Monthly Archives: April 2016

24 April – Heaven: an impossible thought

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Easter 5
24/4/2016

Revelation 21:1-6
Psalm 148
John 13:31-35


Our history has given us a lot of images of what heaven is like, and those images usually have in connection with them certain images of what hell might be like, the one contrasted with the other. Hell is a place of fire and punishment, heaven is a place of sunshine and bliss – so the story typically goes.

In the reading we’ve heard from Revelation this morning we’re given a vision of heaven which has some sense of the blissful existence we might be hoping for, but which also, when we unpack it a little, some might consider to be rather like hell. The beautiful imagery is there: God will dwell with them, he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, death and mourning and crying will be no more. These are things we all long for.

But there’s another aspect of John’s vision which may perhaps be more troubling, if we consider its fuller ramifications. Heaven is not a place where we are alone, but a place where others are. And here we make a connection with something of which a rather sad philosopher once reminded us: “hell is other people”.

Now, we might take some comfort in being in heaven with others if we could choose who else was going to be there: friends, the family members we actually like, perhaps our favourite artists or musicians or celebrities for entertainment. And yet not only they are present in the image which John gives us. The old heaven and the old earth (note: the old heaven also goes!) are replaced by new ones, at the centre of which is a city. As a city, heaven is a communal place, and not a place of isolated individuals.

The problem here, perhaps, is that this will mean that heaven may be a place where there will be people we don’t like or have even learned to hate, and who don’t like us. There doesn’t seem to be very much heavenly about that.

Now, of course, if it’s a heavenly city, then it’s probably something pretty large, and so maybe we could manage to be in the heaven without running into those people who rub us up the wrong way. But given that that’s how we do things already here and now, again there’s nothing very heavenly about this vision is we are going to have to plot when and where we’ll be in order to avoid being annoyed or attacked by others. If heaven is a city full of people, it could turn out to be just plain hard work.

It gets worse. In the gospel reading we heard this morning, Jesus is talking to his friends just before he is about to be handed over to the authorities for trial and execution. He gives them a commandment: love one another. Being told to love someone implies that we don’t or will find it hard, probably because he or she is unlovely, and so love just becomes another thing we have to do. More than this, it’s not just a matter of loving one another, but loving one another in the same way that Jesus has loved us: totally, in self-giving sacrifice.

So, to summarise these readings this morning: after a life-time of being commanded to love people whom it’s hard to love, we’ll go to heaven and meet more of them. Praise the Lord.

This might all seem a bit silly but I think it helps to unpack the ideas of the text in this way if we’re going to understand how they can be misunderstood, and see just what the church’s life is and isn’t about. There are a lot of half-thought wishes and dreams about heaven (and hell) which have little relationship to what we find in the scriptural reflection.

The question is, if city life is how I’ve described it, and heaven involves another city, what would actually have to happen for the dream, the promise, to be realised? Day after day our televisions, newspapers, radios and social media feeds fill the space around us with the cacophonies, the dissonances, of life together. What would it take for life in a city to be a harmonious reality, for heaven as John describes actually to be heaven? The answer is that we cannot imagine.

The good news about all this has its ground at the end of our reading from Revelation: “Behold, I am making all things new.” It is the “I” and the “new” which make all the difference. “I” – God – am the one who brings this about. As much as we can be told to love one another, it is hard work, and some of us just aren’t very good at it. God, however, loves even those who reject him, as the risen Christ returned with forgiveness to those who rejected and abandoned him. It is this kind of love which brings this about and makes all things new. There is not merely another heaven and earth, but a totally new kind of heaven and earth, a place in which it has become possible for us to love each other, a place where life together is life-giving and not life-sapping.

The bad news the church has is that we are unable to save ourselves, to the extent that we would have to be alone in heaven if we were to be there on our own terms and not be hassled by other people – even by those we love and yet who are still quite capable of driving us up the wall. Every dream of a new city, every vision of a new society, every “solution” for some communal problem creates just another problem.

