Monthly Archives: August 2017

27 August – God’s cross-shaped key

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Pentecost 12

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Matthew 16:13-20

“…I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16.18f)

Is this not enough to send a shiver down the spine of any modern leftist Christian type (of which there a couple present here today), and enough also to raise the ire of any Royal Commissioner investigating church processes? What are we to do with the binding and loosing authority of the church given its long history of catastrophic failures, whatever good the church might also have done?

As a way into this, a couple of exegetical notes: The function of holding the “keys of the kingdom” appears a couple of times in Matthew. The first is here, when Peter is “given” the keys. The second appearance is in an attack on the scribes and Pharisees:

23.13 ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

The word “key” is hidden in the verb “lock”. Jesus gives to Peter what is implicitly held by the present religious authorities. To the extent that Peter does the opposite of what Jesus criticises here, he would handle the keys appropriately.

Linked to holding the keys is the authority to “bind” and to “loose”. This also occurs again later in the gospel, where the shift is from Peter personally to the church more generally (that is, from a singular “you” to a plural “you”; cf. Matthew 18.18). “Binding and loosing” was a technical term for determining when laws apply and when not. Jesus has already done some important binding and loosing in Matthew’s gospel to this point. In the Sermon on the Mount we hear repeatedly, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you” (with respect to adultery or murder or oath-making, etc.; 5.21ff). This is a “binding”, an extension of a regulation. On the other hand, Jesus’ actions and teachings in relation to the Sabbath amount to a “loosing” of the Sabbath (12.1-14). It is this kind of interpretative authority Jesus gives to Peter.

Of itself, authority to interpret is unremarkable. Any community will find that it has to invest someone with such authority. If there is an offence in the text here, it is the linking of this authority with heaven: whatever you bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. Can God be bound or loosed in this way? It is as if Jesus allows that the church’s will be done, in heaven as on earth. How is this anything other than simply terrifying?

Yet Scripture is not naïve here. The problem of the church mishandling its authority has escaped neither the attention nor the contention of the Scripture. In fact, the authority given to the church, personified in Peter, is immediately over-stepped by the church, in Peter, and receives immediate condemnation from Jesus. To make the connections between the authorisation and its misuse clearer, let’s play a little with what comes next in the story:

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be bound [killed], and on the third day be loosed [raised]. 22 And the church [Peter] took him aside and sought to bind him [began to rebuke him], saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to the church [Peter], “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you do not understand your confession [are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things].”

What do we see here? See that in Peter’s (in our) identification of who Jesus is – one of the climaxes of the gospel narrative – both the great authority of the church and its failure to exercise that authority appropriately are immediately manifest. From the outset the text demonstrates what we might imagine we now see clearly only with the benefit of hindsight: the church will bind and loosen in the wrong way. The authority and its abuse are part of the gospel story and not a contradiction of it. The Scriptures are not naïve.

And now to push a little deeper: if the first thing the church does with its authority is to bind Christ then it is in fact the only thing the church does with its authority. To put it differently: if Jesus is the presence of the kingdom of heaven – an earthly binding and loosing which makes heaven present – then Peter’s attempt to restrain him is the authorised church manifesting the original, foundational sin. The fall from Peter’s free confession of Jesus as Messiah to his rebuke of Jesus is the Fall we know from Genesis. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build…”; “You are Adam and Eve, and all of this is yours, except…” Here Peter (and we with him) takes as his own the divine prerogative to know what is good and what is evil, and judges God (cf. Genesis 3).

This arrogance is untenable but it is central to relationship between God and God’s people. And the point of recounting the failure even of those who rise to the heights of Peter is to illustrate that the problem is intractable. Earth will bind heaven. What, then, is heaven to do?

What heaven does not do is convene a Royal Commission into church failures, or in any other way bring an “outside” authority to bear to effect justice. There is no outside authority; “the church” here is all humankind manifest in the unfortunate Peter, in our “parents” Adam and Eve, and so in us. What heaven “does” is the cross: the cross as the place at which the irresistible force of our willingness to bind God meets the immovable object of God’s loosing love.

