Sunday, August 23, 2020

christ-minded -- a sermon on Philippians 1-2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s


Philippians 1.1-11, 2.1-13 (CEB) 

23 August 2020, Postcards of Faith 10

From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus.

To all those in Philippi who are God’s people in Christ Jesus, along with your supervisors and servants.

May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defence and support of the gospel. God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,

        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself

        by taking the form of a slave

        and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human,

        he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,

        even death on a cross.

Therefore, God highly honoured him

        and gave him a name above all names,

    so that at the name of Jesus everyone

        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow

        and every tongue confess

            that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

“Don’t do anything for selfish purposes. Look not to your own interests, but instead to what is better for others” — it isn’t often that we hear that, is it? Or rather, perhaps I should say that it isn’t often that we see that in action. We’ve certainly heard a fair number of pleas from our leaders to consider the health of others and of the NHS in recent months. But when it comes to behaviour that truly values what is best for others rather than our own self-interest, it’s often harder to see, especially the higher up the leadership chain we look. So often leaders take the “do as I say, not as I do” approach — an approach which Paul tells us is the opposite of what God did in Christ.

We know that Jesus reveals who God is and what God is like — he said himself that when we look at him, we see God. And this passage from Philippians shows us that the Son of God, the Word Incarnate, who is God…decided not to use power for his own gain or advancement. Instead he emptied himself. He let go of power and became not just a human being, but a human being on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder, and he was obedient even to the most horrifying and shameful death we could imagine. 

That’s what Christ reveals about God — humble, close, refusing to use power for himself, serving others to the very end. And so he is called Lord, despite the fact that title was reserved for the emperor. And remember, Paul was writing to a city that was full of emperor-worship, where the population was well-off and used to the economic and social benefits that came from being loyal Roman citizens, so calling someone else Lord was risky!

Now think of the words we often use to describe God:



Everywhere present






Those are also words that were often used to describe the emperor.

The way we talk about what God is like matters, because it determines how we will act, since we are the Body of Christ, made in God’s image, and meant to become ever more like him every day. Are we striving to be like the God who is powerful, mighty, honoured, awe-inspiring? Or like the God who empties himself, refuses to seek his own gain, takes up the lowest place in society, and serves others?

It’s quite a contrast, the Roman imperial understanding and this hymn that Paul quotes. And of course we know that both descriptions are true, God is indeed all powerful and holy and just…and yet God decides to leave all that and become human, humble, mixing with outcasts and sinners, washing his disciples’ feet, forgiving the people who nailed him to a cross.

Because this is what Jesus was like, it is also what we, who make up the Body of Christ, are supposed to be like as well — we are to have the same love and the same mind, living the same way.

The word that is translated as mind, or mindset, or attitude, isn’t only about our thinking. It starts there, with God’s love informing our thinking, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also how we hold our bodies as well as how we hold our minds and hearts — like a posture, or a physical orientation. This is more than thinking the right things, it’s about being in alignment with Jesus — his actions, his values, his way of being, his direction — so that our lives demonstrate the fact that we are IN Christ. This mindset, this attitude, supersedes our own opinions, and our own desires, which is what makes it possible for us then to seek the good of the other rather than only ourselves. 

Notice, though, that we aren’t given specific rules here. We are given a description of “the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” — his mindset, his worldview, his approach to the world — and then told to have that same attitude, and to work that out in our daily lives. Jesus demonstrated the attitude, the ethos, the Way, and now trusts us to work out the specifics.

This Way — the way of giving up power, refusing to seek our own gain ahead of others, always looking out for what is best for our neighbour, and recognising what really matters — this Way would be impossible, if not for the fact that it is God at work in us, enabling us to want it and to live it. God started the work, and God will continue to do it in us and through us.

That doesn’t let us off the hook for trying our best to live as God’s holy people! Indeed, the knowledge that God enables us to want and to work for the kingdom ought to make us desire it even more, and to work even harder, always undergirded by the gratitude that Paul starts off with, as he writes to his partners in the gospel.

