Sunday, June 10, 2018
Full Service Audio
I was sitting very quietly in a prayer group in 1979 in Pretoria, South Africa, joining many other Christians to pray for the end of apartheid and the freedom of Africa as a whole. Thousands gathered at the South African Christian Leadership Assembly, and as one of the delegates, I was assigned a prayer group. A number of people gathered around, but the gentlemen sitting to my right sort of elbowed me in the ribs, and said, “You do know who you’re sitting next to, don’t you?”
I thought he was referring to himself but he said, “No, on the other side. I turned and saw this very good-looking gentleman, bespectacled, wearing a bishop’s shirt. He looked like many other bishops that I’d seen before over the years. And I said, “I don’t know who he is.”
He says, “He is Festo Kivengere.”
And then the scales fell from my eyes, for I knew by reputation who this man was, and I couldn’t believe I was sitting next to him. You see, in the 1970s Bishop Festo Kivengere was, in many ways, the icon of all that was Christian in Africa. He served in Uganda, had opposed Idi Amin, and was exiled in 1973, back to Kenya, his homeland, and eventually returned to Uganda where he faced all manner of troubles and trials.
Then in 1977, he wrote an absolutely epic book that changed, in many ways, the face of African Christianity. It is entitled I Love Idi Amin – the very man who had persecuted him, killed one of his bishops, oppressed people, was forgiven and loved by Kivengere. And here I was, sitting next to him.
He was called many times over, the Billy Graham of Africa, Kivengere and was an incredibly electric speaker as well. When he got up at this conference to speak, I gave this knowing nod, thinking, “I’m in the same prayer group as Festo Kivengere!” It was a moment that, in many ways, formed my life, so much so that I followed the trajectory of his life afterwards. I read what he wrote and heard what he said.
He died in 1988, and it was with great sadness that I remember him today. But I asked him, what gave him courage? – I only had a chance to ask two questions.
He said “If you know that your eternity is secure, you don’t worry about anything.” If you know your eternity is secure, you don’t worry about anything. For Kivengere, his power, his ability to stand against tyranny, was predicated on his hope in Christ.
When I read the story of the good Samaritan – and I’ve heard it so many times, I’ve preached on it, like most preachers, many times – I know that the emphasis tends to be on those in the parable who walked on by, and contrast that with the Samaritan who helped the robber who was beaten on the side of the road.
In our passage this morning, there is the introductory part, which sometimes we slough over, and that was the encounter between the religious lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer asked this simple question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus took him seriously, and so he asked him, “What does the law say?” After all, he was talking to a Jewish legal scholar.
The lawyer said, “You love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and you love your neighbour as yourself.” – the classic Shema of Israel, a classic line.
Jesus said, “In that case, do likewise.”
The lawyer then asks - trying to justify himself, according to Luke – “Who is my neighbour?” After all, that was part of the Shema.
Then Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. The encounter between a man who genuinely wanted to know the source of eternal life, and Jesus in his sincere encounter with him, tells us so much about the answer that we’re looking for.
Because in many ways, the question, “what do I do to inherit eternal life?” is a question for the ages. Anyone who has a heart, soul, mind, must think about these things at some point in their life. Even those who are the most anaesthetised to religion, still ask themselves if there is an eternal existence, something beyond this life.
Certainly it was entertained by people in the time of Jesus. The Greek philosophers had asked this question. Aristotle was often consumed with the issue of eternity. He believed that all matter was eternal, and matter, in fact, creates matter, so in a sense, eternity is built into the fabric of the universe, that it is itself eternal. Those who followed Plato, said, “No, no, no, it’s not as if matter can create matter; there needs to be something else; a creator, a spirit or a force that makes the universe. Eternity is not something that is natural, it is something that is created by God Himself.
Early Christian theologians, like Aquinas, picked up on that theme as well, and they have suggested that there needs to be what he called “an efficient cause.” That it’s not as if everything is eternal and is just going to last forever, any more than we are going to last forever.
We need a creator, a god. Jesus did not enter into that debate with the lawyer who asked him a question, and he didn’t, because for Jesus, everything comes down to that relationship with God first. And building on that relationship with God, it develops into ethics, morals, and how we should live. Eternal life then, is not simply a matter of reason, for reason alone cannot sort out in our minds what eternity looks like. It is a matter of faith, and because it’s a matter of faith, it starts with the very first thing. And that is why, when this question was asked, Jesus gets the lawyer to go back to first things, and it is first thing that change everything. He says “You love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and you love your neighbour as yourself.” That is the first thing.
And from that first thing everything else arises, and that is the truth because the lawyer, was probably facing a crisis in his life. The fact that he comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, tells me that this man was troubled in his spirit. Some have suggested he was trying to trick Jesus. I don’t think so, I think he was genuinely troubled. Later on when he tried to justify himself before Jesus, he wanted to know, what was going to happen to him, how he was going to live and what would happen at the end of his existence.
