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It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burdens than these essentials.
Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am among them.
In 1964 I visited Rome for the first time. Soon after arriving, I headed off to visit St Peter’s Basilica. But when I arrived at the great piazza in front of the massive church, I discovered that St Peter’s was closed to visitors. The Second Vatican Council was in session. So I stood outside, mingling with the crowd and watching bishops and cardinals stream in and out of the basilica. I was disappointed, yet glad that I was there to witness from the side-lines the great Council that reshaped the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. Vatican II was, however, only one of the many Church Councils held over the centuries, and they all began with the very modest Council of Jerusalem about which we read today in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Council was convened by the apostles to discuss a critical issue. Up to that time all the followers of Jesus had been Jews, but after Pentecost the newly founded church began to expand among Gentiles. So, the question arose: did these new converts have to be circumcised and obey all the dietary requirements of Judaism to be members of the church? It is a question that has occurred over the centuries in various ways. When the first European missionaries came to southern Africa most thought that for Africans to become Christians they had to adopt European customs and especially forsake polygamy. That sparked off much controversy which is still ongoing. We can imagine the heated discussion that took place in Jerusalem when Peter and Paul, who had led the missionary advance into the Gentile world confronted the Judaizers. In the end a decision was reached and Luke tells us that those assembled said: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burdens than “some essentials, not eating meat sacrificed to idols and sexual licence.
Shortly after I was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Cape Town, I had to chair a meeting of all heads of Departments. They were largely secular minded academics who somehow tolerated the fact that I was a Christian theologian. But they were startled when, at the beginning of the meeting, I called them to prayer! It was, of course, a tongue-in-cheek invitation. Out of respect for their diverse convictions, I simply asked for a moment’s silence to reflect on what we were about to do. But when we gather as Christians and open our meetings with prayer, we have a specific intention. We are asking God to guide us in our deliberations so that we may discern the mind of Christ in what we say and decide. And we do so because we believe that “where two or three are gathered in his name,” we should be seeking God’s will not pursuing our own agenda.
Of course, to open a meeting with prayer does not necessarily mean that we seriously listen to what the Spirit is saying to us. I have been to more than my fair share of church meetings, synods, councils, and conferences to know that they too often function much like any other gathering of people. And I confess that I am as guilty as anyone, and perhaps more than most, for not listening to others and pushing my own point of view. Once the opening prayer is out of the way, we get on with things as if we are in a business, political or sport’s club meeting. But that is to undermine the very essence of what it means to be gathered together in the name of Jesus. And sometimes, I am sure, we make decisions which lead Jesus to say you can do that if you will, but not in my name. Yes, the phrase, “it seemed to the Holy Spirit and to us” has echoed down the centuries as Christians have sought together to discern the “mind of Christ” about difficult issues. But the phrase that can be abused and misunderstood, especially when the words “to us” become the most important. For then anything goes, for what seems good to us, we assume or maintain, is what the Spirit wants us to do. Many Christians once thought that “it seemed good the Holy Spirit and to them” that the church should support slavery, be racially segregated and not ordain women. And this was affirmed by church synods and councils over the centuries, and still is in some quarters. But because it seemed good to them, it did not mean that it seemed good to the Holy Spirit.
I find it ironical that even some sports teams, including rugby sides, pray in the name of Jesus before their matches even though their clear intention is to win the match by – excuse the phrase – “knocking the hell out of their opponents!” And the same happens on the battlefield even though the intention is to kill the enemy who Jesus tells us to love! Surely Jesus weeps when we pray in his name for something that contradicts everything he taught. How dare we do in his name what he explicitly rejects?
To gather in the name of Jesus means that we have met to find out what Jesus wants us to do rather than push our own agendas or manipulate decisions. We begin with prayer so that we might be guided by the Spirit of Christ. This is what it means to pray “in the name of Jesus Christ,” not our own. That is why John counsels us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God”, and to do so in the light of Christ. In other words, if someone claims to be led by the Spirit then he or she should be a witness to Christ, and therefore to the love of God revealed in Christ. (I John 4:1-8). This does not mean that there will not be heated debate or that we might say things that are harsh and hurtful. We are human. But we know that it is good to the Holy Spirit and to us only when our decisions are motivated by love even when telling the truth as we understand it. And the decisions that are good to the Holy Spirit heal, reconcile, bring justice and peace. To discern what the Spirit is saying to us therefore requires patience, listening,, repentance and a ton of forgiveness and grace, otherwise we sre not acting in the name of Christ even if we pray in his name.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 3 June 2010
“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” (Nicene Creed)
We believe in the Holy Spirit! At least that is what we say in the Creed. We also say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”, though we might not be entirely sure why we say it or what it means. Most are probably unaware of the heated discussion that lies behind the words, especially the last clause known in Latin as the filioque! But this is not the time for a lecture on the history of the Creed but, in anticipation of Pentecost, a moment to consider what Jesus meant when he said that he would ask “the Father to send another advocate to be with us forever.” For the Holy Spirit is far more than an article of faith which we confess, for God the Spirit is the “Lord and giver of life.”