I wonder if, when we think of ourselves, we think of ourselves as partners in the gospel? Partners with each other in the Body of Christ, partners with the prophets and apostles of scripture, partners with Jesus himself? If we are indeed aligned with Christ and partners in bringing good news to our neighbours, then what does that mean, for instance, when we see our neighbourhood on the news and recognise that our neighbours live in such deprivation that our area has become known as the Covid Capital of Scotland? We know the causes of deprivation here. We know the problems that so many families are facing. We know the reality that a combination of underinvestment and climate change is going to continue to cause suffering right here in our own towns, as well as around the world. We know that those least able to weather a storm are always the hardest hit. 

So what would have been going through Jesus’ mind while he watched that Disclosure programme this week? Or while he listened to our world leaders speak? Or when he saw the images of refugees fleeing devastation, danger, and hardship?

Whatever was in Jesus’ mind when he saw that is what should be in ours.

Whatever his attitude would be in response, that should be our attitude.

Wherever he is facing, that should be where we are looking.

I think he would celebrate the community spirit and the helpers, for sure. People have done amazing things to help each other through difficult times — delivering meals, playing driveway concerts, picking up prescriptions, making friendly phone calls, building community and checking in on neighbours.

And I think he would be appalled that we have allowed a world where people go hungry and where violence is commonplace and where even in the middle of a pandemic, the rich get richer while turning desperate people away. I think he would be concerned about how easily we are seduced by a vision of power and might, rather than a vision of humility and service.

If we are going to align with the attitude of Christ and be partners in the gospel, there’s no time like the present. In the midst of all that is going on in the world, and right here in our own community….even in a world that prefers to worship the empire and its values … may we be so Christ-minded that our lives reflect the true Lord in every action, in every word, in every relationship, in every vote, in every petition, in every phone call to a leader asking them to prioritise better, in every possible way.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

new normal -- a sermon on John 21

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Breakfast on the Beach

John 21.1-14 (NRSV)

16 August 2020, Postcards of Faith 9

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

They went back to what they knew.

It’s hardly surprising, after the stress and upheaval and change they’d experienced, between those last few days in Jerusalem, and then those three days of grief, and then the wonder and uncertainty of resurrection…they needed some stability. They couldn’t stay in Jerusalem forever, it wasn’t their home, after all. So they went back to their seaside town, and tried to go back to their normal life.

It’s the thing many of us have been longing for, for months now — to get back to normal. We are definitely not the first to have that desire! Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, and the others wanted to get back to normal too. Except that the normal they used to know, before Jesus, wasn’t really there anymore. How could they simply return to the lives they used to live — having the same conversations with all the same people who had known them their whole lives, doing the same day-in-day-out work of a peasant community in an occupied land? They had seen incredible things, met hundreds of people…and they’d been changed, at least on the inside. While their world seemed the same as it ever was, the reality is that they were different…and the world was different too, now that resurrection had happened, though people didn’t see how just yet.

They made a valiant effort though. They went back to what they knew. They put out from the shore, they let down the nets, just the same way they’d always done it.

But this time, nothing happened.

Despite doing everything the usual way, something about it wasn’t the same.

In the morning, when they heard the stranger calling from the beach, some part of them must have thought he was crazy, even as another part of them recognised something in his instructions. Soon their net was overflowing with an abundance that could only come from the One who promised Abundant Life — the One who had extravagantly fed the crowds of thousands with only a few loaves and fish, the One who had turned hundreds of gallons of water into the best vintage of wine. 

