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.
Monthly Archives: July 2018
1 John 4:7-12
In a sentence:
God does not ‘have’ to love us but does, unnecessarily
‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God’ (4.7).
I want to unpack today why the church holds that the love which is from God – of which the gospel speaks – and the love to which we are called to demonstrate, is unnecessary love.
To the unbaptised mind this is clearly wrong. Surely, What the world needs now, is love sweet love, because Love makes the world go around, and so All you need is love: the Love which lifts us up where we belong. Even the church’s foundational texts – from which we have heard this morning – seem to contradict this: God is love, God loves us, let us love one another.
How, then, could love be unnecessary?
For the church to say that love is unnecessary is to say that the love which is our particular concern here – ‘gospel’ love – is unnatural love. Natural things are necessary things. We can rely on what is natural, because it unfolds predictably: apples fall from trees, very cold water freezes, nobody gets out alive. The love about which the gospel speaks is not predictable in the way of nature. It is in this sense it is not necessary love.
What this means is that the love of which John writes is not familiar love – the love which comes and flows naturally. And so, when he lays love out for reflection, he doesn’t point to mothers or to lovers or to the best of friends. Rather, John points to the cross: ‘…In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (4.10).
This is, again, incomprehensible to the unbaptised mind, for where is the natural love in this? Is it not a ghastly, bloody God who requires atoning sacrifices in the first place? How is it that God cannot simply forgive? Would that not be true love?
All of this would be ‘necessary’ love: sensible and understandable love. But when it comes to joining the cross and the love of God, we cannot say that even the cross itself was necessary. All theories of the atonement which suggest that God was too righteous to forgive the unrighteous, so that there was some deep law which required blood, make the cross necessary and either tie God’s hands to a law outside of God or split God into two parts, one part demanding a price which the other pays.
But the cross is not magical in this way. It is not an incantation or formula which brings salvation; it is not the necessary key which unlocks God’s heart. If the cross is not necessary in this way, then neither can any love associated with it be a natural, necessary love.
In fact, the cross is not, in the first instance, God’s work at all. It is ours. And it is ours – we imagine – as a necessary work: ‘is it not better that the one should die than that we should lose everything?’ Do the gods not require the expulsion of the blasphemer? Must he not die at our hands?
The cross is – in the first act of the drama – a work of ‘un-love’ if Jesus is not a blasphemer but the messenger of God. The cross is necessary for us because in Jesus we meet a God we cannot bear: ‘What the world needs now,, is not love, sweet love, but less Jesus. But, while necessary for us, the cross was not necessary for God. The ministry of Jesus and his call to follow was open to the possibility that people might actually follow – that the cross would not be necessary. (If not, it was all just play-acting).
In what sense, then, does God ‘send’ the Son and the cross, given that that is where it all ended up? God sends the cross in the resurrection. Our word to God – the cross – becomes God’s word to us in the resurrection: God’s Yes to our No.
And this is the unnecessary, unnatural thing. It is not the case merely that God ‘loves’ us but needs the cross to get past what is unlovely about us. The cross is the unloveliness of the human creature. This is our godlessness – and so our lack of humanity – that we employ such things as crosses and that we sometimes find ourselves on them. God does not so much use the cross to save as overcome the cross and our shame in crucifying the Lord of glory.
But it is not obvious that God will do this. John declares ‘God is love’ as an answer to the question of Easter Saturday: What Will God Do? The unnecessary, unnatural, unlawful thing God does is raise Jesus and return him to the disciples (in person) and to Israel (in preaching) with the words, Peace be with you. Not a sword of divine wrath but an offer of peace.
This is love: God’s devotional persistence, despite the cross: unnecessary, unearned love – a breaking of the law rather than an observance of it.
The resurrection becomes a revelation of God’s power in relation to the cross. Here we see God’s willingness to embrace and use the least lovely of all things – even the murder of God himself on a cross – in pursuit of those God loves. This is not necessary love. It is so much more than that. It is gloriously unnecessary, because it springs from the very heart of God. The only question which matters is whether God will set right what is not right among us. If the answer is no, then surely we are all lost. If it is yes, then it is the God’s identification with the cross by overcoming the cross which proves it. We hope in this God because this God has overcome the cross.
