Monthly Archives: January 2016

31 January – Looking forward to praising God

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Epiphany 4

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
Luke 4:21-30

Does the prayer of our psalmist this morning make any sense?

It is a prayer for protection, that God be a “rock of refuge, a strong fortress”. Yet we might imagine that if God were able to become such a fortress, and if the psalmist has “leaned” on God since he was born and God has been his hope and trust since the days of his youth (vv6f), then the psalmist might not have had a problem in the first place, had God kept up what would seem to be his end of the deal.

And perhaps it’s even a bit worse than this, when we note what kind of suffering it is that the poet is experiencing. For it is not what we might call “general” suffering – illness or infirmity, poverty, a broken heart, or any such thing which even his persecutors might suffer at times. The psalmist’s suffering is specifically that which arises from the life lived according to the call of God. It would seem to be his own very faithfulness which has seen these hard times visited upon him. Later in the psalm (v20), he in fact “blames” God for what has happened, addressing God as, “you who have made me see many troubles and calamities” The prayer we hear in this psalm, then, contradicts the simplistic notion that the faithful always have a good time of it.

Taking seriously the things the psalm sets alongside each other, there emerges what is, perhaps, an unexpected account of what it means to live faithfully, and to pray. Faith here cannot be cast as some kind of protection from the ills of the world – a kind of vaccine which we take in order to ward off evil. Quite to the contrary, the prayer of the psalmist suggests that faith might actually be the thing which causes suffering for the believer – at least the kind of suffering that the poet experiences. For the “troubles and calamities” he experiences would seem to be those which arise from his being a person of faith, and being persecuted for that faith. His faith has marked him in the eyes of others – marked him as different in what he will and will not do, will and will not say, what he looks to as a measure of truth. And this brings conflict in a world where the things of this particular God are rejected.

Belief is often caricatured as a response to a life situation: believing in order that this or that thing might be changed, or a particular outcome might be effected. But for the psalmist belief is shown in the effect it has on his life and not the other way around. His belief is not a response to what he thinks is happening in his life, whether good or bad. Rather, what happens in his life is a matter determined by his belief. His faith comes before his experience.

And so faith has also been a source of heartache for him, as it has become a focus for mockery (vv13,11). This mockery is not for the poet a sign of the absence of God, for it is the very presence of God in the poet’s life which has caused the problem. And so there is in fact no contradiction when the poet calls out to God for help. It is not that faith knows the presence, and the absence of God. It is that God’s presence is as much a problem as a solution.

And so the psalmist’s faith is constant whether things are going well, or not. We have heard also this morning the call of the prophet Jeremiah, another whose faith caused him great suffering. It was Jeremiah’s experience also that believing God set him off over against his fellow Israelites, a very unhappy and uncomfortable situation for him, and yet an unavoidable one, as he could not but believe and respond to the God who called him. It was God who placed him in the uncomfortable place, and only God could carry him through it.

Faith, then, turns to God not simply because something has gone wrong, but because it has first known the “going right” which relationship to God has brought before. Faith begins with God’s presence in our lives – not his absence – and looks for the fulfilment of promise heard in that presence. Faith, then, is not the caricatured grasping after something when all else has failed: a negative thing which reflects a sense of the absence of God. Such a “faith” – so-called – does not know the God it longs for; it longs really only for a change of circumstances and hopes that there might be a God who can bring this about.

Our psalmist longs also, of course, for a change of circumstances; such a longing we all have in common. But what distinguishes the hopeful longing of faith from the simple wish for relief is the thing which will mark its arrival. Those who simply wish for change long only for a change of circumstance; if it comes it is really only a matter of fortune. It brings about in them no real change but the relief itself. And that is the end of the matter, until the next crisis arises.

But for faith which hopes for change – and so looks to a God it already knows as the agent of change – the outcome is marked not only by the relief but by praise and thanksgiving which reflects a renewed experience of God’s faithfulness.