The first to realise the truth was the one who had been closest to Jesus during his life — the disciple whom he loved, usually thought to be John. He had been close enough to hear Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper, and even from the boat out on the lake he could hear it still. And then Peter did one of his typical impetuous Peter things — he put ON his clothes and jumped into the water to swim to shore, leaving the others to struggle with the hundreds of fish and the boat! Only after he saw Jesus up close, and after Jesus reminded him to go help did he then rush back and, apparently, singlehandedly, Hulk-style drag the net ashore, teeming with 153 fish. It’s an oddly specific number — not the usual vague, exaggerated style that we hear from fishermen about how it was THIS BIG, their hands getting wider apart even as they speak — and some scholars think it represents all the known countries at the time, a reminder that Jesus’ abundant life reaches to the whole world.

As they sat around the fire, drying out their clothes, exhausted from a long night yet exhilarated by the turnaround of the morning, Jesus did something he had done hundreds of times before: he broke bread and gave it to them. And they didn’t need to ask who it was, because in that moment they knew for certain.

When they get up from this table, Jesus will give them instructions to pass it on, pay it forward: feed my sheep. In other words, take this moment and let it become your new normal, your formative experience that you keep going back to.

The ways we used to know will not be able to sustain us in the new world that is ahead of us. We will need to learn anew the heart of the matter, be formed in that new way, and live from that core story. That breakfast on the beach was not just a welcome respite from a bad night at work, it was a reminder of their life with Christ, that was to continue even when they weren’t physically at the same table.

I think of how, when I was growing up, my family ate dinner together every night. Whatever we might have been eating, whatever we might have talked about, it was probably the most formative aspect of my childhood. It’s where we came together, where our family values were communicated and reinforced, where stories were shared. Even though I no longer sit at the same physical table as my family, who I am today was shaped by those hundreds of family dinners.

The same is true for us as Christians, members of Christ’s family. We sit at the family table, we share the bread and wine, and it forms us, makes us who we are meant to be. It’s where we learn the stories of God doing a new thing among us, and the values of hospitality and justice and love and abundance…and that’s what we draw on when the world is tough and we aren’t sure what to do, and the temptation of going back to what we know is strong. 

They went back to what they thought they knew…but Jesus was calling them to a new normal, formed not by their old habits but by his Way, Truth, and Life. That continues to be true, even when we aren’t currently sitting at the same physical table — we will need the new habits of a life formed according to Christ, not the old habits we look back on so fondly…especially when those old habits were not good news for everyone.

For all who are tempted to think this is only about church life in a post-lockdown world, it’s much bigger than that. Jesus reaches into every aspect of our lives, not just our Sunday-morning hour. That time around the table is meant to form us into new habits that stop us going back to the old ways we know when it comes to politics, racism, and sexism, how we spend our money, how we relate to each other, what and who we value, how we spend our time, what we eat and wear, how we talk to each other online and in person, the work we do, which jokes we’ll call out as harmful rather than funny…and also, yes, what it means to be church, what it means to be part of a community, going forward. 

Jesus didn’t only call those disciples to experience worship differently, or to teach Sunday school differently, he called them out of their old ways of work and earning, out of their old ways of relating to each other and to the people in their community, out of their old ways of thinking about themselves and the world. This is a big journey we are on. We will need to be nourished by those formative days around the table, hearing the stories and learning the values and carrying them forward into every place we go. That’s what it means to be family with the One who promised Abundant Life: just as we have been nourished by it, we are sent out to ensure others have it as well — and especially those who have been denied, excluded, left behind, or poisoned instead. Feed my sheep, Jesus said, just as you have been fed.

May it be so. Amen.


Sunday, August 02, 2020

come and see -- a sermon on Jesus and his first disciples

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Come and See

John 1.35-46 (Common English Bible)

2 August 2020, Postcards of Faith 7

The next day John was standing again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus walking along he said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard what he said, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he asked, “What are you looking for?”

They said, “Rabbi (which is translated Teacher), where are you staying?”

He replied, “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Christ ). He led him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Philip was from Bethsaida, the hometown of Andrew and Peter.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”

Nathanael responded, “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”

Philip said, “Come and see.”