And the love commanded of us? ‘If we love one another,’ John says, ‘God lives in us and his love is perfected in us’ – God’s love is perfected in us. This perfected love is not the easy love which – if we are lucky – comes naturally, although that too is of God. The love which is not natural but which is commanded is that which loves as God does. This is our calling, because it is a calling to become like the one who calls. Love where and how God does. Love where love is not sought. Love where love is not expected. Love where it is not deserved. Love where it would seem love will be wasted and so is unnecessary, not required.
Such love is difficult because we cannot see where it goes, whether even it will go anywhere. It was not different for God in Jesus and yet God loved, and here we are 2000 years later.
‘Beloved,’ John writes, ‘since God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’.
Let us, then, become lovers after the love of God. That is all that is necessary.
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, we confess that in thought, word and deed
we have not loved you or our neighbours
Forgive us when we allow only that love
extends only to the familiar and easy,
when the charity which begins in the home
also ends there.
Forgive us when we imagine that your love is like ours,
that you love us because we are deserving of love,
that there is nothing in us which needs to be overcome,
nothing which will be revealed as shadow
by the light of your love.
Forgive us the lovelessness which says No when a Yes was possible,
which withholds what is excess to our need,
which is unnecessarily jealous,
O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that,
with you as our ruler and guide,
we may so pass through things temporal,
that we lose not the things eternal; [Proper 17]
just so, gracious God, have mercy on us…
An Old Prescription in a Culture without Purpose
The Ten Commandments series – Now completed!
Together with other Western cultures, we inhabit a world dedicated to a flight from truth. Some characteristic marks of cultures in decline are these: an ideology of relativism with regard to all claims for truth; inward self-protection from a questioning of the status quo; a secular religion which worships choice above everything; the cultivation of detachment from ultimate claims.
Why then bother with commandments from a world long gone?
From August 2018 to October 2019, Rev Bruce Barber presented a series of sermons on the 10 Commandments; the the full suite of sermons is gathered below:
- The First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me”
- The Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourselves any carved image”
- The Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”
- The Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”
- The Fifth Commandment – “Honour your father and mother”
- The Sixth Commandment – “You shall not kill”
- The Seventh Commandment – “You shall not commit adultery”
- The Eighth Commandment – ‘You shall not steal’
- The Ninth Commandment – ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’
- The Tenth Commandment – You shall not covet
- This Sunday we will welcome in worship a number of students from the Uniting Church Studies course at the Centre for Theology and Ministry.
- The latest Presbytery eNews (July 24) is here.
- A Jazz fundraiser for Refugees, August 4
- For those interested in some background commentary to the readings for this Sunday July 29, see the links here. Our focus text will be a continuation in our series on 1 John – 1 John 4.7-12.
- For those interested in the question of indigenous sovereinty in Australia, two lectures at RMIT Uni
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 II: 2 Kings 4.42-44 (no link) and Psalm 145.10-18
1 John 4:1-6
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
In a sentence:
Our knowledge of God must yield to God’s knowledge of us
Just between us I confess that, most of the time, I am not a very good believer. By ‘most of the time’, I mean those times which are not between 10.05 and 11.10 on a typical Sunday morning, (assuming that the Sunday service runs for an hour and finishes about 11.00).
For that 65 minutes or so I find that what I do and say and think is a matter of believing. It is ‘easy’ to believe here, because in this space we hear what it is to believe. For the rest of the week I am less a believer in God than an aspiring knower of God. I suspect that I am not alone in this, and so with John’s help we’ll consider today the difference between these two ways of being before God – knowing and believing.
As we have worked through the text of 1 John we have noticed that ‘knowing’ is something which pops up quite a bit. This is because of the approach to God which John’s opponents have taken, which is ‘gnostic’ in its tendencies. ‘Gnostic’ is a technical word in religious studies, and has a connection to our English word ‘knowledge:’ they both spring from the same Greek root (gnosis), to do with knowing. The Gnostics were those who ‘knew.’ If we aspire to know something about God, then John has something to say to us.
As a matter of course, we need to know things: where to find water, who our parents are or the difference between a red light and green one on a street corner. Such knowledge locates the world around us and renders the world safer. The one who does not ‘know’ lives in peril, which is why we spend so much time educating our children. Not to know what kind of world it is in which we live makes us unsafe, unable to fend for ourselves, unable to defend ourselves (‘fend’ being a contraction of ‘defend’). This is to say just what conventional wisdom has long known: knowledge is power.