It is God the Spirit who has brought inert matter to life from the beginning. Through the Spirit God not only creates and redeems the world, but inter-penetrates its life giving the earth a status no less significant than ours who are made “in the image of God.” The abuse of the earth is therefore an attack on God more serious than any atheistic rejection of God could possibly be. Everything that has breath, along with the creative imagination of the artist, the poet, dramatist, and the insight of the wise of every time and place, is traceable to the inspiration of the Spirit, the “Lord and giver of life.” Or, as is sometimes said, the “breath of God.”
The murder of George Floyd in the United States some months ago graphically depicted how brutal it is when we are prevented from breathing. Likewise, we know that the covid virus is spread by our breath, it is airborne, and as such it can become the “breath of death,” just as deadly as carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Likewise, ideologies and the abuse of the Bible contribute to this deathly pollution of the air we breathe. To launch rockets of death in the name of God or to claim that the secular state of Israel can dispossess Palestinians of their land today because the Bible says that God gave it to the ancient Israelites, and even told them to slaughter the Philistines to possess it, is blasphemy. When used in this way the Bible is not a witness to the Word of God which is “full of grace and truth” or the Spirit who gives life. That is why St Paul tells us that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Fundamentalism of whatever kind takes away our breath because it kills the breath of the Spirit.
Back to the Nicene Creed. Originally it stated that the “Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father,” but later, in the Western or Catholic Church, the phrase was expanded to read “from the Father and the Son” thus linking the sending of the Spirit to the work of the crucified and risen Christ. The Spirit not only gives life to creation, or inspires creativity, but also gives us new life in Christ. That is the significance of Pentecost. The creator Spirit of God is the Spirit of Jesus who breathes into us the redemptive love of God. As St Paul so beautifully expresses it: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” What an amazing statement! God’s very nature – for “God is love” – has entered our lives through Christ. Our humanity has been divinized so that we may love the world with the love of Christ, just as God loves the world. As the hymn prayerfully puts it:
Breathe on me breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love as thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do.
The power of the Spirit given at Pentecost to the followers of Jesus was and remains the power of love. All the gifts and fruit of the Spirit are expressions of God’s love for us and the world. That is why a sure sign that we have the Spirit of God within us is that “we love one another as Christ loved us.” So, in writing to the very charismatic church in Corinth Paul tells them that the only certain evidence that we have received the Spirit is love:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
What happened at Pentecost was not the birth of the church as an institution that would expand across the globe like a colonial power governed by powerful men, with many officials ranked in hierarchical order, and inhabiting grand buildings. What happened at Pentecost was the birth of a community of people who loved one another, people filled with the love of God for the world. Love is the life-giving power of the Spirit breathed into the church. In a time of pandemic, whether of covid, or racism, or war, all of which emit the “breath of death” – we are called to breathe God’s life-giving love into the world. That is our vocation. That is what it means to witness to the world in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. And so today, as we anticipate celebrating Pentecost, we pray in the words of the 14th century Italian mystic and servant of the poor, Bianca di Siena:
Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 20 May 2021
“God set forth as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.”
“While Jesus was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
It may be true that some Christians are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly use. But it is equally true that people who have no heavenly vision are not of much earthly use. So the 17th century Jewish philosopher, Spinoza, encourages us to live sub specie aeternitatis”, that is, “from the perspective of the eternal.” While our feet must be firmly planted on the earth. we need to see reality from a heavenly perspective. Indeed, we can say that the Christian life is lived between heaven and earth. With our feet firmly on the ground we see we seek to live now as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
lurching between heaven and earth,
made of the dust of the earth,
yet in the image of God,
feet of clay, but wings of an angel,
earth-bound but heaven-centered,
centered on earth, but bound for heaven,
tottering between the two,
first caught in the grime of earth,
then soaring into the glory of heaven,
yearning, searching for the balance:
to be fully of the earth,
but also fully of heaven.
I remember the day, this week but in May 2003, when Isobel and I left Cape Town and drove up the Hemel en Aarde Valley to begin our retirement years at Volmoed. The time had come to withdraw from busyness, sit down and take a deep breath, to retire, and a valley where heaven and earth are said to meet seemed a great place to do this. Later, Isobel wrote a poem to describe what it means to live in this valley, where heaven meets earth meet, “embraced by mountains” and “a restless river cuts its way to the sea.” But this was not to be an escape to the country but life lived in between heaven and earth
Today is Ascension Day, the day on which, the gospels tell us, Jesus ascended from earth to heaven, one of several ascensions recorded in history. Indeed, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is a sacred site of Muslim pilgrimage because it is believed to be the place from which Mohammed finally ascended to heaven. When we visited there some years ago we were shown the footprints on the rock which marked the spot of the prophet’s take off. Another guide also showed me the place from which Jesus’ was reputed to have ascended to heaven and pointed out his footprints on another tock. I don’t know about you, but I have difficulty in believing such footprint stories. But if we have difficulty in literally regarding Jesus’ take off like a rocket-ship literally, how then are we to understand the Ascension if. Not only that, for we are told that Jesus ended up sitting on the right hand of God!
