Monthly Archives: June 2018

MtE Update – June 28 2018

  1. Our ‘Dinners for Eight’ are about to commence; please see the pew sheets or speak to Norma or Wendy to register!
  2. The 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church gathers this July in Melbourne; you can see some of what is to be discussed on the dedicated web site (see especially the menu items at the top right of the page).
  3. For those interested in some background commentary to the readings for this Sunday July 1, see the links here. Our focus text will again be taken from 1 John, this week 3.1-3.

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 13B; Proper 8B (Sunday between June 26 and July 2)

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: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 see also By the Well podcast on this text and Psalm 130 see also By the Well podcast on this text

Series II: Wisdom of Solomon 1.13-15, 2.23-24 (no link) or Lamentations 3.22-33 (cf. here) and Psalm 30

2 Corinthians 8:7-15 see also By the Well podcast on this text

Mark 5:21-43 see also By the Well podcast on this text

24 June – Do not. Be. Afraid

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Pentecost 5

Psalm 20
Mark 4:34-41

‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing’?

Until this week, the assumption of perhaps every thought I have ever had about this question – and probably every sermon I have heard on it – is, Yes, Jesus does care – of course, Jesus cares. The evidence for this is that he stills the storm. Is this not what care would look like: noticing and acting?

I want to continue to affirm that Jesus cares but closer attention to the story undermines confidence in too easy a ‘Yes’ in response to the desperate question, Do you not care? Or, perhaps more to the point for those in that boat and us in ours, we might enquire more deeply of this story just what the care of Jesus looks like.

Crucial to all this is that Jesus has to be woken up in order to be made aware of a storm which has scared the b’Jesus into all his friends. The disciples presume, not unreasonably, that one has to be conscious to care. And so, pun (w)holy intended, they effectively ask, How – for Christ’s sake – can you sleep at a time like this? If you are the Son of God, care: command the wind and waves to be still!

The gospel’s answer to this is that it is precisely for the Christ’s sake that he sleeps – not because the Christ is tired and needs to catch up on his rest but because there is nothing present of sufficient moment to warrant him waking; there is nothing to worry about.

This is too much, of course, if the story were about a few blokes in the wrong place at the wrong time. If that were what the story told, then there is plenty to worry about and plenty to do, and the disciples are right to be holding on very tight with one hand and bailing frantically with the other. But this is not the point of the story.

The storm is not stilled in order to demonstrate that Jesus cares and will meet our sense of what we need. The wind and the waves are stilled not to demonstrate care but in order that Jesus might be heard – a still, small voice cutting through the wild night. He needs to be heard, not to deny or do away with the wild and frightening things, but that those things be relegated in the hearts and minds of the disciples.

‘Have you no faith?’ This is not to say, Can’t you fix this yourself? Of course they can’t. ‘Have you no faith?’ means, These are only wind and waves.     Fear. Only. God.

The care Jesus demonstrates here is not he will still the storms about us. There is no promise in the story that the storm will always be stilled. Not a few of those in the boat will perish in other storms –religious and political – in the next 20 or 30 years. Many interpreters of this passage see it, in fact, as written specifically for those later situations, as an answer to their pressing question: does God care what is now happening to the church?

God does care what is happening to the church, but in the sense of, Why are you still afraid? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword (Romans 8.35) separate you from me? Have you no faith?

The stance Jesus takes before the wind and the waves is the same stance he takes in the face of the cross: there is, finally, nothing to fear here. It is scarcely pleasant – it will sometimes even be hell – but hell is not beyond God’s attention, and hell does not change that, finally, we belong not to the devil but to God. We belong to God – as the funeral service puts it – in strength and in weakness, in achievement and in failure, in the brightness of joy and in the darkness of despair. The ‘climate’ – what is going on in the world around us – is not a theological indicator.

Notice that, in this way of thinking about the story, it matters not one jot whether Jesus could actually command the wind and the waves. For all that we have said, the story is irrelevant if we seek evidence about whether Jesus was a miracle-worker or not. We notice most of all the calming of the waters and the wind, and much less the word which the calming makes it possible to hear: Do not be afraid; have you no faith? At the end of the story the disciples fall back in terror, now at Jesus and no longer at the storm. The shock is not merely that Jesus commands the storm, but that he has no fear of it. For the story, these two things are the same.

