Monthly Archives: October 2015

LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on the Eucharist 10

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“… when the Church performs the eucharistic action it is what it is called to be: the Easter community, guilty and restored, the gathering of those whose identity is defined by their new relation to Jesus as crucified and raised, who identify themselves as forgiven.  What happens in the Eucharist is, among much else, that the Church assembles simply to make this identification in praise and gratitude, and to show in concrete form its dependence on Christ.  It is an action which announces what the community’s life means, where the roots of its understanding and its possibilities are, and as such it is a transforming, a re-creative act – a human activity radically open to the creative activity of God in Jesus.”

Rowan Williams, Resurrection, p.58f

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25 October – Taste and see

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Sunday 30

1 Corinthians 8:1-16
Psalm 34
Mark 10:46-52

In the book our study groups have just begun to consider, Stanley Hauerwas remarks that the debate today between believers and atheists has become increasingly culturally irrelevant and marginalised. One of the principle reasons for this is that believers are offering unbelievers less and less not to believe in. This is because of the increasing social and political irrelevance of what believers seem to hold dear – the existence of God, in particular. For the most part, religious belief is simply not particularly interesting to those who don’t believe.

By religious belief being “interesting” I mean here, engaging. Thus, the question of the existence of God is largely academic: non-believers and believers alike sense that the existence of God is finally a “So what?” question. Having, say, proved the existence of God, then what? While believers have tended to assume that a proof God implies something, it is not at all clear what it might imply.

The things it is usually said are implied by the existence of God are various ethical and social principles and activities. Yet these don’t spring from the existence of God per se, but from the existence of a particular God who happens to desire these things of us. Christians already believe in this God, and so hold dear his demands. But this doesn’t work if you are not committed to the God, or to the society this God might expect.

So the Christian apologist has a problem. Having, perhaps, proven the existence of “a” god, how do we prove the god who exists demands of us the things we Christians like to think “he” does, and doesn’t demand some of the ghastly things other gods have demanded? Strictly speaking, a god whose existence we can prove in this way is a god without content. It is not clear what it might then command of us, and so difference it makes. It is, in this sense, quite uninteresting.

In fact, the implications we might think flow from a proof of the existence of God generally precede the proof, rather than flow from it. It is because we believers have a sense for how we – and others – ought to be living that we seek to prove God. The God we seek to prove – if we even bother – corresponds to our sense of an appropriate social, political, and economic order.

This way of putting it opens up another way of approaching the god-question: if there are quite different social, political and economic orders, might there be more than one god?

This might seem to be the opposite of traditional Christian teaching, but in fact it gets us closer to the Scriptural sense for things than does our predominant western philosophical monotheism.

It is this Scriptural sense for God which I want to draw from our Psalm this morning, by noting one aspect of a likely hearing of what the psalmist has to say. Throughout the psalm we encounter the expression “the Lord”. Whether we are believers or not, this expression is so familiar to us culturally that we tend to hear “the Lord” as a synonymous expression for “God”. Thus, “I will bless the Lord at all times” becomes “I will bless God at all times”; “My soul makes its boast in the Lord” becomes “My soul makes its boast in God”, and so on. It seems so obvious that this is appropriate that it hardly seems worth noting, let alone be possible that these substitutions might be misguided.

But it is important that what we see in an English text as “the Lord” (written with small capitals) is in the Hebrew not “God” but the name of a particular god. The Scriptures breathe polytheistic air. Even when a generic word for “God” is used to refer to the God of Israel, it is always with the intention of distinguishing this particular “God” from other Gods. This distinction is made by naming the different gods, and then identifying which one we’re interested in.

In the case of the expression “the Lord” in the psalm, the word “Lord” is not the religious term we hear it to be today but the name of the God David (the psalmist) addresses here. It is the same name Moses received in the burning bush story: “What is your name”, Moses asks, “that I might tell them which god has sent me?” This god’s name, “Yahweh” (Jehovah), is the name of one god among many. The scriptural question, then, is never Does God exist? But always: Which god is yours?