Taken literally that assumes God has a right hand, and presumably fingers as well, and that there was an empty chair beside him waiting for Jesus to occupy. But a moment’s reflection tells us this is symbolic language. Heaven is not above the clouds nor is it a place on a distant planet, nor is there a heavenly chair on God’s right hand To say that Jesus ascended and sits on the right hand “of the Father” means that the crucified and risen Christ is Lord. And, as Martin Luther once said, “the right hand of God is everywhere.” God’s reign is not administered from a heavenly throne on cloud nine, but in our midst, right here and right now. This is what Jesus taught his disciples. The kingdom of God or heaven – a synonym for God – is among us, and if we enter the realm of God’s rule, we will begin to see things differently, sub species aeternitatis, from the perspective of the eternal. This is the whole point of Jesus’ parables. How to live now as citizens of God’s kingdom, just as we pray that it will come on earth “as it is in heaven.” As the letter to the Ephesians tells us, it is God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” Just as eternal life is not only a promised future, but a present possibility, so we can live now in the kingdom of heaven for we are, as Paul says already “raised with Christ into the newness of life” where all things “become new.” Heaven has come down to earth, just as eternity has entered time, even if only experienced briefly and on rare occasions.
Think of it this way. When two people fall in love, they think they are in heaven! Heaven, for them, is not a faraway place, but an experience of love shared, of dreams expressed, of being together in unity. What connects heaven and earth is, in fact, God’s love expressed in many ways – a love that restores and redeems, a love that unites and heals. Whenever that happens, heaven comes down to earth, and earth embraces heaven. As the Ascension hymn puts it
“Why stand then, looking heavenward?”
Christ dwells in us, we in the Lord!
Beyond both earth and heav’n above,
Our lives are hidden in God’s love.
If we are truly heavenly minded, then we are committed to the earth; but we are committed to the earth differently. For to be heavenly minded is to love the world with the love of God, and therefore to relate to the world as God does, creatively and redemptively. That is why it is impossible to separate the love of God from the love of neighbour or enemy. Indeed, to live between heaven and earth is to live in love, for it is love that makes the connection. To love is to see things from the perspective of eternity. I know of no better expression of that love than that expressed in Charles Wesley’s hymn, so let us make that our prayer:
Love divine, all loves excelling
Joy of Heaven to Earth come down
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling
All Thy faithful mercies crown
Jesus, Thou art all compassion
Pure, unbounded love Thou art
Visit us with Thy salvation
Enter every trembling heart
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, Ascension Day 13 May 2021
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We daily live with death. Carnage on the roads, friends dying of cancer, people brutally murdered, innocent protesters gunned down by police – the possibilities and statistics are endless. But we experience death’s sting most when those statistics become personal. Early on Tuesday morning, our dear friend, Suellen Shay, finally surrendered to the cancer she had struggled against for four years with much courage and hope. Suellen and Don have been virtually part of our family – and ours of theirs – for the past thirty-three years since they arrived in South Africa, and their children are inseparable from our grandchildren. Together with Carolyn Butler, Suellen’s mother, Don and Suellen have also become part of the Volmoed family and had recently moved to Hermanus to become more involved with us here. So, this is a sad day for all of us even as we remember a beautiful life.
Terrible as it is, death is natural and predictable. Just as spring erupts into summer, then turns to autumn which ushers in the darkness of winter, so the rhythm of life stretches from birth to death. All of us have lost loved ones, and know that we, too, must die. But does death have any meaning, beyond its awful reality, its abrupt ending for some and its lingering painful experience for others? Through the centuries and across cultures, humans, have generally believed that there is life beyond death. But modern science has turned many of us into sceptics, making doubting Thomas the rule rather than the exception, even among Christians. Yet week by week we not only declare that “Christ has died!” we also affirm the mystery that “Christ is risen!” The whole edifice of Christian faith is built on that affirmation which defies common sense.
Death seems so final, as it did to the women who came to Jesus’ tomb early on Easter morning. They expected to find that the tomb was still shut tight by the massive rock that had been rolled across its entrance. There was no way they could gain access to care for the broken body of their dearest friend. And, indeed, there is no way that we can enter the realm of the dead for there is an impenetrable wall that separates them from us. When we sit alongside a loved one who is dying it is as though they are entering a dark cave, and that a large stone is being rolled across its entrance preventing us from journeying with them. Once shut we are powerless to roll that stone away. We are left outside in our grief and mourning, our doubts, and lingering hopes.
But the Easter message triumphantly declares: God has rolled the stone away. And of all that happened that first Easter morning, that the stone was rolled away is virtually irrefutable. But what we make of that fact is critical. Yes, the tomb was empty, leaving the women, amazed, dumbfounded, fearful. But what happened? What did it mean? Had the body been stolen? Did Jesus wake up and push the stone away himself to walk free as though he had only been asleep? There is no evidence for any of this. Jesus of Nazareth was “dead and buried” says the creed. and is now history.
Whatever resurrection means, it does not mean resuscitation. It means that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and buried, entered a different dimension of time and space. We call that time eternal and that space heaven, but they are unlike any time or space we know, not measured by minutes and hours or defined by metres and miles. They are also beyond our knowledge even though they inspire our imagination. But the women who came to the tomb discovered that their crucified friend was no longer among the dead but standing behind them in the garden and knew them by name. He was the same Jesus but different. no longer confined to our time, or any one place.
