Monthly Archives: April 2018

29 April – A Gospel for Misfits

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Easter 5

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Mark 1:1-14

Where to start a story?

Each of the four gospels has a different opinion on this. John begins, ‘in the beginning’ – the beginning: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Luke begins a little more recently, with a genealogy of Jesus commencing from Adam as the beginning of history. Matthew also has a genealogy, although his begins mid-history with Abraham. And Mark begins with a voice crying out on the desert, Make way, get ready, brace yourself.

These gospel beginnings don’t vary simply as a matter of arbitrary choice. John’s opening cosmic vision is reflected in the way Jesus moves through his narrative: the way he engages, the language he uses, the sense he bears of his place in the order of things. Luke’s beginning with the progenitor of all humankind reflects his account of Jesus as Lord of all – the Jew and the Gentile, the ‘in’ and the ‘out’. Matthew’s launch from Abraham places Jesus firmly in Israel’s salvation history – a gospel to which the Jews ought to be able to say, Yes.

And Mark’s Jesus is announced on the lips of a crazy man in the desert. You don’t see his Jesus coming – not out of the cosmos, not out of the sweep of human history. Mark’s Jesus comes, as it were, from nowhere.

And, as for the other gospel writers so also for Mark: this is not accidental. The left-field arrival of ‘the Lord’ (1.3) reflects how he appears throughout Mark’s account. This is a gospel filled with surprise, wonder, amazement and fear from the demons, the crowds, the disciples and Jesus’ enemies. ‘What are you doing here?’ the demons cry out (1.24). ‘What is this, a new teaching?’ the crowds ask in amazement (1.27). ‘We have never seen anything like this’ (2.12). ‘They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this?”’ (4.41). ‘They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid’ (10.32).

Jesus misfits all expectations. This continues right through to Easter Day when we hear of the women’s response to the empty tomb: ‘…they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (16.8)

Mark’s Jesus is one of Shock and Awe, but it is shock and awe with a purpose, with a resonance. The dislocating nature of Mark’s Jesus reflects the dislocated character of the community to whom he writes. Reading between the lines of the gospel – imagining that those to whom Mark writes would see themselves in the stories he chose to tell – we discern a people in dire need. They are buffeted on the high seas of life (cf. 4.35-41), possessed and directed by a legion of powers beyond and within themselves (cf. 5.1-13), at a loss to understand how what matters so much could possibly be destroyed (cf. 8.31-33; 9.30-32), doubting that anyone can finally be saved (10.23-27), and unable to stick with the one for whom their hearts once burned (cf. 14.29-31, 50, 66-72).

Mark presents a strange Jesus to those estranged – estranged from God, from each other, from their very selves. In more ‘theological’ language, Mark presents an irreconcilable Jesus to an unreconciled people – a Jesus who does not fit for a people who don’t fit.

How does the irreconcilable reconcile? By being the word which, though not expected, is needed. The curious thing about the amazement and fear which surrounds Jesus in Mark’s account is that it is caused precisely by Jesus bringing what is needed: the liberating teaching, the healing, the exorcism, the steadfastness before the powers that be – the penetrating sense of a fearless life and the light it brings. It is the good news which shakes everyone up. So confused are we to begin with that receiving the things we need confuses even more.

And yet, it is the good which Jesus brings. In view of this Jesus asks, then and now, ‘Why are you afraid; have you no faith?’ (4.40) or, perhaps more to the point, ‘Do you not see?’

It is the reign of God which is drawn near here; think again, and believe the good news (1.14).

From Isaiah this morning we heard

52.7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

Beautiful indeed those feet, because the word of peace is not one we expect. It does not flow from the cosmos, it does not mature out of human history, it is does not come even from ‘possessing’ the promises of God.

And yet, it comes. ‘Do not fear,’ Jesus says, ‘only believe’ (5.36). Believing means expecting what we see no reason to expect: that in the midst of the chaos God might meet us bringing, if not yet order, peace. And we will be amazed.

How beautiful the feet of Mark the Evangelist, who announces this peace. How blessed the ears which hear him.

