Monthly Archives: April 2019

28 April – The Pointy End of John’s Gospel

View or print as a PDF

Easter 2

Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118
John 20:19-31

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

How was Thomas to know that the end of the story could change? Everyone knows that when a person is dead and buried, that is the end of the story. Friends and loved-ones will go on with their lives changed but it will not include the living presence of the deceased. How was Thomas to know that the Jesus story would not end like all other human stories?

Thomas is the archetypal sceptic. John’s gospel sets Thomas up as the sceptic on behalf of all the sceptics in the church through the whole life of the church.

It is a dramatic device that helps to draw us into the story. Sue and I recently saw an opera that had a changed ending. A character in the drama expressed the emotions of the audience on our behalf. Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg traditionally finishes with the girl standing looking adoringly beside her man as he succumbs to the sickeningly nationalistic arguments of the chorus and accepts the invitation to join the Singers in order to strengthen the domination of their culture. In a recent production of the opera the girl, without a word said (or sung) indicates her distain for what is being argued and her man’s compliance with the invitation. Instead of joining the cast in their adulations, she storms off stage. As the arguments to join the singers unfolds the audience grows in its understanding of why this opera was so loved by Hitler. The heroine’s reaction expresses the horror of a modern post World War II audience and makes it known on our behalf.

Thomas is the dramatic sceptic on behalf of us all. He will not believe that Jesus is alive until he sees him and touches the wounds by which he was killed. Time for a trivia question. How do we know that Jesus was nailed to the cross? Answer: because Thomas mentioned the marks of the nails in his hands. This is the only time in any of the gospels that nails are mentioned in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion. It was usual for the crucified to be with attached by rope. The Life of Brian is the best evidence for this.

So, Thomas stands as the representative sceptic to the resurrection. He does not explore any of the common conspiracy theories as to why the disciples thought they were seeing the Lord. They make intriguing reading – they include the idea that there was a quick substitute made at Golgotha, or that he only seemed to die. My favourite suggests that he was resuscitated and moved to the south of France with Mary Magdalene. No, Dan Brown did not invent that conspiracy.

So, how does John’s dramatic device work in his story of Thomas? Mary Magdalene told disciples that the stone had been rolled away. Peter and the Beloved Disciple inspected the empty tomb and then went home. Mary stayed in the garden and met who she thought was a gardener. Some art work I have seen recently explains her mistake. Jesus is depicted carrying a spade – very helpful. At the sound of her name she recognised the Lord. Mary is the first witness to the resurrection, and she tells the disciples. The same day Jesus appeared to the disciples and showed them his hands and side and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them.

So far belief has been dependant on seeing the risen Lord. It is not enough for Thomas to be told by the disciples. Belief for Thomas will require the same evidence as the others had. Seeing Jesus and the marks of crucifixion – the signs that the one who was dead is alive.

John the evangelist is starting to come to the pointy end of his gospel. If there is one purpose for his telling the story of Jesus that stands out above all others it is that the world should believe. The other gospel writers have a similar purpose, but John mentions the purpose at every opportunity. The word ‘believe’ arises nearly 100 times. That is why this part of the story is a pointy end. The circle of believers is opening out.

John courageously raises the possibility of doubt. In the late 1970s John Westerhoff, an American Christian Educationalist, visited Melbourne. One of the things he advocated was that the church tends to be in too much of a hurry to confirm and or baptise its members too young. He advocated that there should a be rite of passage for adolescents in which they are enrolled as catechumens and given permission to doubt, and that this rite should be celebrated on the feast of St Thomas.

In John’s story he grapples with the issue of doubt. But, more importantly, he deals with the issue of belief, of coming to faith. The intention of Thomas is that he will be the man of action. He will see Jesus. He will put his finger in the nail prints. He will put his hand in the spear wound. But faith is a gift of God not a human accomplishment. It is a gift to the first disciples who saw and touched and to those who follow who say they cannot see and touch Jesus.  In the event all the action is initiated by Jesus. Thomas looks and does not touch. Artists have led us astray on this point too. In some he conducts a gruesome forensic inspection. That is not how John tells it.

Thomas encounters the risen Christ and makes his monumental proclamation. No one has seen the situation in quite the same way as Thomas does at this moment. Yes, in Mark and Matthew the centurion acknowledges Jesus as God’s son, but in John it is Thomas who makes the credal statement, ‘My Lord and my God’. This is the pointy end because it ties right back to where John started – ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Thomas is given the insight the one they all called ‘Lord’ is God.

Faith is Christ as Lord and God is not my accomplishment. It is given me in the church. It is in the church among other believing and doubting Christians that I discover Jesus alive. It is in the church with all its complicated structures, its petty disputes, its incompetence, its scandals, with all its signs of antichrist, nevertheless the Spirit of Jesus who taught love and forgiveness in the face of hate and vengeance, who touched the contaminated with compassion, who gave sight and insight and life, and who did this on a backdrop of complicated structures, petty disputes, incompetence and scandal.