But let’s turn all of this to something a little more concrete and specific.

“Every dream of a new city, every vision of a new society, every ‘solution’ for some communal problem creates just another problem.”

What about us and our search for a solution to the problem of our future – our accommodation and our work?

Will we worship in a re-fitted factory, making the most of the potent ascetic proclamation that enables, among other things? Or will we worship under a spire, with the potent worship aesthetic it makes possible, among other things? Or is there a special measure of righteousness in those who would try to find a balance between those two extremes, simply because it is a compromise, as if – because God reconciles extremes – he necessarily sits somewhere in the middle?

What do we dream of here? What is our vision?

In a marvellous little book called Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer remarks:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who fashion a visionary ideal of community demand that it be realized by God, by others, and by themselves.

They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge the fellowship and God himself accordingly… They act as if they are the creators of the Christian community, as if their dream binds people together.

When their ideal picture is destroyed, they see the community going to smash. So they become, first accusers of the fellowship, then accusers of God, and finally the despairing accusers of themselves.” (SCM 1954, 17f)

To paraphrase this, in the light of the problem with common ideas of heaven we’ve just noted: it is not so much that we cannot have what we want; it is rather that we are likely to want the wrong thing.

It is not a brave person who declares “this, and only this” for the future of a Christian community. It is not even a fool. It is a blasphemer: one who declares that God’s home is not with mortals (Rev 21.3) – with those whose existence is indelibly marked by death.

We worship a God who justifies sinners. This is not a declaration that there is a safety net somewhere for those times we break the rules. It is the rules. “Who-justifies-sinners” is God’s name, and not merely what God sometimes happens to do. “Home-is-with-mortals” is God’s name.

The shadow-side of this is that if this God is our God, then we are those in need of being justified. Why? In relation to the need to decide our future together, it is because we mistake planning for hope, our work for God’s.

It is necessary that tomorrow have some particular shape in our imagination: it is necessary that we plan. This is so that we have something worth doing today. But we can have no confidence that our planned tomorrow will not amount to a crucifying of the Lord of glory.

I suspect that, instinctively, we know this. It is what causes us so much anxiety in the whole process. There is a great deal at stake here, and the risks are great. We wonder, Will we get it wrong, with particular ideas in our heads of what “wrong” looks like. And we wonder, how will we account for ourselves? Who will accuse us for what we choose and how it works out? Perhaps those who went before us, giving us so much, only to see it lost? Perhaps the Presbytery or Synod, which imagine they could put the resources to better use? Perhaps those sitting in the row in front of, or behind, you, who advised that we go a different way? (And they are thinking the same about you!). Perhaps most powerfully: Does God have a plan in his head, which we are supposed to guess? Do we risk failing God in this?

To put the question differently: what is the relationship between what we have to do and what is said from the throne in John’s magnificent vision: It is done?

What is done? God’s home is revealed to be with mortals. God home is with those who built all this, and then died, leaving it to us to sort out. God’s home is with us who will decide what to do with it all, and will then die. God’s home is with those who will have to live with our decisions before they die.

The point is: what we decide is not the source of our life. God, in life and in death, is the source of life.

We are a baptised people. The only death which matters we died in the baptism; there is no condemnation of those whose lives are hidden with Christ in God. Weekly we are fed with broken body and spilled blood – the signs of death – not because we are a cannibalistic death cult but because with this God death has no power but what God gives it.

The decisions before us cause us so much trouble because we are afraid that something is going to die. But God’s home is with mortals, with those who die. There is nothing to fear.

What is the relationship between the royal declaration, “It is done” and what we are do to?

“It is done” declares that death has no power; it is overcome.

What then are we to do? There is only one option. Choose life.

What kind of life? Life together: God’s will done, on earth as it will be in the impossible, promised heaven.

“Love one another, as I have loved you. By this – alone – will everyone know that you are my disciples”.