What difference does this make?

If “Does God exist” is not a very interesting question – now or then – “Which god is yours” is potentially very interesting, very engaging. This is because of what we noted earlier. If our proofs of God tend to correspond to our preferred social, political and economic orders, then it also works the other way: how we think the world ought to be ordered implies – a very important word here! – a god.

The gods implied in our political stories might not actually look like gods. They will in fact take the form of social influences, or economic obstacles, or personal histories, fears, needs or desires. They may be the Zeitgeist – the spirit of a time. The gods in our various stories are the givens according to which we think our lives and those of others ought to be ordered. Capitalism implies a certain kind of “god”, as does communism. A politics of “sovereign borders” implies a god, as does a colonial mentality in relation to “undeveloped” lands. “Law and order” politics implies a particular god, as does social libertarianism.

The point of this is to show that the world of the Scriptures with its many lords and many gods is not that different from our own world. The principle difference is that Jewish henotheism (a commitment to one god within a pantheon) was taken up by the church, along with Greek philosophical monotheism, in such a way as to separate the gods from anything in the world, and so to make them ultimately uninteresting – precisely because they are separated from the world.

It’s probably easier to see what this matters by becoming more concrete. What does this mean for the way in which the church engages with any society within which it finds itself? Or, to put the question differently, what does it mean for evangelism?

We ought first to note that “evangelism” is a scary word in churches like the Uniting Church, and probably also in congregations like ours. It is associated with a certain method and set of assumptions which leave us cold as Christians, let alone what they do to most victims of such outreach!

Yet, in terms of what I have been speaking about, evangelism is not about getting God into people; it is about getting people out of the grip of the gods which have already got them. Evangelism does not declare that “there is a God”, but that the gods are already alive and active in our lives; they just don’t look like “gods” anymore.

There is a god or a spirit which lurks in the decisions you make about what to do with your money. There is a spirit active in the thoughts which cross your mind when someone on the street asks you for “spare change”. There are spirits active when you indulge yourself in ways you’d rather others didn’t know about, and spirits active in them when they might object or not approve.

Evangelism – literally, “good-news-ing” – doesn’t inject God into a godless space; it invites a change of gods, and swapping of spirits:

“O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.

The evangelist does nothing which is not already being done actively and generally much more effectively in the world around us. Consider our Psalm, with a different god praised:

1 I will bless capitalism at all times;
it praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul makes its boast in capitalism;
let the humble hear and be glad.
3 O magnify capitalism with me,
and let us exalt its name together.

4 I sought capitalism, and it answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
5 Look to it, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
…8 O taste and see that capitalism is good;
happy are those who take refuge in it.

Or perhaps,

4 I sought self-fulfilment, and it answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
5 Look to it, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by self-fulfilment,
and was saved from every trouble.
7 The angel of self-fulfilment encamps
around those who fear it, and delivers them.
8 O taste and see that self-fulfilment is good;
happy are those who take refuge in it.

Or maybe, in times of uncertain opinion polls:

1 I will bless Malcolm at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul makes its boast in Malcolm;
let the humble hear and be glad.
3 O magnify Malcolm with me,
and let us exalt his name together.

4 I sought Malcolm, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
…8 O taste and see that Malcolm is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.

Substitute whatever you like; it’s fun, and very revealing!

The point is: we are being “evangelised” all the time!

And the critical question is: what is the thing we can slot into those verses which makes them speak what is true for us, personally and communally? What is the “given” upon which our lives are built, the sense of the world out of which we relate to ourselves and those around us?

To be invited to “taste and see” that the Lord is good is to be invited not to become religious, but to change religions, even if we thought ourselves secularists. To be invited to “taste and see” that the Lord is good is not to be invited to become “spiritual” but to exchange one purportedly enlivening spirit for another which does, truly, enliven.