The living light of Christ blazes precisely because he is set on a dark canvass. The resurrected life of Christ is set right up against the crucified death of Jesus. For me it works like art. In order for the artist to depict a bright image there must be dark shadow. Take a look at how artists depict light particularly in art depicting sunlight, just how much and how dark the shadow is. Without shadow, the eye cannot perceive that the sun is shining.

We await a day when the light of Christ will be perfectly perceived in a place where our perceptions will not need shadow or death.

MtE Update – April 23 2019

  1. Mark the Evangelist Day Lunch: THIS Sunday 28 April 2019 – After Worship : On Sunday morning, 28 April, we will be celebrating Mark the Evangelist Day with a lunch after worship.  All are welcome – the more the merrier.  The lunch is always a great occasion for sharing our life together over good food. As usual, we will cater for this event ourselves, with people contributing food. SO, if you have not already please give your names to Rod or Ann if you can come. AND equally important – please talk with Ann, Peggy, or Barbara and let them know what you can contribute for the lunch.
  2. Keep in mind that we’ve elections of elders coming up, with nominations due this Sunday
  3. The latest Presbytery eNews (April 23) is here.
  4. On Sunday May 5 there will be a conversation following morning tea on the theme of ‘Music and the Liturgy’ — beginning to explore the place and role of music in our worship.
  5. If you would like to do some background reading on the texts for this Sunday April 28 17, see the commentary links here

Other things potentially of interest 

  1. Queen’s College ANZAC Commemoration Chapel

The Master, Dr Stewart Gill OAM, warmly invites you to attend the Queen’s College Anzac Commemoration Chapel Service, with Professor Geoffrey Blainey AC, Fellow of Queen’s College
“Anzac: The Guns Are Not Yet Silent”

DATE: Sunday 28 April 2019
TIME: 6:30pm
VENUE: Queen’s College Chapel

Old News

  1. Advance Dates
    1. April 28 — MtE Day Luncheon after worship
    2. May: Worship and Music – an after-worship conversation
    3. May 12 — Congregational AGM 
    4. Speaker from Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project POSTPONED to a date TBC

21 April – The wind blows where it wills – the vanity of the Christ

View or print as a PDF

Easter Day

Ecclesiastes 8:6-8
Psalm 118
John 20:1-18

In a sentence:
The risen Jesus only confounds us because Jesus in his entirety confounded us

The stark world of Qohelet, the teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes, is not much different from our own, except in the brutal honesty with which he receives it.

Central to his account of life ‘under the sun’ has been the linked notions of ‘vanity’ and ‘chasing after wind’. On a first, fourth and tenth reading, these are clearly negative categories.

Yet reading him as we have – with the set gospel for each Sunday – they have emerged also with surprising positive connotations, even with significance for illuminating the gospel and the very character of God. On the first of these reflections on Qohelet I half-seriously tossed out the notion that bringing him into dialogue with the gospel might lead us to dare to speak of ‘the vanity of the cross’ which, by any other accounting, could only be impiety.

And yet that is where we have ended up – on Friday the vanity of the crucifixion and, today, the vanity of the Christ. What is crucial – literally, what ‘crux-ial’, ‘of the cross’ (Latin crux: ‘cross) – here is that for Qohelet, vanity is less a matter of vain emptiness and closer the literal meaning of the Hebrew, ‘vapour’ or ‘mist’. It is ‘ungraspability’ – pertaining to things which cannot be comprehended. The negative sense of this is the futile attempt to grasp the ungraspable world in pleasure, in wisdom or in work, in calculation or scheming.

But beyond this is a positive ungraspability: the very mystery of the world as God’s world, and so of God Godself. All that is and happens comes from God but it is not comprehendible how that is the case. God is just, and justifies, but the world is not and does not. Yet this remains God’s world, and we are given to live in it. This is ungraspability as a characteristic of the God-and-world thing itself. It cannot be denied, but just what and how it is cannot be said.

Something similar happens with ‘chasing after wind’. Negatively, this is the comic image of someone actually trying to catch the wind. But, positively, there is something at the heart of what we are which causes us to grasp after the wind, however comic that must be. We heard from Qohelet on Friday that God has put knowledge in us – the King James Version says, ‘he hath set the world in their heart, so that [none] can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. (3.11). Chasing after wind is the necessary yet impossible thing: the felt need to grasp the ungraspable world and its ungraspable God.

It is, perhaps, not for nothing that the book of Ecclesiastes is framed by the compounded ‘vanity of vanities’ (1.2; 12.8): the world is ungraspable, and yet what else do we do but seek to grasp it? Vanity for vanity. Qohelet has to affirm and deny at the same time.

