Our Patronal Festival was celebrated on 30 June, and was marked by an Evensong service, attended by 60+ people, with special guests the Choir, Vicar, and Organist/Choirmaster of St Marks Parish, Remuera. The Organist/Choir Master, Brian Millar, gave a memorable sermon on the Patron Saint of our Church, St Thomas, which is reproduced here.
Reading: John, 2019 – 31
Lord, open our eyes,
that we may see wondrous things from within your word.
May I suggest that the apostle Thomas should be given posthumous honorary New Zealand citizenship. I think Thomas would have made a great Kiwi. Standard Kiwi mentality says: “you show me, and I’ll believe you.” Jesus of course says: “you believe me, and I’ll show you.” That’s the whole basis of faith, incidentally. Blessed are those who have not seen – that’s us – and yet have believed.
There’s an account – I think in one of William Barclay’s books, but don’t quote me, it’s a long time ago since I read it – of a census being taken around the middle of the first century AD. Among the documents which were found about that event from an archaeological dig, there is recorded the registration of a woman, with her name, and her description – being about fifty years of age, with a slight limp and a scar over one eye. The registration form is signed by Thomas, Didymus, Town Clerk. Now if this Thomas, and the Thomas in the gospel, are one and the same, our gospel reading would make even more sense – Thomas the town clerk checking the evidence, ensuring the person standing in front of him registering for the census matches the written record.
Jesus’ disciples – well, ten of them anyway, are gathered together when their resurrected rabbi shows up. But Thomas wasn’t present. When the other disciples recount the event, Thomas digs his toes in: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later the disciples were again in the house, only this time Thomas was with them. Jesus appeared again. He invited Thomas to put his fingers in the wounds, and the doubting disciple exclaims that he now believes.
Question: was Jesus calling Thomas’ bluff, when he invited Thomas to reach out and touch the scars? We’re not actually told that Thomas did in fact touch Jesus, and I rather suspect from Thomas’ response that he didn’t: but here is something for you to chew over – Thomas was invited by Jesus to touch him, and probably didn’t. Mary, on the other hand, wanted to reach out and touch Jesus, but was told, “no”. I wonder why the differences here?
But there is something else interesting, just in case we start to get a bit harsh with Thomas over his so-called doubts – as far as we are aware, Thomas is the only person recorded in the gospels, to directly address Jesus as God. I find that both reassuring and humbling.
This story is of course quite familiar to regular church goers, and even if you didn’t grow up in church, you’re probably aware of the term “Doubting Thomas”. But we need to see part of the story that many people overlook: the beginning.
Look at where John tells us these events happened – they were in the house. Exactly what house and where, is uncertain; but it was obviously a place where they felt safe, loved, and comfortable; and it’s also a place that Jesus knew about.
Was it that house with the upper room, the last place where together as a band of disciples they had seen Jesus alive? Wherever it was, they were there, and they were afraid. Maybe you’re like me, in this regard – when I hear upsetting news, I want to be in a familiar place, preferably with familiar people, who can comfort and reassure each other.
Now – having your presumed dead friend show up for dinner is rather unexpected, and more than likely somewhat disconcerting! And there’s a hint of irony here, in that it was the signs of Jesus’ death – the scars, the wounds in his hands and side – that convinced the disciples of the reality of his resurrection. But Jesus did something very familiar, and also very Jewish: he says grace. Jesus offered a new prayer full of gratitude: “Peace.”
I think if it was you or me appearing to the disciples, instead of Jesus, we might have said something like, “Oh ye of little faith, why shiverest and sniveleth thou behind locked doors?” Or in true Kiwi speak, “What are ya?”
But there was no condemnation from Jesus; rather there was a word of comfort, a word of calm, a grace. I know, John’s gospel account doesn’t mention food, or a dining room; but the parallel accounts of this story from Mark and Luke both include references to food, and eating.
In fact, almost all, if not all, of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus involve eating, and food. As the American Bible teacher Chuck Missler once said about this – Jesus is my kind of guy. In the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, Jesus shows up at meals and at tables, at a barbeque, even in some cases, asking for food! And every time he does, there would be a prayer. Because that is what Jesus did – say “thank you” at the beginning and at the end of every meal. Gratitude. That’s my key word this evening. Table grace.