And so Jesus charges not, You could have done this yourself, had you the faith. He declares rather, If God is God, your life is not to be a fearful one. Faith is knowing what, or whom to fear, and what not to fear. Faith is knowing what does, and does not, own us.

We will likely be afraid in such a situation, for all the obvious reasons. The storm might be the suddenly diminished future brought by a threatening diagnosis; the unbearably quiet house brought by bereavement; the loss of a job; a bulldozer through our house; public embarrassment; the impending divorce (or even the impending marriage!).

We will likely be afraid in such situations, for the obvious reasons. Yet, in such storms – wild or still – Jesus asks, And what is it about this place you know but is not obvious?         You are mine. You are mine.

In all such things you are more than conquerors through the one who loves you.

‘For I am convinced that
neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers,
nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.37-39)

There is nothing to fear but that we might live in fear of what is not worthy of it.

Do not be afraid.



As a possible response, a prayer of confession

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.

And yet…

Forgive us when
we imagine that the first sign of danger
is a sign of your absence.

Forgive us when we limit our own freedom
by fearing things which, in the end,
are inevitable,
or will finally not matter.

Forgive us when our fears
mean that others are denied
the love they need.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;

just so, loving God,
have mercy on us.


22 June – Thanksgiving Service – Alexander James Wearing

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Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24
1 Corinthians 13:8-13

In a space like this we gather to tell not one story but two. The one is our story with each other, of which we have just told a little (and it is always too little); the other is God’s story with us, to which we now turn.

Yet, in this turn, we don’t leave the first story behind; we tell the two because they are intertwined. Their relationship can be treated in all manner of ways but today, taking the lead from the psalmist and St Paul, we’ll consider the relation of these stories through the question of what it is to know .

The quest for knowledge drives us, whether it is what we hope to glean from staffroom gossip or from probing an atom with a laser. Yet, among all the things that might be known, are we ourselves not what we really seek to know in this world? Of all the objects of knowledge we might encounter, are we ourselves not the most interesting, the most extraordinary?

Anthropology, sociology, psychology (of course!); medicine, linguistics, economics, politics, history, literature, arts: together such pursuits constitute the search to understand and express what makes us tick. For we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we delight to know this.

Even the driest of sciences, which seek as thoroughly as possible to exclude from their quest for knowledge the unreliability of human perception – even these cannot finally exclude the human as the one who knows and marvels and searches, or who will benefit from what is discovered.

Do we know more than Paul, writing 2000 years ago, or the psalmist, 500 or 1000 years before that? Certainly, in terms of the kind of knowledge which lends itself to publication in journals and books. The wonder which we are is reflected in that knowledge.

And yet it is of a certain, limited type. It is oriented toward the human being as ‘problem’: the What and the How and Why of what we do, or need, or suffer. This type of knowledge we seek principally with a view to unravelling the tangles, solving the puzzles, resolving the issues.

The knowing we encountered today in the psalm and St Paul is of a different order.

Psalm 139 is one of one of the most intimate passages of the Scriptures, in which the poet marvels at his very self, and at God’s knowledge of that self.

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Alongside the poet, we heard from St Paul, who is not often accused of poetry. Yet if not aesthetically, he poetises technically – not so much in his selection of words but in his sense for the order in which things should be said, the way in which things should be made relative to each other:

I know, but only in part; yet I shall know even as I am now fully known.

These two write not of knowledge of as answer to question or as resolution to problem; they intimate knowledge of mystery.

Mystery has degenerated as a notion for us these days. We imagine that a mystery is a problem: the murder mystery is a puzzle to be solved. More to the point, this kind of ‘mystery’ is understood to be solvable, given all the evidence.

But, for the poet of the psalm and for Paul, mystery is that which, of its very nature, is impenetrable. It is unmistakably there, it can be seen, it matters, but it resists comprehension.

‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it…’

‘…For now we see through a glass, darkly’ (as we said it in the old tongue).

