Archive for April, 2018

Like Him

Saturday, April 14th, 2018

Each year we celebrated ANZAC Day – the occasion when we remember those who gave their lives in war and express our thanks to those who went to war and survived.

We have heard on our news in recent times that a mass grave has been discovered in the north east of France near the place where the Battle of Fromelles was fought in July 1916. This was the first action that Australian troops saw on the Western Front in Europe. The attack was foolish, badly planned with the enemy in a superior position. The troops had to cross a wide ‘no-man’s land’ in broad daylight. One survivor wrote, “The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat, crisscrossed lattice of death. Hundreds were mown down in the flicker of an eyelid”. Over five and a half thousand soldiers were killed in just one day. One hundred and ninety-one were hurriedly buried by the enemy and it is this grave that is about to be opened, the remains of those soldiers identified and reburied in a new memorial cemetery.

The lives of these men were brought to a violent end in a stupid and foolish battle that was a complete defeat for the Australian and British troops. Why is so much effort being put into the exhumation and reburial of those who died so long ago? This is not an easy or inexpensive task. Why do we need to honour what is left of these men, treat those remains with so much dignity and show respect?

We could answer saying that these men gave their lives in the service of their country and deserve this kind of dignity. No one would argue with that.
What is more, this will certainly bring closure for some families who have wondered all these years where their loved one is buried.
The fact remains, however, that retrieving these remains won’t bring the person back. These remains are all that’s left of a life.

Whatever our religious convictions may be deep inside we know that our body is special and so we treat it in a special way even after it has died. When we attend a funeral we give honour and respect to the body, or what’s left of it (as in the case of those soldiers), and treat it with dignity.

Our bodies are miracles. In fact, the body we have was designed and created by God, and carries the mark of his genius. Just think of what our body can do, how complex and balanced, how strong and yet how capable of fine control.
Think about the brain and everything that it does and controls without any effort on our part.
Think about our eyes, ears, heart and lungs that are all so complex and amazing and do such marvellous things and we hardly give them a thought as we go about our daily tasks.
When one part is injured in some way, the body has its own repair mechanism. Our bodies are more than the result of an evolutionary process and are so wonderful and amazing that it’s not hard to believe that we are what we are because the hand of God the Creator made us.

The Bible sees human beings as one of God’s miracles. We are body, soul, mind, spirit, personality, DNA, flesh and bone, all wonderfully and mysteriously integrated and knit together, working in complex harmony. Think of a smile. You can’t separate the different components of a smile and if you were able then it would no longer be a smile. Muscle and bone and spirit and mind and personality all combine in one of the most powerful yet subtle things we can ever experience – a smile.

The psalmist wrote this to express how wonderfully made our bodies are, “You created every part of me; you put me together in my mother’s womb. When my bones were being formed, carefully put together in my mother’s womb, when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there— you saw me before I was born” (Psalm 139 13,15-16).

God made Adam and Eve with his own hands and intended them to live forever in happiness and harmony with God and the world in which he placed them. As we know that all changed when sin entered the world and our bodies became infected with all kinds of sickness and the process of aging began. However, even though we are marred and disfigured by sin, this doesn’t diminish the uniqueness of our bodies one bit.

God didn’t put us in this world simply to grow old, wear out and die. He made us to live forever. And in faith, we say as we confess what we believe – ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’ – yes, my body will live forever.

Today we hear, as we have heard since Easter Day, how Jesus appears to his disciples in his resurrection body. To say the least the disciples were terrified. When someone is dead they stay dead. And so Jesus went to lot of effort to show them that he is not a ghost or a spirit or figment of their imagination but the flesh-and-blood Jesus they have known when they walked and talked together as they travelled around Galilee. This is the same Jesus who has real skin; skin that now bears scars from nails and a spear and who eats and drinks in the same way he did when he ate with Zaccheus or with the disciples at the last supper. He says, ‘Look at my hands and my feet and see who I am! Touch me and find out for yourselves. It’s me Jesus’.

