Monthly Archives: March 2015

22 March – This is how God loves

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Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51
John 3:16-21

I bought a violin on Friday. Not that I can play the violin – yet. But, for reasons quite obscure to us, Coulton has wanted to learn the violin since he was about 3, and we figure that now is about the right time to start, and I’ve offered to learn with him as some encouragement along the way. Buying violins is not a straightforward thing. You have to talk to people who know something about them, research what is available, and where, and in what condition. You can learn all sorts of things via YouTube reviews of the instruments – what to look for, why it’s better if the instrument if professionally modified from its factory condition, and so on. In the case of my new violin – it came up on Thursday on Gumtree, and looked a pretty good deal. The problem was that it was in Geelong – amounting to probably a three hour return trip, all up. I contacted the chap offering it for sale, and he didn’t want to post it but would be happy if I arranged a courier. So I contacted a courier, and that wasn’t going to cost too much, so got back to the seller to arrange an electronic transfer and the courier pick up. It turned out he then needed to be in Melbourne on Friday, so I upped the offer a bit if he’d deliver it, which he did, and I have my violin. (Coulton doesn’t have his yet!)

Why am I telling you all this? Now that I’m a parent, it is becoming increasingly clear to me just how much parents do for their children, if everything is working the way that it should. Most of the time a child has no idea what is involved to make happen the things which make her life a happy one. But occasionally she’ll hear, especially is ingratitude is present, Mummy and Daddy loves you so much that is this what they have done for you. Of course, it is almost impossible that the child can understand what in fact has been done, but still it is the case: love does “so much

Which brings us to today’s gospel reading – re-visited from last week – and the first verse in particular: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”. This is one of the Christian texts: printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers and baseball caps, appearing on placards in crowds at major sporting events: it sits somewhere near the perceived centre of what needs to be said in evangelism.

“For God so loved…” Is the way to salvation the same kind of way as that by which a boy comes to learn the violin – that so much is done, which then has to be “believed” or received?

I want to propose this morning a reading of this verse rather different from the way in which the church has generally heard it, thinking through three crucial parts of the verse: first, the so which seems to carry most of the weight of emphasis (God so loved the world), then the giving of the Son and, finally, the belief we are to have in response to all this.

1. For God “so” loved the world.

It is difficult not to hear this as “so much” – so much, so big, was the love of God, that he gave the Son. In the background here is the love we have for our children and the cost it would be to us to give them up in this way. (Perhaps also, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac also sits behind this text). And yet even though this is the sense the English suggests, it is not what the Greek implies. In the Greek, the “so” is the first word in the sentence, giving it more the sense of “thus”: Thus, or this, is the love of God: God gave the Son. The difference is subtle, but very important. If I say to Coulton – this is how much we love you, that we did all this that you might have a happy experience with the violin, his response might be, But couldn’t you have got an even better violin with a bit more effort? The “so much” implies the possibility of even more – that God has paid enough – even more – than necessary, but not necessarily everything. Here the love of God is quantified, measured: this is how much God loves you; is it not impressive?

But if we read the clause as “This is the love of God” then we are not dealing with a quantity of love which might have been smaller or even bigger but the very content of love itself: love is the giving of the Son. We’ll come back to this again in a bit.

2. God gave the Son

What then, of the second thing to note in the verse, the giving of the Son? In most Christian thinking, this touches upon the theme of sacrifice: God sacrifices the Son, trades the blood and life of the Son for the salvation of the world. This understanding is both dearly embraced by some Christians and abhorrently rejected by others. On the part of those who embrace it, there is in the background the “so much” understanding we’ve just be considering: God has sacrificed even his Son for us. On the part of those who reject this idea there is, among other things, horror at the idea of sacrifice itself, let alone of sacrificing a child (in this era of heightened sensitivity to the abuse of children). The idea of sacrifice is made all the more difficult in those understandings which insist that God had to sacrifice the Son: that there was some kind of “deep magic” which forced God’s hand in this way (see an earlier sermon on this: here). It is difficult to overstate how thoroughly ingrained this way of thinking is in the way the church speaks about the saving work of Christ. Explaining why the New Testament speaks this way about the cross would take more time than we have now; suffice it to say, the “giving” of the Son is not a sacrifice, if by that we mean that it would necessarily work in the way religious sacrifices are normally thought to work, that somehow we or God met all the requirements and sinners are automatically sprung from judgement.