The particular mystery they contemplate is their own irreducible being, known to them, and yet unknown.

We are driven to know ourselves, and we must let ourselves be propelled by that drive. And yet, what are we to do with the thought that we will never reach our destination, not because it is too far (there is too much to know) but because comprehending in this way is not the point of it all.

What we are to do is, in short, nothing. The mystery which we are is not a thing to be ‘done’ with. It is not a useful thing, not a tool in our hand, certainly not a problem to be solved. It is something within which to live, from which to take reference.

Paul was writing against a certain use of knowledge and interpretation of experience. In a 2000-year-old kind of way, it was the kind of knowledge which correlates to the facts and figures our sciences, or just our ordinary experience, yield for us today.

His criticism of the use of this knowledge in the community was that it didn’t carry humanity with it, the mystery of who they were, and the mystery of whose they were – whose we are. And the community was breaking apart all over the place.

You are more than this, he insists. And the only way you can know it is, love. Properly to be the mystery you are, is to be loved, and to love.

Love relativises everything we think we know, our drive to know, our pride in knowing – all of this is subjected to the gift of being known. The subjugation of knowing to being known reflects the dynamic of love, in that the love which makes us is, first of all, the love we receive.

It is the love which nurses the unknowing infant; it is the love which teaches those who don’t know yet what I know, that they might know themselves better; it is the love we hear in the ‘I do’; it is the love which holds the hand of one whose knowledge now passes in and out of reach, who is beginning now and then not to know himself; it is the love which causes us to gathers as we have today because we knew someone who no longer knows anything, and yet is loved.

Whatever we might strive to know, it is finally only that we are known – lovedthat makes us.

Prophecies, tongues, knowledge – these things of ours, Paul says, all come to an end. If love ever ended, then we would too, even if we lived on.

But Paul and the poet testify: Love never ends, because it does not begin with us. We were known before we knew; we know now only in part; we will be known still, once we cease to know any more.

In Alec we saw something of what we can be, if we know ourselves known and loved: a glass which refracts – even if darkly – the possibilities of love.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made, for love.

Live, then, from, in and through love. For God’s sake, and for your own.

June 28 – Irenaeus

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.

Irenaeus, Christian thinker

Irenaeus of Lyons (Lugdunum) in Roman Gaul, one of the foremost apologists of the early church, came from Smyrna on the coast of Asia Minor where, as a boy, he heard his lifelong hero, the great Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Given that Polycarp died a martyr in 155 CE it is assumed that Irenaeus was born c. 140. As a relatively young man he went to Lugdunum, apparently as a missionary to the Celts. Lugdunum, founded in 43 BCE near the confluence of the Rhone and Saone rivers, was the capital city of the Roman province of Gallia Lugdunensis and one of the most important cities, after Rome, in the Western part of the Empire. It included a thriving community of traders from Asia Minor and, indeed, the martyr lists from the 177 persecution reflect many Greek and some Latin names but no Celtic. Following the martyr’s death of Pothinus, bishop or at least senior presbyter of Lyon and the nearby town of Vienne, Irenaeus became himself bishop or at least senior presbyter. He certainly styled himself as bishop and that is how he is now recognised. He first came to prominence beyond Gaul when he went to Rome early in his episcopate and developed a reputation as a mediator in a number of disputes, the best known perhaps that between the Roman church and the churches of the east over the dating of Easter. His very name reflected his reputation in the early church.
His extant apologetic writings, for which he is most widely known and appreciated, are the five books of the On the Detection and Refutation of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (better known as Against Heresies) – which survives only in a Latin translation from the 3rd or 4th century – and Epideixis or Proof of the Apostolic Preaching – which exists only in an Armenian translation of unknown date. The former is directed against the so-called Gnostics of his time, particularly those belonging to the school of Valentinus. The Valentinians are regarded now – and were possibly so regarded by Irenaeus himself and this is perhaps why he regarded them as particularly dangerous – as the closest to ‘orthodoxy’ on the orthodox-heterodox scale. The first book outlines the beliefs of the Valentinians and their predecessors while the second offers rational proofs against these. The third offers proofs from the Apostles (the canonical Gospels) and the fourth those from the sayings of Jesus, particularly the parables. The fifth offers proofs to be used against the claims of the Gnostics drawn from others sayings of Jesus and the writings of the Apostle and includes some eschatological reflections. Irenaeus was himself a convinced millenarian. It is in the fourth book that Irenaeus offers some of his most important theological writing on the unity of the Old and New Covenants (Testaments) and of the necessary and critical relationship between Creation and Redemption, between God as Creator and as Redeemer. The Epideixis, a much shorter book and only discovered in 1903, was written for converts and offers a simple summary of the Rule of Faith with supporting biblical texts. Irenaeus also wrote on the biblical canon, on the succession of bishops as a guarantee of orthodoxy – he was a doctrinal conservative and literalist biblical commentator whose motto was semper eadem – and on apostolic authority. While not always given his due perhaps as an important apologist and theologian in his day, the preservation of his major work in Latin indicates that he was appreciated not only in the East but also in the West.  His feast day is celebrated in the East on 26 August and in the West on 28 June.