And so the psalmist is able to finish his prayer in the surprising way he does – not actually praising God – yet – but looking forward to the time of praising God:

22 I will also praise you with the harp
for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing praises to you with the lyre,
O Holy One of Israel.
23 My lips will shout for joy
when I sing praises to you;
my soul also, which you have rescued.

The psalmist looks forward not only to his deliverance, but to the praise which will spring from his lips. For this deliverance will be something which marks a constancy in his life – a constancy which is God himself. The psalmist’s life is structured not by the ups and downs, the ins and outs of human existence, but by God’s company along the way. His life is not simply a story of what happened to him, but a story within the story of God – a story within the call to trust God who is faithful. In the bright times, and in the dark ones – which are those parts of our stories which tend to catch most of our attention – God’s love and faithfulness frames the psalmist’s experience.

And so he does not simply suffer or celebrate according to the circumstances; he finds the call of God to be the way of understanding where he is, and what he is to be. In the good times, then, and in the bad, he continues to learn what it is to be a creature of this God, trusting in God’s promise to make peace of him and his circumstances.

And this is God’s promise also to us: that though our experience of the world can feel harder because we believe, our faith itself is that God, and not anything other thing in the world, is finally to be trusted. And so we pray in confidence, trusting that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And we give thanks and praise, that this is indeed the case.

MtE Update – January 29 2016


the first MtE news update for 2016!

  1. Our Lenten Studies begin Feb 17 (Wednesday evenings or from the 19th for Friday mornings); more info is available here.
  2. Following worship next week Feb 7 we’ll have another of our hymn-learning sessions: learning a new communion setting and adding to our hymn repertoire for Lent.
  3. Our congregational picnic will be after worship on Sunday March 6
  4. The CTM (Parkville) is offering two events on the theme of faith and sexuality, led by Bill Loader: an evening Feb 18 and Feb 19 day event.
  5. The Anglican Church in Melbourne is running a conference on evangelism in February:  Life in Abundance: An Anglican Conference on Mission and Evangelism. The MtE Church Council is willing to subsidise up to $150 for any members of the congregation who would like to attend. Please speak to Craig if you’d like to avail yourself of this offer.
  6. The Synod Standing Committee has recently resolved to pursue legal incorporation of the VicTas Synod; more about this can be found here. I’ve made a short response to this advice which might interest some.
  7. The most recent Synod eNewsletter (January 16) is here.
  8. A number of information sessions have been arranged to discuss the developing outcomes of the Synod’s Major Strategic Review; details are here.


24 January – No mere body politic

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Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 12:13-31a
Psalm 19
Luke 4:14-21

One effect of the acids of modernity for thinking about ourselves in relation to God has been to render religious belief largely irrelevant to public life.

This might seem rather an odd thing to say given the wars and terrorist actions around the world at the moment, many of which are greatly energised by religious convictions. Yet, even as this is the case, it is not the case that nation-states or even the churches are engaged with these struggles as religious struggles.

There is a remarkable absence of critique of terrorist actions and sectarian wars in terms of their religious content or motivation. No critic denies that this motivation is there but the response to it, because of the avowedly secular nature of most western societies, is necessarily non-religious. In relation to Islamic terrorism appeal can be made, say, to other Muslims who seem not to be fostering war or terror, but this is not a religious engagement. It is simply a strategy by which a state or a society seeks to broaden responsibility for keeping things more or less in control by appealing to “good” religionists to keep the dangerous religionists in control.

A more cynical assessment of the hesitation of media and politics to be critical of Islam is that that is a dangerous pursuit, as distinct from the safe fun of mocking Christianity. There is doubtless something in this, but I’m not sure that it gets to the heart of the matter. It is more that we have in the west so separated “religion” out of having a right in the public square that it is thoroughly confusing when it appears again with such vigour. As a society, we are not religiously aware enough to make sense of the oddity of such religious passion, and so we have to tackle it with non-religious means.

This insensitivity to religion has its source many generations ago, but it matured – if an insensitivity can “mature” – only one or two generations back. It is a peculiarly Christian phenomenon, in that it is something which has developed in those parts of the world which have been most affected by the presence and then decline of the church. Perhaps it ought not to surprise us, then, that even the church has not been much able to engage Islam on specifically religious terms.