But the cross is a difficult sea to navigate. This is partly because we consider that the human abuse of its freedom is a moral problem, and so one which we can sort out. Properly, scripturally, the human condition is a mystery within which contradictory things are held in tension. And so the cross is both darkness and light, death and life. The offence of the cross – its darkness – is what forces Peter’s hand to attempt to bind Jesus here. Yet it is this attempt to bind God which makes the cross what Jesus then calls us to as the source of revealing and liberating light.

If the Scripture is right about us and about God and about our relationship, we will not sort out the “problem” of moral failure arising from, or being met with, the blessing of God. This we cannot untangle this knot; the cross marks an impenetrable truth which is nevertheless a necessary truth.

What we can say is that the call to take up the (“our”) cross is not a call to do what Jesus did. The cross marks the collision of our high calling with our capacity to overstep. Jesus will be judged and condemned – marked – by the cross. If Jesus is in any way indicative of the divine, then the divine itself is also marked by the cross. It comes to be that, when we look at God, we can only see as if through a cross-shaped keyhole.

For us to “take up” the cross is for us to see that this is how God lets it stand. Through the cross we see God, and God sees us. We must take up our cross in following Jesus not in order to do what he has done, but in order that we might see him at all, and be seen by him. Perhaps here we can borrow Paul’s “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13): the mystery of the cross is the darkness through which we are beginning to perceive just what love might be, how far it might go, how distant we still are from being such lovers ourselves and, yet, how deeply we are loved nevertheless.

Of course, there is no “keyhole”, there is no “glass”; all of this is a playfulness by which we might be opened to what cannot be directly said or experienced with simple moral logic. We can’t say it directly because, while sin is quite logical and rational, grace is not. Grace looks like play in contrast to hard moral work.

We open ourselves to the logic of grace in a similarly playful way in the drama of our weekly liturgy. A body broken and blood poured out are the signs of human authority over-stepped, even by those who ought to have gotten it right. And so the ghastly act of eating and drinking the tokens of body and blood is supposed to be ghastly. There is a shock here. It is the shock of Peter’s fall from Great Confessor to Grand Inquisitor, which is the shock of an apple plucked greedily from a branch, which is – to proffer but one non-scriptural example – is the shock of cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children in the church, which is the shock of a God crucified by his own people, the heart of every moral shock. Eating and drinking here is a reception of our own brokenness.

Yet, at the same time, we receive the elements as a sign of a reconciliation, and of an overcoming. If God only sees us through the cross, God nevertheless sees us, although not as we do, “in a glass, darkly”. If the gate between heaven and earth has a cross-shaped keyhole, then God’s eye is pressed up against it. You see much, much more through a crevice when you are right up close. We look though the cross from a distance and so see but a little of God and a lot of the cross, but God is pressed right up against it and so sees all which can be seen through it. The closer we get to that keyhole, the more we realise that what is to be seen through it is the eye of God, beholding us, pressed up so close that he can no longer see the offensive cross but sees only through it.

What does all of this mean?

It means that if the church has an authority to bind and loose on earth and in heaven, it is a cross-shaped authority. In the cross we know that everything we will ever do has already been comprehended, understood, judged, for when we look to God for confirmation of our authoritative actions and statements we see only the cross. But we know also that everything we will ever do is also redeemed, for the more the cross fills our field of vision, the more we discover ourselves to be caught in the loving gaze of God.

The cross binds us and looses us. It is only when we are confined and liberated in this way that we have any binding and loosing authority from God.

In all of this – and it’s been a longer haul today than usual – I’ve not said enough to persuade anyone. Persuasion through argument is another form of moralism, and that is not the province of the gospel.

There is here, in the end, just an invitation: to take up the cross, to turn it over in heart and in mind, to consider whether it might be the key to who you are, to who God wills to be for you, and so be the means by which the God’s kingdom is unlocked.