In what sense, then, does God “give the Son”? We can say that God “presents” the Son. This the love of God for the world: the Son. This is perhaps a little dense to be immediately clear, but it is the heart of the matter. For “the Son” is for us always the crucified one – not the “sacrificed one” – but the crucified one. Again, the difference might seem subtle but it is everything. To understand Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice is to interpret it in terms of first century Jewish understandings of the ritual animal sacrifices in Temple, which makes perfect sense if you are a first century Jew. We today do not have – or rather, we do not acknowledge that we have – a corresponding system of sacrifice securing our religious and secular lives. And so, if we are to interpret the cross as a sacrifice, we have to become first century Jews before we can become Christians. This is what St Paul rejected in a different form when he denied that uncircumcised male Greeks needed to undergo the cut in order to become Christians.

Jesus cannot be for us “the sacrificed one” in the way he could be for those who first heard his story. But he can be for us “the crucified one”, interpreted in a different way. Christians are so accustomed to the theory of an economy of salvation in which something has to be sacrificed that it is difficult to apprehend the story in a different way. But there are other ways. The sacrifice interpretation requires that Jesus came in order to die – that this was what the Father who sent him required. But this is not the sense we get from John’s gospel. Here, Jesus comes precisely to live – to be Word made flesh, to be Life and Truth in all their fullness. Jesus does die, but not because it was somehow demanded by God. If anyone demands his death, it is us: contradicting Jesus’ purpose as the Way, the Truth and the Life. The religious authorities require that Jesus die because he threatens the peace and may invoke the wrath of the Romans (John 11.48-50,18.14). The Roman governor Pilate, who initially tries to get Jesus off, finally also sees the political risk Jesus represents and decides that saving him is not worth the trouble (John 19.12f). And so Jesus is crucified, but not as a “sacrifice”; he dies because the capital-L Life he lived was too confronting, too threatening of human self-righteousness. On this reading, the Son – Jesus – is not given to be crucified; the crucified Son is what we are given. God says: Look at this. God asks, What, Why, How has this come to pass; what shall we say about it?

On the sacrificial reading, the un-crucified Jesus appears as a kind of currency in a sacrificial economy. The cross is a kind of “spending” of that currency: an exchange of Jesus’ life and blood for ours. The fundamental problem here is that we have to believe in this economy of salvation before we can believe in Jesus.

On the “presentation” reading – that God “presents” the crucified Son to us – we are back in the realms of last week’s reflection: that the cross symbolises something about our heart and the heart of God. John’s gospel is concerned with a “Word” – a Word enfleshed. This Word becomes what we are; the question is simply: what, actually, are we? At the end of his gospel John has the Roman governor Pilate present Jesus to an angry crowd with the words: Behold, the man. The sense is more, Behold: the Human Being. Here is the human being – his humanity and ours – and this is what is crucified. Jesus, then, dies not only (or even?) “for” us, but as us; it is us on the cross, our true humanity being broken by broken humanity.

This is too much to think through here, but it is the kind of thinking which springs forth if we allow that God’s love is not a divine Son given for us but a crucified Son given to us: a revelation which effects something rather than something effected which is then revealed.

3. So that everyone who believes

For the sake of finishing within a civil time frame, the third crucial aspect of this central Christian text: “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish.” What is this “belief”?

On the traditional reading, “believe” means here something like assent as the appropriate response, and receiving salvation in return. This is not unlike the case of little boys and their violins, where “believe” looks like taking up the bow and doing whatever it is you call what a little boy does with a violin: the “so much” of the gift received requires this response.

But on the alternative reading we’ve been unpacking, “believe” is quite a different thing altogether. This is the love of God: the Son. The crucified Son, and no other. The crucified humanity of the Word-made-human. Humanity brought to nothing by humanity. Here, “believe” means recognising ourselves in all dimensions of the story. It means seeing ourselves as the cause of the cross, and as the victim of the cross, and as the beneficiaries of the cross. The giving of the Son is not a “buy-back” scheme; it is the revelation of God’s heart for us, and of us as God’s heart.