When this risen Christ appeared to the women at the Empty Tomb, to doubting Thomas in the Upper Room, to Peter on the seashore, to the disciples on the Emmaus Road, and then to Paul on the Damascus Road, he startled them as if in disguise, but they soon recognised him and in that moment of recognition, their lives were turned around. Their eyes were opened to see reality in a totally new and previously unimaginable way. As Paul later wrote, “I no longer understand Christ from a human point of view for in him everything old has passed away, everything has become new. (II Cor. 5:16-17) Our faith in the risen Christ is based on their testimony, and that of many others since then whose lives have also been radically transformed by the good news: “Christ is risen.” He is not in any cold tomb he is present among us. And, not only that, for we are also surrounded by a vast company of witnesses. Those who have died are not isolated or alone, imprisoned in a sealed tomb, but in communion with us in the risen Christ, a communion of saints that transcends space and time.
Yes, I know, this defies common sense. That Christ is risen and that we are risen with him is always a mystery that can only be grasped by faith. But if we do, then we see the reality of life and death differently. For faith in the risen Christ helps us see that the stone that separates us from those who have died has been rolled away by the power of God’s love. We then discern that heaven is not a place far away beyond the clouds where Christ and our loved ones reside, but a presence close at hand – the presence of the One “in whom we all live, move and have our being.” Then what we call heaven means that we are enfolded in the love of God together with all those who have died. This is the resurrection, a new dimension of time and space we call eternal life that defies our language even if we are poets, just as the mystery of the resurrection defies our intellect. But if we understand that it is the triumph of God’s love over sin, evil and death, then we know that it is God who moved stone away, and that even as we mourn and grieve, we can say with Paul that nothing, not even death, is able “to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Immortal love for ever full,
For ever flowing free,
For ever shared, for ever whole,
A new ebbing-sea.
Alone, O love ineffable,
Thy saving name is given;
To turn aside from Thee is hell,
To walk with Thee is heaven.
(John Greenleaf Whittier)
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, Easter II, 15 April 2021
I Corinthians 11:23-26
“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’.”
Imagine how often these words are said every day of every week, year in and year out, across the world. It all began “on the night” Jesus was betrayed, that first Maundy Thursday when Jesus had supper with his close companions for the last time. It is appropriate, then, that here at Volmoed, our weekly community Eucharist is celebrated on a Thursday. But the Eucharist is above all a celebration of the risen Christ, not simply the Jesus of history. As Luke tells us, it was on the “first day of the week” that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (2:41) And ever since, Christians have celebrated this feast of the resurrection at least on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, the start of God’s new creation.
This service is known by several names: Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and Mass. But to begin with, as Luke tells us, it was simply known as the “breaking of bread together.” Indeed, the “breaking of the bread” takes us to the heart of what we do here because it dramatically focusses our attention on the cross, on the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of the world. What we do here re-presents God’s act of redemptive love: Jesus “took bread”, he “gave thanks”, he “broke it”, and he “gave it.” In other words, in these actions we see the what God has done for us in Christ, the “bread of life” given for us. So, we take bread, we give thanks, break it, and receive. In those actions the whole of the gospel is proclaimed, for as often as we do this, says Paul, we “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Each time we break bread together we are declaring that “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” Jesus is not entombed in the past, even in the Upper Room; he is truly present with us today as the Lord of life, and he makes himself known, as he did on the Road to Emmaus, in the “breaking of the bread.”
If “breaking bread” describes the heart of this act of worship, the service is also known as the Lord’s Supper. Although only a piece of bread and sip of wine, it is a meal, a supper, or as some have called it, a “holy banquet” or “love feast” to which the risen Christ has invited us. We come to this Table to share this meal because he invites us. It is the Lord’s Supper not ours. We are not the hosts; Christ is the host; it is not our Table, it is his Table, and he welcomes us to sit at table with him. He presides, he celebrates, he breaks bread with us, and in doing so he makes himself known. The Lord’s Supper, this simple meal of bread and wine, is a foretaste of the banquet feast of the coming kingdom of God, the age to come.
So we come to this Table because Christ has invited us to have fellowship with him as we do with each other, for “though we are many we all share the same bread.” The bread of life which is Christ himself. That is why we also call this service Holy Communion. Communion, a word related to communication and community. At Holy Communion, Christ communicates with us and we with him through a series of words, actions and symbols that inform and strengthen our faith and build community. Communion also suggests intimacy, the intimacy of lovers. We pray that the Spirit will bless the bread and wine so that we may feed on Christ by faith. Nothing could be more intimate than such communion; the communion whereby the life of one person is shared by another. It is like a lover who says to his or her beloved: “I could devour you!” That is the passion of the great mystics who find in the Song of Songs not just a sensual love-song between human beings, but an expression of what it means to fall in love with God. Not often, but certainly on some rare and remarkable occasions, I have seen people burst into tears at Communion, tears of love, tears of gratitude. Holy Communion is a means of grace because here we are assured of God’s love for us, God’s desire to be an integral part of our lives, the “bread of life” that nourishes us in love. That is Holy Communion.
Which brings is to a further description of this meal we share, this breaking of bread, this Lord’s Supper, this Holy Communion, is a feast of thanksgiving. Jesus “took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it…” The Greek word used in the New Testament is “eucharist.” If the Lord’s Supper reminds us that Jesus is the host at the Table; if the Breaking of Bread recalls that we come to meet the crucified yet risen Lord who has conquered death; and if Holy Communion describes our intimate relationship to Christ as we eat the bread and drink the cup, then Eucharist describes our response. We come here to express our gratitude to God for God’s love. That is why the prayer at the centre of the meal is known as the “Great Thanksgiving.” We “lift up our hearts” in order to give thanks, for that is “very right to do at all times and in all places.” We give thanks to God for all God has done and continues to do for the world and for us. Our sacrifice is an offering of thanksgiving, and therefore it is the offering of ourselves to the service of God.