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 22A; Proper 17A (August 28 – September 3)

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Series I: Exodus 3:1-15 and Psalm 105:1-6: 23-26, 45c

Series II: Jeremiah 15:15-21 (no link) and Psalm 26:1-8 (see Psalm 26)

Matthew 16:21-28

Romans 12:9-21

20 August – Who let the dogs in?

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Pentecost 11

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Matthew 15:10-28

“Dogs”, we tell ourselves, is not a very nice way to speak about people who are different from us. Such a sentiment, then, on the lips of Jesus, is kind of “uncomfortable”.

With a view to softening the blow, it’s not uncommon these days to imagine that here we see that even Jesus is “human” – even he can be wrong in his estimation of others, even he has things to learn. This is declared sometimes almost with relief – if Jesus gets it wrong, then we feel a little better when we do – and thanks is given to God for the strength of character of this courageous woman who, through her persistence, teaches Jesus an important lesson.

And yet, why is it that in every other instance in the gospels Jesus is apparently always in “control”, always understanding, leading, directing, challenging and rebuking appropriately, but that just here – at an otherwise unremarkable point in the story – he drops the ball? More likely he does not and we are simply seeing and hearing the wrong thing here.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been playing with the nature of the biblical text – the intention of its forms in parable and miracle, how these elements operate and cooperate in proclaiming God’s kingdom. Here we have another miracle story, although the shock of what Jesus says is so great that it pretty much overshadows the shock of the miracle. The modern liberal response here is not so much, “Jesus could not have healed the girl,” as it is, “Jesus ought not to have said that.”

But let’s take a deep breath and bring our thinking over recent weeks to bear here also. We have heard from Jesus that the parables are told because they both hide and reveal. This we have also extended to the way the miracles stories work in the narrative. What, then, is being seen and not perceived, heard and not understood, as we hear today’s story? If we attend to what actually happens in the exchange between the Gentile and Jesus, we see that she gets what she desires not because of her quick wit but because she actually agrees with Jesus: “Yes, Lord”; “Yes, Lord, a dog, and yet even the dogs gather up the crumbs from under the children’s table”.

“Yes, Lord, and yet…” Jesus meets this with, “Great is your faith!” But what is this faith? It is not that Jesus could heal her daughter, otherwise he would have met her first request with the declaration and the healing. The faith she demonstrates is in the connection between her “Yes” and her “and yet.” Yes, it is the children’s bread and yet it is for me, too. Her “faith” is that she recites the promise of God that all the nations will be blessed with, or through, God’s “children”, Israel. Her faith is in the one who made this promise, and she speaks God’s promise to Jesus, and Jesus replies, Amen.

We are in the same kind of space we discovered last week. There Peter said to Jesus on the water, I will know that it is you if you command me to come to you, and make it that I can. Today, the woman says to Jesus, You are my God too, if you are the God of Israel. With you, Jesus, crumbs are enough.

The miracle in each story indicates the offence – the utter strangeness – of what is said in the exchanges in the story. Does God really give what God commands? Does God command righteousness, and then give it? This is not how it works with our commands and it would be a miracle if it did. We imagine that God commands that we be his, and that we must then become his, earning this relationship.

And can crumbs be enough? Not with “real” bread, which is why Hotham Mission has put much time and money into food programs and food security research. But this is not a story about bread as such; it is about relationship, participation and blessing. Bread is here a metaphor for these things, which is to say that these things are as essential for life as bread.

The bread metaphor, however, is extended beautifully by the woman’s quip about the crumbs, by which she declares not “I also deserve to be fed” but rather, “So abundant is God’s provision of bread to his children that there are leftovers” – “crumbs”. She speaks the gospel, as did Peter when he challenged Jesus on the stormy waters. [It is worth noting in passing that we’ve only just heard of a miraculous feeding, after which 12 baskets of “crumbs” were collected; and another follows today’s story, after which 7 baskets are collected.]

Whereas our concern tends to be about the woman’s feelings at being excluded because of who she is, she appears in the story not as one offended by Jesus but as one confident in the quality of the bread he brings to the “children”. We are not to defend her, but to believe as she believes.

