Spirit means trusting these qualities. That's what we've been doing over the years, from the very beginning of this parish, indeed of the two parishes that formed it – Whangaroa Methodist Circuit and Kerikeri Presbyterian Parish. Stories could be told about moments of decision: the first mission; the first church in Kaeo, the second and the third, different locations and finally Memorial building. The Little and Jolly Church in 1940 and in the early 50's buying the land on the corner of Kerikeri Road and Butler Road. I remember Robin McDiarmid saying to me when I visited to talk about the proposed sale of the property, what a good thing the choice was made to buy there and not on Cannon Drive. Rezoned commercial 50 years later and therefore very valuable.
Moments of decision over the years have involved making steps in faith. Which, to me, means investigating, listening, considering options, working it through together, praying (putting it all into the bigger picture), and, most of all, holding on to the vision of the whole point of being church. To work with Christ to grow kingdom-ways here on earth.
It's the Holy Spirit that prods us to look to the future, work with a vision, and not just lean on the certainties of the past. And it's the Holy Spirit that makes us “we”, not just “I” as in I think or I know. The two crucial bits to being church.
In the reading we heard Peter quote from the book of the prophet Joel. Powerful stuff. Ancient as can be (around 2,500 years ago), and totally relevant to now. The real hope lies in being community. Community in which all facets contribute. Not top down rule by those with the power and influence, or the money, or those with the assumed best age or colour or gender. But something contributed to the future by everyone. God is aiming for Spirit as part of everyone and recognised as such.
Think about the different groupings that are mentioned in the reading:
  1. Sons and daughters, that is, each generation following on. They are to get on and take responsibility, and be allowed responsibility, to plan for the future.
  2. Young people, in all their precociousness and impulsiveness, seeing what the future might be. And the rest of us taking them seriously.
  3. Old people dreaming dreams, and the rest of us taking time to listen to them. For dreams carry much from past experience, including treasures not to be lost.
  4. And there's no social or economic division here – the working poor have Spirit as well, those on the social underside, struggling. Listen to what the Spirit says as it comes through them.
One more thing. I said that it's spirit that changes us from a collection of “I”s – individuals as if in separate boxes – into “we”, as in community. Community is individuals in relationship with one another. In fact my favourite substitute word for spiritual is “relational”. The building of relationships. In a word, unifying. Not unity as something fixed and static, which can only happen by being forced on us, as in uniformity. But ongoing unifying, which happens by working together, and working to relate well to one another: our work as church community, which needs also to be the work of the wider community, if it is to be healthy and well in its spirit.

As we have been saying in recent weeks, this is core mission for our new building – a place for the spirit to move, for God's Spirit to speak to people's spirits just as they are. A place to unify the diverse peoples of Kerikeri.