Which brings us to the word “Mass”, another word used to describe this simple meal of bread and wine. The word comes from the Latin missio which means “being sent.” It is the word used at the end of the Latin Mass when the priest says “Ite, missa est.” The service has ended, you are now sent into the world. Mass reminds us that we come to this Table to be renewed for serving the world. We come to receive food for the journey; we go to share what we have received, bread of life broken for the sake of the world. Just as the disciples could not remain on the mountain of Transfiguration but had to descend with Jesus onto the plain on the way to the cross, so we come to the Lord’s Supper, to break bread, to share Holy Communion, and give thanks, to go into the world to serve God in the service of others.
This all began on the night when Jesus was betrayed, the night he broke bread with his disciples and told them to do this in remembrance of him until he came again. I end with the words of a hymn that we used to sing at Holy Communion in days, now long ago:
Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face.
Here would I touch and handle things unseen;
Here grasp with firmer hand, the eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon Thee lean.
Here would I feast upon the bread of God;
Here drink with Thee the royal wine of heaven;
Here would O lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.
This is the hour of banquet and of song;
This is the heavenly table spread for me;
Here let me feast, and, feasting still prolong
the hallowed hour of fellowship with Thee. (Horatio Bonar 1808-1889)
John de Gruchy
Volmoed, Maundy Thursday, 1 April, 2021
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you…Woe to you when all speak well of you.” Luke 6:22-26
How can we possibly be blessed if people hate us, and exclude us from their company? And why should we be wary of people who affirm us, who pass compliments, pat us on the shoulder, say nice things about us, and embrace us? Anyone who has suffered from discrimination whether because of race or gender, ethnicity, or class, know that being excluded does not make you feel blessed, but cursed. And anyone who has been cursed from childhood by being told that they are good for nothing and will never succeed at anything, know how much they crave affirmation. How they long to be told that they are worth something, how they hunger for words of encouragement. So how can Jesus say: “woe to you when all speak well of you?”
Jesus’ Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Plain shock us, and that is what he intends. Nobody would have taken much notice if Jesus had said we are blessed when people include us and cursed when they don’t speak well of us. But he says the very opposite. If last week we hear about Jesus turning things upside down, or the right way up, today it is about turning things inside out. We are blessed when excluded and cursed when people speak well of us. But why?
Well remember the people to whom Jesus was speaking. Many of them were peasants, not well-schooled and not well-spoken, not the kind of people the self-righteous Pharisees would invite to dinner. And some of the crowd listening to Jesus might have been Samaritans, or even lepers, people who were hated and excluded from polite society and respectable religious circles. To them Jesus is saying, consider yourselves happy that you are not included in such self-righteous and ultra-pious company! You are better off as outsiders because you are, in fact, insiders in God’s kingdom. But to the religiously self-righteous and the Pharisees Jesus says, “woe to you when all speak good of you!” Woe to you who relish having your egos massaged by praise. You who walk about as though you are God’s chosen ones. Truly, you are outside God’s kingdom. In short, in this Beatitude Jesus turns things inside out.
Is this not the message of Jesus’ parable about the great banquet, also recorded by Luke? A friend throws a dinner party and invites all the people we normally honour, all the socially well-heeled, to attend. But all of them make excuses. The dinner is not to their liking. They either don’t think the guest list is distinguished enough, or that the host is worthy of their company, or that it would be to their advantage to attend, so they send lame excuses and don’t pitch up. They have excluded themselves from the party. So the host sends his servants to find all those who were never invited to such banquets, those who are always excluded, those about whom no one has a good word to say, and compels them to attend! Come and claim your rightful seat at my table, join me at my party – there are no signs of exclusion at the door only a welcome mat.
So those who have always been hated, discover that they are loved, and those who have been excluded find themselves enjoying the master’s hospitality. They are truly blessed far beyond anything they could have imagined. But those who have always been regarded as respectable, those who have always received praise, those who think highly of themselves and bask in their privilege and status, find themselves excluded. There has been a reversal of roles. The victims are vindicated; the perpetrators punished, in fact, they have punished themselves because they do not want to join the party and join with those others in the cekebration.
How often this happens in history. The Civil War in the United States was all about who should be invited to the banquet, who should have the vote and therefore access to the levers of power, privilege, and affluence. The South wanted to keep slaves in their place, the North was willing to invite them to the table. The struggle, of which racism is both cause and symptom, continues to this day. Who really belongs at the table? It is the same across the world, and certainly here in apartheid South Africa. Who should have access to education, to health, to privilege, to power? The signs “Europeans Only!” or “Whites Only!” answered those questions categorically. But as things turn out, the outsider becomes the insider, and those who live by the creed of exclusion actually exclude themselves from God’s party where everyone is welcome.