What is it that she believes? That it is through these few that the many are blessed. And what does this mean, practically? How is it also our truth? We can perhaps drive the point home most clearly with a little “embodied” demonstration. Look to the person next to you and say to them, “Woof!” Are we not all here “Gentile dogs”? The church – which is almost completely Gentile – has its very being from the crumbs of God’s love for Israel. We forget this and, in the forgetting, we harden grace into law – we make ourselves the source of the blessing (which is why we take offence at Jesus here).

But the church is not a community constructed out of the convergence of general goodness (in which, for example, the Canaanite woman shares); it is an emergence from a blessing which took place in a particular time and place which is not our time and place. We have a part in the people of God not because we are somehow equal to everyone else, and so are naturally deserving of good standing before God. God started somewhere else, and we have been picked up along the way.

It does not matter in the end who is first and who is second, who is fed at the table and who is not, for all will be fed. But we forget the ordering at our peril – the peril of self-righteousness – and at the peril of all to whom we might be a blessing.

This is because we obscure the way God works in the world at the risk of what God actually offers. We speak so easily in the church of forgiveness but what is forgiveness if not the gift of life from outside of us, a blessing with its origin outside of us? In fact, this leads us to a connection which is little short of horrifying for good-minded people such as we are: we might see in our story this morning that the Canaanite woman is “forgiven” for not being a Jew.

This, of course, makes no moral sense, because morals are all about responsibility for fault, and she is no more responsible for her heritage than anyone could possibly be. This is why we take offence here, moralists that we tend to be. It makes no moral sense but it makes good theological sense to speak of her being “forgiven” in this way, because forgiveness is properly defined not by the fault but by the gift. And the gift is always the same: Sinner? You are mine, says God. Canaanite? Mine. Dead? Mine.

The basis upon which that extraordinary woman made her appeal to Jesus is same basis upon which the Christian becomes a Christian in conversion, on which she confesses sin and expects to hear the absolution, on which she takes the death and life of another in sharing bread and wine around a table as a source of new life.

The gift is always the same – that we are claimed – and it always comes from beyond us. And this is why Christians are called to be lovers and givers in the form of evangelism and the service of others. For love is not mere attraction but, more completely, gift. Giving is not at all exchange but the one-way flow of love to another in some concrete form of blessing. And this is always good news.

Such love and such a flow are what we see in the Loving Giver in our story today, who has set as his own reason for being: to let the dogs in.

Such love and such a flow are to be the shape of our own lives. Let us, then, so love and so give, to God’s greater glory and to the richer humanity of all who still hunger for the children’s bread.

Lectionary Resources

Worship at Mark the Evangelist typically features readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year cycle through the major texts and themes of the Bible.

A printable table of the Sunday readings for the present year (Dec 2018-Nov 2019) is available here; the lectionary for Dec 2019-Nov 2020 is here. The lectionary for Dec 2021-Nov 2022 is here.

The text of the readings for each week can be found here; there are also readings for each day of the week which provide more context for the Sunday readings: Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)Year B (2018, 2021, 2024); Year C (2019,2022,2025).

It helps to come to worship with a sense of what is in the readings, and what it means! While not every reading will be heard or commentated upon each week, you can find background and commentary for most of the Sunday readings via the links to the web sites of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader below — just choose your date!

September 5 – Mother Teresa of Calcutta

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.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, faithful servant

Born Agnes Bojaxhiu in 1910 of Albanian parents at Skopje, Yugoslavia, she was one of three children.  She attended the government school but also had good priests who helped the boys and girls to follow their vocation according to the call of God.  At twelve she first knew she had a vocation to the poor. While at school she became a member of the Sodality.  At that time the Yugoslav Jesuits had accepted to work in the Calcutta Archdiocese.  One of them sent enthusiastic letters about the mission field.  These letters were read regularly to the Sodalists.  Young Agnes was one who wanted to become a missionary and volunteered.  Toward the end of 1928 she was sent to Loreto Abbey in Dublin, Ireland and from there to India to begin her noviciate.