MtE Update – April 26 2018


  1. Our MtE Day luncheon is THIS SUNDAY, April 29 after worship!
  2. Our readings for this Sunday are off-RCL; you can check some background on Sunday’s text here: Isaiah 52:7-10,  Psalm 98 and Mark 1:4-11
Other things potentially of interest

“Building democratic participation in a connected, but disillusioned world”

Old News

JD Northey Lecture

Visiting South African Senior Professor Gerald West  will deliver a JD Northey Lecture at Pilgrim Theological College from 7pm on Thursday May 3. He will speak on the topic of “The Bible as a Site of Struggle in South Africa, from Apartheid to after Liberation”.  Find out more here.

Please bring a gold coin donation and RSVP by Monday 30 April. To RSVP E:

Prof West will also conduct a two-day workshop at Pilgrim Theological College  on Contextual Bible Study as a Resource for Systemic Social Transformation. The workshop runs from 9.30am to 4pm on May 4 and 5. Find out more here.

Cost is $20. Please register by Monday 30 April 2018. Register by E:

See other intensive courses and events coming up at Pilgrim here.



22 April – No anaemic God

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Easter 4

1 John 1:5-2:2
Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

Next week, of course, we mark once more the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli and, by extension, the war service of hundreds of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders, and others. Familiar stories are retold and new ones are uncovered, expounding the courage and feats of people in extreme circumstances.

Not far from the heart of these accounts is the language of sacrifice as a way of characterising what soldiers and others do in giving up their lives or wellbeing for comrades or for the community on whose behalf they fought – for us. Such extraordinary self-sacrifice is rightly marked with gratitude by those who have benefitted from it – even us today, after so long, whatever we make of the wars which have gone before, however much we agree or not with the fact that they were fought.

Now, the reason for raising all of this is not quite that ANZAC Day is coming, but that the theme of sacrifice appears twice in the passage we have heard (again) today:

‘…he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (2.2); ‘the blood of Jesus [the] Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1.7)

This is uncomfortable language for many in our modern and enlightened times, not least in the church. This discomfort arises because Scriptural sacrifice is foreign to us, despite its familiarity after so long and despite our willingness to borrow the language for something like war service. John – whether he was a Jew or a Gentile (allowing that he may not have been the apostle John, as many scholars hold) – would have imbibed with mother’s milk an understanding of ritual sacrifice which held great sense and conviction for him. He wrote of such sacrifice because he knew about it, saw it, had participated in it. We, however, really only speak of such sacrifice because the likes of John wrote about it. We no longer do or see done what they did and saw. We echo what they say when we speak of sacrifice and, because it is only an echo, it can sound hollow or simply come out wrong. Sacrifice is, simply, not how we understand the world to work and so we struggle to use such language with conviction.

But we cannot leave the matter there. At dawn services around the country on Wednesday the words of Jesus will be quoted: ‘No greater love has anyone than to lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13). I suspect that it appeals to us that Jesus gives up his life for his friends, even us. Or, at least it makes sense to us that Jesus might do this, as we imagine our soldiers do.

Yet, if Jesus’ self-sacrifice is for his friends, from what does he save them? The intention of the self-sacrifice of the soldier is clear; her death saves the comrade-in-arms, or weakens the enemy. In the case of Jesus, however, what is the threat from which his friends are to be saved? The horrifying thing – especially for the likes of us – is that the threat can only be God; Jesus dies to protect the disciples from God.

And here we strike the fundamental objection to sacrificial language: that God is said to have stipulated sacrifice for such protection – the blood of lambs, bulls and doves, and ultimately the blood of Jesus himself. The problem is whether God might just be a bloody God. This does not sell well.

Our hesitation here ought not to surprise us, because it is not only a theological hesitation; it is not a problem for only the church with its cross. We – society and church together – hesitate in the same way when it comes to speaking of the sacrifice of those wounded or killed in war. It seems obvious that we could borrow the words of Jesus to characterise the casualties of war, yet we are mistaken if we do so. Scriptural notions of sacrifice have nothing to do with self-sacrifice. The sacrificial victim is a third party in an exchange between the principle actors – the priest who sacrifices and the God who is appeased. If we were to speak properly (and honestly) of sacrifice in relation to war we would have to say that is not the soldiers who make the sacrifice but the community or nation which offers them up. This is surely the meaning of conscription, on the one hand, and white feathers on the other. Nations and kings go to war, not their soldiers. The lives of combatants are the sacrifice we are prepared to make – we, who cannot qualify as the sacrifice by virtue of being too young, too old, too rich or too important.