The New Testament tells us that our resurrection too (following the pattern set by Jesus) will be a resurrection of the body. In today’s second reading, John says that when Jesus is revealed at the last day ‘we will be like him’ (John 3:2b).

There are some popular ideas about what happens to us after death that are so wrong.
One that raises its head every so often is the idea of reincarnation, that is, after we die we come back in another life. There are even some Christians who have expressed this idea to me. There is nothing to suggest in the Bible that we come back to live another life on this earth again. In fact, I don’t find this a particularly attractive idea compared to the joy of heaven.
Neither does the Bible talk about the dead hanging around as ghosts, or spirits, or forces or whatever.
Neither does the Bible say that we become angels when we die.

What the Bible does say is that the body that is capable of so many wonderful things is a creation of God and that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are redeemed body and soul. That means that eternal life involves our bodies. This teaching about the resurrection of the body is something unique to the Christian faith.

You see, when Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead he didn’t do all this to save just our souls. He gave his body on the cross to save us in our totality. He has made us, body and soul, holy and right with God. We believe that this weak clay pot of a body will one day be transformed into the likeness of the perfect and eternal Son of God himself, nothing less. Yes, we will be like him.

Paul tells us that, like Jesus, our old body that is now so riddled with faults and weaknesses will be made new and perfect and eternal and beautiful and healthy and strong in every way. I’m not just talking about the physical side of our bodies which on this earth suffer from all kinds of ailments but also our personality, our character flaws, our selfishness and all the dark blots that spoil and hold us back, that trip us up here in this life where sin still hangs on to us.

Our will and our minds will be made new. We will know God’s will perfectly and so be in complete harmony with God and with everyone else. All these things will be made new and beautiful and we will be finally what God has always wanted us to be. We will be the beautiful and lovely person that God has always known we would one day become. In fact, that’s not to say that God doesn’t love us now. In Christ, we have already been new and clean because of the blood of Jesus, but while in this life we will always have to deal with sin and sickness and aging.

Paul uses the illustration of a seed that is planted in the ground but rises from the ground as a lush green plant with heads of grain. When you look at a daffodil bulb there is nothing attractive about it. Wrinkly, dry, brown, so ugly but when it is planted and rises from the ground there are green leaves and on the tall, straight stems are the most beautiful flowers. Listen to what the apostle says, This is how it will be when the dead are raised to life. When the body is buried, it is mortal; when raised, it will be immortal. When buried, it is ugly and weak; when raised, it will be beautiful and strong” (1 Cor 15:42-43).

This is great encouragement and comfort for us as we struggle with aging and illness.
These bodies that wear out in a few short years and leave us creaking and groaning with pain and losing our mobility are headed for complete and radical renewal. No arthritis, no heart problems or diabetes or cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.
No fear of that day when one of these will finally catch up with us and we die.

What a great encouragement and comfort all this is when we must sit at a deathbed or attend the funerals of family and friends.
In Christ and only in Christ is there the hope that beyond death there awaits a new life, a new body and a new home for all those who trust in Jesus as their saviour.

One day all of us will go through the dark valley of death.
We don’t know what our bodies will go through along the way.
We don’t know when this will happen.
We don’t have a precise description of what our new bodies will be like. After all how can you describe something out of this world with worldly words?
But what we do know is that when Jesus is revealed, we will be like him.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

 

Seeing And believing.

Saturday, April 7th, 2018
Text: John 20:24-25
One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (called the Twin), was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

Harriet, the town gossip, knew everything about everybody.  People didn’t like the way she talked about everybody behind their backs, but they were afraid to say anything because they knew they would be her next topic of gossip.
But Harriet made a mistake, when she saw George’s ute parked all afternoon in front of the town’s only bar. She commented to George and others in no uncertain manner that since it was parked there so long everyone knew that he was an alcoholic.
George, a man of few words, stared at her for a moment and then just walked away.  He said nothing.  Later that evening, George quietly parked his ute in front of Harriet’s house and left it there all night.