Jesus’ beatitudes are revolutionary and obviously have a wider reference than simply to his audience on the Plain for they have to do with what it means to follow him, what it means to live according to the kingdom or reign of God. Consider the prophets, those who spoke truth to power, those who challenged the status quo of injustice and oppression in the land, those who were reviled and persecuted because they were defending the poor and oppressed. They were blessed even though those in power or those who benefitted from the way things are, hated them and excluded them from their company. Remember the time when people like Beyers Naude, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela were hated by those in power and disliked and shunned most white South Africans. But they, says Jesus, are the blessed ones for they did what is right and good. And by the same token consider those who were regarded as the pillars of social respectability, the guardians of moral propriety, applauded with honours for their patriotism, find themselves excluded. To such, Jesus says: “Woe to you when all speak good of you!”
Jesus is not saying that excluding others is good, or that affirming others is bad. Jesus is not saying that we should make sure people hate us in order that we can be happy. Nor is he saying that we should not speak well of other people, affirming them in and for what they do, especially those who are often demeaned or spoken down to. That is not what Jesus is saying at all. What Jesus is saying, first to the self-righteous and privileged is this: if you want to come to the table then you need to be humble enough, you need to learn to share, you need to embrace the outsider sitting next to you. And what Jesus is saying to those who feel excluded is simply this: there is room at the table for you. Indeed, as Luke also records, if in your humility you come in and sit down at the back, the master may well say “come up higher”, and to those who are accustomed to the place of privilege he may well say: “Give this person you despise your place at my right hand.” For says Jesus: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Lent 4 18 March 2021
Isaiah 58:6-9: Luke 6:21,25
Is not this the fast that I choose:
To share your bread with the hungry.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Lent is a time of listening again to Jesus’ challenging words of costly discipleship as we journey to the cross. Such words change the way in which we see the world and ourselves. Of course, we are all eager to hear words of encouragement and hope, rather than challenging words that disturb us. But the words of Jesus that seem to turn the world upside–down are really about turning it the right way up. Words that challenge what is wrong to make things right; words that challenge sin so that we might receive salvation. No words do this more than the words of blessing and the words of woe in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
We come here on a Thursday to celebrate God’s love, to share the peace of Christ, and to find strength for the journey. We come seeking words of comfort and support to help us cope with our daily lives. But we do not come to escape from the realities of a broken world in order find the peace of God in the beauty that surrounds us by denying the ugliness of the injustice that confronts us in the world. We come so that we might become God’s joyful agents of God’s mercy, love, and justice in the world. Indeed, it is in seeking to be God’s agents of justice in the world that we discover God’s peace; it is in challenging ugliness that we affirm beauty; and by proclaiming the good news of Christ we challenge the bad news of despair and hopelessness.
In thinking about Jesus’ words “blessed are you who are hungry now” I searched the web for information about world hunger and found myself in Wikipedia reading about “The Hunger Games.” For those who don’t know (as I didn’t!), The Hunger Games is a series of novels that, in 2012, ranked second only to Harry Potter. In 2014 the Hunger Games evidentlysold 65 million copies in 51 languages, and it has been turned into a movie series. It may seem shocking that people could turn hunger into a game, but in fact The Hunger Games are meant to challenge a world that is upside-down, a world in which the majority are hungry while a minority have more than enough to satisfy them. As Wikipedia tells is:
The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in an unspecified future time, post-apocalyptic nation of Panem, located in North America. The country consists of a wealthy Capitol city, surrounded by twelve poorer districts ruled by the Capitol. The Capitol is lavishly rich and technologically advanced, but the districts are in varying states of poverty. District 12 is the poorest region where people regularly die of starvation. As punishment for a past rebellion against the Capitol one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts, are selected by lottery to compete in the annual Hunger Games in which the participants are forced to fight to the death in public. The winner and his or her district is then rewarded with food, supplies, and riches. The purposes of the Hunger Games is to provide entertainment for the Capitol and to remind the districts of the Capitol’s power and lack of remorse, forgetfulness, and forgiveness for the failed rebellion of the current competitors’ ancestors.
That just about sums up the upside-down world in which we live. There are the rich and powerful who have control of all the resources, and the poor and powerless who go to bed hungry. Hunger has become a game, like monopoly, in which the more you have the more you want and the more you get. Just think about it. The world’s billionaires have not gone hungry during the Covid-19 pandemic, they have been more than filled, while the number of hungry people has reached obscene levels. Think of all those who have made a fortune out of the war in Yemen which is now devasted by poverty, disease, and famine. War games have led to hunger games! How upside down is that?
So what are we going to make of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled?” Can that possibly be true? When will those who are hungry now be filled? When will those of us who have more than we need go hungry? Is this just a promise or threat that can never be fulfilled, literally a pie in the sky when you die? Or is Jesus shocking us, like The Hunger Games, into facing reality? Is he telling us that as long as there is such injustice in the world, there will never be peace in the world, and those who have more than they need will never feel secure and at peace, and may lose all they have in the end?
Although it often seems that what Jesus said in his sermon on the Plain in Luke is radically different to his sermon on the Mount in Matthew, there is a deep connection. If Luke tells us that the hungry will be filled and those who are satisfied now will eventually go hungry, in Matthew Jesus says: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they will be filled.” These words challenge us who have more than we need to become hungry for God’s justice for those who are hungry now. That is what the Lenten fast is about. “Is not this the fast that I choose” says God, “to share your bread with the hungry?” Jesus is not telling those who are already filled to go hungry; he is challenging us to share what we have so that no one goes hungry. If you are not hungry in your belly now, become hungry in your commitment to justice, for then you shall be filled. To become hungry for justice and to do justly is how we show our love for God and neighbour.