But engagement with Islam, or any other religion or non-religion is not my particular interest this morning. I’m more interested in what has caused us as a society and, in particular, as a church, to be somewhat blind-sided by the sudden resurgence of passionate religious expression, and rather powerless to deal with it as a religious expression.

And this brings me to our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians. This is perhaps “the” church text of the Uniting Church. We are a church of many parts. Councils relate to councils, each (more or less) open to the other, calling the other to account, sharing oversight of the whole church. We are a largely de-clericalised church, with a strong emphasis on the many gifts of our many members. We are a composite church made up of ecumenical efforts which sought to take the best of each of its parent churches, and are constantly involved in ecumenical conversation. Every voice matters. In such ways of ordering our common life we reflect the notion that it is many parts which make up the one body.

This is, of itself, not a uniquely Christian notion. The metaphor of the body for a society of interrelated members dates back at least 600 years prior to Paul, appearing in one of Aesop’s fables (The belly and the members). But it is a particularly potent metaphor, and one which is still very much present to us today in contemporary notions of multiculturalism and social tolerance.

Because of the power of the metaphor and its continuing appeal, it comes to seem that what the church is “on about” and what western multiculturalist societies are on about are pretty much the same: a bit of everyone is good for everyone.

Just so, because church and the liberal state are on the same side on this central political tenet, the church is rendered largely irrelevant to the wider social project – a mere helper in an action which is already underway. To link this back to where we started, the church ceases to be a “religious” presence in society and is itself now one member of the larger body politic.

But if we look back to what Paul is doing in this passage, we find something rather different going on. Listen again to the first verse we heard this morning – all but the last word:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with… ”

What is that last word? Keeping in mind that Paul is writing to a community divided by competitiveness and economic difference and general moral confusion, the “obvious” word would seem to be “you”:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with you.”

“You behave as if you are many, and different, and as if the difference overrides the commonness. But as the membered body is one, so you who are many are also one.”

This makes perfect sense to us, familiar as we are with the metaphor of the body for society. But Paul does not have “you” here; he has “Christ”:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

Paul writes here not of the way of being of any general community, but the way of being of Christ. He draws the closest possible link between the person of Jesus and the community of those who trust on him. As we were reminded last week, at the beginning of this chapter, Paul remarked that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit – with the historical name “Jesus” here being the important thing which is affirmed, and not the general notion of a “Christ”. For the Corinthians the body was a problem, and so it was a problem that the idea of the Christ was linked to the historical body of Jesus. For them this seemed to tie God down too tightly to the world. Can it be that here, in this one place – Jesus of Nazareth – all that matters actually took place?

But Paul pushes this further. In this chapter he argues not so much that the particular human being Jesus is the Christ, but that this Christ takes the form of the historical church.

Even within the faithful church today this is almost a horrifying thing to hear. Within the church we know even better than those without how we are not Christ-like. How can it be that here, in this place, all that really matters takes place?

But the shock here is important. It is the possibility of a new thought – and one which accords more closely with the logic of the gospel than with modern optimistic liberal politics.

We dare not say that the church is “Christ,” and Paul does not either. But it is the body of Christ he describes here (12.27). Elsewhere he speaks of our being “in” Christ – enveloped, as it were, by Christ; or of the church as the bride of Christ, related in the “two-become-one” way of marriage.

The church, as much out of embarrassment before the wider world as out of piety, prefers rather to be the community of “believers”, or “followers” of Christ, with the reality which is Christ safely distant from our broken way of being. And we are believers and followers. But if in understanding ourselves in this way we imagine that we are somehow protecting God from an embarrassing relationship to the church, then we sell God short, as well as everything that we do as a church.

The tangibility of God’s presence in the world did not end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s righteousness did not begin and end with Christmas and Easter. The Spirit which, in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus declared was upon him, is the same Spirit which we have been given, which joins the members of this particular body.