David Mackay-Rankin


17 June – Going in Circles

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Pentecost 4

1 John 2:18-28
Psalm 92
Mark 4:26-34

In a sentence:
What God, for love, has joined together – even Godself to us – let no one separate.

Looking as closely at 1 John, as we have been doing over the last couple of months, reveals just how repetitive it is. It’s not long into the letter that we begin to think we’ve read something like this just a moment ago. There is an unmistakable circularity in the way John thinks and writes.

Yet this is not a going round and round in simple repetition. A closer approximation to John’s style teaching is that of a helix – a circularity like that of a cork-screw: John moves around the same central point (or, more accurately now, axis), but always with different concepts and associations.

The axis is those particular fixed things central to his experience – the love of the Father, the identity of the crucified Jesus with the Son, the church community. This axis he relates to different concerns and consequences; these are how the circle ‘moves’ to become a different circle but still revolving around the same central axis: Now we talk about light and dark, now about sin and reconciliation, now about the love of God and the love of the world, now about community and division. Each cycle around the axis adds nuance and depth to our sense of the significance of the axis itself – the meaning of the relationship between the Father and Jesus, and between us and our neighbours, and the relationship between these relationships(!).

In today’s reading the same thing is happening: the helix continues to wind around the relationship between human being and divine being, and this is extended now in terms of the concepts of ‘knowledge’ and ‘abiding.’

It is the second concept – abiding – which I’d like to focus on today because ‘abide’ is a constant refrain through the letter and is especially useful for demonstrating how John seeks to hold all things together. (‘Abide’ appears a couple of dozen times in letters of John, although not always translated as ‘abide’ – sometimes as ‘live,’ and it can also mean ‘remain;’ we might get back to ‘knowledge’ another time). Today we’ve heard,

2.24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.

2.27 As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.

2.28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

Elsewhere in the letter we hear,

3.24a All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.


4.16b God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

A teaching, particular knowledge, abides in us. This makes possible an abiding in God. And acting according to that knowledge is the guarantee that God abides in us.

What becomes clear is that this not a set of linear connections, such that one must come before the other. There is nothing linear in John’s thinking, to the extent that his arguments feel quite circular to us (consider from today’s passage: 2.19 They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us). He holds belief and action so closely together that there is no other way to say it other than to go around and around in reiteration. When he considers the break-away group, it is not only that they first believed the wrong thing and then left; their very departure was just as much part of their false belief.

And so what is to us a ‘doctrinal dispute’ in John’s community – whether the crucified Jesus is the divine Son – is no ‘mere’ doctrinal dispute. There is no ‘mere’ doctrine for John. All doctrine is implied action; all action implies doctrine. John says: believing ‘this’ looks like doing ‘that’. Not doing ‘that’ is in fact believing something else. And so, for John, actions do not speak louder than words; actions are words and words are actions (it is perhaps this second part which is the surprise for us). Nothing speaks or enacts truth other than getting them both right.

Now, perhaps this all sounds just too complicated and difficult. Part of the reason for this is that modern thinking expects truth to be expressed differently than John expresses it. Even if we can see what he is doing, we are not well-placed culturally or intellectually to be moved by it.