Seeing is believing.  Harriet believed that and would jump to all kinds of wild conclusions from what she saw.  Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, thought the disciples had done the same – seen something and jumped to some wild conclusions.

Put yourself in Thomas’ shoes for a minute.  After someone whom you have loved dearly has died, you were there when this happened, and then some other friends come to you and say, “You know so and so who died yesterday, well we have seen him.  He is alive.  Isn’t that exciting?”

If someone said that to you, how would you react?  Would you join them in their excitement or perhaps say, “That’s nice”, but think that the person has become a bit delusional, perhaps too much stress that comes with grief.

The Gospel writer John recalls the time when the disciples told Thomas how seeing the wounds in Jesus’ hands and in his side convinced them that Jesus was really alive again.  Excitedly they told Thomas that there was no doubt about it – the crucified, dead and buried Jesus is alive.

But Thomas can’t believe what he was being told.  Jesus was dead.  He had seen this with his own eyes.  It isn’t logical – when you’re dead, you stay dead.  This defies all human reason.

Thomas doesn’t want wishful thinking; he doesn’t want to believe something that will turn out to be just the wild imagination of some over-stressed friends.

Grief can do some strange things to people’s minds and so Thomas is adamant, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hand in his side, I will not believe”. 
“I want to believe what you guys have seen, but I need proof.  I won’t believe it’s true until I see the scars in his hands and his side for myself.”

Let’s give credit where credit is due.  Thomas doesn’t dismiss the possibility that the disciples had seen Jesus.  He could have said, “You’re all mad.  I don’t want to hear another word of this nonsense.”

Thomas wants to be convinced.  He wants proof that what the disciples had witnessed was true and real and not just some trick.

Let’s think about this for a moment.  There are times when our faith in God is strengthened and we become convinced more than ever before of God’s presence because we have seen the hand of God at work in our lives.
Perhaps you have had a prayer answered in an amazing way.
Or you have experienced a healing – someone has had a wonderful recovery from a serious illness that could have taken their life or left them with a serious disability.
A family member whom you have encouraged in their Christian faith suddenly opens their heart to the saving news of the gospel and become involved in the church.
Some of you have had amazing experiences of the closeness of God at a time when you were feeling lonely, or sick, or grieving.
At times like this, we are convinced that God is real and that his love and care for us could never be doubted.  We have experienced his love and power close at hand.

But there are also times when our experiences cause us to wonder, even doubt, whether God knows us at all.
We struggle to find the love of God when a child, who is just starting out in life, meets a tragic death.
Someone who is loved and very much needed in a family is struck down with a terrible disease.

We lose our jobs; we are broke; our marriage breaks up, a child causes us terrible stress.  How many people have prayed for healing but nothing happens.

Thomas had experienced Jesus’ crucifixion, death and burial; he had become confused about who Jesus was.
Like any of us in the face of a senseless tragedy (as Jesus’ death was) Thomas’ experience of the closeness of God was at an all-time low.
Like any of us, most likely he too was asking, “Where was God when all this was happening?”  Even when the disciples told him that Jesus had risen from the dead, he still would not believe until he had experienced this for himself.

Can you see that there is a bit of Thomas in all of us?  The strength or weakness of our faith often depends on our experiences, – on the evidence which convinces us that God is real and that he loves us, or on the other hand, our experience tells us that God is distant and doesn’t care.  We like to have positive experiences of God in our lives.  We like it when our faith is bolstered by the clear evidence of the power of God at work in our lives.  Thomas needed to experience it, to see with his own eyes the scars of the nails and feel the wound in Jesus’ side.