The question of the presence of God in the world is not, then, a merely religious one which has been pushed out of the public square with the modern irrelevance of religion and its theological disputes. If the world – or at least our particular society – is no longer interested in religion or theology, it remains very interested in politics, and just here the gospel re-asserts itself: the church is the presence of a different kind of political reality.

This is not a perfected political reality; we don’t have to go far to find evidence of this. But it is a reality with a particular and distinct end, or goal. That goal is the peculiar humanity of Jesus himself. This is the one thing the church celebrates, and for which it exists: to point to this way of being human as the way to which all humankind is being drawn.

And so we pray in Jesus’ name. We hear the Word which is Christ himself. We are fed and watered with the body and the blood of Jesus. And all of this by the power of same the Spirit which made his humanity the presence of God.

Christian life is not concerned with a God whose distance is the sign of his greatness. We are concerned with a God who is as close to us as we are to each other. Our is a God who can make of the most unlikely of things his presence place – even us – that the world might know God has sent the Son.

Let us, then, pray and love, that we might become ever more fully what God has created us to be: Christ’s own body, by the power of God’s own Spirit, to the glory of the Father. Amen.

Incorporation of the VicTas Synod

A personal response to the advice from the General Secretary


Hi Mark,

I’ve read this with interest, and largely with agreement regarding the intended outcome and the rationale.
I’m concerned about the process, however. The second paragraph commences: “The SSC has resolved to seek a change to the legislative structure of the Synod”. The letter, however, implies that the SSC “resolved to change the legislative structure”.
This is unclear. Has the SSC made this decision on behalf of the Synod? If so, this concerns me greatly. Given that the letter indicates the possible need for changes to UCA Regulations and Constitution and the different legal requirements currently in place in different States and Territories, it seems to me that the matter ought to be considered by the whole Synod and not executed by the SSC only. As I understand it, this is the way the Anglicans in Victoria have dealt with the question.
Much has been made of the non-incorporated status of the church in the past – not least how this has made us “different’ from other civil entities – and, while incorporating has the positive benefits described in your letter, I believe that a final resolution on the matter ought to be made by a well-informed Synod meeting and not the SSC only, even if this were to involve a special Synod meeting for the purpose to deal with the matter in a timely fashion.

17 January – Epiphany at Corinth and Cana

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Epiphany 2

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Psalm 36
John 2: 1-11

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

Epiphany for a second Sunday – Epiphany, literally a ‘shining around’, or – as the visit of the Magi suggests – a truly ‘magi-cal’ time: the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

Fifty years have passed since I first attempted a sermon on the Cana text.

Then and now could hardly be more of contrast. Then I was a temporary replacement for a senior minister for a three month period on leave in a flourishing eastern suburban congregation – three services a Sunday in the same place, a total assembly perhaps of 500 souls – and bodies.

This disclosure is not intended to be a nostalgic indulgence – well it is actually! But more seriously, 50 years ago it appeared that the mission to the Gentiles had wondrously, indeed we might say, ‘magi-cally’ succeeded. Epiphany could be taken for granted as an accomplished reality in our day.

The question is now much more sharply focussed – what does epiphany mean for a culture rejoicing in its newly discovered buzz word: ‘secularity’, as it fun runs its way to the charity of its choice?

But epiphany should never have been taken for granted – if our two texts today are allowed to inform us. There has never been a time when the gospel has not been contested. In this respect, Cana and Corinth, Gospel and Epistle are two of a kind. As “A Tale of Two Cities”, they come to us freighted with significance; rich venues indeed for an epiphany.

One of our sad legacies of a century or so of serious biblical neglect is the insufficient attention given to its topography. As if the texts’ naming of cities was of no real consequence, this neglect accompanied a resolute determination to read Scripture as having no complex cultural and religious setting, that is, as if it could simply be plumbed for its “face value” as a book of precedents more, or usually less, of contemporary relevance.