The Christian evangelist sides with David: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

About how the Lord is good, I’ve not said much. The psalm itself says a great deal: the Lord “saves from every trouble”, “delivers from all fears”, “rescues the righteous”. The language needs some qualification – perhaps another time! – but the point is clear. In this one is found what cannot be found elsewhere: that which gives life, pressed down and flowing over.

We are all, constantly, making professions of faith, implying gods and spirits which command our allegiance or have us under their spells.

It is in this context that we are to hear the invitation to “consider Christ”, to “taste and see”. This is God’s word to us today, and to be our word to the world around us.

Let us, then, listen and speak accordingly, to God’s greater glory and our richer humanity. Amen.

LitBit Commentary – Alexander Schmemann on Preaching

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“Witness to Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit is the content of the Word of God, and this alone constitutes the essence of preaching: ‘and the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth’ (1 Jn 5:7). The ambo is the place where the sacrament of the word takes place, and therefore it must never be turned into a tribune for the proclamation of even the most elevated, most positive, but only human truth, only human wisdom.”

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist, p.78


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18 October – On Prayer

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Sunday 29

James 5:13-20
Psalm 104
Mark 10:35-45

James writes:

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

These are hard verses to hear although, unlike with some scripture passages which make us uncomfortable, this is not because we don’t want to hear them. Rather, we do want to hear and believe such promises, and yet find them hard to accept. Can the prayers of the elders heal us?

Our general experience is that this is not usually the case.

We have ways, of course, of accounting for the failure to receive what we pray for. One way of reconciling the conflict between what James promises and what we experience would be to conclude that our elders aren’t any good! Or perhaps someone else in the whole chain of events doesn’t have enough faith – maybe the person who is sick. Or perhaps we conclude that “it is not the will of God” that healing be granted.

In the end, after we have responded as we think the text requires and then find that things don’t go the way we’d hoped, we easily end up either disbelieving the scripture, or God, or doubting ourselves, or all three. Why pray, when it seems to make no difference in terms of what we thought we were praying for? And so, finally, prayer ends up being our action of last resort. Antibiotics and surgery are much more reliable, and prayer to God is left to fill in those gaps which we can’t fill ourselves with all our marvellous technology.

When we pray in this way, even if the desperation makes the prayer most fervent, we actually defeat the purpose we imagine we are fulfilling. Resorting to prayer – prayer as a last resort – is to admit defeat in the matter of prayer. Prayer ought not to be something we “resort” to. Rather, it is a way of experiencing the world in the story of Jesus, whether things seem to be going well or seem to be going badly for us.

It is often said that prayer is “talking-to-God”. More strongly, we could say that in prayer we embody the fact that human life is oriented towards God, whether in praise or thanksgiving, or in confession, petition or intercession. Our prayer should be as fervent on the good days as on the bad. For prayer, properly, reflects the type of relationship which should exist between human beings and God.

Yet, this is not a relationship we are not called to construct, a bridge we are to build from ourselves to God through spiritual discipline – as important as such discipline is. The proper relationship between God and the human being is what we see in the experiences of Jesus himself. Jesus stands before God as the human being ought; or, to put it differently: he prays as we should pray.

The gospel is that Jesus’ prayers are made our own. When we pray, our prayers arise from the desire that the fullness of relationship Jesus experienced with God should indeed become our own – a fullness, we should keep in mind, which was not without troubles and trials of its own. In our petitions and intercessions, we express the desire that Jesus’ experience become increasingly our own – a process we began in our baptism.

This challenges too simplistic a reading of James here, as if he gives us a prayer formula to follow for reliable results. If we assume that the effectiveness of our prayers has something to do with our own holiness, or depends on our using the right kind of words, or the right oil in anointing, or depends on the conviction or ‘faith’ (so-called) we can summon up in ourselves, we forget that the basic truth given in scripture is that God desires that the world be healed. We forget that God has acted in Jesus for that healing, and continues to act in Christ’s Spirit.

