Monthly Archives: March 2017

March 31 – Maria Skobtsova

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Maria Skobtsova, martyr

Maria Skobtsova was an Orthodox Christian nun in Paris in the early twentieth century. She encouraged hospitality and love of one’s neighbour, often in the most uncompromising of terms. She considered this to be the foundation of the Christian gospel, and she embodied it in her life. She is often compared to Dorothy Day, an American Roman Catholic who founded the Catholic Worker movement. Maria Skobtova died in Ravensbrück prison. She was glorified as a saint by the Orthodox Church on January 16, 2004, along with her companions, the Orthodox Priest Dmitri Klepinin, her son George (Yuri) Skobtsov, and Elie Fondaminsky. They are commemorated on July 20 in the Orthodox Church.

Born to a well to do, upper-class family in 1891 in Latvia, she was given the name Elizaveta Pilenko. Her father died when she was a teenager, and she embraced atheism. In 1906 her mother took the family to St Petersburg, where she became involved in radical intellectual circles. In 1910 she married a Bolshevik by the name of Dimitri Kuzmin-Karaviev. During this period of her life she was actively involved in literary circles and wrote much poetry. Her first book, Scythian Shards, was a collection of poetry from this period. By 1913 her marriage to Dimitri had ended.

Through a look at the humanity of Jesus, “He also died. He sweated blood. They struck his face,” she began to be drawn back into Christianity. She moved, now with her daughter, Gaiana, to the south of Russia where her religious devotion increased.

In 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution, she was elected deputy mayor of the town of Anapa in Southern Russia. When the White Army took control of Anapa, the mayor fled and she became mayor of the town. The White Army put her on trial for being a Bolshevik. However, the judge was a former teacher of hers, Daniel Skobtsov, and she was acquitted. Soon the two fell in love and were married.

Soon, the political tide was turning again. In order to avoid danger, Elizaveta, Daniel, Gaiana, and Elizaveta’s mother Sophia fled the country. Elizaveta was pregnant with her second child. They travelled first to Georgia (where her son Yuri was born) and then to Yugoslavia (where her daughter Anastasia was born). Finally they arrived in Paris in 1923. Soon Elizaveta was dedicating herself to theological studies and social work.

In 1926, Anastasia died of influenza, a heartbreaking event for the family. Gaiana was sent away to Belgium to boarding school. Soon, Daniel and Elizaveta’s marriage was falling apart. Yuri ended up living with Daniel, and Elizaveta moved into central Paris to work more directly with those who were most in need.

Her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun, something she did only with the assurance that she would not have to live in a monastery, secluded from the world. In 1932, with Daniel Skobtov’s permission, an ecclesiastical divorce was granted and she took monastic vows. In monasticism she took the name Maria. Later, Fr Dmitri Klepinin would be sent to be the chaplain of the house.

Mother Maria made a rented house in Paris her “convent.” It was a place with an open door for refugees, the needy and the lonely. It also soon became a centre for intellectual and theological discussion. In Mother Maria these two elements, service to the poor and theology, went hand-in-hand.

When the Nazis took Paris in World War II, Jews soon approached the house asking for baptismal certificates, which Father Dimitri would provide them. Many Jews came to stay with them. They provided shelter and helped many escape. Eventually the house was closed down. Mother Maria, Fr Dimitri, Yuri, and Sophia were all taken by the Gestapo. Fr Dimitri and Yuri both died at the prison camp in Dora.

Mother Maria was sent to the camp in Ravensbrück, Germany. On Holy Saturday, the day before Easter in 1945, Mother Maria was taken to the gas chamber and entered eternal life. It is suggested that she took the place of another who had been selected for that death.

By Father Kyril

26 March – The blessed blindness of the people of God

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Lent 4

Ephesians 5:8-14
Psalm 23
John 9:1-16

The most immediately distracting thing in our gospel story this morning is the healing of the man born blind. The people in the text – Jesus, the disciples, the religious leaders, the blind man and his family – know as well as we do that this doesn’t happen; the blind man himself will declare later in the story (what we didn’t hear this morning): “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” They were not more credulous than we are about such things. The religious leaders do not believe the healing has occurred until their own substantial criterion is met: that they have two witnesses – the testimony of his parents that he had been blind from birth; he was blind but now he sees.

There is nothing to get in the way of our hearing this story, then, as the account of a genuine miracle. That we might imagine ourselves to be more “scientific” about such things, or more thorough in our investigations today, does not matter for our hearing of the story because it is not really about what might have happened one fine day in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. It is about what would have happened, had indeed such a miracle occurred: it is about our response to the presence of something which doesn’t fit.