Gratitude and meal tables go together. I have an elderly Christian friend and whenever I’m at his home and we’re about to eat, he doesn’t say “Let us say grace;” he says “Let us be thankful”. There’s a subtle difference.
It’s interesting that the disciples were locked in that dining room. They were afraid. And it’s in their fear, that Jesus shows up, breathes on them, and speaks “peace”. And just like that, their fear evaporates.
I read somewhere that in recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that fear and gratitude don’t exist in the same parts of our brain. And researchers now are suggesting that gratitude and fear cannot exist at the same time – that gratitude actually processes fear, effectively driving fear out, giving us human beings the possibility of acting with courage, and hope, and joy, and compassion.
So, when Jesus shows up at that dining table on the evening of the first day when the tomb became empty, and in that room where a feast had become a funeral meal, a new table is set. It’s a table of gratitude – the gift of God for the people of God – with the power to drive out fear.
Thomas, of course, doubted because he wasn’t at that first meal. He was possibly afraid. He was almost certainly sad. So, he said, “Can Jesus really be alive?” Thomas was still living in fear, unwilling, at that point anyway, to enter into a grateful journey towards a new reality. Like his Jewish forefathers, his doubt echoed a verse from Psalm 78: Can God set a table in the wilderness?”
That second appearance of Jesus, as I see it, is not about “Doubting Thomas”. Instead, it’s a story of thanks. It’s a story about Jesus showing up – yet again – at the dinner table, to cast out fear and transform fearful disciples, and one in particular, into people of gratitude.
Now this all makes me think we miss out something important about Easter.
Some churches are sometimes accused of skipping over Good Friday too quickly so they can get to Easter Sunday. The Brethren church where I grew up never had a Good Friday service, Easter Sunday was the biggie. And I take my hat off to my father, who was a Brethren of the Brethren, for organising a simple reflective Good Friday service at his Brethren church at the time – that was revolutionary. But I wonder if we as good Anglicans sometimes skip over Maundy Thursday too fast, in our hurry to get to Good Friday. What if the main story isn’t the violence of Friday, but the feast of Thursday?
That Last Supper is the final meal of the “age that was” (the age of injustice, oppression, debt and sin); but it’s also the First Feast of the “age to come” (the age of God’s reign of peace and justice). We are symbolically “passing over” from the rule of Caesar to the rule of Jesus the Christ, from the bondage of slavery to the freedom of serving others. The table is set for the new world, the church, for all believers. We offer grateful prayers, and our exodus is at hand. All of that symbolism can be related to our participation in our service of communion right here.
But, of course, Caesar doesn’t want this to happen. The religious hypocrites, the authorities like Pontius Pilate who are mates and cronies of Caesar, they wanted none of this. The powers of this age want to destroy the table of gratitude, the table set by God. So comes Friday’s execution, Caesar’s violent attempt to destroy the table for ever and to keep us enslaved; not living in grateful wonder, but in perpetual fear.
So, Jesus is dead. The disciples return to the dining room to remember and to mourn what almost was. But God says “Enough!” God is out of patience with the Pharaohs and Caesars of history, and injustice and hunger and oppression and violence and sin and death. And so, Jesus rises. The tomb is empty.
And where does Jesus go? Does he return to Calvary and point and shout, “Look – the cross!” No. He goes back to the dining room to offer to the disciples, and to us, a table of peace, with gratitude, in perpetuity. As often as we do this, we are proclaiming Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, till Jesus returns.
What a story. We might even call it “good news.”
National Bible Sunday
National Bible Sunday was celebrated on 21 July. The following is the Sermon Reverend Bob preached that day
Reading from Luke Chapter 10, Verses 38 – 42
While they were on their way, Jesus came to a village where a woman named Martha made him welcome in her home. She had a sister, Mary, who seated herself at the Lord’s feet, and stayed there listening to his words. Now Martha was distracted by her many tasks, so she came to him and said “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to get on with the work by myself?” But the Lord answered “Martha, Martha, you are fretting and fussing about so many things; but one thing is necessary. The part that Mary has chosen is best, and it shall not be taken away from her.”
Who we are, determines how we read the Bible. The things we internalise over your childhood, our adult life also, will determine how we view God, because the Bible is about God and our relationship with Him; we all have different perspectives to bring to our reading of scripture.