Our prayers have their effect in God’s continual working towards the renewal of creation through the activity of the Spirit, and not in our being particularly good pray‑ers. When we pray – whether in thanksgiving or in petition – we are naming a future which God will bring. We begin to reshape our present by living in anticipation of that future restoration. We refuse to allow what we see or experience to be the final word.

James’ promise that prayer will heal the sick is not to be read as a stand-alone promise which is true because it is in the Bible. It is to be understood in the context of what prayer is for Christians who have been baptised in Jesus’ own experience of God, and so who have begun to see the world with different eyes. We have heard the story about Jesus, and we begin to live in anticipation of that story becoming our own. With James we can say that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective”. The righteous one, however, is not yet any of us, but Christ. Christ’s prayers, Christ’s standing before God, are what we depend on. When we pray – in thanks, or praise, or confession, or petition or intercession – we tell the wondrous story of the Christ who died for us, is risen for us, and who prays for us. Within what seems to many to be the clunky old doctrine of the Trinity is the truth of the gospel: the life of the Jesus the Son in the heart of God is a life ever for us.

God offers this “for us” as the final “yes” to our prayers, even before we utter them. Not “the prayer of the elders” so much as the prayer which is Christ himself is what we are to offer up to God, for he is the prayer God offers us to pray. To address God with the word “Jesus” is say all that needs to be said, for it is the heart of all our prayers.

Perhaps all this feels like a side-stepping of the issue – a clever theological avoidance of the problem of prayer and God’s apparent deafening silence. The answer to this would take more time than we have here, but would start with questions like these: Where do we learn to pray? Do we know how to pray? And if not, do not texts like the one we have from James today teach us what needs to be done? It is usually what we “know” about prayer and the apparent unhelpfulness of James (and others) which causes our crisis about prayer in the first place.

I remember the first time it was suggested to me that it is not our prayers but the prayers of Christ which are central to the Christian practice of prayer. It was a passing remark in a preface to the Lord’s Prayer in Queen’s chapel, maybe 25 years ago. You hear that particular teaching from me each week as I preface our praying of the Lord’s Prayer each week with words to the effect of: “…in confidence, we join our prayers to those of Jesus, praying as he taught us…”

Easily said, but not easily embraced, lived. This ought not to surprise us, and it is why we return here each week, why we gather again and again around the table. It is no small thing to become what we eat – the Body of Christ – and so no simple thing to pray as Jesus once prayed, and continues to pray. We are his Body in a passing, fleeting, promissory way. So too are our prayers passingly Christ’s own. Yet we believe that what we now see in this fleeting fashion – “as if through a glass darkly” – we will see established firmly, and that the way our prayers are now indistinct echoes of Christ’s own will be left behind as they are brought into full harmony with his.

In the meantime we have not theological cleverness to set aside difficult work and questions but the call to live a life which anticipates this fulfilment. We are to work as if this fulfilment depended on us – including the work of prayer – and we are to pray, for its fulfilment does not depend on us. This prayer is the one which, so to speak, reminds God of Jesus and his work and prayer, and of the promise that these will be ours.

This is how we are to pray, and what we are learning as we gather here week after week, or in the quiet of the morning in our homes, or in the midst of a hectic day when God catches our attention again. To repeat my almost-conclusion from a few moments ago: to address God with the word “Jesus” is say all that needs to be said, for this word – given by God as our word to him – is the heart of all our prayers.

May God’s people find themselves ever more at peace with this heart, beating for life, through death, to life again – strength and comfort enough in their tribulations and their joys. Amen.

Mark the Evangelist Update – October 15 2015


the latest MtE news update:

  1. The final study group series is almost upon us – the Tuesday evening group begins next week Tuesday 20, the Friday morning group the following week. If you’re interested in coming but haven’t registered, please send me an email or register via the web page.
  2. Our annual All Saints luncheon approaches again: Sunday November 1! If you are likely to be attending for the luncheon, please let Rod know; if you are able to assist with bringing something to contribute to the meal, please speak to Bev.
  3. We are seeking someone to take over responsibility for overseeing the provision of morning tea after worship. While the work on any day is done by those rostered, we need a person to maintain the tea and coffee supplies (not milk; with reimbursement), wash the tea towels as needed, order, supply or arrange occasional birthday cakes (usually just the “decade” birthdays) and for baptisms or over special events. If you think might be able to take this on or share it for a shorter or longer term, please speak to Rod.
  4. The October 2015 newsletter Synod is here.
  5. A recent request from Yarra Yarra Presbytery re support of several ministries in region oriented towards mental health issues can be read here.