The initial question is, naturally, Did it happen?, but then the more pressing question makes itself felt: What are we to make of it? For in the story, the miracle is not merely a marvellous thing. The story is really about the trouble the miracle creates. This is what a mere surface reading of the story will normally miss. We easily, unthinkingly, imagine that a miracle like this would be an unequivocally good thing yet it is not in the story – this is the real “miracle”, the really unexpected thing: that Jesus is accused of godlessness because he has done this. It is this accusation we really need to wrestle with, and whether or not such things could happen.

The problem of the miracle is that Jesus performs it on a Sabbath, which makes the healing what we might call a “contra-indicator”. Again, we are at risk of dismissing the significance of this because the Christianised West has long since “dealt with” – dismissed – the Sabbath, precisely because of stories like this. But we have to take seriously that it was tricks like this – his marvellous miracles – which got Jesus killed; this is even more striking following the events we’ll hear in next week’s reading: the raising of Lazarus. The religious leaders do not fall about, lost in wonder, love and praise when Lazarus is called forth from the tomb; they plot to kill Jesus. While we might sometimes long to feel the miraculous touch which that blind man felt back then, or that Lazarus felt, if we lack any sense of how that touch might be offensive to us or others, then we have not understood yet what such a wonder-work would mean.

The contra-indication of the miracle is that it is clearly from God – who else could pull this off? – yet it seems to contradict the requirement to do no work on the Sabbath. This requirement was clearly very strictly observed by the Pharisees and others. It does not matter that it might seem trivial to us; it would be more useful to us to try imagine what sacredness in our experience of the world Jesus might contravene, to our great offence but as an act by which Jesus demonstrates himself entirely free of our fears and anxieties and, in so being, able to bring freedom to others.

[The early church experienced something of the same dynamic when, because of its opinion (“dogma”) about who God was, believers ceased sacrificing at the pagan temples. To us, in our “everyone to his/her own” world, there is no offence here; they were simply expressing their free will. Yet, they were put to death for this: for not “going to temple”, we might say. The stories of such martyrdoms often offend us because we wonder, Why didn’t they just sacrifice and, perhaps, cross their fingers? We don’t often ask, Why was this something which the authorities thought constituted a death penalty? In an age and society in which there is very little we can imagine that we would die for, we are poorly equipped to understand what it means for the Pharisees to be confronted with the terrifying freedom of Jesus, or the Romans to be confronted with the fabric of society and order being white-anted by Christian resistance at crucial expectations.]

Could Jesus offend us – us, the people of God – in the same way as he did in today’s story?

Perhaps. There are many things we hold dear which God-in-Christ could shake to their foundations. But the problem is, if we take today’s story seriously: how would we know that it was indeed “Jesus” – true God of true God in our very midst – who was being so offensive? This is the dispute of the Pharisees among themselves: How could this not be of God? while, at the same time, they wonder, how could it be God who has done this in this way?

This is to say: our story today doesn’t give us much of a clue as to where God will appear next or any means by which we might know that, indeed, it is God who has popped up. We have to say that this is, in fact, very unhelpful of God.

But what, then, flows from this? The story tells us that the Pharisees did not see what was going on. Does that mean that we, who hear this account, do now see what they did not?

In fact, at the end of the whole saga is an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees which seems to undercut any confidence we might presume about our ability to discern the presence of God:

39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

Having heard this story, can the church – you and I – now say that we see? Surely this is a very dangerous confession, given the judgement Jesus casts here. If we would have no sin – surely the point of praying “forgive us sins” each week! – Jesus suggests that our confession ought rather to be, We are blind.

Even as we read these stories, as we confess the creeds, as we pray the prescribed prayers, as we take and eat and drink we confess, We are blind, we are deaf, we are dead.

This is not to say that these things do not matter, that we can simply include or exclude or change them because, after all, what does colour matter to a blind person, or a different musical key matter to the deaf, or food and drink to the dead? It is to say that our creeds, prayers, liturgies, ethics are not the things we are to see. Rather, we are to come to see through these things, via them, like lenses or icons. The religious eye sees the Sabbath, the miracle, the tradition, and is distracted by them. Yet these things are, rather, “dark glass” (1 Corinthians 13) through which we are to discern some other, refracted thing – lenses through which, by the grace of God, we might see some crucial aspect of our lives brought into focus, if only at the fleeting speed of light.

Put differently, our traditions – creeds, liturgies, law – are a kind of prayer which declares: We are blind; Lord, open our eyes.

Those who cling tightly to the form of the tradition must needs relax their grip; the tradition is not God and does not contain God but is the sign of God’s grace.