But rather than try to unpack those cultural and logical differences we can cut through the hard knot if I suggest to you simply that John teaches this way because he is enraptured by the beauty of it all: the beauty of such movement in harmony, the beauty of balance which is not static and of motion which is not unstable. This is the beauty of a world thoroughly infused with God – inconceivable without God, for ‘Jesus is the Son’ – and the beauty of a God enveloping that world, inconceivable as doing anything else, for ‘the Son is Jesus’. It is the beauty of the source of all things finding its end in us, and that end becoming a new source for all things.

For John, the truly beautiful is neither static nor theoretical. It is no mere object to thought; thought is as much subject to the beauty. Mere knowledge is not enough; the knowledge which matters will gather us up into the beautiful.

Or, more concretely, the beauty John sees is only beautiful if it is a life lived. A creed, a liturgy, a building cannot capture the beauty of God, although neither can it be captured without those things. An experience, a kindness, a sacrifice cannot capture the beauty of the world, although neither is it captured without such things.

God’s life with us and our life with God are an abiding – a living, a remaining, in a kind of mutual orbit. This spinning of God and us around each other is at the heart of what John says. Perhaps we must sometimes freeze the motion in order to speak about the one or the other but then we are not speaking about them in their liveliness, but only in their isolation, like the isolation of a single image pulled from a strip of film.

All this is to say that Christian life is a kind of going-in-circles. The Christian community is properly a place where such talk and action, such being and doing, such hearing and speaking, such to-and-fro with God, are a ‘making beautiful’.

So, John says to us,

2.24Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25And this is what he has promised us, [this is] eternal life:

abiding in God as God abides in us (4.16)

Let us, then, do the beautiful: abide in God as God abides in us.


By way of response, a prayer of confession:

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.
And yet…
Forgive us, Lord,
when we receive you as a silent thing,
and hear only our own thoughts about you.

Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie eleison;

Forgive us when
we claim to trust in you alone

but our actions speak of a different confidence.

Christe, Christe, Christe eleison;

Forgive us when our confusion about such things
perpetuate the needs of others
and their own confusion and disorientation.

Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie eleison.

Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden:
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord.


MtE Update – June 15 2018

  1. This Sunday June 17 our after-worship talk will be presented by Peter Blackwood, on Christian iconography. This is part of our continued reflection on the use of icons in our own weekly worship.
  2. ‘Dinners for Eight’ are planned in members’ homes for the following dates and locations; please see the pew sheets or speak to Norma or Wendy for more details and to register!
  3. Sunday 24:6:18 lunch at Midday (Parkville).

    Sat 30:6:18 dinner at 6 pm (Nth Melb).

    Sun 1:7:18 lunch at midday (Sth Melb).

    Fri 6:7:18 dinner at 6.00pm (South Yarra).

    Sat 14:7:18 dinner at 6 pm (Lower Plenty).

    Sun 15:7:18 lunch (Full)

    Fri 20:7:18 dinner at 6.30pm (Nth Melb).

  4. For those interested in some background commentary to the readings for this Sunday June 17, see the links here. Our focus text will again be taken from 1 John, 2.18-28
  5. Old News

    1. The 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church gathers this July in Melbourne; you can see some of what is to be discussed on the dedicated web site (see especially the menu items at the top right of the page).
    2. Events in Refugee Week 2018 (June 17-23)

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 11B; Proper 6B (Sunday between June 12 and June 18; if after Trinity Sunday)

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: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 see also By the Well podcast on this text and Psalm 20

Series II: Ezekiel 17:22-24 (no link) and Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

2 Corinthians 5:6-10 (11-13) 14-17

Mark 4:26-34 see also By the Well podcast on this text

10 June – Outwardly in decay and day by day inwardly renewed

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Pentecost 3

Isaiah 61:1-3
2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1
Psalm 139
John 14: 1-14

Sermon preached by Rev. Em. Prof. Robert Gribben

Friday’s issue of the online journal The Conversation led with an essay entitled ‘What might heaven be like?’  It was a mild-mannered survey of the way the images of heaven and hell have softened, been brought down to earth, and the vision glorious relegated to history books or possible the Bible. The author didn’t seem to think that one could hold these views all at once – as we do in worship, especially with hymns, though they too are becoming more and more pedestrian. The article encourages me to think (since this sermon was largely composed before I saw it) that some consideration of our eternal reward might be helpful to ‘Christians who think’.