LitBit Commentary – James Torrance on Prayer 2

LitBits Logo - 2“The gift of sharing in the intercessions of Christ is that when we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit makes intercession for us.  Whatever else our faith is, it is a response to a Response already made for us and continually being made for us in Christ, the pioneer of our faith.”

James Torrance, Worship, Community and the triune God of Grace, p.18


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11 October – Everything, for everything

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Sunday 28

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22
Mark 10:17-31

Like the reading we heard last week in which Jesus was teaching about divorce, our reading this morning is another one of those texts in Mark’s gospel which really makes us sit up and listen!

We take notice of this text for the same reason as we noticed the one on divorce: because we sense that it might be speaking to us, or about someone close to us, and that it might be speaking negatively about us or them. And yet Jesus’ teaching about wealth in this morning’s reading is less clear than what he seemed to be saying about divorce. Whereas we know whether we are divorced or not, or whether we want to be divorced, wealth is a relative thing: Am I rich in the way the man Jesus met was, and so is what was said to him also said to me?

Now, there are a couple ways of overcoming or dismissing the challenge that this text seems to make to us.

The first way is to deny that God would ask us to give up the things we have, because the fact that we have them is itself the proof that we are with God and God is with us. This way of thinking has its supporters today, and was also strong in Jesus’ time. When Jesus remarks how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, the disciples are astounded and ask, “Who then can be saved?” That question implies that the rich are rich because they are with God. If the rich-and-so-righteous can’t get into heaven how can anyone else? For the fact that others are less rich indicates that they are less righteous before God.

But Jesus clearly does not measure our closeness to God by the amount of possessions we have.

The second way of sidestepping Jesus’ challenge is to assure ourselves that it doesn’t apply to us because we are not, like the man in the story, “very” rich. (“Very rich” is from Luke’s version of the story; Mark and Matthew have “had many possessions”). Not being “very” rich, we don’t have the enormous abundance which many very rich people do have. But the fact that we hear that the man who approached Jesus was very rich distracts us from the central issue, for the disciples did not have many possessions and yet they too had given all up to follow Jesus. It is not the amount the man was instructed to give away which is central but the fact that it was everything. (If there is anything to be said about the fact that the man was very rich it is that the more we have, the less likely we will be able to let it go, perhaps especially if we have accumulated that wealth by our own efforts).

So we can’t simply deny the application to ourselves of what Jesus said to the rich man by citing a different principle – that God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous; and neither can we declare ourselves relatively “un-rich” and so let Jesus’ word be one for somebody else.

What, then, are we to do with what Jesus says here? The first possibility is to take his word to that man as a word to everybody, and to give away all we have. The second possibility is to conclude that the teaching doesn’t apply to us, just as we might have concluded last week that Jesus’ text on divorce and adultery does not apply to us (if we are not divorced, or wanting to be; or just that it is too uncompromising).

But neither approach is satisfactory

The particular call which God makes on the lives of each particular person can’t be turned into some type of legal principle. Just because Jesus called one person to give it all away, we can’t conclude that he expects the same of all. But, on the other hand, that doesn’t mean that some of us will not be subject to just such a call.

How can we know whether it is us or not, and so just what we are to do?

The fact is that we can’t know what we are to do about our money and possessions with any great degree of certainty. It is not just that the will of God for our particular lives is hard to discern, which of course it often is.