17 April – Another perspective on caring for the disadvantaged

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Easter 4
17/4/2016

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 23
John 10:22-30

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Gwen Ince


In our gospel reading today, the bods who hang about the temple come up to Jesus in a sort of mini ambush and let him know they’re looking for answers: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

I’m guessing the people here at Mark the Evangelist know something about looking for answers, wondering how long it’s going to take to decide the location and plant questions of their future, longing for an answer. UnitingCare Hotham Mission has been waiting for plain answers about its place in the structures of the Uniting church. St Albans are wondering when they’ll get to meet Daniel’s wife and son. Christ Church wonder most weeks if the Minister will get to church on time.

In comparison with these, questions like ‘What is Hotham Mission?’ or ‘Are you the Messiah?’ seem relatively simple. And of course that’s what Jesus says to his questioners: “What are you asking me that for? I’ve already told you in plain Aramaic… but you don’t believe me. I’ve already done more of God’s works than you can poke a stick at, but you don’t see that that answers your question. You just don’t get it. Worse than that, you never will. You will never cotton on to what I am on about – or more to the point, who I am and where I come from – without a radical change of camp, a seismic shift in your assumptions, a capacity to trust me on my own terms rather than judging me on yours.” Perhaps I exaggerate a little. Actually all John has Jesus saying is, “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”

Naturally, as readers of the text, to say nothing of long-time members of the church, we automatically understand ourselves to be amongst those who do belong. We know Jesus is the Messiah. We know he is, don’t we? We know he lived our life, died our death, was raised to the right hand of God. We hear his voice and follow, more or less, most of the time. See that cottonwool ball I’ve glued to the picture – right there – that’s me, gratefully grazing on the grass with all the other sheep (and even helping fertilize for the next generation).

But the colours change a bit when we jump into the Book of Revelation, and stand with the writer, as the elder points out the innumerable infinitely diverse multitude of white robed praisers of God and the Lamb spread out before us as far as the eye can see. Perhaps then there is that little moment of hesitation, that skipped heartbeat of anxiety as we scan the faces looking for our own. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we are sufficiently sure of what we know and believe that we feel no need to scrutinise our own seeing and believing, though it does make us sound dangerously like the bods in the temple if we are.

The thing is, we are told these, the white robed praisers, are they who have ‘come out of the great ordeal’, they who have ‘washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. Definitely squeamish stuff, that last bit, with the colours seriously awry. It is probably at this point that I need to thank Craig for drawing my attention to some of Rowan Williams” thoughts in his little book, Resurrection, which I believe some of you have read and others might well consider reading. In this book, Williams has a go at helping us understand, or at least get some sense of how the resurrection can transform us.

The argument, as I understand it, goes something like this. Jesus, for no crime, no nasty lapse, no fault of his own, except perseverance and endurance in holding to his absolute belief in the love of the God he knew as Father, suffered an unimaginably cruel and brutal death. Definitely bloody literally. Even more so metaphorically. There is blood on the hands of those who put him to suffering, ending his life prematurely and painfully. If that were the end of it, if death were the only outcome, the stain of blood would remain indelibly there. It is, says Williams, only as Jesus’ killers are confronted with the resurrected Christ that they are able truly to see what they have done, and so have the option to turn away from death towards life, to repent, not just seeing what they are capable of, but owning what they have done and who that shows them to be, and daring to look with hope to the one who, precisely as their victim, alone can forgive them. Such forgiveness is transformation indeed, an invitation to reconciliation, to full membership in the white robed multitude, an opportunity to trust Jesus on his terms rather than judging him on their own.

So that’s the blood bit, in terrifying brevity. What about the great ordeal (and no, you’re not allowed to count sitting through this sermon as part of it)? A bit of attention to  the historical context of the writer of Revelation encourages us to think that the great ordeal refers to the terrible suffering inflicted by Rome on its citizens, not least its Christians, along with the terrible devastation this kind of literature pictures as part and parcel of the anticipated bringing down of the enemy, i.e., Rome. To come through this great ordeal is to persevere and endure, holding to absolute faithfulness to God in the face of unimaginable cruelty. Or, to put it conversely, it means not compromising or collaborating with the prevailing culture of opulence and violence for one’s own protection, preservation or even positive benefit.

