Monthly Archives: January 2018

January 27 – John Chrysostom

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.

John Chrysostom, faithful servant

In Antioch in about 371, the 22-year old John was already well-known, both as the most outstanding pupil ever of Libanios, the most famous orator of the day, and as a devout Christian, a reader in the church.  But when he heard of plans to ordain him, John, painfully aware of his immaturity and weakness, hid and then embraced the monastic life.  He was not running away (he always condemned the monk who did not serve his neighbour) but running to his only source of help.  In the harsh discipline of the Syrian monks, John sought not so much to subjugate the body as to free the desires, the imagination and the will, so that they could be focussed on God; and so the fasts and sleepless nights in prayer were accompanied by a deep immersion in the Old and New Testaments.  After four intense years, physically weakened but spiritually stronger, he returned to Antioch and the service of Bishop Meletios.  The outward forms of monasticism may have gone, but inward zeal for God remained.

John was soon ordained deacon (about 382) , and priest (387).  In the pulpit he used the eloquence he had acquired from the pagan Libanios to expound the Scriptures he loved and knew so deeply, delivering series of homilies on many of the major books, constantly exhorting the people to a more Christian way of life, and especially urging concern for the poor.  He is particularly known for his interpretations of Paul, revealing to us not only the meaning of his teaching, but how the text at hand was a pastoral response in love to the situation faced by the community to whom Paul was writing.  He was loved by the people, and was a great source of calm and consolation in times of major civil disturbance, but, as he often complained, he could not wean the majority of them away from the theatre and the races.

John’s reputation grew, and in 397 the Emperor summoned him to the capital and he was made bishop of Constantinople, a choice that angered factions who favoured another candidate.  He set about reforming the clergy, improving the Church’s help for the poor, and providing pastoral care for the city’s Gothic minority.  Although loved by the people and initially popular with the imperial household, his reforming zeal and his intense personality also made enemies.  His uncompromising insistence on Gospel teachings and values was accompanied by a quickness to act that was at times perhaps imprudent, insensitive or liable to arouse suspicion.  Through times of political intrigue and demonstrations of loyalty by the populace, his favour with the Emperor ebbed and flowed, but in 404 he was given his second and definitve sentence into exile.  Realising that all the earth belonged to God, he bore it patiently, even if he did complain in his letters.  The conditions became harsher as he was sent further towards the frontiers, and eventually the forced travel overcame him.  He died on 14th September 407, saying, “Glory be to God for all things.”

Contributed by Joseph Vnuk

January 21 – Agnes of Rome

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.

Agnes of Rome, martyr

A calendar of martyrs that dates from the mid-4th century includes Agnes’s name and the location of her grave near Via Nomentana, in Rome. A church built on this site in 350 commemorates her. She is thought to have been killed in the persecution under Diocletian (304), but other traditions bring the date forward to the time of Decian. All the sources agree that she was young, barely thirteen years old, and was already determined not to marry but to dedicate her life to Christ and the work of the church, when persecution broke out. She left home and offered herself for martyrdom. Resisting all threats (and various sources include various elaborations of fire, brothel, public shaming) she was put to death by the Roman practice of being stabbed in the throat.  Brutal and horrifying as all martyrdom stories are, Agnes’s death reminded the Christian community that the faith and autonomy of young women were not to be under-estimated.

Agnes’s choices were constrained, of course, compared, for example, to her brothers if she had any. Thirteen was not only part of childhood but also the age at which most Roman girls of good family were married. Christian resistance to the civic duty of marriage and children was a serious challenge to the Empire. The whole edifice of Imperial power, was built on slavey, the trade of people whose bodies were not their own. As Peter Brown commenting on the most recent scholarship affirms, Christianity argued for ‘freedom’ from the sexual assumptions of the Roman world ( Agnes was part of that argument, and was nderstood by her community to be claiming freedom.

Ambrose of Milan reflected on Agnes as a model in a series of letters for his sister Manellia and other Christians who were thinking of dedicating their lives in community. The letters, collected as the treatise On Virgins, date from 377.   (

Saint Agnes… is said to have borne witness at the age of twelve. Detestable cruelty, indeed, that did not spare such tender years! Yet all the greater the faith that found a witness in so young a child!

Was her little body really large enough to receive the sword’s thrust? She was hardly big enough to be struck, yet was great enough to overcome – and that at an age when little girls cannot bear a mother’s stern look and think a needle’s jab a mortal wound!

…Others wept, but not she. Many marvelled that she should be so spendthrift with a life hardly begun. All were amazed that one too young to manage her own life could be a witness to God. She would prove that God could give what people cannot – for what transcends nature must be from nature’s Author!