But we do not speak this way when we commemorate war service. It is very hard to admit that it is better for us that one die for the people than that the whole nation should be lost. And so we generally can’t admit it. And because we can’t, it is difficult to admit that God’s purported stipulation of sacrifice might be just. Surely God is not like us, only open where we are covert?

In fact, even if we are bloody, God is not. Sacrificial blood does not buy forgiveness; God cannot be bought. But if God is not bloody – does not demand blood – neither is God anaemic. John’s insistence on the cross goes with his insistence that Jesus is the Son, is at the heart of God (cf. John 1.18). This death – this blood – is squarely in the middle of the God-humankind relationship.

But, unlike all other human sacrifice – whether the soldier on the field, the neglected spouse, the molested child or the ignored refugee – this death is not finally mere tragedy. God is light (1.5), we considered last week, and the cross of the Risen One is that light. This is the truly difficult thing at the heart of Christian confession: that a tragic failure might become a healing word, that the justice of God (1.9) might meet this failure with forgiveness.

John, with most of the New Testament, borrows the language and logic of sacrifice but it is only passingly useful if we insist on being biblical literalists, speaking Scriptural language with too thick an accent. If God is free – unbound by anything outside of God – then God is not bound by a sacrificial economy of exchange, such that Jesus ‘had’ to die on the cross. Ritual sacrifice in the Old Testament only ever served as a kind of cloak covering the truly important thing, a Tabernacle housing the incomprehensible glory which cannot be gazed upon directly. That glory is God’s freedom to love and heal those who imagine that death is the way to life, even God’s own death.

The miracle of Easter is not that a blood debt is paid. It is that the blood we spill does not stain but washes clean.

And we are those who are washed.

April 21 – Joo Ki Chul & Son Yang-won

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.

Joo Ki Chul & Son Yang-won, martyrs                                         

In 1905 Japan annexed Korea as a first step as a first step in establishing a Japanese Empire in Asia. As time went by, the Japanese insisted that all Koreans should engage in acts of allegiance to the empire. This included in participating in rites in which they were required to engage in acts of obeisance at the Shinto shrines erected in each centre across the country. Many Korean Christians and most missionaries interpreted these acts of obeisance as worship of the Japanese Sun-god, and therefore as a breach of the First Commandment. They therefore resisted either passively or actively the Japanese demands. Co-incidentally this pressure from the Japanese attracted many Korean nationalists to the Christian Church.

Joo Ki Chul  was born in Changwon in 1897, and grew up and learned the Gospel from the Australian missionaries who worked in the South-eastern province of the country. He became a Christian and was later trained and ordained as a Minister of the Gospel in the Presbyterian Church of Korea. He served in two major churches in the Province, and became an outspoken critic of the Japanese demand that all people do obeisance at the Shinto shrines. He was then called in 1937 to a large church in Pyong Yang, where his outspoken refusal to comply with the Japanese demands came under closer scrutiny. Over the next decade, Joo Ki Chul was imprisoned four times, the last time never to be released. He was tortured and abused, and finally died a martyr to his faith, in 1944. He could have compromised. He chose to follow his Lord, who had also refused to compromise.

Many other Korean Christians suffered imprisonment or death at the hands of the Japanese imperial authorities, or suffered in other ways in order to keep their worshipping communities together.

Five years after liberation from the Japanese in 1945, the North Korean army invaded the South. Many more leading Christians were murdered by the North Korean forces, or their sympathizers in the South, simply because they were Christians.