Those who reject the form of the tradition must hear that, in doing this, they claim no less than their allegedly dogmatic sisters and brothers to have seen clearly, just to have seen somewhere else. Blindness is called for here, also.

All that we have and are is God-given, that there might be something through which God might meet us. Why was he born blind?, Jesus’ disciples ask him. Jesus answered for that man and also for us: we are blind, that God’s works – as God’s – might be revealed in us.

Let it, then, be our prayer, that God might open our eyes to the light of the world – God himself in his Son – that we ourselves might become one of God’s uncomfortable miracles.


MtE Update – March 24 2017


the latest MtE Update!

  1. Our congregational picnic is this Sunday, March 26, following worship on that day (Royal Park) — BYO everything to gather at the Australian Native Gardens section of Royal Park, near the corner of Gatehouse Street and The Avenue, Parkville (map) – about 5 minutes from the church.
  2. If you’re wondering what is going on with the children’s talks in church recently, there’s a description of the logic on this new page on our web site. From the bottom of that page you can jump to another page which includes a demonstration of the memory palace concept with a 360° panoramic picture of the church as an aid to developing the memory of the unfolding story.
  3. If you’d like to do some background work on this coming Sunday’s readings (March 26, Lent 4A), these links will be of assistance:

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Psalm 23

Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-41

Other things of potential interest:

A local fundraiser for a Philippines charity


LitBit Commentary – William Cavanaugh on Christian Community

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LitBit: … gathering in solidarity and love was not a Christian innovation. Members of Roman collegia addressed each other as brethren and often held goods in common. What distinguished the Christian Eucharistic community was the way that it transcended natural and social divisions. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3.28).

William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, p.115f


How to use LitBit Features and Commentaries.

March 7 – Perpetua & Felicitas

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Perpetua & Felicitas, martyrs

Perpetua and Felicitas

Few women have shaped the Christian spiritual tradition like the young North African martyr and visionary, Vibia Perpetua. She has inspired people of different centuries, countries, and cultures. Her story, told in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, is a “dazzling text”, one of the most gripping accounts of martyrdom from the ancient church.Virtually from the moment of its writing in an early third-century Carthaginian prison, Perpetua’s story has played an important part in Christian spirituality. It is “timeless”, according to the medieval historian, Joyce Salisbury, meaning that it speaks to the human heart across the centuries, societies, and cultures.

An unknown figure first saw the potential of Perpetua’s story. He framed her story in such a way that succeeding generations of readers (or listeners) would treat it almost like Scripture. He saw in her visions a demonstration of the unceasing operation of the Holy Spirit and a witness for the glory of God and the good of the Church. The popularity of Perpetua and her companion Felicitas soon spread beyond the North African church. By the late fourth century their feast day was honoured in all the early calendars and martyrologies and their names were regularly remembered in Sunday worship.

By the early fifth century, Perpetua and Felicitas, were among the most venerated of African martyrs. Augustine loved these saints and drew inspiration from their life and witness. We know, for example, that Augustine preached at least three sermons in honour of Perpetua (after whom his sister was named). In Augustine’s first sermon he describes how upon hearing the story of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas read in church, the congregation joined in a “celebration of universal devotion”. In his second sermon, Augustine elevates the merits of Perpetua and Felicitas above all other martyrs. And in the third sermon, he names Perpetua and Felicitas as a model for all those who suffer for the faith.

The overwhelming reason for the popularity of Perpetua in recent times is her importance for women’s religion. She gives an intimate view into the mind of a third-century woman, which, for centuries, has been a great source of inspiration for women struggling with questions of identity and meaning. Given the degree of silence that has surrounded women throughout history, Perpetua’s story is astonishingly rare and precious. She may well not be the first woman to have put her thoughts on paper; she is, however, one of the first of whom we have any real knowledge. In her writing we can hear a voice too little heard. It is an extraordinary voice. She has given the Church – especially women – a role model and a positive example of empowerment.

Contributed by William Emilsen

19 March – On finding the right life partner

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Lent 3

Romans 5:1-11
Psalm 95
John 4:5-26

At the centre of this morning’s gospel story is a woman with a sad record when it comes to her relationships. If her history with husbands has not simply been dumb, tragic luck – 5 times a widow! – the story tends to invite all kinds of moral judgements, whether of the woman herself, or of the men who have perhaps used and abused her, or of the culture and society in which such things could happen.

I want this morning to focus on what we are told is the woman’s relationship history but, in doing so, to shift our focus from the typical literal reading of her experience to a more allegorical reading. The advantage of this way of treating the text is that it allows us to let the woman have her own issues – whatever they may have been – but also allows her experiences become something which might still be ours, even if six husbands or wives has not been quite the shape of our particular problems.

