Monthly Archives: May 2016

29 May – Praying our hellos

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Pentecost 2

Galatians 1:1-5
Psalm 96
Luke 7:1-10

When compared to the way in which we might begin a letter today, it would have to be said that Paul’s letter makes an extraordinary beginning.

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the members of God’s family who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

That is how to start a letter!

Grand as it is, it is closely correlated to the way in which letters were begun then and so not really over the top for the time. Even if we are not so grandiloquent today, how we address each other – whether in person or by correspondence – is usually fairly closely prescribed. When you learn a new language, almost the first thing you learn will be how to greet another person, and it is not long before the local rules of letter-writing are also taught.

Even though we are not so full in our customs of greeting today it remains the case that the rules are very well defined, and because of this we are also well attuned to occasions when the rules are broken. And the usual response to the broken rules is at least surprise, and quite often offence – if a greeting is not returned or, more positively, if someone greets us who we didn’t expect would. This applies even in the most reduced forms of communication, such as email. An email which comes without at least a “hi” at the beginning or a “thanks” or something similar at the end feels harsh.

We sometimes dismiss the typical exchange of greetings as a kind of necessary “social noise” which has to happen to send and receive signals that things are OK and likely to go according to the usual pattern. But in fact most greetings have hidden within them not simply custom but a wish.

To say “Good morning” to someone is not to comment on the weather; it is to wish her a good day, or afternoon, or evening. To say “farewell” to someone is not to dismiss them, but to say “go well; travel well”. “Goodbye” is a contraction of an older saying, “God be with you”. The Romans would greet each other with “salv­é”, (meaning “health” whence our English “salve”, “salvation”; cf. French salut), and so expressed a wish for the well-being of the person met. The same can be found in other languages (French bonjour, salut; German Guten Tag, Hebrew shalom [peace], etc.).

The important point about all this is that it changes the meaning of what happens when the customs for greeting are violated. If there is deep in our cultural memory the notion that we are to greet another by expressing a wish for the other’s well-being, then to deprive another person of the right greeting is not simply to be impolite but in fact to deprive them of your good wishes or, to get to the heart of the matter, to deprive them of your prayer.

For “God be with you” – “goodbye” – is not simply a “wish” but is in fact a prayer, as can be understood all the other similar greetings. “A good morning to you” is not addressed to you but to the one “in charge of” good mornings. In the same way when Paul declares “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…” he is now addressing not the Galatians but God or, perhaps more profoundly, he addresses both God and the Galatians at once.

To break the rules of greeting is to address someone without such a prayer being said or implied, and so is make a demand of them without offering anything in return. It is to overlook that we have a responsibility to wish the well-being of others. In Paul’s case there are very serious matters he wants to raise with the Galatians, and he gets to them in the very next verse following this opening greeting. But there is no getting past the pastoral, human, theological necessity of beginning as he does: declaring himself, identifying those he intends to address, and binding those two parties together in speaking a prayer for blessing for the Galatians. To have done anything else than this would have been to contradict the whole point of the letter, which is that the Galatians are in peril of depriving themselves of just such a blessing.

If we push this thinking, then the failure to greet properly is not simply a matter of impoliteness or lack of civility, at least not in the usual sense. To be uncivil, which comes from the Latin civitas for city, is more profoundly a matter of failing to contribute to the creation of the city as a community of mutually responsible and well-wishing persons. The same applies to being “impolite”, which is linked to the Greek word for city (polis) and can be re-read in the same way: failure to set our relationships in the context of prayer.

All of this is to suggest that how we greet each other, and any unwillingness to wish the best for each other, is not simply a moral failure or a matter of bad manners; it goes to the heart of what we are and where our well-being will come from.

We can draw all this to some kind of conclusion by bringing it into play with two aspects of our expression of faith in worship today – the liturgical act of passing the peace, and that aspect of the creed which speaks of “the communion of saints”.

To say “peace be with you” is not merely to say hello, but is to utter a prayer, so that the passing of the peace in worship is in fact a practising of prayer, and a preparation for the serious work of praying for each other. We might speak, then, of the passing of the peace as a kind of sacrament of intercessory prayer: it looks like we are greeting one another but God is also addressed.