We noted in passing earlier that it is closer to the dynamic of God’s work through Jesus to say that God’s love is the giving of the Son, rather than is shown by the giving of the Son. This is the love of God: the Son, crucified, restored to life. The cross and the resurrection are God’s story, are God as love, and are given also to be our story.

To believe in this God is to receive this love as our own. It is to grow into a humanity formed after the likeness of Jesus, the Son. It is to become love, as the children of God, and to participate in God’s great work of love in the world.

This is not easy. We begin with this story as we might begin with a violin for the first time – barely possible to hold let alone to get anything like music from it. But the promise is that, in continuing to hear the story and to tell it, it will increasingly become part of us, as the instrument becomes part the musician, the one enabling the other to express, and to be.

Let us, then, open ourselves to become love as God is love, harmony to the song God sings, to our greater humanity and, what is the same thing, to God’s greater glory. By the grace of God. Amen.

15 March – Salvation’s sinful form

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Lent 4

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107
John 3:14-21

Some of you are probably familiar with Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi”. This is the story of young Pi Patel who finds himself the sole survivor of a shipwreck, with the exception of a 200 kilogram Bengal Tiger, with whom he shares a lifeboat for 7 months!

It’s an extraordinary story but, without giving the story away, at the very, very end there is a twist: young Pi presents us with an equally extraordinary but now appalling alternative account of what happened during those 7 months.

The real twist, however, is what is done to the reader. Having been given the alternative account of events, it is then left to us to decide which account to choose. On the one hand there’s the almost-but-not-quite-plausible story with the tiger, and on the other hand the equally extraordinary but in fact horrendously plausible alternative. Pi asks: which story do you prefer – the implausible one with the tiger, or the plausible but horrific one without?

With the characters in the book to whom the two accounts are given, we have to decide between the stories. And our view of the world and our humanity in it are both at stake. We have to decide whether to go with what doesn’t quite make sense but if true would just be an interesting story, or to go with what does make sense but would scare the “bejesus” into us, for it is a horrifying alternative. This is a decision about what the world is like: are people actually capable of such things? It is essentially a decision about involvement: has this story anything to do with us, in a fundamental sense?

As it is for Pi in his boat, so it is for Jesus on his cross: what actually is happening here? Is this a story external to us, or is it somehow also our story? If it is somehow our story then it involves us, and could possibly be a saving story – a story actually worth telling, more than mere amusement.

What, then, is happening at the cross? We take our lead from the first line of the gospel reading this morning:

…just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

The “lifting up” Jesus refers to here is his crucifixion. (This way of talking is peculiar to John; see also 8.28; 12.31-36). Jesus draws a link between the cross and the lifting up by Moses of a bronze serpent on a pole, as described in the strange story we’ve heard today from the book of Numbers (Numbers 21.4-9).  Having left Egypt and while still wandering around in the desert, the people of Israel began to complain bitterly against Moses and God for how well things were not going. In response, God sends snakes among the people with disastrous effect. The people repent and call out to God through Moses. Moses makes a serpent of bronze, places it on a pole and sets it up so that any person who was bitten could look upon the image and be healed.

It’s an odd story to modern ears but our purpose here is not to debate the could- or couldn’t-haves of the story. We are trying to understand how the story tells us about what is happening in the crucifixion of Jesus. How can looking to the cross be a saving thing, as looking at the bronze serpent saved? The critical thing in this connection is that the source of the healing takes the form of the sign of the sin.

The serpents are sent among the people as the sign of the broken relationship with God and his servant Moses. But this sign then becomes the means God gives by which the people are saved. God gives both the punishment and the healing, and the healing sign reflects the sign of the sin. The sign of the people’s sinfulness is what God then presents to them as the means of their salvation: forgiveness is not forgetfulness. I must recall what I’m being forgiven because the forgiveness comes in the shape of the sign of the sin.

Taking this lead, we can get a better sense of what John would have us believe “really happened” in the “lifting up” of the crucifixion. “Just as” Moses lifted up the snake, so also Jesus is lifted up. “Just as” with the bronze serpent God uses the sign of sin as the source of healing, so also we are to read Jesus’ death as the sign not only of divine healing (as the text suggests) but also of human sinfulness. The crucified Jesus can be the location of the healing because the crucifixion is the sign of the people’s failure. The cross of Jesus only saves us if it is also the sign of our failure.