Marriage appears a number of times in the Old Testament as a metaphor for the relationship between Israel and its God. You might recall the story of the prophet Hosea, who is told by God,

Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1.2)

This is not comfortable language for us today, as we’re aware that terms like “whore” tend to lay rather more blame for sexual immorality at the feet of the woman than the man (cf. John 8.1-11, from which the man is absent). This is not a sensitivity the Scriptures display (although cf. the story of Susanna and the elders in Daniel 13 [OT Apocrypha]). Even then, the point of the instruction to Hosea was not to make a judgement about Gomer, whom he marries, but to make a judgement about Israel. God’s charge is that the relationship between God and Israel is like that between a husband and a wife, and that Israel has been unfaithful, seeking other “husbands”. It helps greatly here to know the Hebrew word for “husband” and some of the nuances of its meaning. The word for husband is “baal”, which many of you will recognise as the name of one (or a number) of the gods in the Old Testament who stands as a tantalising option for the Israelites. Elijah, for example, has a great context with 450 of the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18) – a test of which was really the most powerful God, Baal or Yahweh.

In fact,  the word “baal” has a range of meanings including husband, keeper, master, lord. There is, then, an extended pun being run in the Old Testament as the word for “husband” or “lord” is now applied to a marital partner, now to a god or lord. For Israel to have turned its back on the God of the Exodus is for it to have taken another baal, another lord, or another husband. This background makes it possible to read the Samaritan woman’s marital history in terms much deeper than focussing on her personal tragedy or relationship failures would suggest. The woman comes to be representative of anyone who seeks after false baals, false husbands, false keepers, false saviours.

The fact that in her case these false baals were actually husbands – real, tangible men – opens up for us the range of possible things which might function for us in this way. For the baals and the gods are not simply “spiritual” things, of concern only to those who believe in the gods or have some kind of religious bent. Religious or secular, believer or atheist, we are all prone to build our lives on false foundations, to seek meaning, peace, wholeness, in things which cannot actually provide them. Reading the story allegorically, the woman has had six husbands not simply because a run of bad luck saw 5 good men die on her or six scoundrels offer themselves as the answer, or not simply because she was of too weak character to sustain the relationship through difficult times (or whatever), but because such baals are not the answer to the deeper thirsts that she, and each of us, has. These are false baals, false gods, inadequate responses to the questions and needs which ache in her heart, and in ours also.

The question put to us by Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman is,  What are the baals – the five-plus-one husbands – in our lives? What have we joined ourselves to, and broken away from or had taken away from us, only to join ourselves again to something else? The options are many and various, and few of the baals which tempt us look anything like the Samaritan woman’s own testing. Yet their name is legion: Education, intellect, good looks, reputation, money, children, family, partners, health, youth, tradition and heritage, culture, nation or race or religion – these are among the things which offer themselves as guarantors of life, and so which fill us with some meaning, and so on which we spend enormous time and energy.

There might be nothing wrong in any of these things themselves, except for the nature of their hold on us, and what we therefore invest (or over-invest) in them, and the effects those investments actually have on us and on others. For each such thing will be found to be fickle, unreliable, unfaithful, if we invest it with some kind of ultimate meaning. And so we will thirst, long, partner-up again.

The marriage metaphor for the relationship between God and his people is a powerful one because it encapsulates matters of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, it evokes intimacy and also the pain of distance and separation. But most important in the Scriptures’ use of the metaphor is that the point is not, in the end, to emphasise the failings of the wife – of Israel, or Gomer, or the church (cf. Ephesians 5.32), or the woman by the well. The point is to emphasise the faithfulness of the true baal, the true Lord. For as much as God makes the accusations of unfaithfulness against his people, these accusations are made in order to call us back to the one who waits, who will receive us back, whose own faithfulness to the covenant will see the relationship restored:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

To push the metaphor of marriage and the pun on baal one step further, we could say that in this story Jesus offers himself as a seventh “husband” for the woman, seven being a number which in scriptures is associated with fullness, richness, completion. To one such as her, coming to a well on a hot and dry day, and to each one of us in our own likeness to her, there is offered a different kind of water, such that should we drink it, we will not thirst again, we will never need to turn to another baal, another lord: I am that for which you thirst, for whom you thirst.

We gather here today, and each Sunday, to hear a call away from all the bad couplings we are prone to make to one which will really bring us peace and freedom. In Jesus we are joined to a different kind of baal, a different kind of Lord. In him we see the contours of the life a human creature might joyfully live in relation to her creator. And by the grace of that same creator, we find ourselves not accused of our bad partnerships but simply called to the better one: a spring of water gushing up to life in all its fullness.