But we can also turn that on its head – the Bible can determine us, who we are and what we will become.
The Bible is never static, it is dynamic. That is what distinguishes it from a mere novel, a history book, a biography. It is alive because it is inspired by the people who wrote it, by the people who put it all together, and by the people who chose what should be included and what to leave out – what was inspired by the Holy Spirit and what was more dubious.
That same spirit is the reason the Bible still speaks to us today. Can you read the Bible without the spirit of God to guide you? You can I suppose read scripture as you would any book – start at page 1 and go on to the end. But you probably wouldn’t make much sense of it – it would just be a none too interesting read – you’d probably go back to Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen, or Mills and Boon.
Perhaps however if you were in really big-time trouble you might just go to the Bible for comfort or inspiration. I did that as I learned my mother was dying, over 40 years ago now. I don’t think I had ever opened a Bible before, but my father had given me one for my 21st Birthday. It’s these slender threads that God uses.
The spirit must be active if we are to get anything from the Bible; the fact you’ve taken the trouble to open it means God’s spirit is indeed active.
But it is when we ruminate (like cows) on the words, that the spirit will guide us into whatever he wants to show us. At other times a word, a phrase will suddenly leap out at you like a thunderbolt. I had that happen to me at Bible College years ago. When you are really up against it, backs to the wall, God can speak very loudly – the person on the sinking ship knows exactly what he/she needs! God prepares us for the worst if his spirit is active in us. He prepares us for death if you consider life as preparation for death, and he allows all sorts of things to happen to us to make us resilient, just as he gives poor Martha a good ticking off in today’s gospel reading!
Am I a Martha or a Mary!? I asked the people that question a few days ago at Remuera Gardens and dear Betty, she was both – and that’s precisely what we should all be. We need to sit at Jesus’ feet listening to what he’s telling us in the Bible; and then be a Martha, doing things like being hospitable and so forth.
We cannot give out unless we also take in – that’s why people like me go on retreat every now and then. If we are like Martha all the time, we will end up pusillanimous – small souled – when what we are supposed to be is magnanimous – large souled. (That incidentally is what Mahatma means, as in Mahatma Gandhi – he was large-souled). If we fail to cultivate our roots in the love of God, our “doing things from love” will wither and die.
We need the one necessary thing, to be centred in God, in order to understand our poverty, and our need for him who in fact is our deepest desire – as the Collect for today tells us:
God our home, in Christ you are always with us,
in all our daily activities help us not to be so worried
and distracted by so many things
that we forget the one thing we need
and lose the better part, which will be ours forever;
kept in Jesus, the Christ, who is alive with you,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
To know, to love and to serve – our lives should always be about what we should be. Then in consequence, what we should do; only last of all, what we should not do.
All too often religion has been about what we should not do (“Nanny, go and tell Richard that whatever he’s doing, he must stop it”!).
No wonder people ignore the Church if it fosters that kind of thinking.
Lastly, when you read the Bible, how does it leave you feeling? Joyful? Depressed? Thinking “I should never do that”? Maybe you want to sing a hymn, or maybe you get that pins and needles feeling somewhere in the large intestine area which might indicate fear.
Then perhaps you need to go and talk it over with a wise Mary who has been sitting at Jesus’ feet, to find between you a way forward. God allows us, as I’m certain he did with Martha, to take one step at a time, achieve something achievable as you are, so that you grow in confidence to do more. Moses had an Aaron to help him – we all need others around us – that’s why we come to this place, we are part of something much bigger than just ourselves – and that is what National Bible Sunday should make us aware of.
A New Zealander Visits Kabul
Afghanistan had long been a country I had wanted to visit. The closest I had previously come was to the frontier barrier in the Khyber Pass region, in the course of the board of the Asian Development Bank tour of Pakistan in 1981. Until 2009, I have had to depend on photographs and books about this fascinating country.
It would have to be conceded that it is not an easy country to visit. International agency staff became familiar with non-IATA airlines, and getting from Dubai to Kabul was logistically challenging. But it was achieved. And flying over the magnificent arid peaks and valleys, with only patches of green vegetation, was a wonderful introduction to the country.