A hymn in her honour, Agnes beatae virginis, is also attributed to Ambrose of Milan. It praised her courage and purity, making the ancient link between virginity and purity of commitment to Christ, between idolatry and adultery. All the martyrs carried this link between faith and chastity for the community, but it is especially prominent in the way the women have been remembered.

Agnes is one of seven women and girls, all martyrs, whose names are remembered alongside Mary the mother of Jesus in the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving of the Roman rite. The others are Cecilia, Felicity, Perpetua, Lucy, and Agatha.  Her connection to Rome is underlined in the blessing of two lambs on her feastday 21 January. When they are shorn at Easter time, the wool is used to weave the narrow shoulder bands of the pallium that is given by the Pope and worn by Catholic metropolitan archbishops as a symbol of their unity.

 Dr Katharine Massam

14 January – Samuel’s Ear

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Epiphany 2

1 Samuel 3:1-20
Song of Hannah
John 1:43-51

Sermon preached by Rev. Em. Prof. Robert Gribben

Listening is a virtuous act. It takes a deliberate choice, to stop talking, to stop offering your own point of view. It is a part of ‘loving your neighbour’. ‘Listen, my son’ is the first line of Benedict’s Rule, the guide for monastic communities around the world. Careful listening prepares one for life.

Listening for God is part of this. Generations in the biblical stories have listened for the voice of God in their mind, in their dreams. Creation began with such a word: ‘In time beyond our dreaming, you brought forth life out of darkness’, our prayer at the Table today will say, echoing John’s Gospel. God spoke, and the Word became flesh.

Do modern people listen in the same way? We may have outgrown the pieties of the past, but have we also ceased paying attention? If we have rejected the idea of hearing an actual voice, because people who do are put in mental hospitals, are we not ourselves rather too literal? Do we listen to the word of the scriptures, to the word in hymns and prayers – as well as those of our friends and lovers? Listening for a word which will change our world, the world in which we have sometimes confined ourselves.

For myself, I have never ‘heard’ God speak in the literal sense, but I am who and where I am because of the unmistakable conviction one morning in Queen’s College Chapel that the Law was not my calling.

Do you remember this children’s hymn?

Oh, give me Samuel’s ear.
The open ear, O Lord,
Alive and quick to hear
Each whisper of Thy word!                 [Hushed was the evening hymn]

This morning, we have sung Frances Ridley Havergal’s Master, speak, thy servant heareth, also a touch sentimental and decidedly an expression of individual piety, but both imprison this story in childhood, safe and secure childhood. Such words and quivering tunes remove the sting from a biblical story, and that is a heinous crime. Sentiment can be the enemy of truth.

Our own modernity can also stand in the way of hearing the word from God. I studied in an era when we were told to search for holiness on the streets of the ‘secular city’. We were told that the Bible had nothing to say because it was written for a ‘pre-industrial world’.  So, listening for the word of God in a book begun some 28 centuries ago is a challenge.

We must acknowledge that Samuel’s is a different world from ours, yet by no means strange. Of course, their gods have unfamiliar names, but people of power tried to harness them to their own ends, using human beings as sacrifices in more ways than one.  Of course, it is odd that the Ark of the Covenant should be wheeled about in battle as if it were a nuclear weapon (I Sam. 5 & 6). Fertility has different issues around it in our own times, and so on – but we are naïve if we think that it is not the same human world. Even the desire for a king, which YHWH was so reluctant to deliver, yet bade Samuel do so, was called for because the tribes would like to see ‘Israel made great again’. In fact, that is the deep purpose behind the whole book of Samuel. But it’s not strange. Its translation needs thought, and imagination, because we too pray for change.

Samuel’s saga begins with a tale of a man with two wives, the first with several children, the second with none, and the very recognizable way in which the first exercises emotional blackmail. Then Hannah prays for a child.  The text says, ‘As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard’; many people today would recognize that way of praying – ‘charismatic prayer’. Eli thought she was drunk; so the crowds thought the disciples were at Pentecost! And we cannot sing Hannah’s song of triumph, from chapter 2, without Mary’s song in the Gospel echoing in our minds, their celebration of a God who does new things.

The story of the boy Samuel is a kind of dream sequence in the middle of some hard political facts.  There are Eli’s family problems: ‘Now the sons of Eli were worthless men; they had no regard for the LORD’ (2:12). There is the ongoing conflict with the Philistines.  A mysterious visitor pronounces doom on Eli’s priestly line. A story we thought suitable for children now engages the adults. The LORD has spoken to Samuel.

The first thing is that the relationship of Samuel to Eli has been reversed. Samuel has gained authority, and Eli has lost it. The youth is now in charge; the ancient priest must serve him. Eli told Samuel how to listen; and Samuel stands now in God’s presence, his ears open.  Truly, as Hannah had sung: the Lord raises up and brings down.