However much we might be prone to lose the way, to chase after things which will not bring us the life we really desire, we profess a faithful God who, though saddened or angered by our poor choices, nevertheless calls us back, again and again and again and again and again and again to himself.

And, in hearing and responding to that call, we find not only a faithful God, but ourselves, thirst quenched and souls revived in his life-giving stream.

For this gift of God, in which is found the spirit and truth we all long for, all thanks be to God, now and always. Amen.

March 26 – Caroline Chisholm

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Caroline Chisholm, renewer of society

Caroline Chisholm arrived in New South Wales in 1838 with her husband Archibald, an Army officer on leave from service in India. She quickly became aware of the plight of many of the settlers, and especially of young girls who arrived from Britain after a long sea journey, sometimes seeking a husband or boyfriend who had been sent out as a convict or who had arrived earlier to find work. Often illiterate and impoverished, and without friends or contacts, many girls turned to prostitution in order to survive.  Caroline established a home for them in an old barracks, launching an employment agency offering work with local families who, as part of the contract, gave them protection and care. Her work broke down prejudices against “convict girls” and helped to establish a sense of solidarity in the emerging colony.

Recognising that good work could be found in the emerging farms and homesteads; Caroline led wagon trains out into the bush, settling young people with jobs. She became famous as a matchmaker, as girls met and married farmers and founded homes of their own. A devout Christian, Caroline believed in the sanctity of marriage and family life, and saw the injustice of official government policy, which encouraged young men to settle in Australia but tried to block the arrival of women who were officially described as “encumbrances”.

Men who had been sent out as convicts begged her to find their wives or fiancées back in Britain, and she travelled to London to do this, eventually reuniting many families. Renting a modest home near the London docks, she started a Family Colonisation Society helping poor families to settle in Australia, commissioning ships with clean and adequate accommodation, and establishing a London hostel next to her own home where families could stay while waiting to sail. Former shipping arrangements had meant men and women sharing accommodation, and a complete lack of privacy: she established a scheme in which all young unmarried people were adopted into families for the voyage, which also ensured networks of friendship and practical assistance on arrival in Australia.

Sometimes subjected to insults because of her Roman Catholic faith, Caroline remained a good-humoured woman whose tact and discretion, especially when dealing with the poorest families, made her much loved. She became the first woman ever to give evidence to a British Parliamentary committee, addressing MPs examining the ending of transportation and the possibilities of family migration. Herself a farmer’s daughter, she energetically promoted Australian farming, taking a sheaf of wheat from a New South Wales farm into Parliament to make her point.

Returning to Australia, Caroline worked to establish “Chisholm shelters” along the rough tracks leading out into the bush, opened a small school, and continued to lobby for the needs of settlers. Eventually settling back in London, she died in 1877 and is buried in her native Northampton where her grave names her as “The Emigrant’s Friend”.

Joanna Bogle

12 March – Just as Moses lifted up the serpent

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Lent 2

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 121
John 3:1-17

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Robert Gribben

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’.   John 3:14-15.

Num. 21: 4-9; Ps 121; John 3: 1-17 For Mark the Evangelist, Melbourne, Lent 2(A)

crucifixThe encounter of Nicodemus with Jesus would be painful if it were not so beautifully constructed.  Out of the shadows (‘by night’), quite suddenly, ‘a leader of the Jews’ has stepped on to John’s stage, himself a teacher, and in the tradition of Israel, has some questions to discuss with his man whose name is now known in Jerusalem. ‘Rabbi’, he says, ‘we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no-one can do these signs you do, apart from the presence of God’. This is a good start, and thus prepared, he asks his first question: ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’

Things get worse from here on in, because at each of his three questions, Nicodemus fails to understand the answers Jesus gives him. Wise in the Law of Israel though he is, he is also bound by it. He cannot unlock Jesus’ double meaning in declaring that those who enter the kingdom of heaven must be born both ‘again’, and ‘from above’, the two sides of the Greek word anothen.[1] He tries to understand being born again, but is constrained by what he knows of human birth, and he does not see how that flesh-and-blood birth process can help one to achieve a new spiritual status. Since Jesus goes on, in John’s narrative, doubling the double meaning: the New Birth is of both water and the Spirit –  it seems a little unfair that at the end Jesus asks his questioner, ‘Are you a teacher in Israel, and yet do not understand these things?’

We have known for a long time, or should, that John’s Gospel has fanned the flames of anti-semitism. He wrote at a time when the church was emerging from the synagogue, actually and theologically, and was needing to defend itself. We should not assume that because he is a Jew, Nicodemus is blind; nevertheless, he does not understand. And he has come to Jesus, and John’s constant theme is that Jesus is the one who reveals God to the all world.