And so this turning to each other brings us to a filling out of what it means to speak of the communion of saints. It is easy, perhaps even natural, to think of the communion of saints as a given, static community of believers – a collective of sanctified persons. But the communion of saints is rather more a dynamic communion, a movement of mutual concern in which we address God for each other as we address each other. To be with each other is to be the means – the source of the prayer – by which God blesses us.

Let us seek to become a community of blessing such that, whether or not our language expresses it directly, our speaking to each other is like a prayer with a view to building up the one we address. Anything less than this falls short of the source of all blessing the Christian knows, as Paul reminds the Galatians: that Jesus has given even himself, and so become a prayer for us – become the prayer for us – that we might be lifted out of the mire, to know peace.

By the grace of God may we too be made such pray-ers, and prayers, unto the healing of all we encounter. Amen.

Galatians – A Sunday series June-September 2016

Over the course of June-October 2016, most of our Sunday services will feature a preaching focus on the book of Galatians.

Galatians features in rather a potted way in the Revised Common Lectionary on six Sundays over this period, leaving out large sections of the book and including sections which are large enough to justify two or three weeks’ reflection.

We’ll be considering the text in a sequential treatment over this time.

22 May – The unfinished story of God

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Romans 5:1-5
Psalm 8
John 16:12-15

Most of you have probably had a child try to describe to you the plot of a story she has heard or read, or a film she has seen.

She begins to tell the story, and then stops and says something like, “No, no, no; I forgot, I have to go back, there’s something else…”, as she remembers an important detail she should have told at the start. Only then does she go on, before cutting back again to something else which she also forgot to mention but which you need to know to understand the next bit, and so on.

In the end you may well have no idea what the story was actually about, or at least be in no position to tell someone else what it was about, but you know that you did get all the bits and that it was important to hear her tell it!

It’s kind of like that when the church talks about God; talk of God as Trinity has that kind of jumbled-ness about it.

Listen again to part of today’s very trinitarian-sounding gospel reading:

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Wherever you start to speak about this particular God, there will always be something else you should have said before, something about the Spirit or the Son or the Father which you now say too late, but it has to be said somewhere for everything to be said: “No, no, no; I forgot, I have to go back, there’s something else…”


Now, if you’re not already asking the question, let me ask it for you: So what? So what if God is like that, circles within circles? As neat a way as that might be of accounting for the church’s tortuous trinitarian confession, what does it have to do with anything, really?

The “so what” of trinitarian talk of God is in the contrast such a sense for God has with other senses for God or god-like things in our lives.

Most of us, for example, have a very strong desire for simplicity. This is why we don’t tell stories as children do. Simplicity is ground to stand on. It is firm and reliable. Simplicity is (has?) a reference point: a point before which nothing else needs to be said, and after which all that I say and do is justified, so long as it is levered from that reference point, that fulcrum.

Our lives are filled with these reference points. They are philosophical, economic, social and political. They are manifest in those strong sentences which begin with “I am…”, “You are” or “We are…”. I am a man. I am white. We are Muslim. I am, You are, We are Australian. I am free. We are true believers. These are reference points, assumptions, bases, before which nothing else need be said, and after which all that I say or do is justified.

These reference points are the ground we stand on. They simplify the complex world. They are where our sense for the world begins. You – woman, Christian, Muslim, disabled, child, beggar, refugee – you are measured from that simple and sure starting place. You are less than me, because you don’t have the basis I have, are not what I am.

These reference points are very often unrecognised, simply because they are obvious not only to their beneficiaries but also to their victims. Think of the operation of ideas like maleness, whiteness and citizenship in our contemporary social and political life. That concepts like this work in a quasi-divine kind of way indicates that the simplification I am speaking about is not just a “religious” thing. The only difference religion might make here is to propose to stick God under the “I am/we are” statements as a reinforcement: I am, you are, we are, this or that crucial thing because God has made it so (“So there!”).

A simple god, simple economics, simple politics corresponds in Christian thinking to a stark legalism, in contrast to the life of grace.

Law is a secure place, before which nothing needs to be said, and after which what I say and do is justified. “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God” (John 19.7) – no two ways about it.

By contrast, grace always has something more to say. Something new is always being said. The sign of this is the Resurrection. The law has worked through its logic – “he ought to die” – and then it’s as if God says something like, “No, no, no; I forgot, I have to go back, there’s something else…”

Simple gods see people crucified because those people don’t connect to the story told so far. “Woman” does not connect in a Man’s world, or black or yellow in a White world, or muslim or christian in a Secular world, or a foreigner in a Sovereign State, or a prophet drawing attention to the freedom of God among a people who have God all sewn up.