So what has all this to do with Hotham Mission? We live in a world, a country, where the prevailing culture is not that different from first century Rome. Of course our opulence and violence is more hidden, more subtle, more targeted, and yet all the more insidious because of that. We so easily fall into ‘too cosy a peace with the prevailing culture and political ethos’, as one writer put it. In fact, I would suggest we all have a strongly vested interest in doing just that, finding it pretty much impossible to extract ourselves.

Thus, when we reach out to those in need, we are in no position to  regard ourselves as the strong helping the weak, as the ones who know how to live well guiding those who don’t, or even as the embodiment of Christ saving the lost. Rather, we are reaching out to the victims of our mutually agreed systems of self-care and convenience, as to the suffering Christ whom they embody. As we face those whom our systems brutalise and cast aside, and see the living they strive to do against all the odds, as we see Christ in them, we are miraculously offered the opportunity to see with renewed clarity our own complicity in their disadvantage. Only then, as we face our victims, can we seek forgiveness from Christ in them, be radically transformed, truly know Jesus on his own terms, hear his voice, and follow him.

10 April – Worthy is the Lamb!

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Easter 3
10/4/2016

Acts 9:1-6
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Rob Gallacher


“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12)

The Scriptures have many references to the Lamb, and they all have different meanings and nuances. I’m going to reduce them to two.

  1. The Lamb as sin bearer, the agent in atonement, as in John 1:29. Jesus is introduced in the words of John the Baptist “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
  2. The Lamb upon the throne, the victor over evil, the only one who is worthy, as in our text from Revelation.

These are the two meanings picked up in the liturgical response we know as the Agnus Dei:

  1. Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us
  2. Jesus, redeemer of the world, grant us peace.

These two themes are expressed visually in the 11th century engraving on the cover of the Order of Service:

  1. The blood from the wound of the slaughtered Lamb flows into the communion chalice – a direct link between the sacrifice of Christ, and the restoration of our relationship with God through the sacrament. Jesus, bearer of our sins.
  2. With its legs, the Lamb opens the scroll. In the imagery of Revelation, only the Lamb is worthy to break the seals on the scroll, for as soon as it is opened the evils of the world rush out, for example, when the first seal is broken a white horse is loosed, with its armed rider coming forth, conquering and to conquer. The Lamb of God can handle this.

When the Lamb is such a powerful image it seems curious that the sixth Ecumenical Council, in 692, should see fit to ban it. The argument seems to have been that the purpose of your devotion is to incorporate you directly into the life and being of God. In Colossians it says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, so the Lamb is then the image of the image of God. That is, it actually distances you from the being of God, as Father, Son and Spirit.

Distancing ourselves from the holy is something we are good at. I give you an example: Henri Nouwen once described a typical interview with a student wanting to talk about a problem. After a time, Nouwen would say, “Have you prayed about it?” and the reply would be “Well, I’ve thought deeply about it.” “Yes, but have you prayed about it?” “Oh, I have talked about with several people like yourself.” “But have you prayed about it? Have you laid it all out before the Lord Jesus Christ and listened to what He might have to say to you?”

In the icon school it is not unusual for people to paint angels. When I query this, they say, “I can’t bring myself to come so close to Jesus that I could paint his face. I’m more comfortable painting angels.”

The Angus Dei does not offer any avoidance or easy escape: “Jesus, Lamb of God, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.” It is for this reason that I have trouble with the decision of the 6th Ecumenical Council. I might say that it is not unusual for me to have trouble with the decisions of the councils of the church. But in this case I am in good company. The Pope at the time, Sergius, didn’t like it either. In 697, 5 years after the Council, he borrowed the Agnus Dei from the Syrian Church and inserted in the liturgy in deliberate defiance of the Council’s ban. And it has stayed there ever since, usually right at the moment when we take the bread and wine.