Continuing his double definitions, that we must be born both ‘again’ and ‘from above’, of water and the Spirit, Jesus twice more reaches for a metaphor.

First, he invokes the wind, mysterious, changeable, unpredictable, of unknown origin yet of observable power. This Spirit breathes life into us who are born in water, creation and Creator working together, in birth and new birth.

Now, John has a readership, and thus Jesus has an audience. That  first readership, those hearers, knew more, or should have, than Nicodemus. That audience, probably John’s  congregation, are already within the kingdom through such a process – by the waters of baptism,  through the Spirit, both. This was part of their experience as church.

The second image is from a story his hearers will have known well: the serpents in the wilderness.

This is a most curious story in a most curious book, the Book of Numbers. It describes Moses and Aaron are leading their grumbling flock through the desert, serially upsetting every tribe near whose land the wanderers came. Here’s the shock: the LORD reacts to their recalcitrance by sending poisonous serpents among His people – or at least the Israelites took the snakes to have such a meaning – and many who were bitten died. So they repented and were given a sign: Moses, I note, whose feelings about snakes I share, did not do as the LORD commanded: instead of a live one, he put a nice safe bronze serpent on a stake and held it up for the healing of all who gazed at it. It worked.

This is the strange incident John uses as a sign of the Gospel. The ‘lifting up’ has another double meaning: physically, as Moses did with the bronze serpent, and physically, as the Son of Man was on the Cross.

I want you to note this physicality, this materiality of God in all we have been considering in that most spiritual of Gospels (they say), John’s. Actual water, and Holy Spirit, together, to bring people under Christ’s gentle rule; lifting up a serpent, even a symbolic one, as a parallel to that only-too-real lifting up of the body of Jesus on the Roman executioner’s cross-beam – with the promise of eternal life is given to those who lift up the dying Son of Man. It is important to notice that the next verse in the famous John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that…’ That is the context of that sign-act, the key to how we interpret the death of Jesus.

How do we ‘lift up the Son of Man’, Christ crucified? Our Reformed ancestors apparently allowed us a single interpretation: do it by preaching. That is being challenged by recent scholarship. I am not suggesting it be given up. A generation later, our forebears did it also by singing – e.g. Isaac Watts (When I survey the wondrous cross), though I notice that Watt’s striking third verse still makes few hymnbooks:

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

The Puritan tradition has often painted the cross of Christ in such terms. Among the Passion hymns in Together in Song, you will find a few modern composers who have tried to portray the cross meaningfully, but it definitely not a popular idea. There is plenty of evidence that modern church people shy away from the crucifixion, despite brutal death being portrayed daily in the media. In the face of all that the other apostle, Paul, has written, have we ceased to preach and sing Christ crucified?

Perhaps we have simply domesticated it. In terms of a cross worn as jewellery, there seems to be an inverse relationship between its size and the faith held by the wearer (I exclude bishops!). In terms of personal devotion, when the late George Yule decided that Protestants may make the sign of the cross on their bodies in prayer, it was typical of him that he always made a huge one.

What of architectural forms? In the 1960s, my father got into deep trouble at Wesley Church, Shepparton, when he accepted the undertaker’s gift of two small wooden plaques with a carved cross on them to cover the holes made when the pulpit rail was removed. The crosses were less than 5 cm long. You would have thought Armageddon had come. By the end of that decade, we were erecting quasi-real crosses, old and rugged, or plain and smooth, and hanging them centre-stage.  No-one would comment now. We justify them on the grounds that the Gospel is about the Risen Christ. That is exactly half true. He was first crucified – and that is what we are avoiding. If a worship leader dared to display a crucifix, say, on Good Friday, many of us still would take offence.

This touches us all deeply because of what we have been taught about Christianity as our forebears received it.  In so many other ways, we have changed, at least in terms of things visible and tangible in worship over the last century. I have come to accept that the human family seems to be divided into those whose religion is expressed in plain forms, and those who respond to enrichment in ritual, art and music. But our Uniting Church is something of a mixture, uniting two former traditions and drawing on a new century and especially on its ecumenical and liturgical movements.

In a posthumous book soon to be published,[2] the Sydney Uniting Church theologian, Graham Hughes, has challenged the idea that faithful Protestants were restricted by the Reformers to perceiving God only through their ears. Even that plain Baptist John Bunyan insisted that there was equally what he called the ‘Eye-Gate’. Dr Hughes argues that the exclusive emphasis on the word has lost a fundamental Christian belief: that in Christ, the eternal One became incarnate, took our flesh and died in it, as we will. He points out that the two Gospel sacraments which Jesus bid us do, both involve material elements – water, bread and wine – and an invocation of the Spirit (which we have reclaimed). He calls for a reform in the very ways we celebrate the sacraments.