For twenty years she taught geography at St Mary’s High School in Calcutta.  For a few years she was principal of the school.  She was also in charge of the Daughters of St Anne, the Indian religious order attached to the Loreto Sisters.  She loved teaching but then came a change of direction.  In 1946 she was going to Darjeeling to make her retreat.  In the train she heard the call to give up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor.  First she had to get permission from the ecclesiastical authorities to live outside the cloister and work in the Calcutta slums.  In 1948 Mother Teresa laid aside the Loreto habit and clothed herself in a white sari with blue border and cross on the shoulder.  She went to Patna for three months to the American Medical Missionary Sisters for intensive nursing training.  By Christmas she was back in Calcutta living with the Little Sisters of the Poor.

She began by going into homes to see the children and the sick.  Then she started a little school.  She also gave practical lessons on hygiene.  Gradually the work grew and other women came to help and provide support.  The first ten girls who came to help were all students Mother Teresa had taught.  One by one they surrendered themselves to serve the poorest of the poor.  In 1950 the new congregation of The Missionaries of Charity was instituted in Calcutta.  Other helpers came.  Doctors and nurses came on a voluntary basis to help.  In 1952 the Home for the Dying was opened.  This began when she literally picked up a dying woman from the street.  The hospital only took her in because Mother Teresa refused to move until they accepted her.  From there she went to the municipality and asked for a place to bring dying people.

She was given the use of an empty Hindu temple.  She wanted to make the destitute feel they are wanted and so are shown human and divine love.  A Children’s Home was established in 1955.  Work among lepers began in 1957 when five lepers came because they had lost their jobs.

In 1963 the Archbishop of Calcutta blessed the beginnings of a new branch, The Missionary Brothers of Charity.  In 1965 The Missionaries of Charity became a society of pontifical right, which showed the appreciation of the Pope for the work.  The work spread to other parts of India, then to other poor areas in the cities of the world.  They seek to express the love of God holding that Christ is found in the sacrament and in the slums; in the “little” people they seek to help.  In later years she travelled, such as to assist and minister to the hungry in Ethiopia, the radiation victims at Chernobyl and earthquake victims in Armenia.

Mother Teresa is remembered as a person who served the poorest of the poor and inspired others to do so also.  She saw the poor ones in the world’s slums as like the suffering Christ.  In them God’s Son lives and dies and through them she saw God’s face.  For her prayer and service were bound together.

Her voice and example are heard today in her emphasis on the needs of the poorest of the poor, in seeing Christ in them, and in holding that prayer and compassionate action are both required.

Contributed by Chris Walker

September 4 – Albert Schweitzer

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.

Albert Schweitzer, Christian pioneer

Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965), one of the best-known missionaries of the twentieth century, was born in Kayersberg, Alsace. He was extraordinarily gifted, intellectually brilliant and blessed with a robust constitution. His biographer, George Seaver, called him ‘probably the most gifted genius of our age’. By the age of thirty he had achieved distinction in the two disparate fields of music and theology. He was an authority on the life and works of J.S.  Bach, a renowned organist, expert on organ building and significant figure in the Organ Revival in the early twentieth century. In theology he is best remembered for The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), one of the most influential theological books of the twentieth century.  Thereafter, the apocalyptic element in the gospels—the sense of crisis, judgement, and the impending end of the world—had to be taken seriously. No longer could Christians be content with an image of Jesus as a civilized man of the nineteenth or twentieth century. And never again could preachers and scholars separate the teaching of Jesus from Jesus himself.

In 1906 Schweitzer began studying medicine and in 1913 he gave up his academic career as a theologian to devote himself to the care of the sick and to missionary activities at Lambaréné (French Equatorial Africa). For various reasons, he wanted to put the religion of love (the essential element in Christianity) into practice rather than talk about it. The prime reason for going to Africa, he explains in his reminiscences, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1922) was to do penance for the wrongs that Africans had suffered at the hands of Europeans—especially the introduction of disease and the slave trade.  Schweitzer believed that Europeans (like the rich man, Dives, in the biblical parable), had sinned against the people of Africa (the poor man at their gate), in that they had accepted the advantages of medical science and technology without putting themselves in the poor man’s place.