Simple Gods see people crucified because those people don’t connect to the story told so far. But the God of Israel, the God who gives the Christ by the Spirit, the God of the church – this God always makes the missing connections. The exclusions are overcome: the crucified first, and then the crucifiers; the outcast, and then those who rendered him so.

This is what the Holy Spirit speaks in reminding us of the things of Jesus, the things of the Father: What the Father gives the Son, and the Son gives us in the giving Spirit, is a making of connections, a re-visiting of foundations, the adding of another detail which has not yet been spoken but which illuminates everything.

And so the church confesses faith not unlike how a child tells her story: constantly being reminded of something which should have been said before.

Is this good enough for us? This is a crucial question.

‘Truly I tell you,” Jesus says to us, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever stands before God as a little child does is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Matthew 18.3f).

Let us, then, tell – and glory in – the story by which God makes us children – his children.

LitBit Commentary – The Eucharist (UIW2) 1

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The centrepiece of this part of the liturgy is The Great Prayer of Thanksgiving. The origins of this central Christian prayer lie in Jewish prayer at Passover and in the grace at every meal. Jesus built on these at the Last Supper. Our present sacrament also derives meaning from other meals hosted by Jesus – e.g. after the resurrection at Emmaus (Luke 24), or by the seashore (John 21). Its essence is thanksgiving for the mighty acts of God. It is a ‘Great’ Prayer because it is the expression of all the gifts of God for our salvation, above all in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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15 May – The great work of the church

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Romans 8:14-17
Psalm 104
John 14:8-17, 25-27

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Are these not very troubling words, considering some of the things Jesus is said to have done: healings, nature miracles, resuscitations from the dead?

Our immediate thought would then be that this is just the kind of thing we too are expected to perform. Yet such things as these we do not do.

The next step is then to accuse ourselves or others because, if Jesus spoke the truth about what his disciples would be able to do, something must have gone badly wrong: we do not have enough faith, are not spiritual enough, are not obedient enough in order to be able to exercise the power which Jesus exercised, the power to do such “greater works”.

Yet, in fact, when Jesus comes actually to talk about the work he came to do, things like the miracles don’t really feature at all. According to Jesus, the work of the Son is to make God the Father known. The opening prologue of the gospel concludes, “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (1.18). And we hear this kind of thing repeated again and again in John’s gospel. The things of the Father have been entrusted in their entirety to the Son (5.22), who thereby brings the Father to the world: “if you knew me, you would know my Father also” (8.19); “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14.8). Jesus attends not to his own agenda, but to that of the Father (5.19, 8.38; 12.48-50; 14.10; 17.8); he speaks what he has heard from the Father, and his word is the Father’s (8.25-28, 14.24, 15.15). Whereas our focus will usually be on the power to do great works (or our apparent lack of power as a church), Jesus’ focus is on the purpose of the works – the revelation of the Father. This is not to rule out the possibility of such miracles still happening today, but it is to say that miracles aren’t the point. The miracles point to something else. John speaks of Jesus’ miracles as signs – things which point beyond themselves, through Jesus to the Father who sent him.

It may indeed be the case that Christ’s church doesn’t do the works that Jesus did, and certainly not greater works than he did. Yet this is not because we lack miraculous power. It is because we very easily fall into the trap of thinking that miraculous power is what it is all about: power to change things, to “make a difference”, to “have an impact”.

We might not cast it in terms of wanting to be able to perform miracles; in denominations like ours, at least, we imagine ourselves too “mature” and “progressive” to expect miracles! The power we seek might be social, by becoming a welcoming community; or aesthetic, in a certain style of building or music; or cultural, by cleverly manipulating the icons of the age; or political, seeking to make a high profile impact in the surrounding community. We look for the “hook” which will re-catch all those fish which have escaped the net of the church. We must admit that there is not a little of this in our current thinking about what our congregation ought to do with the resources at its disposal.