So, this morning, first Corinth – then as multicultural as is today’s Melbourne, a veritable playground for excess of body, mind and spirit. We take this apparently throw away line of Paul’s, for example:

“No-one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says: “Let Jesus be cursed’… Two millennia later when Christian faith is increasingly under attack, we might readily assume that here is where it begins: the same story as ours – culture against Christ. But no – this is vintage Corinth – the radical separation of spirit from body. For note: the cry was ‘Jesus be cursed’ not ‘Jesus Christ be cursed’. That is, the Corinthian Christians were so intoxicated by their spiritual pursuits, that they assumed that they no longer needed the enfleshed, incarnate, bodily Jesus. They had kicked that ladder away in their ascent to spiritual heights – they had the risen Christ as either their attainment or their goal. So with the cry: ‘Jesus be cursed’ we are in truth being inducted into the very mindset not only of Corinthian culture, but of the Corinthian congregation itself. Here religious self-centredness abounded – every soul pursuing its own path to enlightenment. This is why the whole of Chapter 12 of Paul’s letter is given over to an exposition of spiritual gifts – over and over again he insists given not by “human spirit”, but by Holy Spirit; not self-generated, but given by the Spirit of God for the sake of the Church; not for individual self-absorption, but for the building up of the bodily life of the congregation.

So much for Corinth – or indeed contemporary Melbourne. Whenever spirit and body are separated disaster looms. So today: ‘I’m not religious, I’m into spirituality’. But now, consider the irony of a present obverse separation much closer to home. Those who call themselves ‘progressive’, or recently and perhaps even more alarmingly, ’evolving’ Christians have no time for the post-crucified Christ pursued by the Corinthians. Rather, refusing to acknowledge that if Christian belief is not tied to the truth that the life and death of Jesus is an event in God or it is nothing worth bothering with, that only a ‘teaching’ Jesus is permitted – then we have a refusal to climb any ladder at all. To adopt Paul’s language, what we have here is effectively not only “Jesus hooray”, but the much more shocking: “Christ be cursed”.

And so to Cana where the news is much the same. To get there, we need to underline yet again a basic fact, which Christmas invariably suppresses, and of which our culture is totally ignorant – that the letters of Paul chronologically precede the Gospels. In this case, with the gospel of John before us, we are looking at a period of 60 years between the time of the life of Jesus and the composition of our text. Some of us were not born sixty years ago – many of us were barely out of our teens. Imagine trying to remember a word for word conversation so long ago.

A few facts then. Like Corinth, Cana of Galilee entertained many popular cults. Some towns like Capernaum were primarily Jewish, others like Sepphoris were primarily Gentile, hosting shrines to numerous deities. In this complex society, the purpose of the gospel was essentially to force a decision on Jewish Christians in Galilee who were concealing their faith in order to avoid expulsion from the synagogue. Hence the purpose of the gospel is to demonstrate Christ’s coming into the world to bring about a genuine crisis – a fundamental choice between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death. In a word, the old order is to be replaced by the new. This is what the conversion of water into wine symbolises. In this, the real, final, epiphany for John – as for Paul – is the scandal of the cross, the cost of discipleship, the time when “my hour has not yet come” now properly arrives.

In essence then, this gospel is designed as a missionary tract to convert Greek speaking Jews to Christianity in a day when Christians had been expelled from the Jewish synagogue. This why all the controversies reported in this Galilean setting of the Gospel revolve around the true observance of the law, illustrating the pivotal text of the first chapter of the Gospel, namely, that ‘the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’.

So a moment or two on the Cana text – the first and fundamental of the six signs of the gospel culminating in the seventh, Easter day. The primacy given to Cana is driven home throughout by playing with numbers. Seven is the biblical number for completion, and three for the number of God. This is why we are told that it all happens at a wedding at Cana ‘on the third day’, that is, a matrimonial celebration of a new beginning here ,retrospectively, foreshadows a much more primary new beginning of life – that soon to be inaugurated by the Cross.

But one more number is of equal significance, the six stone water jars. Just as for the opening chapter of Genesis, where God moves and rules over the waters, so here it is no accident that John portrays the first sign of Jesus as power over water in the six jars, remembering that six is the biblical number for humanity, coming into existence as we do on the sixth day. The meaning is clear: God and the world, that is, secular creation and new creation, must never be separated.