It is also that, important as knowing and action are, knowledge of the law and doing it are not the first things in the Christian life. Note the question the rich young man presents to Jesus: “what must I do to inherit eternal life”

We might be tempted to respond to what Jesus says by attempting ourselves both to obey all the commandments and also giving away all about possessions and following Jesus, as if by “doing” these things we were meeting all Jesus’ requirements and so were then able to tick off all the necessary boxes we need filled before we can get into heaven.

But to do something (or not do something) in order to win eternal life is not going to get us very far; our call is not to impress God with our works.

That leaves us in what Jesus names an “impossible” position: how can we know how to act? How can we do what needs to be done if doing is not the point? We can’t know exactly, and so we begin to get a sense of what Jesus means when he says, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God”.

But he follows that up directly with the remark that while for human beings it is impossible, it is not for God. It’s not that God will somehow get us into heaven via some obscure loophole, a legal equivalent of Jesus’ grotesque image of forcing a camel through the eye of a needle! We find our way into God’s kingdom not by doing the law, nor by God ignoring the law, but by God’s grace.

Better than the “What must I do?” question is, “What must we be in order to inherit eternal life?” The answer of the New Testament is that we are to be a people whose position in the kingdom concerns what God has done, and not what we ourselves have done…

For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. There is, then, some good news here for the rich – whether the really, really rich or the “little bit” rich which a good many of us are.

Giving away your money will not impress God. We don’t buy our way into heaven by buying meals for hungry people, for our relationship to God is not a matter of how much or how little we have done. But, at the same time, those whose lives have already been touched by God do have work to do, including buying meals for hungry people, clothing them, housing them, and perhaps also discovering for ourselves what it means to be hungry and without adequate clothing or housing or whatever…

The good works Christians are called to do are to be a response to having heard the good news about God’s kingdom, and not the means of getting into the kingdom.

In relation to all this, two specific points of application…

The first has to do with our own personal resources. We don’t much focus on the question of personal stewardship in congregations like ours because they tend to have the luxury of enough resources to manage reasonably without constant attention to levels of personal giving.

And yet the call to give, and to give generously, does not go away on this account. Responsible giving is not about what we perceive is needed to keep afloat a particular institutional form; this is giving as a minimum. Responsible giving is just that – a response: it reflects our having heard the invitation to share in God’s impossible work – the opening up of the kingdom of heaven.

What our personal share in this looks like is for each of us to determine, but it should be actively determined. If the impossible call to give everything away is impossible, it doesn’t mean that what we do actually give is a matter of unreflective indifference. As in relation to every other thing, changes in income and costs and need should be reflected in changes in giving – whether up or down. And the difficulty of what Jesus says here ought not to insulate us from the call to give generously, even sacrificially, for in this gift we say that there is more to fullness of life than what we have. Take an opportunity in the next week or two to consider how this relates to your own giving, whether through the offering plate or through other charitable support you offer.

The second point of application of what Jesus implies here about our resources is Hotham Mission, which is the subject of a session together today after morning tea. We put a lot of resources into the Mission. As a response to the gospel, it is a kind of community version of the personal responses we are each called to make.

It is the case that we run a significant deficit and are in the midst of a large-scale review of our resources – our “Mark the Evangelist Futures Project”. But the deficit itself is not a problem – at least theologically; there is nothing very sustainable about Jesus’ proposal to the rich man! The more important question is why we do what we do – as a congregation resourcing the Mission. Our discussion about the Mission after worship this morning is not to ask the question about its funding but to consider how this is a response to the call to follow, such as we heard in Jesus’ address to the rich man today and, in those terms, what kind of “return” we image the congregation receives.

These are just two ways in which what Jesus says to the rich man might make a claim on us as individuals and as a community.

In making personal and community responses to the declaration that God is to be our “all”, we recognise that we cannot lay a claim on God, without God also laying a claim on us. And each of those claims is absolute. Just as we throw out the plea that God do what we cannot do – accept us and draw us to himself – so also God throws back the challenge that it be all of our self which moves to him.