Concretely this means that we take time to find out how we can contribute to alleviating hunger. Maybe we can all make one pledge today: to renew our commitment as individuals and as a community to respond to the hunger crisis facing the world and our own society in whatever way is possible for us. Many of us support NGOs fighting hunger and poverty. Many of us are helping to support the unemployed at this Pandemic time. May we continue to do so, perhaps even more than we have, and resist the temptation to throw up our hands in despair because the problem is so huge. Jesus’ challenging words to us today are to remember the hungry by being hungry to see that God’s justice is done. They are not a call to starve ourselves, but to share ourselves. Only in this way shall the hungry be filled, and those of us who are full now will avoid Jesus’ words of woe. This is our Lenten fast: “To share our bread with the hungry” and to do so for the love of God.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Lent 3 4th March 2021
Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people. They had come to hear him…Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you…woe are you.”
This is how Luke describes the beginning of what we normally call the Sermon on the Mount, that is when we read it in St Matthew’s gospel. But in Luke it is normally known as the Sermon on the Plain, though in the NRSV we are simply told “Jesus came down with his disciples’ from the mount where he had been praying, “and stood on a level place.” At the risk of being a little corny, we could say that in the sermon Jesus preached he was levelling with the crowd, or simply engaging in some plain speaking. But, however you look at it, Luke’s account of the Beatitudes is significantly different from that of Matthew. Even the location is different. In Matthew it takes place on a mountain side – I have even been there to visit the Church of the Beatitudes – but in Luke, Jesus is on level ground. He is facing the crowd eye to eye not speaking from some lofty pulpit. Though there is some irony in Luke’s account. For Luke says that when Jesus began speaking “he looked up at his disciples!” They appear to be standing on higher ground, maybe regarding themselves as a little superior to the rest of the crowd. But what Jesus said soon brought them down to earth with a bump. And that is what Luke’s account of the Beatitudes does – it may lack something of the beauty of Matthew’s version, but it shocks us. It is plain speaking. And it is this version of the Beatitudes that we will be considering during the next six weeks of Lent.
Some of you may be wondering whether Jesus may not have given two sermons that were similar yet different. That’s not unusual among preachers. We sometimes use the same material but put a different spin on it depending on the occasion and the audience. But it is more likely that Matthew interpreted Jesus’ sermon in a way that connected with a major aim in writing his gospel – to challenge the religious hypocrisy of the pharisees who thought they were more righteous than anyone else. To them Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke, however, always has the underdog in mind, the despised, underprivileged, and downtrodden, so to them, Luke tells us Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor.” Not just those who are humble, but those who possess nothing. Those who are not just hungering and thirsting for righteousness, but those who are physically hungry. Luke goes further, for in his gospel Jesus not only says that the poor and hungry are blessed, but follows this up by saying “woe to you who are rich,” and “woe to you who are full now.” In fact, every one of Jesus’ sayings about being blessed in Luke’s account has a corresponding “woe” attached. “Blessed are you who weep now,” but “woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.”
I recall the day when I first read the Beatitudes as translated by J.B. Philips. It was published in the nineteen-fifties, Philips wanted to make the New Testament more accessible to what was then called “modern man.” His translation was an attempt to help us hear Jesus’ speaking to plainly and to the point so that we would be less tempted to admire the beauty of his words and more able to hear what he was saying. To those who were so accustomed to hearing Jesus say: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, or simply “Blessed are the poor”, we now heard Jesus saying: “How happy are you who own nothing,” and “how miserable for you who are rich!” Suddenly I heard Jesus speaking to me. To be blessed, according to the original Greek (makarios), means being happy, and not to be blessed means being miserable!
In the Beatitudes Jesus is addressing a question that philosophers, wise women and wise men, have tried to answer through the centuries. What makes us happy? And that remains a puzzling question. One of the best-selling books in recent times is Gretchen Rubin’s book called The Happiness Project in which she brings together the wisdom of the ages and new scientific research, to find the answer. You can check it out on the web. When we really think about it, we know that genuine happiness has much less to do with wealth and possessions than it has to do with the love of friends and family and having a meaningful life. This is what we give thanks for when we count our blessings and name them one by one. These are what we value most, or should do, but often forget to live by them. Happiness is connected to love, to forgiveness, to sharing and caring, not to possessing and grasping.
Lent is a season of repentance, a time when Jesus wants to level with us, speak plainly to us, to bring us back to what is most important in life, the values of the gospel. Repentance is acknowledging that we have not been doing very well on that score, sometimes abysmally so, so we need to change direction, turn around, start again with a clean sheet. Literally the word repentance in the New Testament means a change or heart and mind that enables us to live according to the will of God for us. It is seeking first the kingdom of God because everything else is secondary. It is turning away from that which hinders us from following the way of Jesus and turning towards that which helps. It is what we mean by conversion, a life-long process on the journey towards being at one with God.
Isobel and I are in the middle of moving downstairs, and that means downsizing which is, as you all know, always a challenge. For how do you get rid of all the stuff you don’t really need for the next stage in life when so much of it has some significance for you? But you must; you must live more simply. Repentance is like that – deciding what must to be left behind, in order to move on in your journey of faith, hope and love. You can’t take everything you may want to cling to, so you must decide on what you really need. Thinking about Jesus’ Beatitudes helps us to do that, and there is much more that follows in his Sermon on the Plain as we will see during Lent, that focuses our minds on this task. For it is there that we hear Jesus teaching us to love for our enemies, not to judge others, turn the other cheek, forgive seventy-times seven.