Of these, perhaps the best known was another Presbyterian Minister, Rev Son Yang-won. He had spent time in the Kwangju prison under the Japanese, inspired by the story of Rev Joo Ki Chul. He also wished for martyrdom but was released from prison at the end of the Japanese War, and became the pastor of the large leprosarium at Soonchun. Before the outbreak of the Korean War there were very active insurgents in the region. A group of them carried out murder and mayhem among the local Christian leaders. Two of those whom they murdered were sons of Pastor Son. Having been denied martyrdom himself, Pastor Son adopted the young man who had played the key role in the murder of his sons, rescued him from the hands of the anti-communist authorities bent on executing him, and raised him as his own son.

by John Brown

LitBit Commentary – Alexander Schmemann on Worship 1

LitBits Logo - 2LitBit: …the basic and primordial intuition which not only expresses itself in worship, but of which the entire worship is indeed the phenomenon—both effect and experience—is that the world, be it in its totality as cosmos, or in its life and becoming as time and history, is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence and power.

Alexander Schmemann


How to use LitBit Features and Commentaries.

MtE Update – April 19 2018


  1. Our MtE Day luncheon is coming up, April 29 after worship. Please let Rod know if you are able to attend, and Ann re what you can contribute for the catering…
  2. The most recent Presbytery News (April 18).
  3. ANZAC service at Queen’s College
  4. ANZAC service at St Paul’s Cathedral
  5. For those interested in some background commentary to the readings for this Sunday April 22, see the links here (we’ll continue to focus on a section of 1 John : more on 1 John 1.5-2.2).
Other things potentially of interest

from Mark Zirnsak, JIM

The Justice and International Mission Unit mourns the loss of Jill Ruzbacky who died on Sunday night from complications relating to heart surgery that took place eight months ago. Jill had been in hospital since the surgery.

Jill was well loved across the Uniting Church and ecumenically. She joined the JIM Unit in 2008 and her main areas of work involved running the AboutFACE program  (which placed Uniting Church members in First People communities), campaigning for more humane treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia, managing the relationship the Synod has with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines and the relationship between the Synod and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

Old News

JD Northey Lecture

Visiting South African Senior Professor Gerald West  will deliver a JD Northey Lecture at Pilgrim Theological College from 7pm on Thursday May 3. He will speak on the topic of “The Bible as a Site of Struggle in South Africa, from Apartheid to after Liberation”.  Find out more here.

Please bring a gold coin donation and RSVP by Monday 30 April. To RSVP E:

Prof West will also conduct a two-day workshop at Pilgrim Theological College  on Contextual Bible Study as a Resource for Systemic Social Transformation. The workshop runs from 9.30am to 4pm on May 4 and 5. Find out more here.

Cost is $20. Please register by Monday 30 April 2018. Register by E:

See other intensive courses and events coming up at Pilgrim here.




I am writing to you with the approval of the Moderator and the General Secretary of the VicTas synod to raise a concern with you as a chairperson UnitingWorld, the Assembly agency that has responsibility for our partnerships with churches overseas, especially in the Pacific and Asia.

As you may have heard there are credible reports that in the next federal budget the government will reduce even further Australia’s foreign aid budget, possibly by as  much as $400Million. Our foreign aid budget already stands at historically low levels at just over 0.2% of our GDP making Australia one of the least generous of the developed nations. In UnitingWorld we know that assistance through partnership can make an enormous difference to poor communities overseas. Assisting people to thrive in their own communities seems a better way to enhance security for everyone, including Australia.

I recognise that there may be some in the Australian community who would welcome a further reduction in Australia’s assistance to poor nations on the grounds that it will be used to help the poor and needy in this nation. However, even the poor in this country are rich by the standards of these poor nations.

The government seems to be testing the public mood. Unless there is very significant public response urging the government not to cut the foreign aid budget it seems highly likely that it will be reduced. If you feel that Australia has responsibilities to some of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in the world and that in our relative wealth we can do better I urge you to write to your local MP, the Minister for International Development Cancetta Fierravant-Wells and the Prime Minister. I have attached draft letters that people may wish to use, adapt or discard as you see fit.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email and for your thoughts and actions.

Blessings and Peace,
Dr Andrew Glenn
Chairperson, UnitingWorld

15 April – Not afraid of the dark

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Easter 3

1 John 1:5-2:2
Psalm 4
Luke 24:36b-48

It is an assumption at the heart of contemporary Western religious (and non-religious) thought that God is simple. This means that God is one, undivided, without paradox or complexity in Godself. Not all religious thought holds to the simplicity of God as a basic principle (think, for example, of the complexity of the Greek mythological world) but it is fundamental for people like us in places like this, and it has ancient roots.