It is the response to the love of Jesus which the sad man in our story could not make, for it turned out for him – as for us – that there was more at stake than just getting it right with the commandments. The work of our lives is to point to more than to our achievements, moral or otherwise. God gives us all of himself, and asks that we give all of ourselves in return, even if, for the time being, it looks like we are hanging on to something. God knows what we need in order to live; we are in the process of learning what others need, and of sharing with them from what we have. This is the following of Jesus.

By God’s grace, may we ever be growing more fully into such discipleship, to God’s own glory and to the benefit of those around us. Amen.

Mark the Evangelist Update – October 8 2015


the latest MtE news update:

  1. Following worship (morning tea) this Sunday October 11 there will be a short workshop considering the new preamble to UnitingCare Hotham Mission’s Strategic Plan, which is being reviewed after three years. We encourage you, if you are able, to stay for a half hour or so to reflect on UCHM’s work and its link to the life of the congregation, as expressed in the preamble. The focus text for the service will be the gospel for the day (Mark 10.17-30); we may get to finishing up with James the following week! The text of the new preamble is available here.
  2. Our annual All Saints luncheon approaches again: Sunday November 1! If you are likely to be attending for the luncheon, please let Rod know; if you are able to assist with bringing something to contribute to the meal, please speak to Bev.
  3. We are seeking someone to take over responsibility for overseeing the provision of morning tea after worship. While the work on any day is done by those rostered, we need a person to maintain the tea and coffee supplies (not milk; with reimbursement), wash the tea towels as needed, order, supply or arrange occasional birthday cakes (usually just the “decade” birthdays) and for baptisms or over special events. If you think might be able to take this on or share it for a shorter or longer term, please speak to Rod.


4 October – Marriage and Divorce

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Sunday 27

Ephesians 5:25-33
Psalm 100
Mark 10:2-16

Sermon preached by Rev. Rob Gallacher

A few months after we were married, a drowsy Sunday afternoon found me preaching at Tarnagulla. The reading was Ephesians 5. I was very much in love (for the record I still am) and so I launched into a lyrical account of marital bliss. Then I looked at the congregation, all seated in one pew. There were two ladies who had never married, two widows, a mature couple and Harry, the bell ringer who bore an uncanny resemblance to Quasimodo. Then it was that I realised what a minefield it is to preach about marriage, and I haven’t done it since, until today.

Commentaries on these readings all give several pages about first century culture, as the sayings need to be considered in context. I’m going to skip that, and pick out a few salient points to develop.

When Jesus is quizzed about divorce, he goes behind the Law of Moses to God’s purpose in creation. Now this is not an appeal to nature. It is tempting to say that the coming together of the two sexes to produce new life is a principle on which the whole creation is built, and so marriage is the most natural thing in the world. Well, we visited a fish farm and I learned that Barramundi are all born male, and remain so for five years and when most become female and breed. And David Attenborough will happily point you to a proliferation of other variations. An argument from nature is an argument for exceptions and diversity.

Jesus says, “From the beginning of creation, God made them, male and female, the two will become one flesh”. That is, it is God’s will or purpose that couples marry and become one. Now I am cautious about claiming to know God’s will. I prefer to talk about a Biblical understanding, and to put Paul’s teaching beside this saying of Jesus. “Husbands, treat your wives as your own body”. That doesn’t mean treat a woman as if she were a man. Rather, such is the intimate bonding, or uniting, that what a husband does to his wife he does in fact do it to himself. They are one. And I’m glad that both Jesus and Paul make that reciprocal.

Paul quotes “The two will become one flesh” and adds “this is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church”. It is not clear if he means that the experience of marriage enables you to understand how Christ loves the church, or if Christ’s love for the church sets the standard for marriage. But it is not lack of clarity that causes him to speak of “mystery”. Mystery means that there is always more to something than you have so far discovered. So it is like running on two legs. The self-giving love experienced in marriage gives you a clue to the way Christ loves the church, especially the way Christ faithfully continues to love the church, even when it disappoints him.    And when you appreciate the way Christ loves the church more deeply, your experience of marriage is broadened, and you become more forgiving. You venture into new territory.   That in turn gives you a new insight into divine love, which in its turn opens new experiences in the human relationship, and so on without end. You are exploring a mystery. Somehow, opening yourself to an “other” expands your own person, and that “other” can be human or divine.