Yet, in relation to God – at least, to the God of Jewish and Christian confession – this is catastrophic. We can, of course, know things ‘about’ God. But what we might know about God gives us no handle on God, no leverage, no influence. It is not like mundane knowledge which maps the world with its treasures and pitfalls. Knowledge about God does not work in this way because not because our knowing of God is deficient but because – to put it bluntly – there are no defences against God, not even knowledge.
Perhaps it is even surprising that we might want to defend ourselves against God. After all, as John goes on to declare in the verses which follow what we’ve heard this morning, God is ‘love’ – something which is heard much about the churches.
But the thing about this declaration is that it only makes sense actually to declare it if there was good reason to doubt it in the first place. ‘God is love’ is a powerful and reorienting statement for me if, in fact, I previously had good reason to think that God is not love, that God is a threat and so I would do well to smart-up in order to reduce the risk God presents. If God is a threat, knowledge of God’s weak spots would be more than valuable.
It is this kind of ‘smarting-up’ against which John writes: there is nothing you can know which will protect you from God. Faith is not about our knowledge of God but about God’s knowledge of us. My faith in God, properly, has to do with God’s knowledge of me – knowing that God knows me.
And so Christian ‘spirituality’ – the interest in God’s own Spirit – looks not like our knowledge of God or our spiritual techniques but is a confession that God knows us. In John’s own community, this was the difference between two live choices. One option was knowledge of the ‘mysteries’ of God. The mysteries were the knowledge of where God is, how God can be accessed – basically, God in a box, bound up in theological theory. The other option was believing that God had searched and known us in the person of Jesus – that the being of God entered into the very human life of Jesus.
God-in-a-box is attractive because, in the end, things in a box remain there until we open it – or perhaps the image of a genie in a bottle is more apt! It is good to know where God is, because then we can avoid God (tell ourselves that God doesn’t matter in this question, this decision, this action); or we can access God easily when a God seems to be needed.
By contrast, John says: in this is knowledge – not that we knew God, but that God has searched and known us (cf. Psalm 139 – heard also today). This has happened in the meeting of God with us in the person of Jesus; this is the test John applies for ‘orthodoxy’ in today’s reading. This orthodoxy – what we now call the Incarnation – is not mere doctrinal correctness. It is a word to our desire to bottle God up in a remote heaven, over against God’s free entry into the world on God’s own terms. An incarnation even to the point of a death on a cross is a free act of God which undermines all human aspiration to know or control God. Such an incarnation is a wisdom which looks foolish, a strength which looks like weakness.
In the end, the difference between being a knower of God and a believer of God is whether or not we hold that God is free. To imagine that we know something is to imagine that we have secured it, put it in its place, can get to it or around it as we need to. This is as much the case with God as it is with anything else we know about how the world works.
Yet in this place we pray each week: your kingdom come, your will be done, earth become heaven: provide, forgive, deliver. These are all impossible things for a God who is not free, who is bound by the rules we ‘know’ a God should follow. But we pray this because we believe that God is free – a freedom over against us in our desire to control but, because of the nature of God, a freedom which is also for us.
For God’s knowledge of us is not a confining, objectifying knowledge but a liberating knowledge, a loving knowledge. We are not objects which God could love or not. We are persons created for relationship with God. That this is so we see in the coming together of humankind and God in Jesus.
This is harder to hold to than might seem, because it is not ‘knowledge’ of the ordinary kind.
This is a knowing-in-relation. Our worship is just such a knowing, or should point to such a knowing. Here we do not discard all that we know, but let it sit in its right place – at the service of the God who will take it and make a means of revealing even more about himself.
To believe is to know that God is greater than what we know, ‘greater than our hearts’ (3.20). And because this is the case, we will be yet greater, for God knows us in order to bring us back to him.
For this grace in Christ Jesus, all thanks be to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always. Amen.
- A week ago, the UCA Assembly came to a resolution on the nature of marriage and the celebration of marriages by UCA celebrants; the unconfirmed minute of the resolution can be found here. A pastoral statement from the UCA President in relation to this matter is available here.
- A brochure and invitation to protest changes to the government support of asylum seekers in Australia.
- For those interested in the question of indigenous sovereinty in Australia, two lectures at RMIT Uni…
1 John 3:18-24
In a sentence
Our calling is to live in the moment given to us to live
‘All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them.’