I should add that I didn’t really visit Afghanistan; I visited Kabul. Thanks to the personal safety situation, I was unable to leave the city confines. Indeed, when I wasn’t in the World Bank “campus” I was in a Ministry armoured Toyota SUV.
Arriving at Kabul when the President was leaving introduced me to traffic jams. But unlike any seen in Auckland! I lost count of the number of “Humvees” in the traffic – each with a heavy machine gun and soldier or policeman on the top! (Such a “Humvee” is what I would like as a vehicle of choice for going to Auckland’s supermarket car parks!)
Ensconced in Guest House #2, my view was of high walls of packed bags of earth and sand with rolls of razor-wire on top, with a number of steep snow-covered mountain peaks barely visible above them to the North. Expressions of interest in seeing the mountains were greeted with, “No, as bad things can happen there!” I have to say that no “bad things” happened to me when I was in Kabul, such was the seriousness with which the Bank addressed each person’s security. We each had to travel with a dedicated cell phone and a two-way radio. Occasional security alerts were texted on the former.
A later visit introduced me to a “blimp” tethered high above the city on missile alert. Another visit had me deafened as Mrs Clinton’s helicopter convoys took off and landed at the nearby US Embassy. The airport was a spotter’s dream, with the wide range of aircraft parked on the hard stands. Russian (Old), American, Australian and more. Travelling to and from meetings provided scenes of huge contradiction. Collapsing mud-brick houses and buildings, interspersed with medium-rise concrete block buildings and the occasional high-rise modern office building. An up-market hotel, with an exterior slightly reminiscent of a Foreign Legion fort took up one CBD block. It had been the site of a major attack and we were not allowed to visit it.
The streets were always busy, with people in local attire, representative of the regions they came from, mixing with business-suited men and women in burqas. The latter were the clever ones as the air was generally full of fine dust, kicked up by the vehicles. Each corner, it seemed, was protected by armed policemen or soldiers. The latter were in significant numbers near the various embassies. And then there were the occasional donkeys and goats, all trotting alongside the dense traffic. I was intrigued by the crocodiles of uniformed school children heading off to school.
Close to the hills, the remains of the old city wall showed against the skyline. Again, not a place to visit as “bad things” might happen. And one had to wonder why the houses clinging to the hillsides, didn’t slide down the steep hillsides. And the brown Kabul River wound its way through the city centre. An incongruous sight was the collection of old Russian aircraft, partly hidden away behind a high wall. Another place I was not able to visit. I should add that the reason for constraint on personal travel was due to crime potential, rather than the threat of militants. And yet, as we left the Ministry of Finance at dusk one night, two low-flying helicopters dropped anti-missile flares as they curved into a nearby landing zone.
I was driven up one of the in-city hills one afternoon. From there, my image of Kabul changed. Treetops had been seen as we were driven through narrow streets, but from this hill – Swimming Pool Hill – Kabul clearly had many trees and green spaces, as well as modern buildings. I was told that, pre the 1970s, Kabul was a very attractive city and, from my viewpoint, I could see why. On the other hand, the “new city” to the north, provided a view of low, dusty, earth-covered dwellings and walled gardens, with the occasional medium rise modern office or apartment block sticking up here and there. The snow-covered mountains – many kilometres away – seemed to loom closely over the city in the rain-cleared air. The remains of a rusting Russian tank were the only sour note in the view.
I was pleased to finally reach Kabul. Being confined to the city meant that I couldn’t trace the route taken by the unfortunate Lord Elphinstone in the 1842 retreat; or see the rural sights that fictional hero, Sir Harry Flashman might have seen. But it was a great taste of the magic of this wonderful, complex and picturesque country and its peoples. This is an account of my first visit to this fascinating city. I was to visit four more times and found much of interest, each time. Every visit to a Ministry or a suburban-based facility took me by interesting places – the bombed palace, the new mosque, the stadium where the Taliban put on their executions, and more. Much has happened since my last visit, but the city and country are still troubled.
Sunday 7th July was Refugee Sunday, in which we remembered the Church Persecuted throughout the world. One such Church is the Falun Gong Church in China. You may have observed members of this Church standing outside the Chinese Embassy in Great South Road, Greenlane, in silent witness to the persecution of Christians in China. Two weeks after Refugee Sunday, Reverend Bob Driver accepted an invitation to preach at the Falun Gong Church in Auckland. This is his sermon.