Schweitzer advocated an ethic based on ‘reverence for life’, including animal and plant life. For Schweitzer, it was good to maintain life and further life; it was bad to damage and destroy life.  Only by means of reverence for life, in Schweitzer’s view, can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with all living creatures. A person is ethical when life is considered sacred and when that person devotes him or herself fully to those in need of help. Even as a child he was gripped by the sacredness of life. His night-time prayer was: ‘O heavenly Father, protect and bless all things that have breath; guard them from all evil, and let them sleep in peace.’

Schweitzer received numerous awards including the Nobel Peace prize in 1953. In putting into practice ‘reverence for life’, he became a symbol throughout the world of human dignity, service, and an example of the power of compassion in a time of genocide and mass hatred.

Contributed by William W. Emilsen

August 28 – Augustine of Hippo

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.

Augustine of Hippo, Christian thinker

Aurelius Augustinus, arguably perhaps the greatest figure in the Western church, was born at Thagaste in North Africa in 354CE, the son of a devout Christian mother, Monica and a pagan father, Patricius. He lived only five of his 76 years outside of North Africa. Schooled at Madaura and Carthage, his reading of Cicero’s protreptic work Hortensius inspired him at the age of eighteen – the same year when his father died and his own son Adeodatus was born – to pursue Truth. He taught briefly at Thagaste and then at Carthage and then in 383, perhaps to escape the suffocating presence of his mother, he took ship for Rome itself where he accepted an imperial post teaching rhetoric.

In the intervening years, in his quest for truth, he had read the Bible but without real interest and engaged as a hearer with the Manichaean sect. While in the end he ended his association with this group, their influence, positively or negatively, continued to inform his theological development for the rest of his life. After a short stay in Rome he accepted the imperial post of Professor of Rhetoric at Milan and his move there in 384 began for him a journey from Platonism to Christianity, from Milan to Cassiciacum to Ostia to Thagaste and thence to Hippo in North Africa.

In Milan he met the formidable bishop Ambrose who introduced him to (Neo) platonism and to Greek Fathers like Basil. In the garden of his residence at Milan he experienced his famous conversion, went on retreat to Cassiciacum where he wrote his Soliloquies, and thence to Ostia where he experienced his famous vision.

Following Monica’s death he returned to North Africa and Thagaste via Rome and there determined to set up a retreat of sorts for like-minded men. A side-trip to Hippo – and the untimely death of his son – saw a life-changing experience where he was ordained, effectively by force, by the church there, made co-bishop and then, on the death of the bishop in 395, elected in his place.

As bishop he wrote much. Between 397 and 401 he wrote his magisterial Confessions in which he explored the personal life in the context of his own journey to faith. This work is widely regarded as not only a major text in the Christian canon but also in the Western literary canon itself. Over a twenty year period – from 399 to 419 – he wrote the De Trinitate which has so influenced the development of this central doctrine in the Western church. From 411 onwards he began a series of anti-Donatist writings in which he developed his ecclesiological thought. Between 413 and 425 he authored the De Civitate Dei – perhaps it should have been titled A Tale of Two Cities! – in which he presented a way in which human history might be understand as a process in which people either turn towards God or away from God and into themselves. The content is somewhat drawn-out perhaps but the idea is magnificent. From 413 he began his writing against the teaching of the British Pelagius – whom he never actually met in person – and the so-called Pelagians, including the extremist Julian, bishop of Eclanum. His authoritative De natura et gratia in which he outlined his concerns with Pelagius’ own writings – though Augustine managed here to play the ball and not the man, for he clearly regarded him with great respect – and with presenting his notion of original sin [or guilt], that idea with which Augustine is clearly, rightly or not, so identified. The next few years saw other like writings, including the contra Julianum (in six books) and On Grace and Freewill. In his later years he developed and published his Retractationes in which he amended, modified and even dismissed some of his earlier views on a wide range of matters.

In 430, as the Arian Vandals besieged the city of Hippo, the great bishop and Doctor of the Church died. When the Vandals finally entered and burned the city all that they left untouched were Augustine’s cathedral and his library.

by Rev Dr David Mackay-Rankin


MtE Update – August 18 2017


the latest MtE Update!