But there is yet more, layer upon layer. We are explicitly told first up that ‘The mother of Jesus was there’. We need to be told this because Mary is the representative of the old order as the one who literally gives birth to the new. Hence the significance of her words ‘they have no wine’, after, as it were, the poorer Dan Murphy special gives out. Only now is it clear what otherwise looks like a pretty rude son: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? Rude, because, as Jesus must say: ‘My hour has not yet come’. Immediately Mary gets the point. She instructs the servants: ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ In other words, the new best wine, kept to the last, can only be given legitimacy by the ‘old’ order.

There is so much more, but our time has gone. This morning we have before us epiphany for Corinth and Cana when ‘religion’ was everywhere.

How is that epiphany to be appreciated by us after two thousand years of an enculturated gospel, now transmuted into a world of no law, no taboos, no restraints? Our texts will not permit us to go back, only forward to appropriate the mature freedom of the wine of the gospel. We need no convincing that the world, as always, is in turmoil, but always expressing its predicament in new forms. Our primary question today surely is this: What are the pressures on an eroded departed Christendom, except the law masquerading as freedom, water we are everywhere being coerced into believing that is really wine.

Whatever be our response, this much is at least true. That we are called to drink for ourselves the new wine of the life of God with the sensitivity of the connoisseur, in a lively hope that others may discover in our day that the best wine has indeed been kept till last. To this tasting, and its energising renewal around this table, we now give ourselves once again.


10 January – The Baptism of Christ

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Epiphany 1, Baptism of Jesus

Acts 8:14-17
Psalm 29
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Robert Gribben

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened… Luke 3:21

You don’t learn much about today’s theme by reading Luke. Our biblical ancestors did not have the privilege of the media nearby, no paparazzi on Jordan’s bank. Liturgists have no idea whether John baptized Jesus standing up (one or both of them), by immersion or submersion, and whether he used any words. As a matter of fact, reading Luke, you will not even discover that it was John who baptized him. Before the first sentence is finished, the subject matter has shifted to something which could not have been photographed.

It is difficult for us to imagine how 1st century Jews felt about heaven opening. The heaven was not supposed to open because divine power was kept on its upside, and that secured mortals from its danger. But such barriers are not important for the communicating God of the Scriptures.

The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

In John’s Gospel there is no description of the baptism at all, but the whole ministry of John the Baptizer turns on that divine revelation. The evangelist John wrote,

The One who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God’ [Jn 1: 32-4, my italics]

An epiphany indeed. The curtain has risen on all that is to follow of the Good News of God in Christ, revealed in history, in the life, passion and death of Jesus, and in his rising, through the witness of the Spirit. It is Matthew who summarizes its importance at the end of his Gospel, indicating that all who wish to follow Christ, must, like him, step down into the waters of baptism. Jesus’s commission to the waiting disciples after the resurrection is, Go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching them all that he had taught them.

Our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles tells us that the apostles indeed acted on the commandment, but not all got either the baptizing or the teaching right. So we heard that the apostles Peter and John found a group of Samaritan followers of Jesus, who had been baptized ‘in the name of Jesus’ but without any declaration by or of the Spirit. Well, the apostles by prayer and the laying-on of hands bestowed on them the gift of the Holy Spirit, completing their initiation into the church. The Acts tells of other such untidiness in the earliest church, and of the apostles’ ministry of correcting and completing what had happened in the first raw days of evangelism. And without such apostolic tidying up, the Christian church may not have survived a generation. That is still the task of theologians, but we need to know that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church which has survived to our day did get a number of things wrong, even then; and it has continued to do so spectacularly through its long history, and it is a considerable mess now – including our own effort at being a faithful Church.

An American Baptist friend of mine, with an interest in church history, sent me a meditation for this season in which he noted that the winter solstice (where he is) is now a ‘blow-out, over-the-top, month-long party… a neo-pagan exultation of the rhythms of the earth… about lots of good food, good cheer, and the feel-good sentimentality of “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”‘. This cheerfulness, everywhere enforced by the blaring of Christmas carol tunes (the words indecipherable), seems intended to block out for a few weeks, the violence, mayhem, and chaos that are part of what it means to be a human being in this kind of world. He uses the expression ‘tinselled out’.