Assessing our Future

John 17:20-26
There are two key points in this prayer Jesus prays for our time as church.
  1. That they may all be one – one heart and mind in Peterson's paraphrase.
  2. That the world may believe that in Christ we touch the divine, we see God's way of well-being for all things.
These two points are our basics for assessing ourselves as church, and for making commitments for being church for the future.
What this means depends on the world that we're in. Specifically it's about the community we're in, so it's different for each of our congregations. At the moment we're doing a lot of thinking and planning for Kerikeri, and next week that will be the subject of our congregational meeting. This week we'll think about each in their own right.
The principles are the same: Jesus' prayer is that those who believe will be one and that the world will believe: unified and “mature in oneness” (Peterson) and good evidence to the world that God, that love, is at the foundation of all that is.
Our purpose is to enable others to connect to God, or in less in-house terms, to the spirit at the heart of all living. In other words – of Genesis 2 and Revelation 22 – the river of life is for everyone:
And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires take the water of life as a gift” (22:17)
My thoughts are in relation to two headings:
  • The spiritual nature of the local community
  • Relationships between churches
Kerikeri is a place of different faiths and no faith, different fellowships of Christians and other faiths, alongside many who hold firm to a secular world-view. There are those with no time at all for things spiritual (sometimes claiming the title “atheist”) and others, many others, who are spiritual but not religious. Faith without community. As a person known to be connected to “church” I get assumptions made about me that mean people often don't expect any common ground with me. About values maybe – good morals – but life-beliefs or philosophy of life no.
Yet everyone I know has some faith. They have life-beliefs, their values stemming from them (values are too abstract to hold if they're not rooted in one's understanding of reality). But there's been a general misconception that faith equals religion, that faith lines up with being part of a religious group.
So considering the faith-views of people in the wider community in Kerikeri, what could be evidence for them that love is at the heart of all things. What could open up the possibility of seeing that there are resources in the life of Jesus that bring well-being for people, for us as individuals and for us as community, resources to unify. For we are fragmented as a community. With different cultures and interests and financial situations, ours is a community that can be divisive and lonely.
So what potential is there for unifying? What potential for people who are spiritual but not religious to grow in their spirits, to grow in the relationality and genuinely live in a world bigger than themselves? What might facilitate that? How might we work with the Holy Spirit, follow its lead? Because we know the Spirit is at work all the time and we trust where it leads.
We, who can be evidence of love at the heart of all things, are not just Union Church of course. In Kerikeri six churches work well together. Our fifth Sunday gathering at the end of this month is to enhance that working together. It's to be a forum to talk together about vision – each of us for our own community of faith and for the Kerikeri community. That the world might believe.
These six churches are variations on the one theme of Christ, and if any one of them disappeared Kerikeri would be missing something. Three of them, Baptist, Excite, and Frontline are making strides connecting new people into faith in Christ. Adults, children, young people, “people being saved” to use their language. People finding community in Christ.
Three of them bring to the mix distinct strands of church life and worship – Anglican, Catholic, and our Union of Methodist and Presbyterian. We each fly a flag (or two) that new people to Kerikeri connect up with, because it is their faith connection, a flag that people who've been away from church for a time can reconnect to. We build community among ourselves and outward into the community; we build relationships with others through our service, our practical Christianity.
Our unity as churches is found in mutual respect and encouragement. It is also to be found – and this is the purpose of the forum – in doing things together and in making better links between what each of us does best. As variations on the one theme of Christ we can work better if we collaborate and interconnect, being seen by the world as an almost seamless web of Christ-centred community-facing people.
So what do we the Union Church bring in particular to the web?
We offer a vision for Kerikeri that is probably beyond the scope or faith perspective of the other churches. Our vision is of “Community Space with a Spiritual Heart”. Picture for yourself (easier now that we see the shape developing) a place of welcome and belonging for diverse people in this fragmented community; a place where you don't have to be “Christian” to feel at home, to be at home in a spiritual sense; a place where Christ is the unifying factor – symbolised by the woven cross at the inmost point and underpinned by our faithful presence week by week as a worshipping community.
We're a church with a long-standing reputation for being open, letting people be as they are, and not judging others. So this is a group of people, kaitiaki of a building, who can be trusted; trusted that the space we offer – building and grounds – has no religious strings attached, no membership criteria to belong there. Genuinely open space for people to be together however is right for them, as they farewell a family member, mark other life passages, or do community projects and build community well-being together.
Community space with a spiritual heart will also be a place where people do their own spiritual exploration. Our understanding of faith need not be in charge (the mistake I believe of the Church), but rather permission is given for things beyond our direct oversight. Of course we'll have our conditions for the use of the facilities, but beyond that we will trust the Holy Spirit to take the lead. Our task will be to keep providing the Christian heart, by being the body of Christ and praying again and again, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill this place, bring peace and well-being to all.”
Some will be curious and the space will be a point of connection to us as church. I envisage growth in our group, as people of faith and kaitiaki of a place of open faith.
An oasis in the midst of a busy town. There's a ministry here I know we can do: we're not too old for it, we're not too few in number. And for me, and others to come, I see a ministry of interface, of outreach and interaction with the wider community in all its facets. An agent of hospitality, as only Jesus can teach it.
Ours is a district where spirituality is to large extent part of the fabric, much more than I've experienced anywhere else. Even for newcomers, there is something about it, “something in the air” that makes it natural to think of matter plus spirit, of edges between the everyday world and mystery, and to pray as part of community events and meetings. I have very different conversations with the children during Bible in Schools at Kaeo Primary compared with Riverview Primary. God's not necessarily a question or a problem; Spirit is simply part of what is, the matter for discussion with them being how we understand it.
Churches bring connection points for the people in the district who claim a place with Christian faith, whether it be a close connection or very loose or in between – Catholic, Anglican, Brethren, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Mormon, Ratana, Te Haahi Mana Motuhake o Aotearoa, Te Wai Pounamu, me Wharekauri (Nau's church), and Jehovah's Witnesses. For many people here, more than I've seen elsewhere in my adult years, a denomination is part of their identity, or part of their local community identity, even if it's a nominal link. Also there's New Beginnings, which began as Baptist. It is a church doing a wonderful job drawing in people who have not been Christian, or have been Christian in a different way and make a new commitment to faith, growing through these means the numbers of the “saved”. Each church in fact has a very important place: if we were without any one, something would really be missing. We are one in co-operation and collaboration, in our support for one another and our common conviction that Christ is our centre. Christ-centred, community-facing.
Responding to the community's call has been a big part of our visible unity. Our community has divisions: it's multiple communities in fact, in different localities, with different interests, with different whakapapa. But our churches are visibly not divided.
Unity – unifying – is about relationships: it's about building relationships and therefore building respect and understanding. Within our churches we must keep working on this. Are we a community of faith with unity of the kind that means each feels safe to be ourselves? Or do you hesitate a bit to do things because they might be criticised? (Is there something to work on here?)
Between our churches we need to build relationships as we respond to the community's call for events like the service before ANZAC day, and as we plan other events we know the community will appreciate, like carols in the churchyard. Our working together is sowing seeds for the community's working together. And, as Jesus says in his prayer, it is evidence that he and his way are of God. This is the true Spirit of God, to be ourselves and feel safe being ourselves in all our differences and yet to have a common heart and mind for the well-being of all.
Together is important, but so also is what we do as a unique church. How can we, as Methodist/Presbyterian Union, best be followers of Christ in the community and thus serve our community?
Here's my summary:
1. Honour the distinctive service and role of the other churches, thankful for them all and aware of where their mission gifts and skills lie, as distinct from us.
2. Be available to all for whom the Methodist and Presbyterian heritage is part of their identity.
3. Keep the flag flying, that is, be a visible presence of the body of Christ through our regular worship. A symbol of God's presence even.
4. Be Christ-shaped people in the community, nurtured, encouraged, and challenged in that role by regular prayer and worship and study.
5. Provide “Community Space with a Spiritual Heart”. This is the vision of our parish's Kerikeri project, but it's also happening in a smaller way already here. In fact, this building for me has helped formulate the Kerikeri vision. A building open to all where people can feel at home, hold their own kinds of gatherings, secular or spiritual; a place where standards of behaviour and expectations of positive relationships are part of the building itself, so to speak. We as body of Christ set the tone for the building and our regular worship helps feed that and firm it up, week by week.
In Kaeo, if less so than Kerikeri, there are people who claim no time for religion. Some are spiritual but not religious, others would deny even the word spiritual. Yet everyone I know has some faith. They have life-beliefs, their values stemming from them (values are too abstract to hold if they're not rooted in one's understanding of reality). But there's been a general misconception that faith equals religion, that faith lines up with being part that of a religious group.
Our building provides an important interface with the community: how we relate to people who use it or enquire about using it, taking an interest in them and their projects, going the extra mile if need be to get things arranged; showing hospitality as the kaitiaki of this place.
Do we draw people in by doing this? Not obviously so. A huge part of people feeling they want to be at church on Sunday morning is what it feels like when they are there, or what they imagine it will feel like. And that's largely about relationships – how they relate to us, predominantly you as the congregation. Do they feel good with you?
In the future, as Kerikeri develops resources for people who might be curious about church – things to look at around the building, pamphlets to take home – we can piggy-back on that and make a more visible connection for Christian faith in the foyer where visitors can browse.
Possibilities. How to be Future Church in this community – how to let Jesus' prayer for us take hold and lead us into new ways of connecting with our world of Kaeo.