It was the set epistle which offered my theme, Paul’s reflection on the decay of the body and the promised glory. I’ve replaced the other readings with selections from the Funeral Service, which, I remind you, is not to be miserable and mournful, not for Christians anyway. In fact, part of my motivation was also a funeral, one I attended in the cemetery at Numurkah, surrounded by glorious gum trees, a graveside event only, for a cousin with no religion.

His hearse was preceded by a polished red firetruck, and the liturgy was the CFA farewell, which has borrowed something from Freemasonry and something from the RSL, but the impressive thing was that the civil celebrant, himself a member of the CFA, avoided the temptation to introduce any myths in the absence of any for a secular funeral. Few clergy, and fewer people at a wake, can avoid these sentimental and death-denying absurdities like the dead looking down on us from ‘up there’, or our loved one having just moved to the next room, or whatever. It is remarkable how little the Bible has to say in detail, indeed it largely encourages us to be agnostic. The Qu’ran’s heaven is much more explicit– and inviting, if you are an Alpha-male!

So, let me lead you through one of the New Testament’s brief and succinct discussions of the subject.

16 No wonder we do not lose heart!’ says Paul.[1] And both Isaiah and John agree. Losing heart is a temptation, a test for everyone with a heart who ponders the condition of the world we live in. I need not elaborate. This is not the world God wants; this is not even near the reign of God, and yet we daily pray for the coming of that kingdom – which was the burden of the sermon preached in St George’s Chapel a week or so ago. Bishop Michael Curry set forth exactly what our trust in the love of God promises in terms of a world in which human beings live together justly and therefore peacefully, a world in which there are no more tears, no reason for tears, no more suffering, and – and this is faithful to Paul – God means this world, not only something in heaven waiting for us. Curry laid before the powerful, the wealthy and the privileged the true Christian hope. No wonder they were disturbed. It’s not British to say such things in a church.

So, to continue with Paul:

17 Our troubles are slight and short-lived, and the outcome is an eternal glory which far outweighs them,18 provided our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen; for what is seen is transient, what is unseen is eternal.

We often take this as a diminution of our troubles, as if they didn’t matter. But this statement was made by a man who, a handful of verses earlier in this chapter wrote,

‘We are hard-pressed, but never cornered; bewildered, but never at our wit’s end; hunted, but never abandoned to our fate; struck down, but never killed. Wherever we go we carry with us in our body the death that Jesus died…’ (4:8-10a)

These are the troubles he regards as slight, and he did bear the wounds of an apostle in his very body, the wounds of the Crucified. He is not speaking of the creaks and groans of increasing old age! This is a gospel for every living human person!

When Paul speak of the inner person contrasted with the outer, or the transient with the eternal, he is not speaking of opposites. It is this burdened body which will be healed, not some outer husk encasing the heaven-bound part of us. The whole of who-we-are is caught up in this journey from death to life, and not death to ‘after-life’.  Paul is quite clear that the body that is all-of-us-now does decay and will die; but whatever we need for our shelter and our flourishing beyond what we know and understand is already promised, and in the hands of our God – outwardly in decay and inwardly renewed:

5:1 We know that if the earthly frame that houses us today is demolished, we possess a building which God has provided – a house not made by human hands, eternal and in heaven.

And he has said earlier,

 14 for we know that he who raised the Lord Jesus to life will with Jesus raise us too, and bring us to his presence, and you with us. 15 Indeed, all this is for your sake, so that, as the abounding grace of God is shared by more and more, the greater may be the chorus of thanksgiving that rises to the glory of God.

(I like the ‘and you with us’14 by which Paul includes his recalcitrant Corinthian congregation!) So, we are not raised alone, but with a great company, a company which, as it has grown, has known God’s grace more and more – so our eternal end is not individual but communal (and ‘ecumenical’?). There will be transformed congregations in heaven!