It’s lovely to be here among you – thank you, to you Yan for inviting me, a Christian priest, to give an address. Thank you for your hospitality.
Today, religion is often accused of being the cause of wars and hatred and the deaths of many people. It’s a lie because it is not religion that is causing these things – rather, it is the desire for power over people which makes other people feel threatened and therefore fight back. In any case it is a fact that atheist political systems, Nazism, Communism which have historically killed far more people than any “religious” conflict. Think Holocaust, think Russia under Stalin, think of your own current country under Chairman Mao’s “Cultural Revolution”.
Religion – true religion, is good for you, good for the world. The word “religion” comes from the Latin word “re-ligio”; Perhaps surprisingly, our word “ligament” from the same Latin root. You have ligaments, I have ligaments, we all have ligaments – they join together bones and hold your joints together.
Religion joins us to God; it joins us to other people – that is why we have churches where we come together to worship God – you too are drawn together to meditate. The only threat that religion poses to political power is this: it makes us more like God; in the Christian’s case, it makes us more like Jesus Christ who we believe is God.
That I believe is why communist governments see religion as a threat – they think we are a threat to their power and control over the people.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth – God is not a threat to anyone because God, our Jesus Christ, is love. Christian love is about first loving God by always being open to his leading (yes, Christians practise meditation too) and by serving others; the poor, the disadvantaged and indeed those who are being persecuted for their faith. Love cannot be tolerated by those who hate because it shows them up for what they really are. Nevertheless, Christians are told by Jesus (it’s in our Bibles) to love even those who hate and persecute us.
Christianity has always been seen as a threat to the powers that be; we are dealing not just with flesh and blood people who want control over us, we are dealing with demonic forces behind those people. Where there is hatred, demons (who do not understand love) have gained a foothold.
A person who as we say, lives “ in Christ ”, lives as though Christ is indeed Lord of their life; he or she has freedom, an inner, spiritual freedom which means they will not be disturbed or buffeted by whatever those powers may throw at them.
Some of you might have read Jordan Peterson’s book “The 12 Rules of Life ” – it’s been a bestseller. He says that “Everything worthwhile in life involves suffering”. That suffering may well come from “outside”, from those who persecute us. There are yourselves, your fellow practitioners in China; there are Christians in places as diverse as Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan who suffer from militant Muslims; there is a rising tide once again, in Europe of anti-Semitism.
But always, for people who are determined to grow in their relationship to God there is also the internal suffering which is common to all who follow Christ, and I’m sure to all who follow any religion. We suffer internally because God wants to change us from the inside – it is from the inside that bad thoughts, bad actions, bad words come. He wants to change our attitudes to other people, people we might have a prejudice against. He wants in other words to make us holy; the end of which we Christians call eternal life, everlasting life, (that doesn’t mean a quantity of life, it means a new quality of life, the life of God Himself). It is a lifelong process; it is about God’s light shining on us to bring to our attention the things in each of us which He would like to change. It is in this way we become what God wants us to be so we can withstand whatever life throws our way. Christ, and no doubt your own religion teaches us to love our enemies, love them even as they do unspeakable things to us in prisons and torture chambers. “Father, Father God”, said Jesus from the Cross, “forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”. They, the Romans were killing the very person who embodied completely the love of God. But Christians believe that having been killed, Jesus Christ rose from death in what we call His Resurrection. Jesus lives therefore and God’s love for us cannot be defeated. When we invite Jesus Christ into our lives we start the process of becoming holy people; a people who love God and love one another.
We become magnanimous – that’s a long English word for “Large-souled” – you’ve heard of Mahatma Gandhi of India – his name means “Large-souled”. And he was. Through his passive resistance to the British, his country was liberated from the Colonial power.
You too are “large-souled” if you continue your passive resistance to the injustices your people suffer. I believe Communism will end – I don’t know when but remember how Communism ended in Russia, in Eastern Europe. It was a movement that the powers-that-be could not stop, it was I believe a movement of God working through His people, who had suffered long enough.
Our weapons are not the guns and tanks of the powers – our only “weapons” are prayer, meditation, forgiveness and we are aided supernaturally by The Angels of God and by our blessed mother, the church whose purpose is to make a holy people, worthy of the God we worship.