Then he reminds us of the church’s traditions at Christmastide, traditions unfamiliar to him, and to many of us, but good to be reminded of. The season lasts a mere twelve days. He takes us to the holy days which fall within that brief season, usually marked in daily prayer. After the 25th December, we would come to the 26th and its shocking theme of martyrdom – the feast of Stephen. That tends to be imprisoned in a silly song (at least a silly tune) about a king, in reality a Bohemian (Czech) Duke. But Wenceslas was known for placing his body where his theology was; he was known to get out of bed in the night, and tramp through the snow in his slippers to give alms to his poor citizens, and he is remembered as a martyr. Perhaps we ought also to say more of that other remodelled Christmas saint, Nicholas: he was one of the bishops at the first Council of Nicaea, and there is a nice story that he was so angry with the heretic Arius (about whom you heard last week) that he slapped him on the face. A thoroughly apostolic thing to do.

If you were still saying your canonical prayers on 28th December, you would be right back with King Herod, on a feast the Church has called the ‘Holy Innocents’, (though I note in the Uniting Church calendar, they have lost the title ‘holy’). Of them St Augustine wrote,

These whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom are justly hailed as the infant martyr flowers, the first buds of the church killed by the frost of persecution. They died not only for Christ but in his stead.

Even as we rejoice in the Christmas gospel of the Incarnation, every day we should solemnly remember in our prayers, in our giving, our time and talents, the un-named children who were and are pointlessly massacred, the weeping of the mothers, the refugees driven from their native land, the savage use of power (and what do our Allied bombers do over Syria but this?).

So this is what Jesus was doing when he stepped down into the murky Jordan with the milling crowds of hopeful people. It was part of his ‘enfleshment’, his part with the common crowd, the Jordan river’s water flowing over his living body, closing over his head. I hope you have enjoyed the spectacular cataracts of the Iguaçu Falls on the service order’s cover – the Jordan is somewhat sluggish by comparison, but you don’t need much water to drown in. One of the former pastors of this congregation (the College Church part), Dr Harold Leatherland, used to say that when Jesus burst out of the waters, he took in the deepest breath of his life – of Holy Spirit! Or, as the evangelists put it, the heaven opened, and the voice of God spoke of incarnate Love, while a dove hovered above as a sign. For those gazing on, and for us, an epiphany of the divine Mystery, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God-with-us, in all our weakness, our uncleanness, our thirstiness (symbols always bring a flood of images), the God who cares for us, seeks us, and sustains the whole world.

Which is also the message of the psalm:

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Christmas icons sometimes have Jesus enthroned, but as a infant sitting regally on his Mother’s knee, even with crowned head and sceptre in hand. But having escaped King Herod, this Son of Mary, this King, with the wounds of his crown still visible, will stand before Another on behalf of all the innocents, and all the guilty ones as well. It was for this he was born, for this he embraced his baptism, for this that he came into the world.

3 January – “And the Word became flesh”

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Christmas 2

Ephesians 1:3-14
Psalm 147
John 1:10-18

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“And the Word became flesh”

With these five words we are at the centre of reality. Of course, this has been an increasingly contested claim right at the beginning of anything that could be called Christian faith, not only in the culture, but at the centre of the life of the Church – from the beginning, right down to today.

It is salutary that we should have such a text before us at Christmas with its proclamation that God has a human face. For Christmas obviously tells the life story of a human being. Jesus was born. He lived in subjection to his parents, grew up, learned a trade, made friends and enemies, climbed mountains, sailed boats, wept at a grave, lamented over the state of his church, cut he bled, crucified he died.

Nobody realistically disputes this except so predictably and erroneously the likes of Andrew Masterton in a leading article in The Age on Christmas eve.