The notion of ‘abiding’ is an important one in the writings of John. When the disciples of John the Baptist (a different John, we also met in our readings today!) first meet Jesus, they ask him, ‘where do you abide?’ (John 1.38f; translated in NRSV as ‘where are you staying?’). We meet the notion more strongly in John’s gospel when we hear Jesus speak of the relationship between himself as being like that between a vine and the branches (John 15.1-8; see also John 17.20-24). The Greek word can be translated a whole range of ways: remain, stay, abide, live, dwell, and so on, carrying a strong sense of ‘where we are’. In the letters of John, the word appears a couple of dozen times – several of which we’ve heard this morning.
Yet this abiding in God, or God abiding with us, is not simply a nice idea, intended perhaps to evoke a sense of cosiness with God. Most of the things which matter in scriptural descriptions of the relationships which stand between ourselves and our gods are a matter of polemic – of argument and contrast: not this, but that; not here but there; not this way, but that way. It is the same with the notion of abiding: abide here, not somewhere else. Or, let this one abide in you, and not some other.
There are many places where we might abide. Among these the geographical options are the least interesting. Much more important is how we are living wherever we happen to be. This is, at one level, a matter of morals – what we do and don’t do to ourselves or each other. There is certainly a strong commandment to be heard in our reading this morning: ‘love one another’. John gives some basic shape this: ‘How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?’ But the idea of abiding is not the same as the moral commandment. It is where we ‘abide’ that determines what we do, even what we are able to do.
Many abiding places present themselves to us. The past is one tempting place to live: nostalgia for a time when things seemed simpler. Perhaps they were simpler, perhaps not, but the point is not whether it was better back then but whether we seek to be there again at the expense of living here, in the now.
The future is another tempting abode: we put off making the most of where we are now, even perhaps denying justice to ourselves or others now, because of where we think this sacrifice will get us somewhere in the future. This is the logic of communism, of capitalism and of colonialism in their worst forms: it will all be for the best in the end, even if it might require an enormous amount of injustice or suffering along the way.
Whether it is nostalgia or a vision of where we imagine we are heading, where we actually are here and now is reduced to something we simply have to endure, either because the best is now behind us, or we must wait for it to come. Our abiding place – the place where we will be (or were) safe – is not here but behind us as we wind down to death or still in front of us, as we wait for life to begin.
Or, if not in another time, we might desire to abide in an identity other than the one which is really ours – denying, or at least lamenting, the religious or cultural or gender or age or economic identity we actually have. Here we would be different, would have more, would be related to different people, would be more valued than we are. This is not to deny the importance of self-improvement or the cry for justice, or that there is much wrong when those cries are not answered by people who have the power to make a difference.
But for the moment we should not be distracted by what are, for most of us, extreme or theoretical cases, as important as they are as demands God makes of us. Just as important, in general terms, are those limiting experiences when we are not acknowledged for what we think we are worth, for the effort we have put in, when things just seem unfair, when we find ourselves resenting that more of the cost of something has fallen to us rather than someone else.
In a penetrating statement about the nature of sin, Rowan Williams has remarked that, ‘our failures are all about our fearful longing to be somewhere else.’ We might say, our failures are about not wanting to be abiding here, now, under these conditions, in this set of relationships.
Where we would abide, where we would live, is the place where we would feel safest, where we would feel at most able to be ourselves. Yet life is not simply a matter of safety; it is also a matter of truth. Truth and life meet in our vocation, or calling – God’s calling to us that we be what and where and when we are. We abide in God (and God abides in us) when we live in the world in which God has placed us.
This dynamic is active at every level of our lives. It has to do with being with the people to whom we actually are married, or with whom we actually do work, or next to whom we actually live, or with whom we share an identity as members of a church congregation or denomination – and not those we might like to have in those various roles. Who wants to abide with the cranky or noisy neighbour, the unfaithful spouse, the self-righteous pew-sitter? Which nation wants to be in the political context of massive human displacement, bringing refugees who need more that we’re prepared to give and for whom we haven’t budgeted, who are different from us, whom we don’t understand?