Lent, then, is when we learn again about what makes us truly happy. If we want to be happy, then we must do what is right, loving and just and we will be unhappy if we don’t. Can we be happy if we are wealthy and our neighbours down the road are living in poverty? Can we be happy if some children get a good education while others don’t, or some have plenty to eat while others go to bed hungry? When we ask such questions, we soon find out what it means to seek God’s kingdom” first. We discover that we cannot have peace if we are surrounded by injustice, we cannot expect love if we do not love in return. That is the beginning of repentance, the beginning of a change of heart and mind in the ongoing conversion of our lives as we follow Jesus.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed Lent 1 18th February 2021
II Corinthians 2;14-17
Thanks be to God, who … uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.
Sniffer dogs are amazing creatures. It is claimed that they can detect cancer, explosives, illegal drugs, currency, bad blood, and even illegal cell phones. We may not be able to do that but if we lose our smell, as happens with many Covid-19 victims, it can be life-threatening. Our ability to smell gives us pleasure when we enjoy the fragrance of fresh flowers or the smells of delicious food cooking in the kitchen. But our sense of smell also protects us from danger and harm. The smell of smoke alerts us to fire, the smell of rotten fish keeps us from eating it. If we could not smell perfume manufacturers would not exist, rose gardens would lose their allure, and the joy of smelling the fresh sea air would be denied us. Like the other four senses, hearing, tasting, touching, and seeing, smelling matters, adding value to life and saving us from potential disaster.
Of course, smell alone does not prove that something is rotten. We still need scientists to examine the cause and explain why it is bad. But often our intuition, our senses, lead the way. We can smell a rat even before a crook is convicted of fraud on scientific evidence. When say that we can smell rotten fish, we don’t always mean that the snoek is bad, but that someone is trying to con us. We intuitively know because our senses warn us even before ours reason kicks in. Smelling is like love. We experience love before we can explain or understand it.
With this in mind listen again to the words of our text, but now as translated by Eugene Peterson: “God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God.” In other words, people are attracted to Christ because those who spread the gospel smell good – their message carries conviction not because their arguments are necessarily beyond challenge, but because their lives “smell good”. But, Paul add, while that sweet smell means salvation for some it means damnation to others. What smells good to some, does not to others. How are we to understand this?
Paul prefaces his remarks by referring to the triumphal victory parade that used to happen after every major Roman victory much like our victorious rugby team’s parade through our cities after their World Cup victory in 2019. The Roman procession would be led by state officials, trumpeters, people carrying aloft the trophies of battled, animals for sacrifice, then his captives – enemy leaders and generals in chains, soon to be executed, and others brought back into slavery. Then came the musicians — and mark this –priests swinging censers of burning incense whose sweet smell wafted across the crowd and enveloped the triumphant general dressed in a purple toga and riding in a chariot drawn by four horses. Then followed his family and the victorious army. What a glorious sight, what a triumphant cacophony of sound, and what a sweet smell of burning incense percolated through the air of the crowded and normally smelly streets. It was the fragrance of victory and every person who smelt it shared in the triumph. Well, not everyone enjoyed the smell. It was not sweet for the captives in the procession. For them it was the smell of impending death or slavery. So Paul writes: “we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.”
I have always been wary of incense in church not for any theological reason but because it reminds me of the time when, before I was about to preach in St George’s Cathedral years ago, the then Archbishop Burnett, incensed me with a cloud of smoke which almost overwhelmed me and made it difficult to speak! But incense is used for different purposes in churches. As the smoke of incense rises, the Psalmist tells us, it reminds us that our prayers are rising up to God as depicted on the wall hanging behind the altar. And the sweet smell of the incense that the monks burn before the reading of the gospel reminds us of the aroma of God’s love, grace and gift of life in Christ. In other words, we not only hear the good news, but we smell it. It is a smell that evokes a sense of life, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit. Not only can we “taste and see that the Lord is good”, as the Psalmist says, but we can also smell that in Christ God has included us in the victory parade that celebrates God’s love and gift of life. Which is the very reason we are here today
So, writes Paul, everywhere he and his companions travel on their mission to preach the good news, “God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God which is recognized by those on their way to salvation – an aroma redolent with life.”
But we cannot celebrate the victory parade of Christ’s resurrection if we forget those for whom the smell of incense meant death or slavery as the Roman army marched in triumph – people who would have been jeered by the crowd and worse. For the Christ we follow is not a triumphant general who has won a victory over our enemies, but the crucified One who walks in solidarity with all of us, victor and victim alike. Christ died for all not for some, and our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others. We cannot enjoy the fragrance of our freedom in Christ while others only smell the odour of death, hatred, violence. People who live every day in places where every smell is a reminder of the bitterness of life and the decay of their circumstances. Christianity begins to stink when Christians become self-righteous in trying to keep God’s love for themselves instead of sharing God’s love with all. So may it be said of us as it was of Paul that “everywhere we go people breathe in the exquisite fragrance” of Christ.
John de Gruchy
12 February 2021