So the image of the Lamb stays, reminding us that it is the wounded Christ who is raised up to sit on the throne. In icons of the Resurrection, or Christ Pantocrater, I always make sure the wounds are visible. It is the crucified, slaughtered Lamb who is on the throne, not another version of the Emperor, or the rider on the white horse.

While John the Divine uses obscure language in Revelation, he is in no way avoiding the issue. As the seals are broken, war, violence, death, corruption are loosed – all the things that fill our news broadcasts today. For all our human cleverness we still have to overcome a troubled world. So we have an enquiry, do research, pass laws and spend money, but none of these efforts is worthy. Only the Lamb can handle these things. Christians testify to a different way.

John, in the 4th Gospel, announces Jesus as the Lamb who bears our sin. Then he re-arranges the timing of the crucifixion so that it coincides with the slaying of the lambs for the Passover, all 30,000 of them. The original gospel finished at chapter 20, so the climax is Thomas seeing the wounds and saying “My Lord and my God”. We do fairly well when it comes to allowing the wounded Christ, the Lamb, to bear our sins. We receive forgiveness and take the cup, blood from his wounds, and it is direct and powerful.

But it is more of a challenge to confess the Lamb as the redeemer of the world. When we get involved with the affairs of the world it is difficult to be ruled by the Lamb. For example, if you were to probe the complexities of the world financial system it is likely that some of your superannuation funds are invested in corrupt practices that favour the rich at the expense of the poor. You might even rate a mention in the Panama files. Or if you are going to serve the community you will tangle with Government regulations. And if you enter the sphere of politics you will compromise to survive. There’s bound to be tension between the will of the party and the way of the Lamb.

The Lamb that breaks the seals is a bit like a whistle blower. Exposing the evil that rules usually wounds the one who exposes it. That white horse that comes forth, conquering and to conquer, has very powerful weapons.

Even in the affairs of our own church, with the property decisions before us, I wonder about the power of that green line on the graphs, and wonder what the Lamb of God upon the throne might have to say about it. Is it as predictable as the forecasts presume?

I said John’s gospel finishes at chapter 20 with Thomas, but there is chapter 21 – composed to put Peter in a better light than leaving him in his denial and flight from the cross.
Since it is today’s lectionary reading, I’d better do something with it. I’m going to ask you to use your imagination and listen to it with the Revelation text in mind, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might.” Just try to see a picture, and then you can make of it what you will.

Imagine a boat, and the boat is the church. It is filled with the leaders of the church, the disciples. People who have walked with Jesus, seen the vision, encountered the risen Lord, but retreated under pressure and reverted to their old ways, their professional skills, the ways of the world. They have gone fishing. They work all night, plying their trade, but with no result. Enter Jesus, the wounded risen Lord. He says, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answer “No.” So he says, “Try doing it my way. Fish from the other side of the boat, the right side.” They cast their net on the right side, and they are not able to haul it in. The structures they have built are not able to contain the harvest. Peter puts on clothes, like new clothes after baptism, jumps out of the flimsy, inadequate craft, and goes to meet the Lord. Then they all feast together on the shore.

MtE Update – April 8 2016

Friends,

the latest MtE Update!

  1. This Sunday is our Congregational AGM, following worship; after the AGM there will be an opportunity for more questions about our futures project (this session will not go longer than 30 min, making for a meeting total of up to one hour).
  2. After worship on Sunday April 17 there will be a brief presentation of the recently approved 3 year plan for UnitingCare Hotham Mission. This will be followed by a “Seeing Where We Serve” tour of the locations at which the mission runs its programs, or community services with which it has partnerships. You can register your interest for the tour through this page on the Hotham Mission website.
  3. Sunday April 24 is our annual Mark the Evangelist Day luncheon; please reserve the date and let Rod know if you are able to come. We will seek your contributions to the catering in the next week or so!
  4. Please also keep in mind (and in your diaries!) that our next meeting regarding the congregation’s Futures Project is scheduled for after worship on Sunday, May 1 this will be an important decision-making meeting and we strongly encourage you to be there if you are able.
  5. The most recent eNews from Pilgrim Theological College is here.
  6. This link has been circulated before, but I included here again to remind you that it’s on our web page: Thoughtful Faith.