But nobody gets really fussed about the catalogue of a biography. Only with a text like: “And the word became flesh”, does the adrenalin start pumping. For the question that rocked the early Church was whether the gospels record the human life of GOD. An influential theologian to be reckoned with was one Arius who said emphatically: No. Whoever it was who was born, hungered, wept, suffered and died it couldn’t be the Creator. God was too dignified to go through a birth canal or to shriek in agony from a Roman cross. Jesus must be a creature, albeit one so great that he deserves the honorific title “Son of God”.

Arius was not being unreasonable – indeed, in the light of the fundamental axioms of ancient theology which understood God to be utterly other than the world there could be no other conclusion.

But by the end of the fourth century, the Church rejected it. Still, discomfort with the gospel insistence that the word became flesh remained even among those who confessed the Creed. It reappeared in the early fifth century controversy that broke out when Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, objected to calling Mary “the bearer of GOD”. All that could be said of her was that she was “the bearer of Christ”, because, like Arius, the followers of Nestorius insisted that God isn’t the kind of being who could be borne (with an e) or born (without an e).

It was all very subtle as reputable controversies always are. Jesus could be confessed to be true God and true man, but his followers maintained that the gospels were really the record of a double life. Jesus’ humanity was born of Mary, true enough, but none of his human experiences could happen to his divine nature which has no beginning or need, cannot grow up and cannot be acted upon. But on the other hand recorded Godlike actions such as healing the sick or driving out demons or being transfigured on a mountain are really speaking of his divinity.

All this sound familiar? Sounds reasonable too. But the Church drew the unreasonable conclusion that GOD was conceived and born of Mary, effectively closing the gap between the claim to a human as well as divine nature.

History has proved that what we might call the Nestorian shuffle is hard to break. The point is that still today, followers of Arius and the Nestorians think that they can understand an abstract term like divine nature without reference to the gospel, and who then try to retrofit the Gospel into what they already know. Thus it ever was. The orthodox – the word means right praise, not right belief! – did the opposite. They discerned that, however strange and disreputable, the Gospel reveals the only God who is. If that meant revising all they thought they knew about God, so be it.

Retrofit the Gospel or allow orthodoxy to retrofit the claim to “reality”, that most abstract of words! This has always been the issue, and it is well and truly alive in our day. Is Jesus an exemplary man who deserves the honorific title “Son of God”. Is he merely a divine emissary from God whose mission was a prophetic call to try harder at being human. Or is he the eternal Word that was at the beginning of Creation, now made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, the very incarnation of the always creative Word, and thus is “of one substance with the Father”? If so, then before any other part of our anatomy, we have to “repent” with our brains, and so revise our understanding of reality?

The fact is that if the Church had not decided for the latter we would be living in a very different world. For example, we cannot live today without encountering Islam and its degenerate heresies. But this is an illustration of a religion that agrees with Arius. For Islam, Jesus is an honourable prophet, but certainly not God. This is why, though popular and a claim to peaceful co-existence, the claim that Christianity and Islam believe in the one God is simply an empty formula, apparent rather than real. Because for Islam there is no divine human incarnation (only the Book, the Koran) degenerate heretics can ultimately sit lightly to life, others and certainly their own. Killing bodies for a supposed greater good is not really a problem. The word becoming flesh, on the other hand, is the guarantee that bodies are everything. Mary “bears” God, of which the so-called Virgin birth is sign. Here, by the way, is where we must really think theologically not gynaecologically, if this really rather marginal witness of Jesus birth is a problem for you. That is to say, the Holy Spirit is not a sexual deputy. Rather the virginal conception by the Holy Spirit affirms that bodies and God inextricably belong together, which is why, too, the Church, the body of Christ, is not negotiable – if you had any thought of leaving! Indeed, to roll the dice for six, there is no life outside the body even in heaven, which the creed beautifully encapsulates in the confession of the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.

But enough. If the Church is to have any cutting edge in the future, those of us who are left must enter much more energetically into the vocation of practical theology, for in essence most of the problems of the present state of the world are deeply theological. Good will and try harder are now not good enough.

That is why any future for the planet, not to speak of Christian existence, will be nothing more than knowing why “and the Word became flesh” is absolutely everything.