Having declared that this is the true accounting for the crucifixion of Jesus, Scripture simply waits for us to decide: which version of the crucifixion story do you prefer? Is the cross simply what happens too often in human history – the tragedy of the hero who is crushed in the machinery of human brutality, one more incidence of “man’s inhumanity to man” as we said in the old money. Certainly it has been read often enough that way both in and out of the church.

Yet we have no real investment in such a reading of the story, other than it being a kind of moral lesson. It might inspire us or frighten us, but it does not really involve us.

The bronze serpent connection, however, invites another reading: if the bronze snake takes the form of the sign of the sin, then the same applies to the cross. If the cross is the healing thing, it also indicates the sin itself: the very crucifixion. Who is saved by Jesus on the cross? Not “everybody”, in a bland, generic sense, but those who put him there. It is the body broken by us which, by the grace of God, is the body God gives for us. Are we – us personally, not humanity in general – capable or even guilty of such things?

The principal difficulty with this understanding is that, for it to be true for us, we have to be the destroyers of Jesus in order to be those who are reconciled through his cross. As with our assessment of a story about a tiger in a lifeboat, so also here – we have an investment in our decision about the cross: what are we like?

But, framed in this way, this is an impossible thing to judge, for how do we know what we are like?

In fact, there is no knowing this before we choose how to account for the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion. This is because there is a difference between the stories of the serpents in the desert and that of Jesus. In the desert the people suffer for their sin and cry out to God for healing. The sign of the snakes is interpreted by them as an obvious sign of sin, and this recognition precedes the experience of healing. The people cry out for healing because they have recognised their failure: “we have sinned.”

This is not something a Christian can do because with the crucified Jesus it is the other way around. Unlike with the snakes and the bronze serpent, no one is aware of the true sinfulness of the crucifixion until Jesus is presented back to them in the resurrection as saviour. The resurrection does not leave the cross behind, but gives it back to us as our fundamental involvement in the story of God with his people.

This leads to an extraordinary conclusion: only the one who believes on the risen Jesus knows what it is to sin against him. With Jesus, knowledge of sin follows belief, and does not come before it. This is why our prayers of confession generally follow the proclamation of the gospel. We don’t believe in Jesus because we know that we are sinners; our sense for sin comes with our faith. This being the case, perhaps some sections of the church ought to talk less about sin, not because it doesn’t matter but because it can’t make gospel sense until Jesus arrives as liberator.

For God sent the Son not to condemn but to save, not to tear down but to build up, not to terrorise but to set at peace (3.17). The love of God for the world is a work which takes our having put Jesus on the cross – then, or in some like fashion today – and makes of that failure a benefit for us.

Those who believe come to the light (3.21) because their works are always seen in light of the fact that God has loved them even to the cross.

There is life here, and good news. It is not so much the freedom to be wrong as the confidence that, no matter how wrong we get, it is not beyond redemption in the hands of this God. And our work is to become like God in this respect – giving, forgiving, serving – that the way of God might increasing become the way of God’s people.

Let it be so.

May God bless us with greater understanding of how deeply we are loved, that we might become better lovers in return, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

8 March – Tear down this temple

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Lent 3

Exodus 20:1-77
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Church spires are not what they used to be.

This is the case, at least in the sense in which our own church tower has developed its own expensive and potentially dangerous little lean! More importantly, it is the case in the fact that towers and spires have been not merely overshadowed but dwarfed by the kinds of buildings we construct today. Whereas once church spires spoke across a whole landscape about what was central and what was peripheral to life, today they are lost in the midst of the dynamics of modern corporatism and the way in which that is shaping our cities and our lives: higher, denser, more. Whereas once the church tower stood out as a marvel of human engineering, a great arrow pointing to the eternal, now those same towers are relativised – one more (usually quaint) construction among many signifying one more “option” in the world.

This shift matters for our making sense of John’s account of the clearing of the Temple in our gospel reading this morning. This is a story very familiar to long-time Christians. Jesus gets angry here – no mere “meek and mild” saviour today – and this sticks in our minds. It is heard around Easter every year which, if we are paying attention, ought to be a little surprising – at least when we hear John’s version of the story. Whereas Mark, Matthew and Luke place the story at the very end of Jesus’ public ministry – which is why we hear it each year in Lent – John places it at the very beginning of the ministry, which is up to two years before Easter, on John’s own time line.