(To say that God is simple is not to say that speaking about God is always thought to be simple, but the difficultly of speaking of God is usually attributed to our poor articulation or the built-in poverty of human language rather than to how and how God actually is).

An instance of the idea of the simplicity of God appears in our reading from 1 John today: ‘God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.’ This is not much different from, ‘God is one, and in God there is no division’ or ‘God is pure, without blemish.’ Christians need have no particular problem with such ways of talking about God, although this will depend on the consequences drawn from a particular statement of God’s simplicity.

Such consequences are just the issue with which John wrestles in our text today. Any statement about God which is worth making will have consequences for us. More specifically, anything we say about God will imply certain things to be said about us: theology implies anthropology.

Reading between the lines in our passage this morning, the general affirmation that ‘God is light’ has been extended by some in that community to imply that there is light without darkness in those who believe in, or reside within, or walk with such a God. The simplicity of God is extended to a simplicity in God’s people: God is whole, undivided, pure and light – and so are we, the people who know this about God.

To this John has to say, No: ‘if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1.8). But crucial here is why John says this. The reason is not, to get just a little anachronistic, paedophile priests. John is not looking around at the church and seeing that it is still caught in the grip of sin. It is undeniable that sin continues in those who confess that God is light, but the good news about Jesus – that through him sin is forgiven (1.9, 2.2) – is not an answer to our sense for the sin which is in and about us. If it were, the sinfulness of humankind would be the first word of the church. Indeed, the church sometimes begins here but without benefit for anyone, because God is then constructed out of our darkness.

But John doesn’t contrast an idea that God is light with an idea of human sinfulness, one abstract thought to counter another. Rather, his awareness of human sin comes from the God who is light: ‘if we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.’ (It’s not quite clear whether the ‘him’ here refers to God or to Christ but the distinction does not matter much for John’s argument). God has said something, and the question is whether what has been said is true or not.

What, then, does God ‘say’?

God ‘says’: Jesus, in the flesh.

For John, the nature of God as light and the sinful character of human existence are not contradictory ideas to be balanced with each other but are, rather, to be found together in the person of Jesus. It becomes clearer further into the letter that the problem of how to understand human sin is caught up with the question of who Jesus is and how he was. In particular, the question of the humanity – the fleshliness – of Jesus seems to have been the basis of split in the community: those who denied that Jesus was the full, fleshy incarnation of God and died a fleshy death on the cross left John and his community. (We will likely consider that more closely as we move further into the letter).

But John insists that the cross cannot be set aside; whatever the brilliance of the light which God is, there is a bloody mess in its midst. If God is light, then the crisis of the cross is light, is part of a Christian experience and understanding of God. When John says ‘God is light’ he means that the ‘crossed’ God is light – the God and Father of, and with, Jesus the crucified.

And if the cross is a part of what we have to say about God, then it is part of what we say about ourselves before God. Which is why the centre of all Christian conviction is not human sin left behind, but forgiveness – the point at which light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it, though the darkness continues (John 1.5).  ‘We have an advocate with the Father,’ John says, ‘Jesus Christ the righteous.’

Life in this God is a confessional life – a life which confesses how God is (this is our Creed) – and then confesses whatever shadows in us God’s light shows to require the confession of contrition. If Jesus Christ the righteous could be crucified by those who saw the cross as God’s righteous judgement on him, then the power of sin in human life is more than can be imagined.

John is in no doubt – and neither should we be – that if anyone is in Christ then she or he ought no longer to sin. But the ‘ought’ is contravened not only by moral weakness in us; this is too simple. The ‘ought’ awaits also the final consummation of all things, when God’s light does not transport us on a rainbow out of the world but makes us-in-the-world new.

Our part is simply to be made new, and new, and new, as often as it is necessary, and so to become a pointer to the promise that God will restore all things. We are then, not afraid of the dark – the dark in us or around us – because God overcomes it, and will overcome it.

As John says, ‘We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’. On him we ever rest, as we get on with the business of living.

Let us, then, rest in him, and get on with it.

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