I believe that’s the way God made us to be – practical, down-to-earth people who rely on the experiences of this life.  God has given us feelings and emotions and these feelings and emotions often determine how we experience the presence or absence of God in our lives.
We have learnt at Sunday School, confirmation classes and Bible studies all the facts about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
Maybe you have learnt Bible verses off by heart, and can quickly find the promises of God in the scriptures – this is the foundation of our faith.  This kind of head knowledge is good but if it doesn’t have an impact on our daily lives, then of what use is it?

Our experience of God is extremely helpful in our relationship with God.  It’s good to experience a prayer that has been answered in the way we had prayed.
It’s good to be certain of the presence and power of God at work when we are recovering from sickness, or getting over a tragedy.  God gives us these experiences to show us that he does what he promises.

The experience of the disciples that day when they saw the risen Jesus must have been amazing and their faith and trust in Jesus rose to new heights.

When Thomas didn’t have that same experience and he was still left sad and depressed, Jesus could have taken the attitude, “Well, Thomas, you have the word of the disciples that should be enough.”  But Jesus isn’t like that.  He doesn’t ridicule Thomas for wanting to experience firsthand the resurrected Jesus.  He invites Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side. Stop your doubting, and believe!”  He goes out of his way for this one man and lets him experience the resurrection first hand.  Jesus provides this experience to reassure the troubled and doubting Thomas that the disciples were speaking the truth.  Thomas believes and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

This incident tells us clearly that seeing, touching, experiencing God in dramatic ways strengthens our faith, confirms our understanding of God, reassures us of the power and love of God but is not the basis of our faith.  If our faith in God rested only on our experiences then our faith would yoyo up and down every day, depending on whether our experiences were good or bad.  If we depended on our experiences of God to prove his love for us, then what would we do when the only evidence we see is sadness, tragedy and death.

You see, there comes a time when we have faith in God in spite of the circumstances we are experiencing.  Even when there is no immediate proof from your experience that God is powerful and that he loves you, you continue to trust in him.  We believe even though we can’t see it.  Faith keeps on trusting in spite of the fact that we can no longer see God’s hand at work.  Faith keeps on believing that God is faithful to his promises.

In spite of being jailed and his life threatened, Paul continued to trust God.
In spite of being imprisoned in 1943 for his political and Christian opposition to the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer continued to trust God.  He became pastor to fellow prisoners, spoke about God’s love and prayed with them.

Mother Teresa continued to help the poor and dying of Calcutta.  All she saw, day in and day out, was human misery.  She never lost sight of the loving God.
A mother continues to trust God even though her two small children were killed in a car accident.
A man continues to pray to God even though his body is filled with disease and daily struggles with pain.  He says, “God knows what he is doing”.

There comes a time when we believe even though there’s no immediate, obvious evidence that God is nearby.  We believe even though we can’t see.  That’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”  Faith in the New Testament is just this – trusting and relying on God even when our experience of God barely exists.  This is where Thomas came unstuck.  He should have believed that Jesus would rise again because Jesus had said he would.  In fact, all the disciples should have believed this in spite of what they had experienced.

Faith has to do with relying on a promise, trusting a word, holding on to what we know about God and believing that, regardless of what happens.

Faith believes that God is true to his word.  He never deserts us.  His love always burns strongly for us.  Even when the circumstances in our life might tempt us to think otherwise, faith holds on to believing that God knows what he is doing.

Jesus came to Thomas with understanding and compassion.  He helped Thomas in his faith, just as he helps us when we begin to wonder about God’s genuineness. He has given us the Holy Spirit to help us when our faith wavers. He helps us trust God’s promises even though our experience tells us otherwise.

From time to time, we are actually allowed to see him touch our lives and feel his presence; other times we rely on our experience of God from the past.
That’s okay but there will also be times when we rely solely on God’s Word of promise.  He said that he would always be our helper and strength, and we need to simply rely on the promise.

Jesus says to us as he said to Thomas, “Do you believe because you see me?  How happy are those who believe without seeing me!”

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy