Monthly Archives: April 2017

30 April – The Eucharistic Psalmist

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Easter 3

1 Peter 1:17-23
Psalm 116
Luke 24:13-35

[Over the next few weeks I’m planning to preach from the set psalm for the day. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I’m now into my seventh full cycle of the lectionary, which makes most of the other texts rather “old-hat”, at least for the preacher and probably for the congregation. Another is that, in those seven cycles, I’ve rarely preached on the set psalm; and another is a remark by Howard Wallace in his book on the psalms, that we cannot expect the heart of the psalms to become our own heart if we do not preach on them. While we hear a psalm each week – beautifully sung – I’m not sure that this is enough for us to be affected by these hymns and prayers. Perhaps a little more preaching here would help.]

I want this morning to draw a link between today’s psalm and our weekly gathering to break bread and bless a cup. The ground for this link is nothing more than a fortuitous phrase in the psalm and so the link is, in a sense, little more than sleight of hand! I think, however, that the effect is such that we might do well to allow ourselves to be tricked here, in order that we might come to see the psalms in a new, richer light, and the Eucharist also.

To read, to sing, to pray the Psalms is to be invited into a new experience…of ourselves. The Psalms are the prayers of people not very much unlike us.

Some of the language of the Psalms we happily embrace; other expressions leave us feeling decidedly uncomfortable. For this reason we are rather inclined to pick and choose between them. Yet the Psalms of the Bible present to us something of a whole. This being the case, we ought to wonder how can we be confident that we are right to reject the harshest of the language of the psalms and yet embrace the more comfortable bits. Few of us are comfortable with a blessing on those who take our enemies’ babies and bash their heads against a rock; some of you perhaps don’t even know that that thought is expressed in one of the Psalms (Psalm 137). We hear that particular Psalm often enough, but the nasty bit is edited out by the lectionary that it might fall more softly on our sensitive ears. Perhaps – perhaps – we might dare to pray with the psalmist, My God, why have you abandoned me? (Psalm 22) But even this seems rather an impious accusation against God, perhaps especially on when it is heard on Jesus’ own lips.

On the other hand, we are less likely to be upset by the psalmist who suffers quietly or simply confesses sin, or who praises God with joy.

It is not hard for us to pick and choose between the Psalms in this way but here we are not simply being lopsided. We are presuming that, on the one hand, we are as contrite or thankful as the psalmist at the positive end of the spectrum but are not, on the other hand, in fact as deep in the pit as the psalmist is when he (she?) gets angry and spiteful and perhaps even – to our ears – blasphemous. Such moderation in reading the psalms is highly risky. A comfortable, moderate reading of the psalms risks a moderate faith, a moderate prayer life, moderate compassion, moderate preaching and liturgy.

So, now to today’s Psalm. In fact we have here an “easy” Psalm to pray. Something is said of the depths from which the psalmist feels that he has been lifted:

3 The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish…
11 I said in my consternation,
‘Everyone is a liar.’ 

Yet the focus is very much upon the response which the psalmist will make to God’s redeeming deliverance from whatever specific thing it was which oppressed him.

12 What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.

Precisely what this means – the lifting up of the cup of salvation – we don’t know now from this distance. But we who gather in this way each week do know of a cup of salvation, and we can helpfully construct a link between the Psalms as an invitation to a new experience of ourselves and our Eucharist as embodying something parallel for us in our ritual eating and drinking.

We’ve already noted that the Psalms present to us a range of human experience which exceeds the actual experience of most of us, or the experience we are prepared to admit. It is possible to live a pretty charmed life in our modern world, however much our charmed life might cost the lives of others. The depth of the psalmists’ experiences – and so also the height of their exultation – is not often present to us. To take the psalms seriously is to open ourselves to the possibility of such a range of experiences even for ourselves: to allow for the possibility that we might be – even might need to be – jolted out of life in mid-range in order to experience ourselves and God anew.

In the Eucharist, too, we mark an experience which is both ours and yet not ours. Under the guise of bread and wine the body and blood of one of us appears on a table in front of us, not unlike the prayers of some of us appear on the pages of the Psalms. We are not those who put this body and blood there – God has done this – and yet we hear that they are there for us. There is nothing desirable about such nourishment, for it is only nourishment for us who eat and drink if we move past mere eating and drinking to recognise that, here, what we put somewhere else – on a cross – is re-presented to us now in order to move us somewhere else, somewhere beyond the moderation that denies life, even crucifies.

There is something “psalmic” about the Eucharist, or something eucharistic about the Psalms. They are together an invitation into something which is ours, yet is not quite us, and yet must become so.

This is my body for you; feed on this, and be changed into it, and be healed.
These are my songs, my prayers, for you; pray these, and thereby learn to feel them, to live them, and be healed.

It is the same one who addresses us in the ancient Psalms and here in our Eucharist today: Christ who sings in both haunting and jubilant tones, Christ crucified and risen. This is to say that the psalms are not what remains of songs sung thousands of years ago. If they are to become our words, they are in fact the words of Christ, just as Christ’s own humanity is the gift we receive in baptism and now await. Psalm 116 is a song of the crucified and risen Christ:

The snares of death encompassed me…Everyone is a liar…
[Yet] What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation…

The life of faith is a life out of ourselves, into ourselves. It is a training in sacred song beyond the keys we think suit us into a range of notes and styles we cannot yet imagine could be ours. It is a feeding on strange food, that we might become in the same way strange to ourselves.

This is possible because, as our psalmist sang today:

“gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful…”

In order, then, to grow into ourselves through this grace and righteousness, let us learn to pray with the psalmists, and with them,

“…offer eucharist and call on the name of the Lord
…in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.”


April 29 – Catherine of Siena

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.


Catherine of Siena, faithful servant

Born Caterina Benincasa, Catherine of Siena (?1347-1380) is remembered for her peacemaking efforts, and for the hundreds of letters and prayers she left behind. She was born into a family of 25 children in Siena, Italy. It is reported that from an early age she began seeing visions, and devoted her time to conversation with God, leading the life of an ascetic. Her long hours of prayer and self-mortification brought her into conflict with her family, and at the age of 16 they permitted her to join the Dominican Order of Penance. She lived a further three years at home (the chronology of this is confused), and then later began to pursue work in the public domain, tending for the poor and the sick, and teaching. She travelled widely, defying suggestions that women should not do so, preaching and mediating disputes—including the conflict between Florence and the Holy See, for example. Her involvement in both spiritual and political events suggests she viewed the two as intimately connected, and equally a part of her service to God.

On her travels Catherine was often accompanied by an entourage of followers—clergy and lay people, men and women—who were attracted by her piety, spiritual wisdom, and engaging personality.

As her following and influence grew, so did Catherine’s ability to help resolve conflicts, and she was instrumental in persuading Pope Gregory XI, with whom she corresponded extensively, to take the Papacy from Avignon in France back to Rome in 1377. (The previous seven popes had held the papal court at Avignon, but there was widespread concern that it should return to Italy.)

Catherine’s writings reflect a boldness and directness that grew from her deep spirituality; qualities that made serious consideration of her counsel unavoidable. This is evident, for example, when she advised Gregory:  “Even if you have not been very faithful in the past, begin now to follow Christ, whose vicar you are, in real earnest. And do not be afraid . . . Attend to things spiritual, appointing good shepherds and good rulers in the cities under your jurisdiction . . .” And then, expressing a sentiment that might be questioned today,  “Above all, delay no longer in returning to Rome and proclaiming the Crusade”.

And all of this in the 33 years of her short life. In 1461, Catherine of Siena was canonized, and in 1970 was made a Doctor of the Church.

by Dr Bethany Butler

23 April – Christ our present and future

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Easter 2 (Mark the Evangelist Day)

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 2
Ephesians 4:7-8, 11-15
Mark 16:9-20

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Wes Campbell

Today the Gospel reading takes us to an End.

Or rather, to at least three endings: an abrupt ending that leaves the reader hanging, another so-called shorter ending, and a longer passage at verses 15-20. Those endings seem to be providing a missing end to the Gospel, as if its last page was torn off. Now, the consensus among New Testament scholars is that the ‘unfinished sentence’ of verse eight is in fact the end Mark intended. New Testament scholar Davis McCaughey, a longtime member of this congregation, and father of the Uniting Church, was an advocate of this approach. He was a supporter of the name Mark the Evangelist for this congregation.

Does it matter how the Gospel ends? It certainly matters. With these endings, we hear the early Christian community grappling with Jesus who announced the nearness of the reign of God, his cry of abandonment on the cross, and the Easter news carried by women. It is startling to hear, within the Easter announcement of hope, the note of fear and doubt.

Such a commanding word should bind us together: But we know only too well the varieties of interpretations brought to bear on the Gospels: from, on one hand, ‘Literalists’ to so-called ‘Progressives’.

This is not just about interpreting texts, it takes us to the shaping of the Christian community as it addresses issues such as sexuality and war.

A colleague refuses to sing Charles Wesley’s hymn: ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord’ (TiS 442) because it contains verses such as

Even now we think and speak the same
And cordially agree,
Concentred all, through Jesus’ name
In perfect harmony.

It’s just not true that we have the same mind, he says.

And it is also that many have given up on the church, and any expectation that we will be changed.

The collapse of faith we have lived in the past century eats away at us. Consider the remarkable ABC programs on space-watching. There was a viewing of the cosmos – a vast spread of galaxies. Scientific commentators told us that we were looking at the beginning of time. The sense of awe in the presenters was palpable, as was also the lack of theology.

The science of the last century took over the notion of entropy, and the notion that the galaxy is winding down. The German theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865 – 1925) accepted the view that the universe was like a battery failing. The future would consist of the last person sitting in front of the last coal, roasting the last potato, in the light of the dying sun. The cosmos was therefore closed and fading.

For Troeltsch then, the future was lost, not least because these were also the years of the calamitous End brought about in the great slaughter of the First World War. And although this was to be ‘war to end all wars’, only decades later was Europe aflame with its death camps; and the cry ‘never again’.

With the atomic demolition of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then nuclear tests on Pacific atolls, Maralinga, Three Mile Island, Japanese Fukushima, Chernobyl. came an End overshadowed by the nuclear cloud.

Such is the End we experience.

According to Francis Fukuyama with the fall of the Soviet Union we came to the end of history; monetarist economics had won the day. Far from the optimism of Fukuyama’s vison another declaration of the end came from the Russian journalist, Svetlana Alexieich (in Chernobyl Prayer, 1997). She announces an unseen radioactive threat that will last for thousands of years. The Russian author brought many voices to speech, telling of the agonizing deaths. She asked ‘who can we look to for the future?’ Her answer, ‘no-one’.

With that loss, which, paradoxically lasts for centuries, we are tempted to lose hope. And intertwined with the nuclear threat is the emergence of ‘terrorism’ between the so-called people of the book, Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The roots of this troubled world reach back into mechanized warfare, in the nineteenth century. Millions of young men, promised glory and adventure, were cut down by a hail of lead, or became in trenches the living dead.

Recalling the slaughter, certain dates shape us: 25th April ANZAC, and the Twin Towers of 9/11. Around the globe neighbours are turned into figures of fear.

We might be tempted to look wistfully backwards to a supposed peaceful age. Where many speak of ‘the end’: the texts we have opened this morning promise a new future.

How are we to live in a world that is grieving its past?

In that field of loss, we Christians are pressed to ask about hope.

This is the time when God is silent, dead as attested by voices such as Nietzsche, AC Drayling, Christopher Hitchins, Richard Dawkins. If God is absent, away, in exile, where shall we look for hope and life?

Jacques Ellul who took as one of his titles ‘Hope in a time of abandonment (1976) gives us a clue. He says it is not for us to try to spring across the gulf between the unseen God and our seen world. No, rather, as Jesus cried out in abandonment and was answered only by the Spirit, we too are to wait in abandonment. We must be profoundly aware that we do not have the means for crossing the gulf; the only thing we can do is trust that the God who raises the dead, will come to us to make us whole.

Consider the Letter to the Ephesians probably circulated in the Roman Empire late in the first century. There we are introduced to a number of small communities who are living out a radically new way. Where once those who differed were in conflict, this correspondence advises how new life can be shaped; between man and woman, adults and children, slaves and free. A new relationship has emerged between those who differ. Difference is no longer a reason for conflict. Rather the Christian community is where enemies are reconciled, living out a newly discovered peace. This involves a stepping out of line in the Empire. Instead of ‘Pax Romana’, maintained by the sword, there is a new story being told here.

The writer of the letter sees in these early Christians a pointer to the cosmos as a whole. Once powers held the cosmos in bondage. Now something new has happened which enlivens the whole cosmos. The fact of this new Christian community, gives us a vision of a totally renewed cosmos. The future is intruding into our present, and the letter that turns enemies into friends draws us into that open future.

How crucial is such as vision, when our streets are given over to soldiers and veterans, to weapons that are ‘the mother of all bombs’, nuclear warheads are kept in storage for possible use, where the economics of our nations are dependent upon the trade in armaments.

As we read the letter, it must cross our mind that we are reading the letter some 2000 years after it was written. And for 1500 years we have learned to read the letter in ways that erodes that radical reading. We are taught to accept our place in ritualized prayer and politics.

The question is this: will we trust the future that is pressing onto us?

Like the first Christians who heard of the risen One, and faced fear and trembling and doubt, our task is not to reassert religious language. We are certainly not to re-construct the empire. Nor are we to fit into the world to the present. There is something far more radical going on here in the God who comes to renew the whole cosmos.

Then we will be able to trust, with the Gospeller Mark, the God who is given over to abandonment, yet can bring life from nothing.

Then it will make sense to sing, with Charles Wesley:

He bids us build each other up;
And gathered into one,
To our high calling’s glorious hope,
We hand in hand go on.

(TiS 442)

The point here is this: in Christ the future and the present are bound together. The Risen Christ who has made his claim on the future, also claims us for his present. Here an end is put to violent and destructive ways; and the very particles of the cosmos are witnesses to Jesus Christ, the end and the future, the centre and the far flung boundary of life.

And to him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all thanks, praise and glory, in his work of renewing the whole cosmos. AMEN

April 26 – Mark the Evangelist

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.


Mark the Evangelist, Witness to Jesus

(Evangelist, martyr, and first ‘Bishop of Alexandria’; Greek: Markos = polite, shining)

Almost all the early traditions assume that St Mark, author of the Gospel that bears his name, is also John Mark of Jerusalem and Mark the cousin of Barnabas — the occasional missionary companion of Barnabas and Paul (and perhaps also of Peter, according to Papias and Eusebius). Hippolytus of Rome’s list of the 70 disciples sent out by Jesus (Lk 10:1) includes these three Marks separately, but other early writers have them as the same person, who was perhaps born in Cyrene (in today’s Libya) before moving to Jerusalem (Acts 12:12).

The Gospel of Mark, thought by most scholars to be the earliest written account of Jesus still surviving, is a vivid, fast-moving account, often told in the present tense — although this is not reflected in our English translations. Mark is said to have compiled it out of the sermons and teaching of Peter, though he may also have been a participant in the Jerusalem events. Some have claimed that he wrote himself into the Gospel story as the young man who fled naked at Jesus’ arrest (Mk 14:51-2). If that is so, he may have performed another disappearing act when he left Barnabas and Paul in the lurch and headed back to Jerusalem instead (Acts 12:25; 13:5, 13), leading to a ‘sharp disagreement’ between the two Apostles when he wanted to join them again on a later journey (Acts 15:36–41).

The mysterious disappearances of ‘Mark’ don’t end there, but continue through history. The Gospel of Mark seems to have been used by both Matthew and Luke as a template for their longer and more popular accounts of Jesus, but then faded from view. The first known commentary on Mark dates from the 6th Century (very late compared with the other Gospels), and early manuscripts of the Gospel are rare — only three papyrus fragments survive. The earliest full copies of Mark end at chapter 16 verse 8, with excited women fleeing the empty tomb “for they were afraid” — and various longer endings were then added in later manuscripts to ‘correct’ what seemed to some to be the ‘disappearance’ of a proper conclusion to Mark’s account.

The body of Mark — and not just the text — also disappears! Strong early traditions suggest that Mark founded the church in Alexandria, Egypt, and was martyred there around 68CE, when he was dragged by the neck around the streets until he died. In 828 CE, Venetian merchants ‘body-snatched’ the remains of St Mark from Alexandria (some say they took Alexander the Great’s remains by mistake!), so they could be installed (eventually) in San Marco Cathedral in Venice. In the 11th Century they disappeared yet again when the Cathedral was rebuilt, and then mysteriously they were rediscovered some years later.

Traditionally, St Mark is Patron Saint of Alexandria, Venice, and barristers, and is seen as the founder of Christianity in Africa (and particularly, the Coptic Church of Egypt).

We might also suggest — given his remarkable history — that St Mark be seen as Patron Saint of ‘the second chance’, the young and impetuous, story-tellers and authors writing their first book, streakers (Mk 14:51-2), and the ANZACs (the Feast Day of St Mark is April 25).

By Dr Keith Dyer

LitBit Commentary – William Cavanaugh on the Eucharist 1

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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.

LitBit Commentary – Robert Jenson on Forgiveness

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LitBits: Whether it be the preaching of the gospel or “Hello”, a successful event of the word is an occasion on and in which a transforming vision of the future opens up, as the realistically entertainable future of the ones who are already there to be addressed, defined by all that has happened to them and to their world. Therefore for Christians “the word” is the word of forgiveness, which opens a future that is ours no matter what the past may have been.

Robert Jenson , Essays in theology of culture, p.42


How to use LitBit Features and Commentaries.

16 April – The continuing presence of the crucified Lord

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Easter Day

Psalm 118
Matthew 28:1-10

If there is a day in the Christian calendar on which it is especially appropriate to speak about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, then Easter Day is not that day. So, even though I’m about to preach on the resurrection, it’s not because it’s Easter(!)

Leaving preaching on the resurrection especially to this day only gives the impression that it is just one of the many things which Christians have to believe – like an item on a religious list. Yet our church year almost forces this problem upon us, and we could also say the same about the other major Christian festivals. Talking about the incarnation at Christmas time, talking about the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, or talking about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday – treating such things on those special days gives the impression that the Trinity is one thing we believe, and the giving of the Holy Spirit another thing, and the coming of God in Jesus at Christmas another. In fact each Sunday is a coming together to celebrate Easter, Pentecost, the Trinity and Christmas. Each Sunday’s gathering of the Christian church is made possible by the Trinitarian God, once incarnate by the power of the Spirit in the Son Jesus, this risen Jesus being now present in his Spirit, to the glory of the Father.

Yearly celebrations have something to do with the way we mark time, and that has to do not with the special events themselves, but with the natural seasons. For thousands of years we’ve noted the coming each year of the spring sunshine and rains, the ripening of fruit and vegetable in summer, and then prepared ourselves for the winter again, before celebrating again the coming of another spring. Within that cycle of seasons and moons we’ve also learned to place other special events. We remember that a certain number of days or moon cycles after the longest or shortest day of the year someone was born or died, or some other special event happened. And we count the same number of days in the next cycle to remember it. When it comes to the church’s festivals, the fact that we count 365 days from Christmas to Christmas has nothing to do with Christmas and what it means, but everything to do with the fact that that’s just how long it takes for the earth to get back to the same hot spot (or cold spot, in the North!) each year. Easter, of course, jumps around a bit each year, but the principle is pretty much the same – counting cycles which have nothing to do with the meaning of Good Friday or Easter themselves.

This works very well for natural, seasonal cycles and events but not so well for the historical events the church recalls. With the cycle of the seasons, what we remember is always coming back within the next year, precisely because it is a cycle. Particular, historical events, however, get more distant with each cycle. While Christmas and Easter always come around again as celebrations, the source gets more distant from us. The celebration, then, quickly becomes an experience of looking backwards.

Treating Easter and the other Christian festivals as a “remembering” gives the sense that all that seems to matter is what happened “long ago”. It is scarcely ever said that way, but we sense it. We indicate that this is what we really believe when, at Easter, when we find ourselves asking, “Did Jesus really rise?” “Were the disciples really not mistaken or deluded?” When we find that we can really only use the past tense for God’s actions, we’ve thrown God and the reasons for believing in God into a distant past – a strange place, another country where they do things differently. Easter (and the other festivals) then becomes a mere commemoration. We remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, or remember his birth or the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church. And then, a day or so a later, we get on the real business of living. How long does Christmas last, before we’re back into the normalities of living? These great moments all fall from our consciousness so quickly because we’re really just remembering, and life is too full here and now to spend back there in the past. Yearly celebrations of Easter and the other Christian festivals have ended up like all our other celebrations – memorials. And so talk of such things as resurrection or incarnation make little sense to us.

But when the church speaks about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, we speak not about something which happened a long time ago, and which we desperately want somehow to drag into the present. The church’s faith is not in some event many years ago, but in the continuing presence of the risen Lord.

Yet even this is perhaps not clear enough. We might say more strongly, the church believes in the continuing presence of the crucified Lord. If we cannot properly deal with Good Friday without reference to Easter, neither does Easter leave Good Friday behind. It is crucial that the risen one is the crucified one, else the crucifixion is meaningless.

To say that the crucified one is Lord is to say that this one rejected is raised from the dead, for a dead Lord is lord of nothing. If Jesus is in any sense “lord”, then we are in the realm of some kind of resurrection. This “some kind of” resurrection, and that it is the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, is laid before us in our weekly gathering around the table for the Communion. The continuing presence of the crucified Jesus is as real and tangible as our breaking and taking of bread.

In this Communion is the body of Christ given and created. The body of Christ is given in the elements of bread and wine, tokens of Christ’s body and blood, broken by the weight of human sin, driven to the cross by our rejection of God’s freedom in our midst. The body of Christ is created in our gathering and reception of the crucified Jesus as Lord, as the source of life, as food and drink. In the resurrection stories crucified Jesus receives those who abandoned him. As we eat and drink he receives us and we receive him: we receive what we are, we become what we receive, the body of Christ, risen now in our midst. The bread and the wine are the body and blood of Jesus – in the strongest theological sense – to the extent that the community which receives them becomes the re-created body of Christ, risen.

Now, there is a lot in these dense little declarations, and it might seem that we’ve wandered a long way from where I began – the problem which our annual celebration of Easter creates for our understanding of the resurrection of Jesus. We might gather these themes together this way:

The word of the angel to those women at the tomb was, He is not here where you think he ought to be; he is risen and indeed goes ahead of you to Galilee. The word of the angel to us today is, He is not back there where you think he can only be, evermore distant with each Easter celebration. He is risen; and, indeed, goes ahead of you. There you will see him. He will meet you wherever you mark him as crucified and as Lord, as Lord and as crucified.

Our annual celebration of Easter does not locate Jesus in time for us – an ever increasingly distant time. To imagine that the church’s confession of the resurrection concerns something which happened to happen a long time ago is to have lost a grip on our language and practice. Easter celebrations remind us who Jesus is, and why we use the language we use and do the things we do: Lord, crucified, risen, breaking bread. We cannot declare “Jesus is Lord” if we trip over the language of resurrection; they are the same thing; a dead Lord is lord of nothing. We cannot declare that the church is the body of Christ but trip over the declaration that the bread and wine are the body and blood of that Christ. The bread is not the bread of life nor the cup the cup of salvation if they do not communicate to us that Jesus’ body was broken and blood spilled by us, and yet that he was restored by God and is returned to restore us, so that all which was his – body and spirit – might become ours. This is the “some kind of” resurrection of Christian confession: Christ is risen wherever the crucified one is received as Lord.

Again, the word of the tomb-side angel to us today is, He is not back there where you think he can only be, evermore distant with each Easter celebration. He is risen; and, indeed, goes ahead of you. There you will see him. He will meet you wherever you mark him as crucified and as Lord, as Lord and as crucified: rejected, but now restored and restoring.

As yesterday, so today and forever, he moves on ahead of us, calling us to meet him in an ever-new place. Resurrection faith hears that call and steps forth in joy.

Let that faith be ours, by the grace of God. Amen.

14 April – The source and goal of all power

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Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:6
Psalm 22
John 19:1-16

“Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

With this Pilate spells out his understanding of the power at work in what is passing between him and Jesus at the judgement seat. Jesus responds, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” What, or who, is this “from above”? It seems obvious that it is God. Quite apart from the idea that God is “above”, this seems obvious to the familiar Christian sense that God intends something like this to take place, that God intends that Jesus be crucified, although this is not present here in the text.

But Jesus goes on: The power you have comes from above, but “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin”. It is not quite clear who this “one” is. Obvious candidates include Judas or, more likely, the High Priest. But for our purposes this morning the Who is not all that important, only that a distinction is drawn: the one who handed Jesus over is not God. Jesus, then, seems to say two things here: God has given Pilate the power he has, and those who have made Jesus subject to that power have the greater sin. Typically, these two things are treated quite separately: God’s establishment of the political order for the well-being of human society (cf. Romans 13); and the sinfulness of the religious authorities in seeking to manipulate that power to have Jesus executed.

But the text is not that straightforward, in that the first comment about Pilate’s power coming “from” above is connected to the comment about the handing-over with a confusing “therefore”:

‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’

Put around the other way, the one who betrayed me is guilty because you have received power from above.

This is very difficult to decipher: God has given you power over me, therefore the one who betrayed me is guilty. This is difficult because God has given the power to Pilate but the betrayer is responsible for Jesus being subject to that power.

A clue to what this might mean is perhaps given in the gospel writer John’s love of double meanings which invite us both to distinguish meanings but also require us to hold them together. “You must be born again”, the teacher Nicodemus heard from Jesus (John 3), although the word “again” could also be translated “from above”. Nicodemus hears one of the possible meanings, and so doesn’t get it – he has to hear both. John uses this device not just to emphasise that Jesus’ hearers don’t get it; the problem is more that they only get half of it: Nicodemus needs to hear that it is a matter of being born “from above” but this a re-birth of the order of the birth which first brought you forth.

In our text this morning, the double meaning might be something like this: the power which Pilate receives can be said to come to him “from above” in the ultimate sense, in that God is the source of all power. And yet the power which he receives is also passed down to him in a progression from Judas to Annas to Caiaphas to Pilate. God is “above” Pilate but so also are those historical players. Jesus is apparently subject to two powers here – the good which is given to Pilate, the bad which is exercised by his enemies; and yet they are one power, which is the force of the “therefore”: you have power over me, therefore they are guilty.

This is not easy, but neither is the gospel, for we ourselves are very complicated. What is happening here is that, in the space of two sentences, John has compressed and summarised the dynamic of human power within its divine source and goal: sourced in God, realised in us. Corrupted in us, perhaps, but still power from God, even in its corrupt form: you have been given power, therefore you are guilty.

This gives rise to a question about what power actually is, about how we can know what true or appropriate power is if power can be corrupt and still be God’s power. In one form or another we confess here most weeks that “We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty…” What does this mean? The seemingly obvious meaning is what gives rise to the heartfelt questions which follow on from the confession: God could do anything, so why then does God not exercise that power? Why do such things as this or that happen if God is both Good and Almighty?

An answer to that question which takes seriously the centrality of the cross to the Christian understanding of the power of God would be that the goodness of God is not that God is all powerful, in the sense of being able to do anything if he wanted to but, rather, that God is the source and the goal of all power. We might want to rage against this proposal because of what takes place between the source and its goal, but it seems to be the truth of the gospel.

God is the source and the goal of all power. It is that second part – the goal – which is missing in most of our thinking about God’s power. That God is the source of all power has already been acknowledged in our text: “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above”. That God is the goal of all power is the basis of the accusation against Jesus’ opponents, who have used their power to secure the death of the beloved Son. God’s goal is not the Son’s death, despite our rich history of atonement theories which see the crucifixion as something God planned. God’s goal is that the Son be glorified, that Jesus be seen to be the Son of the Father, and the Father – the one who sent him – seen to be the Father of the Jesus. The goal of God’s power is always the establishment and manifestation of the appropriate relationship of God and creation.

But our story reveals that power has been corrupted and the goal of that power seems to be thwarted, for Jesus is crucified and so apparently demonstrated to be outside of a right relation to God. And yet the power of God is precisely the power of creation, the power to establish a relationship which was not there before. It is power to call into existence what is not yet there or, what is the same thing for us who are already “there”, creation is the power to raise the dead. In God’s perspective, creation looks like making something from nothing; in ours, it looks like resurrection.

If the glorification of the Son – the manifestation of the Son’s relation to the Father and Father’s to the Son – is blocked by the deathly nothingness of the cross, then to such a creative God the cross itself becomes the glorification. And this is precisely what John’s Jesus declares to us: the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified (John 12.23); Jesus will be glorified by being “lifted up” on the cross (12.32); the cross becomes a throne. The God from whom all power comes, even corrupt power, is all-powerful in that whatever comes of that power in the world, it always returns to its primary work: the glorification of God, the re-creation of the world.

Jesus knows the whence and the whither of power, whatever shape it takes. Pilate’s reading of power, then, and his religious enemies’ attempt to manipulate it, simply determine the shape God’s goal of manifesting his relation to the world will take as that power returns to him; they do not determine whether it will return to God. This is a given for the gospel. There is a sense in which Jesus is already dead as he stands before Pilate – dead to the dead end of Pilate’s understanding of power. The cross is a triumph, a glorification, because on it Jesus declares where all power comes from and where all power goes: only from and to the God who sent him.

What does this mean for anything? It means that the death of Jesus is no mere illustration of what bad people can do to good people. We don’t need a holiday to mark that; it’s in our news bulletins every day. Today is not a tragic day. It is a triumphant day – Good Friday, even Great Friday. The greatness of this day is that the goal of all power – the glorification of God in a right relationship to him is shown to be possible even in such a dark and deathly place as a cross. All power flows from God, all power returns to God, whatever dark and deathly vale it might force us to walk in the meantime.

What this “means for anything” is that there is nothing in this world to be feared. In all things we are more than conquerors through him who has revealed in this way the source and goal of all power. Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth – not presidents nor global warming nor interest rates nor sovereign borders nor failing health nor broken hearts nor anything else in our power-confused creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (cf. Romans 8.37-39).

Jesus, standing before all the power in the world, sees what it cannot: God started this and God will finish it. God has brought us here, and here God meets us and leads us on.

We need only confess in what deathly ways we have gotten power wrong and look to see in what astonishing way God will make it right. Resurrection from the dead, perhaps.

April 18 – Kentigern

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.


Kentigern, Christian pioneer

St. Kentigern was born about 518 in Culross, Fife, Scotland, to Thenaw, the daughter of a British prince, Lothus.  Kentigern, (the name means “head chief”) was popularly known as St. Mungo, meaning “dear one”.   He is believed to have been brought up by St. Servanus at a monastery in Fife. His father’s name is unknown.

At the age of 25, Kentigern began his missionary labours at Cathures, on the Clyde, the site of modern Glasgow.  He was welcomed there by Roderick Hael, the Christian King, and laboured in the district for some thirteen years.  He lived an austere life in a small cell where the Clyde and Molendinar rivers met.  By his teaching and example many people converted to the Christian faith. The large community that grew up around him became known as clasgu, meaning “dear family”.   The town and city ultimately grew to be known as modern Glasgow.

About 553 a strong anti-Christian movement in Strathclyde compelled Kentigern to leave the district.  He retired to Wales, and stayed with St. David at Menevia, later founding a large monastery in Llanelwy and serving as its first abbot.   In 573, accompanied by many of his Welsh disciples, he returned to Scotland at the request of the king, after a battle secured the Christian cause. For eight years he continued his evangelical outreach to the districts of Galloway and Cumberland.

Finally, in 581 Kentigern returned to Glasgow, where he remained until his death in 603, continuing his work amongst the people.

Several miracles were attributed to him including restoring life to a bird that had been inadvertently killed, the discovery inside a fish he caught of the missing ring of the Queen of Cadzow, and the rekindling of a fire that he had been tending, but which had gone out.  These events are commemorated in the Coat of Arms of the City of Glasgow.   The fourth symbol is a bell, believed to have been given to Kentigern by the Pope, Gregory I.

St. Kentigern is buried in Glasgow on the spot where a beautiful cathedral dedicated to his honour now stands.   He is remembered on 13 January each year, the anniversary of his death.  His humble life, lived in the service of God, affected the lives of many people, particularly in Wales, Galloway and Cumberland in Scotland, in parts of the northwest of England, and, of course, in Glasgow.  St. Kentigern is still remembered as a model of how we can make a difference in the lives of others.

Contributed by Sandra Batey

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