I love picturing this first scene like a film — imagine: John the Baptist and some of his disciples are standing around, loitering on the corner. He sees Jesus and points (he wouldn’t be the subtle type to just nod his head and say “don’t look now, but here comes the lamb of God”, he would definitely point). And the two disciples walk away from John, leaving him standing on the corner alone. They follow Jesus at a discreet distance, perhaps, but he senses that he’s being followed and turns around to confront them, and when he asks what they’re looking for, I picture them as a bit tongue-tied. What are they looking for? Do they even know? 

We know that John had been teaching that he wasn’t The One, that he was preparing the way for one who would come after him and be greater than he could even imagine. So when he finally pointed to Jesus in the flesh, perhaps it’s no surprise that Andrew and the other disciple with him simply dropped everything and changed schools without a blink. Or perhaps there was a bit more thought involved — I think of how difficult it was to leave behind my hairdresser and my therapist when I was moving here, and how much more difficult it would be to leave behind a spiritual teacher like John the Baptist! Yet off they went. But when Jesus turned around, they suddenly realised there was more to this than they’d thought. 

What are you looking for?

When we come to Jesus, what are we looking for?

Are we looking for someone who will comfort us through difficult times?

Someone who will ease our discomfort at changes in the world by offering us a bubble of pious words and pictures?

Someone who looks like us and will help us maintain the status quo?

Are we looking for answers to difficult 21st century questions?

Are we looking for 5 easy steps to a good life?

Are we looking for hope in the midst of the despair of this world?

Are we looking for a friend who will go along with our ideas, or one who will challenge us to be our best selves?

Are we looking for God, creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the universe, in the flesh beside us?

Are we looking for someone who will lead us through green pastures and through the valley off the shadow of death, who will invite us to a feast in the presence of our enemies?

Someone who will open our eyes to see the truth of this world, and who won’t let us shy away from big challenges?

Someone who will steer our steps toward the people who are poor, ill, outcast, foreign, and undesirable? Or who will call us to change the systems that keep people poor, marginalised, and seen as less-than?

Are we looking to have our hearts broken when God’s heart breaks?

Are we looking for love so overwhelming that it spills over to people who don’t deserve it?

What are you looking for?

Andrew and his friend don’t appear to have an answer, so they simply indicate that they want to be close to Jesus — except they do it in the creepiest way possible. Having followed him around town and gotten caught, they then just say “where are you staying?” Luckily, Jesus knows their hearts. He knows they aren’t stalkers or celebrity-obsessed paparazzi. He knows that they are seeking something they don’t yet know how to articulate, and that the best way to find it is to stay close to him. So he issues them an invitation: Come and see.

And those two go, and they see, and then they find their siblings and friends and give them the same invitation: come and see. 

Notice there are no answers in the story, no pithy sayings, no clarifying of positions on political issues yet. So far, we’ve got Jesus inviting disciples, and then those disciples inviting more. And for thousands of years, that’s exactly how it has worked. We come to Jesus and see, and then we invite others to come and see with us.

Whatever we think we’re looking for, the answer will be the same: come close to Jesus, and see what he is doing and saying, how he is living and being, where he is going, who he is spending time with, and that will change us, and it will change the world. 

When we come close to Jesus, we’ll discover there’s no room for the casual racism that enables a question like “can anything good come from Nazareth?” Those dividing walls are torn down and the kingdom of God encompassing all can be seen, when we join Nathanael in rooting out those internalised prejudices.

When we come close to Jesus, we’ll see that the way our thoughts become actions is more important than just believing the right things. 

When we come close to Jesus, we’ll learn that love isn’t just a feeling, and it isn’t just for the people we like. It’s an action that has to be chosen every day, in every situation, toward everyone — because that is how the world will know that we are his followers, by our love.

When we come close to Jesus, what we see will make us want to invite others to come as well, because there is no one else in whom abundant life can be found, and surely we will want to share that when we have found it.

So hear the invitation again today: come and see.

May it be so. Amen.