Easter is still present in the reading – in the reference to Jesus dying and rising – but it is no longer the immediate context. If it is the case that this is the same event the other gospel writers describe, and that their timing at Easter was correct, then John has deliberately unhooked the story from its position as a kind of climax of Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities and moved it to the beginning of the gospel as a kind of programmatic statement. No longer is it what everything came to, but a foretaste of what everything was always going to be.

And what is being “tasted” here right at the start? Not only has John changed the location of the story, he has also shifted the emphasis. In the other three gospels the emphasis is what we might call moral: the attack is on the market itself and, implicitly, on those who have allowed it to happen. The Temple has been corrupted, so that we sometimes speak of this as the “cleansing” of the Temple.

In John’s account something of that moral dimension remains: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!” But then the emphasis shifts in Jesus’ remarks about tearing down the Temple. “I will build it up in three days” can make no sense, of course, although John is very happy for his Jesus to make no sense. Or, rather, John likes to have those Jesus’ talks to take him literally when he can only mean something more figurative. But, John’s technique aside, his point is clear: the object is not the cleansing of the Temple but its replacement. Forty-six years in the making and still not finished, the Temple is nothing compared to Jesus himself. It is no wonder that he makes no sense.

And for us today? Our problem is that we know the story so well. We know, in a way that first century Jews could not, that church buildings are not “churches” or temples. We all know that “the church is the people.” And so the church has no shortage of people who take up the role of Jesus and preach “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” or “people, people, people” against the spires and the windows and the organs. Over against them, of course, are those who have also read the story but see great value in bricks and mortar.

For our purposes here, however, the point is that as difficult as the conversation can sometimes be it is not especially shocking to us – not shocking in the way that Jesus must have been in this exchange with the Temple authorities. In fact for them it is beyond shock – they can only ridicule him.

Perhaps it is the case that we are not shocked in the same way he was because church spires no longer dominate the landscape: our temple is too small.

What I mean is this: the church, and what it represents, is no longer big enough for us to be shocked by the idea that Jesus might somehow replace it. For Jesus to refer to himself as the Temple in front of the Temple authorities was to compare the nothing of a back-block boy to the everything which the rebuilding of the Temple represented. As we discuss whether to sell a building or repair it, or think about reforming the denomination through a strategic review, it is all a bit too small because, should the wider world be overhearing these conversations, they will seem all very in-house. With the relegation of churches and their towers to mere addresses on busy streets in the midst of much more imposing structures, so are the perceived concerns of the church relegated. “Religious” concerns, as the business of the church is categorised, are too small really to matter, for “religion” is only a part of what we are as a society today.

If they are to be of the order which John suggests the very person of Jesus was for the Temple in that time, then attacks on temples today cannot be “religious” in the narrow modern sense. That is, the temples which matter, against which the claims of Jesus might be measured, will not be churches and their spires or budgets. They will be those things which somehow represent “the whole” for us as a society.

And so the question is: what is Temple-like in our worlds today? What keeps us awake at night, or makes the hair on the back of our necks rise, or will cause uproar in the Twittersphere, or bring down a government, or take us to war? Take any one of those things and fit them into this declaration: Tear it down, and I will build it up again in three days. Tear down this economy, and I will build it up in three days. Tear down this nation-state, and I will build it up in three days. Tear down this family, and I will build it up in three days.

If Jesus is the Temple, in his exchange with the authorities, then he is our “everything’ too – but also cannot possibly be. How is Jesus the economy, which so fills our news reports, or the nation with its sovereign borders we fight so hard to secure, or the ANZAC tradition we think so thoroughly defines what it means to be Australian, or the one thing I think is breaking me, or making me? He cannot be, in the same way in which he could not have been that magnificent Temple. And yet, if he is not, then he does not finally matter – just a religious part of a whole with many parts, none of which is essential.

I do not think that God really minds that much about temples, towers, borders, economies, traditions. These are the things which people do and, loving people as he does, God can love these things as well. But they become for us so much more than “things”. An idea, an identity, a relationship, a possession – all such things are “temples” in the sense of our text this morning.