Samuel kept silence that night. Next morning, Eli called for Samuel, with the familiar response: ‘Here am I’. Did you hear the state of the nation? (3:1-2) ‘…the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision’. The times were about to change.

The second thing is what he heard. Samuel had listened to the oracle which is the point of the whole story – and it is against Eli, his sons and the future of his priestly house. The house of Eli, which had been promised ‘for ever’ (2:30) will be punished ‘for ever’. No sacrifice or offering can countermand that fate. No ‘comfortable word’ this, for the LORD said, ‘Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of everyone that hears it will tingle’.

Remember the strange voice in the wilderness, crying to God to make his paths straight? From John, son of a barren woman – and a priest? Calling the world for a radical change of direction?

We too live in a world where regimes rise and fall, after wreaking havoc among their peoples, killing and maiming, and exiling more. Think Mugabe. Think, the present Ayatollah in Iran. Remember Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, ISIS/Daish. Eli’s fall is just as complete; just as sudden. Eli’s wastrel sons die in battle with the Philistines.

So, what are we hearing here? The writer of I Samuel is clear that the word of God comes through a human voice, is enacted on the ground by human hands. Samuel – no more than the Gospel writers or Paul – is no mere automaton, speaking an infallible word from God, reliably predicting the outcome. There is a distinction between the word of God, and of those who deliver it: ‘God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe’ wrote St Paul (1Cor. 1: 21b). And, he adds, the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1Cor. 1: 25b).

God is doing a new thing, and God keeps God’s promises. We may think our time is one where there is no vision, when the word of the Lord is a rare thing. O for ‘frequent vision!’ Samuel’s story gives us encouragement and hope. For Samuel is one of a long line of people whom God raises up in history, who are not elected to office because of their genius, or their useful information, or their political clout, or their muscles. God has no time for such things, as the psalmist often reminds us. God is a creator, and he makes things happen where nothing was possible. God can even work with a David!

Walter Brueggemann, the great Old Testament scholar, writes this:

In the midst of all these seductions, however, there is a season of naiveté when a young boy can receive a vision, an old man can embrace a relinquishment, a surprised mother can sing a song, the ear of the conventional can tingle, and life begins again.’

That should be no surprise to readers of the Gospel, or the followers of the Crucified One. The task of the ancient prophets and ours is the same: to discern what God is doing, and listen for the God who is living and active among us, yesterday, today and forever. That is why we read old stories in church.

Because they knew God’s history with their people, Philip and Nathaniel recognized who Jesus was, and followed him. We too may listen and learn to be a people of hope in Christ.

7 January – A Secret Epiphany

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Baptism of Jesus

Genesis 1:1-5
Acts 19:1-7
Psalm 29
Mark 1:4-11

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God, help me by your Spirit to reveal who you are, and help those that listen to reveal what is left obscure. Amen.

Yesterday was epiphany: the day we remind ourselves to check our star signs — just in case. More straightforwardly, epiphany reminds us of the surprising revelation of God: that moment when the incarnate Christ is revealed to Gentiles, represented by those star-gazing wise men from the East.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. This seems at first glance something quite removed from epiphany. There seem to be no Gentiles to speak of, just a wild desert preacher and a young Rabbi about to take his mantle.

In fact Mark’s account, when set aside the other Gospel accounts, is the most restrictive of all. In Mark’s account it seems only Jesus can see the Spirit descending like a dove. John and the crowd are not privy to this divine revelation, as they seem to be in Luke and John’s Gospels.

The divine voice from heaven is likewise restrictive. It addresses Jesus directly: “You are my beloved Son.” The indirect and public declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship, through the mouth of John the Baptiser, or a booming Heavenly voice is absent.

The first Sunday after epiphany here we are: no gentiles, no public revelation. And worse: as soon as Jesus’ divine sonship is revealed he is drawn out into the desert. Upon his return he begins a ministry, dare I say, marked in this Gospel by a messianic secret. No one is allowed to publicly utter that Jesus is the son of God.

This is turning out to be the worst Epiphany ever.

If epiphany is about God’s surprising revelation to the gentiles, and we have today no Gentiles and no public revelation, perhaps we can see in today’s reading something of a surprise.

Or perhaps it’s simply unfair to frame this text as an epiphany text when in fact it’s simply the story of Jesus’ baptism. This is, perhaps, an instance of setting unfair expectations.

Be that as it may, I really want to press just how surprising the story of Jesus’ baptism is. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, it is so surprising that the Gospel accounts written after Mark – as the others were – felt this story needed to be retold differently. The other accounts broaden the audience of revelation. Matthew’s Gospel even inserts a short conversation between Jesus and John the Baptiser, acknowledging the awkwardness of John baptising Jesus.

The baptism of Jesus by John is awkward – and surprising, a point we will return to.