Our not wanting to be in such places – to recall the 23rd Psalm – is a longing for green pastures and still waters without the need of walking through dark valleys. It is a longing for the spreading of an abundant table without the presence of enemies. The desire is understandable but it is also a denial that God can be found in such troubled places, and indeed has been found there. For John insists on identifying the crucified Jesus with the divine Son not simply because it is good theology but because it is good anthropology – not only because it gets God right but because it gets us right. The divine Son takes up and lives not in all places and all times but just one – a place and time as real as our own, shot through with the dark valleys and the enmity, the threats and dangers, which every time and place hold. This Jesus does, even to the point of death on a cross. It is for this reason that he is exalted – not the ‘sacrifice’ he makes but the life he lives in unswerving commitment to the one who commanded that God be honoured in such a time and place (cf. Philippians 2).
It is this possibility which John says is called forth from us, if we abide in this Jesus and he abides in us. This is not a mere ‘calling’ to do what is difficult; it gives value to the lives we are actually given to live, in the places and times we are given to live them. To live in Christ, and for Christ to live in us, is to be present to where we are, is for that place to be the place where God meets us, the only place we can be whole.
The moment in which we live demands that it be taken seriously, in the love of those with whom it is given to us to abide, for it is the only moment we are given, the only place where God can meet us: the kingdom come, the will of God on earth. The moment, and our life with God, requires that we be respond to the demands of the present. This is the work of our lives: to be where and when we are, without fear, and in love, abiding in the God who chooses to abide in us.
By the grace of God, may we find in our here-and-now our abiding place, our habitation, our home, a dwelling place with God all the days of our lives.
 Rowan Williams (2003), Christ on trial: how the gospel unsettles our judgement, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans p.133.
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.
Desiderius Erasmus, reformer of the Church
The illegitimate son of a priest, Erasmus was possibly born in Rotterdam. He attended school in Gouda and Deventer and was strongly influence by the Brethren of the Common Life.
He gave Jesus a central place in his devotions. In 1486 he became an Augustinian canon. Ordained in 1492, he left the Augustinians to study at the College De Montaigu, Paris, in 1495. Travel to England from 1499 – 1500 led to a close friendship with the notable scholar John Colet and careful study of the New Testament in Greek. His publications grew in number and variety, as did his fascination with the challenge of translating the Bible. Between 1506-1521, his spent time in Paris, Louvain and Italy, as well as making a return to England, and developing a fruitful friendship with Thomas More, celebrated in his book Enconium Moriae. As well as becoming the first teacher of Greek at Cambridge. His prestige was not only academic and pastoral. He was made a royal councillor in Brussels during 1516.
Between 1515 – 1525 Erasmus produced the second earliest Greek New Testament and this went through at least 4 editions. One of these editions was used by Luther in his translation of the New Testament. Erasmus’s NT also played a part in the King James translation of the NT. His work on the Greek was not without critics. Since Erasmus’s work older Greek versions of the whole or parts of the NT have been found and these finds have corrected the many mistakes in Erasmus’s texts.
From 1521, he lived in Basel with J. Froben, the noted printer. There he could write with fewer interruptions. When the city became Protestant, he moved to Freiburg from 1529 – 1535 before returning to Basel, where he died while editing the works of Origen. Advocacy of social, political, educational and religious reform made him an influential leader in the Europe of his day. He corresponded widely with people in a wide range of positions and status. An English edition of his letters is currently being prepared. He was strongly opposed to the corruption of traditional Catholicism and the Papacy, which he saw as indispensable of the European heritage. He sought to clarify their central emphases. Seeking to correct abuses in the church, he wrote a variety of popular and scholarly books, ranging from devotional works, such as his Enchiridion (1504) to editions of the Fathers. Initially, he welcomed Luther’s teaching and writing as complementary to his own. He, however, grew disturbed at its increasingly polemical nature and potential to undermine Catholic unity. That was made plain in De Libero Abitrio, to which Luther replied in De Servo Abitrio. Erasmus replied with Hyperaspistes. It was clear that they were far apart on many theological issues and reflected wider divisions in popular and scholarly Catholicism. Erasmus was convinced of the importance of education and that return to the sources was vital for authentic reform. He could be a cutting critic, as well as an inspirer of devotion. He provided reliable editions of some of the leading Fathers, as well as writing popular books on basic Christian belief and behaviour. Though he cherished the Catholic heritage, some more traditional Catholics regarded him as a corrupter of the faith. His work was censured by the University of Paris and his books were totally banned by Sixtus V in 1590. The Roman Index banned some books, but permitted others, when they were carefully edited. His importance has been widely recognized in the 20th century.