But tearing them down also gets us nowhere; every revolution replaces what is destroyed with much the same thing. The same arrogance and hubris which often drove church spires higher and higher into the sky now drives the skyscrapers higher and higher. Temples will be ever with us, even if it no longer looks as if prayer is their principle purpose.

The story that Lent tells is that there is really only one Temple which is worth tearing down: the one which so incomprehensibly challenges all the others. This is the Temple which is most problematic, Jesus says.

And it is torn down.

Is it rebuilt on the third day? This is the question the proclamation of the resurrection presents to us: not the dead-end question of whether a dead man can stop being dead, but whether we might be cured of our temple-building, of making sacred things out of merely created stuff. Our reading this morning stopped a little short of the end of the chapter. In the last couple of verses we read: “…Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew humankind and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in the human.” What is in us is many things. It is the good which brings God to us: “for God so loved the world” that he sent the Son. It is the dangerous in us which brings about the crucifixion: do you not know that it is better that one die than that we lose all our “place” – this Temple, and all the rest – the high priest will later ask (John 11.48-50).

The gospel is that, in the midst of all our extraordinary capacity to attach so deeply to the secondary things, and in the face of the devastation that brings, there is a promised rebuilding. This Word becomes flesh and fills it out – the very presence of God in the mundane and ordinary, whatever shape it takes. When we break the bread and take the cup this is the story we tell: whatever we do – even the crucifixion of the Lord of glory – God can work with that.

Build it up, tear it down – God has our measure, knows what is in us, and will make it work. There is great freedom in this: to have without being weighed down, to give without fear of not receiving.

May the people of God ever grow more fully into that freedom, that all people might know the life which this God promises.  Amen.

1 March – The Blessing of Faith

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Lent 2

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Garry Deverell

In the land of Israel and of Palestine there is a war. Despite the current truce, people are being killed daily, and not only those who carry weapons. Non-combatants are losing their lives also: men, women, and children. Over these past decades since the creation of Israel as a modern state many thousands of families have been left to grieve for their loved ones in numbers that most of us would find unimaginable. I remember an interview with one of those Palestinian women who survived the 1983 massacre carried out by the “Christian Militia” in southern Lebanon, a massacre that was clearly engineered by Ariel Sharon as Israeli Defence minister. With eyes that, even 18 years later, had not done with crying, she described how the militias had entered the one-room house of her family at night. They shot her father and brother immediately, and while they were still alive but helpless, proceeded to rape her mother and herself. She was only 12 years old at the time. Then, after they had killed her mother also, the militias left.

It is these kinds of atrocities which fuel the resolve of the suicide bombers. For many there seems no better way to honour the dead than to take from the enemy ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life’. And let’s not kid ourselves here. While the war between the Israeli military and Hamas is certainly political, and certainly ethnic, it is also, and most importantly, a religious war. It is very much a religious war: a struggle between two religious laws, the law of Moses and the law of Mohammed, each striving for supremacy over the other, each claiming the land for itself in the name of the God who gave it, and each doing so to the absolute exclusion of the other. The Israeli government has said, on many occasions, that there shall be no Palestinian state while the suicide bombings continue. Hamas, on the other hand, will accept nothing less than the total exclusion of Israel from the occupied territories and beyond. And Hamas is willing to fight for that end with the only effective weapons it appears to have, the bodies of its young. How does one resolve such a deadlock? How does one break this cycle of retributive and summary justice, especially a justice that seems so deeply religious in its culture and derivation? A difficult question, a very difficult question! But one I believe to be essentially religious and theological in character. For whether the individual combatant and his or her superiors have a personal religious commitment or not, all of them speak and think and act within a complex web of religious and theological meaning. Each of them act out their sense of vengeance and of justice within a language and code that is religious to the very core. So there will be no solution to this conflict without that solution being also a religious and theological solution.

Read in the context of this clash of two religious laws, each of them claiming an exclusionary legitimacy over the other, the letter of Paul to the Romans takes on an extraordinary poignancy. For Paul writes as a Jew who sees serious flaws in the use of religious law to make any such claims. Listen to what he says to his fellow Jews in Romans chapter 2, verses 17-24:

If you call yourself a Jew and rely on the religious law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You that forbid adultery, do you not commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you not rob sacred places? You who boast in the law, do you not dishonour God by breaking the law?