The Lamb of God

John 13:31-35
The Lamb of God is one of our classic Christian phrases for Jesus. The one who shows the Way, with a capital W. The one who showed us that the only way to take on violence and evil is to give ourselves – that word “sacrifice”. To let go of holding tight to our own lives, not to see ourselves and our needs as always first importance – including when our puku is rumbling like it was for the Old Wolf. Rather giving ourselves for the sake of the world. The new commandment. Which was in fact the old one going back to the beginning with God Yahweh – love God and love your neighbour. It's just that with Jesus we see it in action, how to do it: love one another as I have loved you. What's more, he says, if there's an enemy around, try the love method and see the impact it has.
I can't ever feel okay about war. But it happens, and has happened for people I love, choosing to give of themselves and be part of it.
My Dad and I had many conversations over several decades about Christian faith and his choice to sign up in the Air Force in 1941 (at least he'd get a bed at night, he reckoned). There's been a lot more pondering since he died as our family have worked together with his letters home – from training in Canada, active service with the RAF out of England and North Africa, and various prison camps across Europe. Letters now published in a book. His experience included the forced march from Fallingbostel as the war ended and panic set in among the German leadership. Plenty to imagine how my siblings and I might not have been.
Dad was a sheep farmer and the Lamb Who Came to Dinner was his kind of story. No romanticism though, but the reality of enemies and politics and being true to the Master Jesus in the face of all that.
Jeremiah's words, as māngai/mouthpiece of the Lord God, point to the vision we hold on to.
Kei te mōhio hoki ahau ki ngā whakaaro e whakaaro nēei ahau ki a koutou, e ai tā Ihowa, he whakaaro mō te rongo mau, ehara mō te kino, kia hoatu te tūmanako ki a koutou i o koutou rā whakamutunga. 
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.                                                                                                             Jeremiah 29:11
In the long game – with God it is always the long game, no giving up, no change of ultimate goal. In the long game, the vision remains firm: welfare, rongo mau. In the long game, i o tātou rā whakamutunga, God is going for peace on earth, justice and well-being for all nations. In a word, a future with hope.
Nō reira,
kia hora te marino
kia whakapapa pounamu te moana
kia tere te kārohirohi
i mua i tō mātou huarahi
May peace be widespread
may the sea glisten like greenstone
may the shimmering like

 guide us on our way.