Spirituality involves physicality. As C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere, ‘God loves matter: He invented it’. In their passion to reform the church whose worship was cluttered with things that obscured the Gospel, the Reformers – in varying degrees – purged worship of its materiality.  I believe that for our contemporary needs in worship and mission, we precisely need to recover it. The modern secular seekers after what they call ‘spirituality’ have missed what Christians know: it also involves the body, in fact, its involves everything we are. It involves human beings in their fullness. Humanity fully alive, as the ancient Fathers said.

So there are two challenges for the Uniting Church.  One is again to claim our role as a true Reformed Church, that is, reformed yet always needing to be reformed.  We seem to be quite good at change in the Uniting Church, but that is not the same thing as reform – and the principle of reform is ‘according to the Scriptures’. [3] The other comes from our much-vaunted claim to be ecumenical. The buzz word is ‘receptive ecumenism’ – a willingness to ask what gifts we recognize in other churches, which our tradition has rejected or ignored, which, by receiving, would contribute to our wholeness.  Which gifts are we actually willing to receive – from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, historic Protestant (16th C), Radical Protestant (Baptist, Mennonite, Quaker) and the new churches, pentecostal and evangelical?

Nicodemus had to learn that logic and speech have their limitations. He had to engage his imagination to comprehend Jesus’ Good News. We need to address more than the minds of our contemporaries if we are to be true to the apostolic faith. When the seekers come to church (which they will do mostly because someone invited them), let them find a whole Gospel set before them by whole people in the face of a fragmented, wounded and disillusioned world. Let them feel and touch and see the triune God who is Creator and Redeemer. Let them apprehend the truth of the Crucified One, in whose lifting up we see the Man who gave up his life ‘so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life’.

[1] This is the most Greek (Hellenistic) of the Gospels, and John is exercising his own linguistic skills to preach the Gospel. Did Jesus pun in Aramaic? Did the pun come from the Aramaic?

[2]  Its title is Reformed Sacramentality, and the publisher is The Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN). It was edited by Steffen Lösel and includes an interview at the end of Graham’s life by William Emilsen.

[3] As the Basis of Union defines it at paragraph 1.

MtE Update – March 9 2017


the latest MtE Update!

  1. The Wednesday night Lenten study group has commenced; next week’s (second, March 15) study will meet 30 minutes earlier than advertised (600pm tea, 630pm study); the study is available here.
  2. The most recent Presbytery Newsletter (March 9) is here.
  3. The most recent Synod Newsletter (March 8) is here.
  4. The March Pilgrim College News is here.
  5. Pastoral Statement from President Stuart McMillan about the Uniting Church in Australia’s appearance at a public hearing for Case Study 56 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
  6. For the diary: our congregational picnic is coming up on March 26, following worship on that day (Royal Park).
  7. If you’d like to do some background work on this coming Sunday’s readings (March 12, Lent 2A), these

Genesis 12:1-4a

Psalm 121

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

John 3:1-17

Other things of potential interest:

From the UCA’s Refugees Network (March Update):

Dear Vic/Tas Uniting for Refugees Network Members,

There are quite a few events coming up in the next month or so, and we’d love your help in promoting these within your Congregations / Schools / local communities and online!

These are important events for us to support as we gather together with others from others right across the refugee sector to keep calling for #Justice4Refugees and for the Government to #BringThemHere !

Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees:

It’s just over a month until Palm Sunday and we’d LOVE your help in promoting the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees!

The flyers for both the Melbourne and Launceston events are attached, and the Facebook event pages for the corresponding events are:


Launceston:         Coming soon!  In the meantime contact for further information

Please can you make sure that the relevant events are promoted on any noticeboards or newsletters in your local Congregations / Schools / local communities?   If you’d like bulk copies of the Melbourne or Launceston posters (A3 or A4 size) and the Melbourne double-sided leaflet (electronic copies are attached) please let me know, as I’m happy to send out to you – we have plenty to distribute!

Palm Sunday Walk pre-event in Melbourne:

As in previous years, we are inviting UCA people (and anyone else who’s interested in joining us!) to gather together at Wesley Uniting Church in Lonsdale Street at 1.00pm on Palm Sunday before walking down to the State Library together.   Rev. Sharon Hollis the Synod’s Moderator will be speaking to those gathered before we head off behind the UCA banners!

Please help invite others to attend that event too – for those on Facebook you’ll find details of the event here:   For others, simply just turn up ahead of the 1pm start at Wesley!