3 April – Forgiveness as getting sin right

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Easter 2
3/4/2016

Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31


Many of you will probably, at some stage of your Christian walk, come across the so-called “four spiritual laws” – or perhaps have even promulgated them. These “laws” seek to give an account of the why and wherefore of Christian belief by giving an account of human sinfulness and God’s response to this condition. They are often printed on small pamphlets, and run something like this

  1. God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life. (John 3:16, John 10:10)
  2. The human being is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, we cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives. (Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23)
  3. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through him we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives. (Romans 5:8, I Corinthians 15:3-6, John 14:6)
  4. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as saviour and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives. (John 1:12, Ephesians 2:8,9, John 3:18, Revelation 3:20)

This expresses something of what perhaps most Christians would consider to be the essentials of the gospel of salvation, linking divine grace to human sinfulness. But, at the same time, it is rather a bland set of principles. Or, perhaps more to the point, it reads like a set of principles – mere principles. There is not much in this listing of the “laws” that engages me; it’s all about “God”, “Jesus” and human beings in general.

But when we look to the preaching of the disciples, we discover a much less abstract dealing with the matter. Our text from Acts today revolves around a very short sermon preached by the apostles, consisting of only two lines, each of which is critical:

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree”, and

“God has exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins”

Consider the first line of their sermon: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree”. The first thing to note is not the reference to the resurrection. For the moment, the important point is in the second clause: “whom you killed by hanging him on a tree” – “whom you killed.” The preaching of the resurrection of Jesus is directed at those who are responsible for his persecution and execution. This is not simply information about what God might have done – it implicates those who hear it: the one whom God has raised is the one you have killed. This makes the resurrection highly significant for those who have killed Jesus. To sharpen it one further step, the apostles’ preaching declares to Jesus’ executioners, “In the resurrection God has judged as false your judgement of Jesus”.

We need to keep in mind this “you” is not us but the religious authorities to whom Peter and the other apostles are speaking. This matters because it puts an entirely different spin on the meaning of the resurrection. It’s not here some uplifting message from the other side that we might have life after death. In fact, “Jesus is risen” is not good news for the religious authorities, but actually bad news: you did not know what you were doing; your best judgement has been judged and found to be horribly wrong. “Jesus is risen” is not of itself a declaration of the forgiveness of sins, but gives rise to the naming and identifying of human sin. The next line following on from what we heard this morning goes on to say: “When the council heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.” They understood what is being implied here: that Israel has crucified God’s Christ. The preaching of the resurrection is not here information but accusation.

If indeed Jesus has been raised, and such a divine judgement has been delivered, the question then becomes, what will God do about the crucifixion? What will he do with the risen Jesus?

This brings us to the second part of the apostles’ short sermon: “God has exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” We needn’t get too caught up with such questions as whether Jesus was first raised and then exalted to God’s right hand, or whether God actually has a right hand, or whatever. The important point is that Jesus is given this “status” in order to be able to give repentance and forgiveness.

Notice again how this is different from some of our more familiar salvation talk, such as “Jesus died for our sins”. In the preaching of the apostles we hear not that Jesus died “for” our sin but on account of our sin (here, the sin of “Israel”), and that he is exalted in order that repentance might occur and sin be forgiven. The most important thing in understanding what this means is that the second half of the apostles’ sermon not be separated from the first. The raising of Jesus is the demonstration of his innocence. That Jesus is then exalted as judge, in order to bring forgiveness, is to say that the innocent victim returns to his persecutors. “This Jesus, whom you crucified, has been raised and made your judge, that you might repent and be forgiven

This word is spoken not to us – for in fact we weren’t there – but to those who were in fact involved. (We’ll get back to us in a moment!). The word of forgiveness is spoken by the victim to his oppressors; the religious authorities’ salvation is to be found in recognising Jesus as their victim, and receiving forgiveness from him.