But the question which arises for the church from this text is not in the first instance, “Why do you not have the power, have the magic?” but “Do you know what magic is?” In terms of our gospel text, the question can be put this way: “are you able to let your work as individuals and a church to be simply to continue with Jesus’ work of making the Father known?” The problem here is not that which we might have with the word “Father”. The question is about whether Jesus’ own task of making known the one who sent him is sufficient also for us today. Are we willing to trust the future of the church to such a seemingly impotent action?

This is a question we must answer, at least if we imagine ourselves somehow to be the church of Christ.

Of course, I haven’t said anything specific about what this might look like in our life as a church. In fact it may not be possible from surface features to distinguish between the church which longs after lost power and the church which simply understands and continues in its true work. The church whose purpose is to continue to work in the Spirit for the revealing of the Father will certainly have social and aesthetic and cultural and political dimensions. Yet it will differ from the power-seeking church in the way that being led differs from being driven. A led church does not quite know where it is heading, other than that it is to the place where God is; a driven church has a specific goal in mind which it must hit, whatever the cost.

A led church differs from a driven church in the way that hope differs from optimism. Christian hope does not know the shape of its future but trusts in the one who has promised; optimism knows what it wants and expects to get it.

A hopeful church differs from an optimistic church in the way that the uncertain differ from the anxious in the face of the same challenges and threats. The uncertain simply do not know what the outcome of any particular situation might be; the anxious are afraid of particular outcomes.

The uncertain but trusting church differs from the anxious and fearful church in the way that getting radical differs from becoming reactionary. The radical church knows its calling, and is happy to step out in response to that call despite what it sees going on around it; the reactionary church is shoved from pillar to post by every change to which it imagines it must react.

It is worth asking ourselves from time to time why it is that certain things dominate our conversation about our churches, or feature so prominently on our meeting agendas and so occupy so much of our time. “You will do even greater things than these”. Not a little of what occupies us is the drivenness, optimism, anxiety and reaction which develops in us if we imagine that Jesus was effective because he had a great bag of tricks, and now, in his absence, if only we knew where that he left that bag!

But the effectiveness of Jesus was in his trust in the one who sent him, in his willingness to be named by the Father’s address to him, and in his being willing simply to point back to the Father.

This is the extraordinary thing about the church – its existence arises out of something so impractical as the relationship between the Father and the Son at God’s heart.

What has all this to do with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we mark today with the festival of Pentecost? The church has historically understood that the to-ing and fro-ing between the Father and the Son is the work of the Holy Spirit – even is the Holy Spirit. What passes from Father to Son and Son to Father is Spirit.

This is the Spirit God gives us: not “power” to do “works of power”, a kind of divine weapon in our hand, but God’s own heart: the love the Father has for the Son, and the Son for the Father.

This is what makes the church, and is also what our life as church is to be – a sharing in that pointing to and from God, a sharing in the Spirit, a sharing in God. And so Jesus says to us in our anxious reactions to our apparent powerlessness in the world,

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. Do and be as I have done and been. What I am, and what I have done, is the way to the Father, the way to the truth and the life you so earnestly seek. If you know me, you will know the Father also, for the Father will send the Spirit, that you might be where I am, and know the Father as I know the Father.

May the one who promised this indeed send us this Spirit that we may be where he is, do what he does, and share in his peace.


LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on the Eucharist 1

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…the meal that we keep, in its intensity and focus, its staple food and festive drink, its ceremonial welcome of a wide circle, might suggest that we are consuming magical food, food of the angels, a heavenly banquet, food that will grant us immortality. Then we hear the content of the feast: “the body of Christ, the blood of Christ, given for you.” A specific, real death is proclaimed, and if “immortality” is given, then this is a new kind of freedom from death, coming in a world-affirming, bounded, palpable, and mortal way, here.

From Gordon Lathrop, The pastor: a spirituality, p.4


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LitBit Commentary – Gordon Lathrop on Baptism 2

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The basic baptismal paradoxes include these: here, in this bath, we are united with the weak and foolish One who is God’s very wisdom and strength; so, here we are put to death in order to live; here we are identified with the death of Christ in order to be raised with him; here our dry bones take on flesh and are made to breathe with the Spirit; here we are washed in a purity bath that makes us dirtier — that is, here we are joined to Christ who is joined with all the unclean ones of the world. For Christians, life in vocation always involves immersion in these paradoxes.

From Gordon Lathrop, The pastor: a spirituality, p.17



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