  1. Our new study series has begun – not to late to join in (week 2 next week)! You can register for a group from this page.
  2. The latest Presbytery update (August 15) is here.
  3. The latest Synod update (August 9) is here.
  4. For those interested in some background reading to the readings for this Sunday August 20, see the links here. We are presently hearing the Series II OT readings on Sunday.


Other things of potential interest

Dear Vic/Tas Uniting for Refugees Network members,

National Day of Action – 8th October!

Different groups in the refugee sector are planning for a National Day of Action on Sunday 8th October, and we would like to encourage you to think of creative ways that you might be able to might mark this day and use it as a way of calling for bipartisan commitments for humane solutions and real justice for those who are entangled within the awful web of offshore detention, long periods of arbitrary detention, prolonged family separation, and no clear guarantees of permanent protection.

It might be as simple as a reflection in the Service that morning (using some previously-published Refugee Week resources by UnitingJustice), or a creative activity involving your Congregation on the day.   If you’re doing an activity, please send through a photo and a few lines about what you did – that would be great to promote to others to give encouragement and ideas!

On that day in Melbourne, a City-wide event is being organised by the Refugee Action Collective for 2pm at the State Library – further information can be found here:

Keep an eye on our Vic/Tas Uniting for Refugees Network Facebook page, as well as the pages of Refugee Advocacy NetworkRefugee Action CollectiveAustralian Refugee Action NetworkRural Australians for RefugeesSafe Asylum Tasmania and other similar pages to find out what else is happening and for resources which can be used for the day.

Jill Ruzbacky

Social Justice Officer, Justice & International Mission
Commission for Mission
130 Little Collins St Melbourne 3000
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13 August – The one miracle

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Pentecost 10

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85
Matthew 14:22-33

We hear of Jesus walking on the water and the temptation is strong to ask the question, Did it really happen? To this question the response of the Scriptures is, in no small part, Who cares? Who cares whether Jesus could walk on water? Who cares whether he fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish? Who cares whether he was raised from the dead?

Now, we can understand the “Who cares?” question coming from the sceptic but could the Scriptures be so impious as to answer in this way? Or, perhaps more to the point, should the preacher be so impious as to suggest this? Just between you and me, your preacher is capable of great impiety – although he thinks that this is probably not an instance.

How could that be so? The problem with the “Did it really happen?” question is that it is a closed question. We might imagine that we are asking it openly, as a scientist might ask about how an apple falls or an acid bites, but the point is that the scientist’s questions are also closed, however earnest she is as a scientist. Such questions are closed not in terms of their sincerity but because there is no deep human meaning attached to the answers. The answers might describe how to move the world but in themselves will not move it; we need to want to move it, and in this is the “meaning” of such answers.

In a similar way, if we could prove a “Yes” answer to the “Did it really happen?” question on any of the miracles of the Scriptures, the Scriptures would ask of us again, So what? What are you going to do with that? What do these 2000 year old stunts have to do with you today? This, of course, is a question often unthinkingly tossed at the Scriptures but the Scriptures toss it right back: what could a Yes mean? The meaning of a Yes is much less clear that we usually imagine.

There are miracle stories in the gospel accounts, of course, but they are largely distractions to us in a way not unlike the distractions of the parables. We’ve seen in the last few weeks that Jesus said he used parables because in them, “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand” (cf. Matthew 13.13-15). The same could be said of the gospel’s use of the miracles. We often imagine that it is quite clear what we are to see in these stories. We might even imagine that, were we ever convinced that we actually witnessed a miracle, we would know what it meant. This is the assumption in the mocking request for a miracle, both in the Scriptures and today. Yet, to recall again last week’s suggestion that the miracles are parables and the parables are miracles, the miracles also have a “seeing, they do not perceive” quality. We think we know what they would be all about if they actually happened, but we are easily mistaken.

How might such a dynamic be in play in this morning’s text? What is there to be seen apart from the spectacle of a person who walks on water in precisely the way that everyone else doesn’t?