Let me point out a pun in Paul. I’ll give verse 15 in a more succinct translation:

Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (NRSV)

The fruit of grace is thanksgiving. In the Greek, charis is grace, eu-charis-tia is thanksgiving. At the Lord’s Table, Sunday by Sunday, in our bodies, we give thanks with the sign of his body; we ‘make eucharist’, for the grace by which we are enabled to live our fragile and fruitful lives.

I have pointed out here before that the words at the giving of communion are: ‘The Body/Blood of Christ keep you in eternal life’. We have been in eternal life since our baptism, and every day, by grace, we have reason to be thankful, come what may. What we know in this fellowship, at this table, under this grace, is all we need to know for life and eternity. Part of God’s grace is to invite us Christians fitting-ourselves-for-the-kingdom-of-God to be washed in living water, and to partake of the bread of heaven. We need to be here, in this company, for this. To share the Spirit who, in Isaiah, promises,

to give [us] a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  [Isa. 61]

For whom

even the darkness is not dark …;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.   [Ps 139:12]

And the Son who promised,

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places…’ [John 14:1]

No wonder we do not lose heart!


[1] The translation read this morning, and quoted throughout here is the Revised English Bible, which updated the New English Bible in 1989.

June 9 – Ephrem the Syrian

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.


Ephrem the Syrian, person of prayer

Ephrem has justly been described as the greatest poet of the Early Church.  He wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), and for most of his life served as a deacon in Nisibis on the eastern border of the Roman Empire.  Ten years before his death in 373 he became a refugee when his town was transferred to the Persian Empire. He ended up in Edessa (modern Sanliurfa in SE Turkey), where he is recorded as having organised food for the poor during a famine shortly before he died.  A considerable number of his poems survive, along with a few prose works, which include Commentaries on Genesis and on a Harmony of the four Gospels.  Most of the poems are stanzaic and were intended to be sung; a later poet, Jacob of Serugh, has a delightful poem describing how Ephrem introduced the practice of having choirs of women (some of his poems are in fact written in the voice of women).  These poems survive in a number collections of varying sizes, ranging from 4 to 87 poems; the collections have general titles, but only rarely (as in the case of the collection ‘On Paradise’) do these correspond to all the poems in them. Thus the large collection ‘On Faith’ ends with a small group of five poems ‘on the Pearl’ and its symbolism.   Two of his narrative poems were translated into Greek (and thence into other languages):  one is on Jonah and the Repentance of Nineveh, while the other is on the Sinful Woman who anointed Jesus (based on Luke 7), where Ephrem introduces into the narrative the Seller of Unguents; a motif picked up in many subsequent literary treatments of the episode.

Besides being a highly accomplished and original poet who uses some fifty different metres with great skill, Ephrem was also a profound theologian, who found poetry a much more satisfactory vehicle than prose for conveying his theological vision of the relationship between the material and spiritual world, and the elaborate spider’s web of multi-dimensional interconnections that a person the interior eye of whose heart is pure and luminous has the possibility of discovering in both Nature and Scripture.

Although Ephrem’s fame as a poet soon spread to the Greek- and Latin-speaking world (in a work of 392 Jerome mentions him), it was only in the sixth century that a biographical account of his life was written.  Since the author wished to present Ephrem to a sixth-century audience he presents him as it were in modern dress:  thus instead of a deacon he has become a monk, and he is credited with visiting both St Basil (in Cappadocia) and St Bishoi (in Egypt).  Though without any historically basis, these episodes can be said to be symbolically true, in that Ephrem’s spirituality has much in common with that of the Cappadocian and Egyptian Fathers.

Sebastian Brock


For further reading:

The Harp of the Spirit:  Poems of St Ephrem the Syrian, Introduction and translation by S.P. Brock (3rd edition, Cambridge [UK]: Aquila, 2013).

St Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns on Paradise, Introduction and translation by S.P. Brock (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990).

Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns, Introduced and translated by K.E. McVey (Classic of Western Spirituality;  New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1989).

S.P. Brock, The Luminous Eye. The Spiritual World Vision of St Ephrem (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1992).

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