Such is the ideal. But a lot of marriages do not work out like that, and so there is a place in law for divorce. However, be aware that since the bonding is so deep, the breaking of it is extremely hurtful. And if you rub salt into the open wound by taking another partner well Jesus says that’s adultery.

Is this the teaching of the Uniting Church? Start with the marriage service. It says that marriage is a gift of God, a means of grace, a life-long union in which you know the joy of God in whose image you are made. You live in the covenant of love that is made with us in Christ. There are another 10 points made in the statement of purpose, but that’s enough to show we are in the same ball park as the UCA liturgy. A discussion paper of marriage was presented to last Assembly. It is a commentary on the Marriage Service. I quote a couple of sentences from this 20 page document.

“The church believes that marriage is more than a cultural phenomenon or a social construct. Life-long covenantal union reflects God’s loving nature…”

“Divorce is never viewed as a part of God’s intention … But nor is regarded as a sin … It I a tragic consequence of the fallenness of human relationships.”

Then there is the President’s letter, written after Assembly, calling for a “space for grace”. He asks us to respect different views, realising we are an inclusive church reconciling both the Aboriginal Congress and the Gay and Lesbian community. Christ’s command is love one another, so the church will take another 3 years to listen to each other with our heart, and to the Holy Spirit who grants us understanding beyond human wisdom”.

The Assembly and the President are treading cautiously because marriage touches such deep emotions, and there is such a variety of views and experiences. Let me outline a few current trends that impinge on this stance. I have to be brief, so I’ll be blunt. It should give you plenty to talk about over lunch.

  1. Marriage is not the only environment for developing a deeper relationship with God. But there are other relationships which can aid that spiritual journey. I was in a group once when a person argued that an individual is not complete without a marriage partner. You should have heard the two nuns in the group explode at that.
  2. We live in a culture of generational change. I once conducted a group where I asked people to sketch their lives in the form of a tree. A 70 year old drew a stark black trunk with a single shoot emerging from the top. She explained that the shoot started the day her husband died. She told a story of living with an alcoholic, and cited many dreadful experiences. The three young wives present all said, “Why didn’t you leave?” She said, with dignity, “I married him for better or for worse, and I kept my vow!” They shook their heads.
  3. While the Bible presents us with a profound understanding of the possibilities in marriage, it does not turn the ideal into a clear-cut law. For example, having stated God’s will in Genesis 2, chapter 3 presents the first family which is no model. Adam and Eve make a mess of things, and produce a son who is a murderer. Our understanding and practice has to deal with this discrepancy between ideal and reality compassionately.
  4. A big struggle today is against individualism – cutting self off from relationship. It is being promoted as liberating and progressive. I wince when abortion is promoted as “a woman’s right to take control of her own body” just as I frown when a billionaire says “It’s my money and I can do with it what I like”.
  5. Add to this the power that technology is giving in support of self-centred individualism. Australian Story last Monday told of a woman who shunned partners for career, then, later, wanted a child so badly she paid $30,000 to a clinic in San Diego to have a foetus implanted with which she had no genetic connection.
  6. You will have noticed I have not mentioned gay marriage: My only comment is that this issue is big enough to break the relationship between church and state that we have here in Australia. Soon everyone will marry in a Registry Office and those who want their marriage solemnised will come to church as well.

Actually, it was because the debate about so called marriage equality is so superficial that I believe someone should be saying something about the godly nature of relationships and witnessing to what marriage can be. A romantic “We love each other” is not enough.

I leave you with some words plucked from “A Service of Blessing of a Civil Marriage” in Uniting in Worship 2. It says: This is a way of life which God has created and Christ has blessed. (Hence the picture on the cover of the OOS) May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen you ….. to love each other as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.


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