This reflection/kauwhau was presented to a Community service in Kaeo, Northland, NZ on 24.04.2016


To love is to accept dependency on love.

This is a quotation from François Varillon and I put it alongside this question:Can we reciprocate God's love? Is this something we can do?
Take a look at John 21:1-19.  Like every reading from John there's lots we could explore in this text. Like the starting point of Peter's resigned “Don't know about you lot, but I'm going fishing”. Despite Jesus appearing first to Mary, then to the disciples minus Judas, and a week later to the disciples plus Judas (so this is really the fourth time he appeared – it seems the appearance to Mary didn't count, so let's take care we don't leave out the so-called insignificant from our calculations of things). Despite these appearances, they still think it's all over and have gone back home. Without Jesus, nothing can happen.
Also this conversation to the side with Peter is really important when you think about forgiveness and restorative justice. The balancing of the three times denying, back in chapter 18, with the three times affirming life-long friendship. That's what it's about. Something to replace the past. And action that involves both sides. Jesus didn't just say I forgive you Peter, so let's put it behind us. He gave Peter a chance to be an agent in making the future, by way of a commitment that renews the relationship between them.
However, it's the questions I want to look at in particular, to share with you something that's picked up in the original but not in our usual English translations.
Do you love me? Peter is asked. The word love actually has a couple of variations here (Greek has at least three). So this is how the dialogue in fact goes.
Simon, son of John, do you give your all to me?
Yes, Lord, you know I am your best friend forever.
(Then the instruction in terms of nurturing the “flock” of followers of the Way.)
Simon, son of John, do you give your all to me?
Yes, Lord, you know I am your best friend forever.
(The instruction repeated with a variation.)
Simon, son of John, are you my best friend forever?
Yes, of course Lord! You know I am your best friend forever!
(The instruction once more – this is the task that goes with their relationship.)
What's the difference do you think?
Agape – a love that gives totally of itself – and philo – friendship, of the close type but as friendship a sense of being alongside yet still separate.
Jesus has certainly demonstrated agape through his life and death, and that is surely at the heart of what God is affirming in the resurrection. Agape wins in the end: nothing can put it down forever.
He has called his disciples “friends”, a pretty important description in John's gospel. He's drawn them to him, closer and closer into a deep friendship that will carry through even the worst that happens. Because here they still are, these men and women, still ready to recognise them, even though they can't yet see what his risen living means for them.
And remember that Jesus' prayer was that they be one with him and with God, that is, move even closer then friendship to a relationship of total love, the self-giving agape love that Jesus has and that he knows God has for him. Agape love God has for us.
Can we reciprocate this love?
It is hard, so Jesus adapts the pace accordingly. Even close friendship, as in his third time asking the question of Peter, will be enough for now, enough to be an agent in growing the family of faith. It was enough. Because we are here now, millions of others in the world too, it must have worked.
Staying friends is important. The memory of denial will never leave Peter. Relationships with people can be like that. So one way to check if we're still friends with someone is to ask ourselves how much we rely on them? The fact is that friends rely on each other: a good friendship reciprocal and inter-dependent.
So do we rely on God? Do we feel the need for this love that comes from more than just specific people? Or, most of the time if not all the time, do we in reality manage on our own?
This week I came across the expression “functional atheism”. This is when a person says they believe in God, but their actions speak otherwise: “I can handle this myself.” “Don't worry about me.” “Yep, just fine.”
One of the great sicknesses of the 21st century,” writes Molly Baskette, “is our solitariness,
our isolation from each other and from God. We are allergic to asking for help and have a pathological fear of being thought "needy." Some of us will walk in our own counsel right off a cliff rather than show our vulnerability to another human being, or turn to God in prayer.” 
What happens for Peter is that God – in the form of Jesus – reaches out to his isolation and puts him on the receiving end of something that activates a response. Being loved is like that. Or if the full-on self-giving love is beyond us (certainly beyond us every moment) then being befriended will do.
Receiving food at this table, like having breakfast around the beach fire, got them going, gets us going, in the life of being loved and loving, being befriended and befriending. It sets us on task nurturing others: sharing the love; sharing the friendship.