And then again, in chapter 3 verses 28-30:

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the religious law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not also the God of non-Jews? Yes, of non-Jews also, for God is one; and God will make righteous the Jew on the grounds of faith and the non-Jew too, through that same faith.

Can you hear what Paul is saying here? The difficulty with believing that one’s own religious law is superior to another’s, and therefore worth opposing to that other’s by whatever means seem necessary, is simply this: that any religious law worthy of that name is impossible to keep. Its righteous demands are way beyond the capacity of even the most devoted of worshippers. Now, if that is so, then the promotion of that law as the highest law of God, the only law, the law to which all other codes must bow in submission, ends up in a profound and tragic irony. God is actually dishonoured by the ones who promulgate that law in his name. And so the law also condemns the very one who would keep it! So what is the law for, according to Paul? Not to save, he says, but to condemn. Not to exalt the one who believes in the law over those who do not, but to humble such a person to nothing beneath the impossible demands of divine justice. And doesn’t this analysis describe the situation in Israel and Palestine so very well? The Jewish law condemns the Jews for their murder, and the Islamic law condemns the Muslims for theirs. And yet the war continues, because these respective laws are applied only and exclusively to the ones perceived as the enemy!

There is only one way beyond this tragic situation, says Paul. And that is to relinquish all belief in the efficacy of one’s religious law, whatever its contents, to establish your superiority over another. In fact, says Paul, no human being is able to claim superiority over another because all of us are justified, made righteous and whole, not by the works prescribed by the law, but by faith in the mercy of God to all, and for all. Now, this is where Paul makes a very interesting and clever move, a move that has the potential, even today, to dissolve the power of religious conflict. He invokes the story of Abraham: how God promised that he would be the father of many nations, and that his descendants would live in the land which we today call Israel or Palestine; how Abraham was made righteous and whole not by his obedience to a religious law, which has not yet been given, but by his faith in God’s promise, even when such promises seemed no more that a foolish dream. And that is how it is for us too, says Paul, whether Jew or Gentile. None of us are made righteous and whole by our obedience to a religious law, but rather by our faith in God’s merciful promise.

Now this is really important stuff in the midst of the religious wars in the Middle East. For the three religious traditions which hold Jerusalem to be holy are also traditions which look to Abraham as the first witness to a God who is one. And Abraham, in a cycle of stories which all three traditions regard as authoritative, is one who is justified not by his obedience to the law-giving of Moses, or of Jesus, or of Mohammad, but by his faith in the merciful promise of God! Can you hear the hope in this proclamation? Can you see the potential there for demolishing the very ground which justifies this war?

If Abraham is our common father in faith, witnessing to the one God in whom we all believe, then cannot Jew and Christian and Muslim sit down at table together, not as enemies, but as siblings? If we are justified and made whole not, first of all, by our obedience to the law as we find it in our particular traditions, but by our faith in God’s mercy, than can we not share, humbly, in the wonder of that gift together? And finally, if God promised Abraham that his descendents would live in the land and become a blessing to the whole world, can we not share, as daughters and sons of Abraham, in that inheritance? For the text of Genesis 17.7 is quite clear. The promise is for all Abraham’s offspring, not for Jew alone, or Christian, or Muslim. It is for all Abraham’s seed.

So, let me encourage all of you to prayer. Let us pray, along with Jews and Muslims who share these convictions, that the stories of Abraham may be read and reread in the schools and markets of the holy land. And not only there, but in the parliaments and palaces of Iran, Iraq and Libya; in Mosul where ISIL is holed up; in the White House and at 10 Downing Street; at Kiribilli and at the Lodge; and in the homes of both Meshaal & Netanyahu. Most of all, let us pray that the story of Abraham’s faith may penetrate even into the training and education of soldiers, that they may learn the lesson at the heart of all our faiths: that Shalom, the within and between peace of God, comes only to those who are willing to die – not in conflict with one’s enemy – but to the very idea of the enemy. Only by dying to the basic principles and claims of this dark word, says Jesus, may be rise with him to the peace of our Father’s kingdom.

Glory be to God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—as in the beginning, so now and forever. Amen.