As such, the forgiveness with which the apostles are here concerned is not a “spiritual” forgiveness of a general human sinfulness but a very concrete and specific forgiveness arising out of a very concrete and specific failure. We might be declaring a truth if we announce that human beings are sinners; but this not very interesting. We may be declaring a truth if we announce that Jesus is risen; but this also, is not a very interesting truth. We might be declaring a truth if we announce that God forgives sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus; but even this is not going to get us very far by itself. The preaching of the apostles is about the specific failure of specific people, and so a specific possibility of forgiveness: you have done this, but forgiveness for that is offered.  Salvation is intrinsic to – inextricably wrapped up with – the specifics of our failures. It is only resurrection illumination which reveal those specifics.

As an aside: This is why the confession of sin in our liturgy usually appears after the preaching of the word. We must hear what we guilty of before we can confess a real failure. This opportunity is greatly reduced if the confession is only the second thing which takes place in the liturgy, as the standard order of service usually has it.

The apostles’ preaching of the resurrection invites us to discover not a general theory of atonement but the very concrete and specific claim that our hope is to be found in our victims. This is the scandalous suggestion which enrages the religious council before which the apostles stand and preach. Good Methodists know this already in another form: “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood – me, who caused his pain, me, who him to death pursued?” We are saved by Jesus only if we have pursued him to death: our salvation is intrinsic to our sin.

Now, of course, only one small part of one generation, in one place, has had the dubious honour of pursing Jesus to death. What then of us who watch those events from this great distance? The dynamic of forgiveness does not change, nor the scandal of it all. “Inasmuch as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me” (cf. Matthew 25.40, 45). We must conclude that Jesus really meant this(!), if the preaching of the apostles about the meaning of the resurrection and exaltation is true.

Generalised talk about human sinfulness – such we see in something like the four spiritual laws – smudges too much what is at stake by lifting it out of real events and actions. And so generalised talk of the offer of forgiveness has very little to do with actual forgiveness, which brings with it real conviction of sin. The church’s faith in the risen Jesus is not about another world, another time, another place and neither is it about no particular time or place. The risen Jesus as the source of forgiveness for those who judged and crucified him is a question mark over our own particular judgements and the impact they have on others. The possibility of forgiveness begins with our recognising that there are real, tangible, inter-personal, political, economic things to be forgiven. This requires being confronted with those who’ve suffered through these things, at the hands of those of us who have benefitted from them. There is no reconciliation without truth-telling: First and Second peoples, Arabs and Jews, culpable churches and their child-victims, violent men and their families, Synods and congregations, and so on.

But at the same time it is, in fact, impossible to unravel the mess of fractured human relationships, because we are all variously victims and oppressors. And so, at one level, all the gospel can call us to, is honesty about our predicament. As it does this, however, the gospel also points beyond our ability to see a resolution of our brokenness – pointing to the capacity of God to live in the world, to make it his own, and to present his own life in the world back to us as our own.

This last point is the good news. While we must make our best efforts to redress our wrongs, our success will only be limited. But if what harm we do to Jesus’ brothers and sisters is indeed done to him (recalling again Matthew 25), then, ultimately, he will be in a position to grant the forgiveness which they – or we as their victims – cannot. The word of grace is that our sins against others are forgiven by the one who forgives their sins against us, for his life, and so his ability to forgive and set right, will become ours.

It is only when we hand it all over to the God who reigns over death and decay to heal it that we will begin to see both who we are and what an extraordinary thing God will yet make of us.

In this Easter season, may our eyes be opened both to our great need, and to the gift of God’s healing work. Amen.