We hear that the disciples see Jesus coming to them on the water but fear that it is a ghost. The fear is important. They are not amazed that they see Jesus on the water but imagine something more sinister. Jesus responds to the anxiety. He asks not, “Didn’t you know that I could even walk on water?”, but declares, “Do not fear, it is I”.

Peter’s response arises out of the disciples’ anxiety. We hear not “that’s amazing” in response to the miracle but the surprising, “If it is you Lord, command me to come onto the water with you.” Notice what Peter’s response is not: it is not, “If you, Jesus, can walk on water, then make it such that I can as well. Peter does not say, “Let me walk on the water too”. We hear, rather: “If it is you, command me to come to you.” Peter tests the “ghost” not by wanting to walk on the water himself, but by seeing whether it can command him to walk on the water. The implication is, “I will know that it is you, Jesus, if you command me to come to you.”

This, surely, is an odd proposal to our ears. Anyone could simply utter a crazy command like this, not least a tempting siren in the waters on a wild night. But here is the faith of Peter – and of the church – at its very best: the confidence that Jesus makes possible what he commands. It is for this that Peter listens, and looks.

Jesus gives the command; Peter walks. But this is not Jesus performing a “nature miracle” and so demonstrating himself to have the divine power of the creator. The thing which is established is that the ghost is Jesus. How do I know that it is him? Because he made possible what he commanded; this is the proof of his divinity. This is the work of Jesus, of God; in this are they “miraculous” – that they effect what they command: “let there be light” (and there is); “be clean” (and we are).

If Jesus did actually pull a stunt like this, now – in the text as Scripture – it is something else: something deeper and richer, something which relegates our typical concern with mere miracles to “Who Cares?” Our story this morning declares, What God commands, God gives.

So far as sheer miracles go, if there is a reason we don’t do a lot of walking on water these days it is simply that God doesn’t command such silliness. Instead of wondering why we don’t see such miracles today, we might wonder what it is that God does command of us, how it might be that God might provide what he commands, and what our “posture” as disciples is to be between that divine command and divine fulfilment. So let’s turn to that.

Our lives are filled with commands – to do, to be, to have, to desire, to give, to live – and those people or situations which make these demands of us rarely contribute to their fulfilment. We are made responsible for ourselves, for our standing before each other and so for our standing before God. In this, life becomes a matter of anxiety – whether it is manifest on the surface of our lives, or is deeply hidden behind the protective measures we’ve constructed around ourselves. Do these things and, so, save yourselves.

Now, the point here is not that God must have commanded these things and, so, God will give them. It is the other way around: if what is commanded is not given by the one who commands it, that one is not God. There is certainly something which commands of us that we be relaxed and comfortable, educated, healthy, live in a certain suburb, drive a certain car, speak with a certain accent and style, live a long life, be beautiful according to local expectation. Something commands these things but it is not God. In such things we are left alone to succeed or fail, to attain “life” as we imagine it, or to sink below the waves as we perceive them.

There is certainly something which commands that our data be backed up, our opinions be surveyed, our insurance premiums paid, our budgets be balanced, our accommodations be of a certain type, that the sound system work and that the children be quiet… but it is not God. These commands and the anxieties they create come from elsewhere, however much we might be pleased to hear them.

Any such penultimate things might be used by God, but they could also be different from what we imagine or desire and still be used by God. God does not command that we and our things be useful but simply makes them so. This is the meaning of creation out of nothing and salvation by grace alone.

What does God command? Come. This command is delivered to us as we are and not as we ought to be. There is no moral or spiritual limbo through which we have to pass in order to be able to respond, nothing which has to be gotten straight before we move. Jesus says, Come. “So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus”. As simple as that, if God makes possible what God commands.

There is only one miracle at the heart of Christian confession: a God who gives what he commands and whose one command is that we be his. God says to us, Come to me, be my children. And it is done in our hearing and stepping out. Faith is holding that God commands that we not be lost, and keeps us safe in that command. That being done, we are then free to do with all the other lesser demands of us as we wish. Doubt is holding that everything which really matters is up to us, and sinking under the weight of it all into that which cannot support us but swallows us up.

Let us choose faith, with the life and freedom it brings.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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