If you can’t join us at Wesley, you’ll be sure to find us gathered behind the Synod and the “Uniting for the Common Good” banners at the State Library!

Lentara Asylum Seeker Program Update:

Could you spare a cup of coffee to support someone seeking asylum?

Lentara’s Asylum Seeker Program supports vulnerable asylum seekers with safe housing, a basic living allowance and material aid. The people we support have no work or study rights, no income support and no Medicare and therefore no way to live with dignity. We are not government funded and are wholly reliant on individual donations, grants and philanthropic funding.

This year we need to raise $40,000 dollars to meet our fundraising deficit.

What does $40,000 mean to people like you and me?  A cup of coffee? A piece of cake?

$5 can provide one child a healthy meal

$10 can give one family access to public transport

$50 can give one child access to a GP

$137.60 can provide the basic living allowance to one family

$200 can provide cost of housing utilities

$500 can pay the rent and utilities for one family for one month

Fundraiser for Palm Sunday and Refugee Legal

The Refugee Advocacy Network are holding a fundraising event to help raise funds for the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees event (as it’s a costly event to pull together), and also for Refugee Legal who provide much-needed legal services to people seeking asylum and refugees who live in our local community.

The evening will be an opportunity to have fun; deepen your understanding of the issues affecting refugees; support the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice, and the important work of Refugee Legal.

There will be a lot of things happening on the night and we’re keen to give this our support.  They are hoping to sell 200 tickets for the event, as we’d love to see some of you there for what will be a fantastic night!

More details are on the attached flyer, and to book your ticket please visit:   There’s a few of us from the Network going and have booked our tickets already, so we’d love you to join us on the night!

International Women’s Day – 8th March

Another International Women’s Day has rolled around!

There will be breakfasts and gatherings as women celebrate the gains in rights and opportunities. And rightly so, says refugee rights activist Pamela Curr.

But what if you’re a woman who doesn’t enjoy those freedoms – a woman in detention?

This is a timely reflection on International Women’s Day today –

Thank you ALL for your ongoing support and commitment to working together to support refugees and people seeking asylum!

Kind regards – Jill

Jill Ruzbacky

Social Justice Officer, Justice & International Mission
Commission for Mission
130 Little Collins St Melbourne 3000
t  (03) 9251 5266  | f  (03) 9251 5241  | m  0417 878 982

March 18 – Joseph of Nazareth

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Joseph of Nazareth, Witness to Jesus

Although Christian tradition tends to refer to Jesus as ‘son of Mary’, the Gospels also preserve a clear indication that he was also known to be the ‘son of Joseph’ (Luke 4:22; John 1:45; 6:42). Joseph appears primarily in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. There he is named as the ‘husband’ of Mary through betrothal (Matthew 1:16, 18, 20). His importance for the gospel writers lies initially in his Davidic ancestry (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:27) which indicates that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, is seen as a part of the Davidic line (see Luke 1:32). This claim underlies the most famous story involving Joseph: the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to a purported imperial census. The story is only told in Luke 2:1–7, but an association with Bethlehem is presupposed by Matthew 2:1–6. In addition to supporting the notion that his son is to be Israel’s Messiah, Joseph is portrayed as a person who is faithful to the Jewish law (see Luke 2:27, 39). On hearing the news of Mary’s pregnancy, his concern to secure a quiet divorce is regarded as the action of a ‘righteous man’ (Matthew 1:19). However, it is his obedience to the revelation from God about Mary’s pregnancy by the Holy Spirit that marks Joseph out as faithful: ‘he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him’ (Matthew 1:24). As a recipient of dreams, Joseph is aligned with his Old Testament namesake, as does his exile to Egypt in the face of Herod’s violence (see Matthew 2:13–15, 19–23). The other mentions of Joseph in the New Testament associate him with Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth (see Luke 2:51–52; Matthew 2:23), a village of around two thousand people, where it is likely that Joseph plied his trade as a ‘woodworker’, a broader and more appropriate term than the more usual ‘carpenter’ (see Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3, noting the variant reading). Joseph’s relative absence from the rest of the Jesus tradition is usually explained by the suggestion that he had died by the time Jesus began his public ministry, but our sources are silent.

Thus, whatever the historical or biological realities behind the Gospel accounts, Joseph of Nazareth is there remembered as a central character in the story of God’s saving purpose. His faithfulness to God, not least in the face of tyranny and violence, ensures that Israel’s ‘mighty saviour from the house of his servant David’ (Luke 1:69) is kept safe and is able to ‘increase in wisdom and in years’ (Luke 2:52).

Rev Dr Sean Winter


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