Earlier this winter, I spoke at the Royal Military Institute, and I had a fascinating discussion with a gentleman. “There are no atheists in foxholes.” he said. And then we discussed where that phrase came from. I’d heard it, but I had no idea. Some said that it came from the Battle of Bataan in 1942, when one of the soldiers who had survived the hell of the battlefield, said it. Some said that it became famous when Eisenhower first quoted it. But it also is true that Plato, a long, long time before in his laws, said something very similar. The point being made was that in the midst of conflict and crisis, war and difficulty, people start to think about God. “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
Whatever the crisis this particular lawyer was going through when he came up to Jesus, we do not know, but we do know that Jesus wanted him to turn to the law. He wanted him to turn to what he knew about God first and foremost, and that’s why he said: “The first thing is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” In other words, the totality of your being is to love God, first thing about eternal life is to acknowledge and recognise the sovereignty of God. That is the first thing. I think there are many people who, if they’re honest with themselves, have a crisis like that man had when he came to Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I was deeply saddened this week to hear of the death of Anthony Bourdain. It has affected so many people – as soon as I heard about it, I texted Marial to let her know. We have watched his show for years. I remember him singing the Mississippi Delta Blues with the people of the Mississippi delta. That show just blew my mind. And I loved the one that he did in Newfoundland, and Vietnam. Wherever he went, it was incredible. There was something about Anthony Bourdain that made him a star, and yet at the same time, a deeply troubled soul. You could sense it at times; when he talked about God, he was unsure; when he talked about faith, he unsure. It wasn’t as if he dismissed it outright, he just didn’t seem to really grasp it in many ways. So my heart was broken. Whatever went on in his mind, we’ll never know. It’s heartbreaking when someone like that dies for whatever reason.
But it sure makes you think about eternity, doesn’t it? It makes you think that even the mightiest and the greatest, and in some cases, wealthiest and most notorious and recognised in the world, think about life and eternity.
When this lawyer came to Jesus and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus got him to say, “Love the Lord they God with your heart and soul and mind and strength.” It also fundamentally changes the way we see the world and others. It’s not just God, it is how we live, how we conduct ourselves.
Five years ago I read a piece in the Cape Times by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I get the Cape Times online and have for many years. It was exactly five years ago today, remembering what would have been the hundredth birthday of another bishop who was in Africa, Trevor Huddleston. Huddleston was probably the one voice amongst white leaders in South Africa at the time, who really opposed the apartheid regime. In this article entitled, The Man Who Changed My Life he talked about Trevor Huddleston, and how, when his mother – Tutu’s mother – who was a cleaning lady, first met the bishop in Roodepoort in South Africa, at the Blind Institute where she was cleaning. Tutu said that he came along and doffed his cap to her, acknowledged her and greeted her, just like anybody else. He said that left such an impression with his mother, because often times those who were in cleaning positions, or those who were in enslaved positions – let’s call it that – were dismissed as if they were non-people. But Huddleston saw them as people, and not only that, but when he was talking to Tutu, he said, “You know, we are all made in the image of God. It is God who is our source of life, and therefore every person is precious in the sight of the Lord.”
When that rich lawyer came to Jesus, he wanted to know where the boundaries were. “Who is my neighbour?” he wanted to know, maybe a bit sarcastically at that point, and Jesus gave him the answer with the Samaritan. The lawyer thought the boundaries were limited to my neighbour with whom I have an affection, or am in close proximity with. In other words, they live within my nation, are of my ethnicity, or religious conviction. The boundaries of who the neighbour was, was set in the minds of the culture at the time. Jesus goes into that and he absolutely blows the doors off the boundaries, because it’s a Samaritan who becomes the neighbour, and for that lawyer, that person was way outside of all their boundaries.
It was a beautiful moment, because Jesus, in telling the story of the Good Samaritan, put all the ideas of the lawyer into a different perspective. It fundamentally changed his notion of God; and his notion and understanding of God’s overwhelming grace, and goodness. But it was more than that. It actually caused him to care and to think.
Last week I quoted Paddington Bear, and this week I want to quote Winnie the Pooh. Some of you are Pooh fans, and I don’t want to exclude you – there’s a wonderful moment in Winnie the Pooh when he’s walking alongside a riverbank and sees his friend, Eeyore – you know Eeyore – floating down the river on his back with his legs up in the air, and he asks Eeyore, “Did you fall in?”
Eeyore says, “Yes, I did, I’ve been very stupid.”
Winnie then says to him, “In future you should be more careful.” Meanwhile Eeyore continues down the river and starts to drown.
Winnie looks at him and asks, “Are you drowning?”
Eeyore looks at him and says, “Yes, I am.”
After a long pause, Winnie says, “Can I help you?”
“Oh, that would be most kind,” Eeyore replies. “I’m so sorry to be such a bother.” Meanwhile he’s drowning.
Winnie reaches down, pulls Eeyore out of the river and saves him, and then he tells him, “You really should be more careful.”
Eeyore says, “Yes, I am so sorry, I really am, to have been such a bother and such a nuisance.”
Winnie says, “That’s okay, but you really should have asked me for help sooner.”
So often in our lives, when we see people in trouble, we calculate, we reason, just like Winnie did. We think about what should we do and whether we should act, but you know something, with the power of Christ and with the story of the Good Samaritan in mind, there was no calculation, there was no figuring it out and reasoning it. There was just an incredible act of grace, an incredible act of salvation, and all of this points to the life and ministry of Jesus Himself.
Festo Kivengere once wrote these words: “Peace,” he said, “is not automatic, it’s a gift of the grace of God. It comes when hearts are exposed to the love of Christ. But this always costs something, for the love of Christ was demonstrated through suffering, and those who experience that love can never put it into practice without some cost.”
He paid a cost. The Good Samaritan paid a cost. Christ paid the cost. And that is what this is all about. So when, like, the lawyer, you ask, “What do I do to inherit eternal life,” the answer is purely, simple: You love God, as God in Christ, loves you. And you love your neighbour as yourself, because you too have been loved. And all of this from God. Amen.