But what it is also surprising that Jesus’ baptism by John is not Jesus’ first baptism. At least, not according to some Theologians – particularly from the rich and broad Eastern Orthodox tradition.

These theologians suggest that the first baptism of Jesus was his conception. There the Spirit enabled Christ’s participation in humanity. Recalling the great birthing waters over which the Spirit hovered in the beginning, God came to dwell fully in and with our humanity.

The idea of baptism in which, through the symbol of water, we participate in Christ, is mirrored in the Spirit’s enabling of Christ’s participation in humanity.

We might say that the liturgical period we have just passed through – advent, Christmas, epiphany – narrates the first baptism of Jesus. We have taken time to marvel at God becoming human. What, to recall last week’s sermon, is the marvel of the big God coming close. The Creator God becoming human.

And yet … Is this not old news? Good news, to be sure, the Good News: but we have already understood this much.

Indeed, this much is captured in our reading from the book of Acts. What we need, above all, is the same outpouring of the Spirit that enabled God to become human. This same Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation, hovering over the waters of our baptism.


But today we are more narrowly focused on Jesus’ second baptism. Not a baptism into humanity, but a baptism of repentance.

Baptised by John: not proclaiming the new creation, but proclaiming repentance: the ruin of the old creation. John proclaims the same note of judgement that was a feature of Jewish eschatological expectation. That is, the judgement associated with the end of days, when God would wrap up this creation and begin a renewed creation.

This is the judgement that we recalled last week in recognising that in the context of the sheep and goats, we are goats. In the context of the hungry, the naked, and the stranger: we are least of all.

The broad Jewish expectation was that the Messiah would come and mete out this judgement. Dispensing God’s wrath on the enemies of God, as this created order fell into ruin and a new one emerged. Perhaps this is why so many thought that John the Baptiser was the Messiah. He came, after all, proclaiming judgement, calling people to repentance.

And yet in all of this, John points beyond himself. He points to someone else. He points to the Messiah who is yet to come.

And this is the surprising bit: when this Messiah arrives he does not meet the expectations of the people. He does not come as a Messiah dispensing judgement. He comes as one who submits himself to being baptised. A baptism of repentance.

What on Earth does Jesus have to repent of?

Having already been baptised into human form, Jesus further humbles himself, by being baptised in repentance, bringing himself under judgement.

In doing this Jesus subverts the expectations that he would come to give out judgement, by suggesting that instead he would undergo judgement.

And as Jesus does this, as Jesus is submerged in repentant waters, and rises out of them, the Spirit that hovers over the waters of creation comes down. As Jesus enters into our judgement he brings new creation, all of a sudden, very close.

At that moment, the new creation is begun – not at the end of time, but at the beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah – the new creation is begun at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. At that moment a voice from Heaven reveals Jesus to be the Son of God.

Not only is it surprising that God would become human. But even more surprising that God would become fully human: mired in our failings, our sufferings, and our tragedies. What is most surprising is not simply that God would become human, but that God would become even the least among humanity.

Is this surprising revelation of the lengths God has gone for us an epiphany? The surprising lengths that lead to us being reconciled with God, and with each other? Is this an epiphany?

Or perhaps, we have to wait for that moment.

Mark’s Gospel, written with sheer genius, has us wait until what seems the end of the story, to truly have our epiphany. That moment when a voice once again declares – in public – that Jesus is the Son of God. That moment on the cross. When it is no longer a voice from Heaven, but the voice of a Gentile Centurion.

Jesus does not simply show us an icon of perfect humanity. But by becoming subject to judgement, by placing himself in a state of abandonment and dereliction on the cross, he shows us how to be imperfect humanity. Jesus shows us how to live as those under judgement. To follow the way of Christ, the way of the cross, is not to abandon our fragile humanity, but to more fully acknowledge and embrace it.

To follow the way of the cross is to stand in relationship and solidarity with those who are also mired in failings, in sufferings, and in tragedies. And it is from that sharing in weakness, that sharing in the suffering of Christ, that we follow the way to new creation. The way of surprising revelations of God – perhaps even in star signs, or strange tongues.

What Jesus acknowledged on our behalf in his baptism by John is the surprising way of the Spirit hovering over birthing waters. A way that is mired, to be sure, by blood, and tears, and pain; but a way that also calls new life into being.

When Jesus stands under judgement, crying out in abandonment, in dereliction, he no longer connects himself with God, but connects himself with us and us with him. It is at that moment that a human voice can finally confess to his divinity. We are bound together by this act, by this event. And as we walk the way of the cross, we are all bound together as a community of solidarity, reconciliation, and love.

Let me finish with a quote from Lilla Watson. A Gangulu elder, artist, and indigenous activist from Queensland.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.

But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”


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