– – – – – – – – – –

We have heard this morning of Mary Magdalene, left behind in the garden by the tomb. Here she encounters – but does not recognise – the risen Jesus. It’s tempting – and typical – to imagine that grief obscures her vision, that she does not recognise Jesus because her eyes are filled with tears and the world is just a blur. But John doesn’t write history like this; psychology and physiology and physics – as we think about them – are nothing here. Mary not recognising Jesus is about him, not about her: he cannot be seen directly; he is ‘vanity’: vapour, mist, ungraspable, ablur.

The world is turned upside down not by vision but by a word: ‘Mary’. She is caught by the wind, and then comes the recognition: ‘Rabbouni’, or, Teacher (perhaps only coincidentally one of the translations English Bibles use for the name ‘Qohelet’…).

This is not yet what we might call ‘conversion’. Mary has heard and – now in that sense – sees something, but she has not grasped what has happened. She feels the wind, but has not grasped him. And there’s a sense in which she cannot: ‘Do not hold onto me’, Jesus tells her. It seems to her possible to grasp the risen Jesus – is he not just there, in reach? It is in this way that she ‘feels’ the wind.

But he resists. And this is not a ‘cringe’. Jesus does not fear her touch, as if she would contaminate him. And he is not in some way ‘charged’, that he might wound her if she touched him. ‘Do not hold me’ is ‘you cannot hold me’. Ungraspability – the best of Qohelet’s ‘vanity’ – is a characteristic of the risen Jesus and what he brings: ‘No one has power over the wind to restrain it’ (8.8).

This is not a ‘mystical’ thing – Jesus is not now special in a way that he was not before. This risen Jesus is the same Jesus she knew before, and the revelation in the garden is that Mary did not really know him before, as he might yet be known.

The story of the resurrection typically seems to us to present the problem of a violation of the times, to recall what we heard from Qohelet on Friday. The report of the resurrection troubles us because the time for living is over, and now death has its time: for everything there is a season.

We cannot come fruitfully to the resurrection from this perspective. It is sheer violation and is excluded by the prior conviction that time – or nature – can only unfold in one way, from a living Jesus to a dead one. We can imagine that there was a Jesus who said and did what is reported. We can imagine him being crucified. There are times for such things. But the risen Jesus eludes us, for such a risen Jesus is not so much ungraspable as impossible. If we start with a time for every purpose under heaven, we cannot get to the resurrection.

But the gospel itself makes a different case: it is not the times which give Jesus his possible shapes but Jesus who gives shape to the times. If, as the gospels assert, it was the same Jesus now risen who yesterday was dead and the day before still alive – then the dead Jesus and the once-Jesus before the cross are everything the risen Jesus is. There is no distinction: in the cradle, on the cross and under the crown as risen lord (cf. the Christmas carol, TIS 321), Jesus is the same miraculous thing. Incarnation at Christmas and Resurrection at Easter are separated only by that ticking of a clock which separates one happening from another. Time does not bind them, they are the bounds of time.

To say, then, ‘Jesus is risen’ is only to say ‘the Word became flesh’. But the ‘only’ is the clincher, the shock of Jesus’ ungraspability by Mary, or by us. ‘The Word become flesh’ seems to most believers to be easy in comparison to ‘Jesus is risen’. Yet there the great ‘Christmas-y’ prologue to John’s gospel means nothing without Mary’s confusion, her seeing that what is in front of her and cannot quite be grasped was always in front of her. It has now simply been displaced a little in time.

The ungraspability of Jesus-as-the-Christ – and now we dare to say, the ‘vanity’ of the Christ – is not his waft-y nature as a risen body or spirit. It is that he was ever the very presence of God, from the very first. What Mary thought she had seen before was just a shimmer on the surface of the real substance of Jesus. Now she is confronted with him as he has always been, and the difference between then and now is the difference between death and life.

‘You cannot hold on to me,’ the wind cannot be restrained. And yet this is good news because not holding, not grasping onto, not chasing after, yields all the gospel: Jesus goes where we cannot go, and the effect is that all that is his becomes ours: ‘my Father and your Father, my God and your God.’ The not-grasping of Jesus brings Jesus’ own eternity as our own.

And so Mary herself will begin to shimmer, and we with her. Those who are in such an ungraspable Christ are beginning to take flight.

This is the thought with which we ended on Friday: to be caught up by the unrestrained wind which is Jesus, is to fly. We will end the service today with the same thought from Charles Wesley,

Soar we now where Christ hath led,
following our exalted head;
made like him, like him we rise,
ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Jesus is risen.

Life begins to shimmer.

Time being renewed so, there is nothing better to do, Qohelet tells us, than to eat and drink, and enjoy.

19 April – Chasing the wind – the vanity of the crucifixion

View or print as a PDF

Good Friday

Ecclesiastes 3:1-14
Psalm 31
Luke 23:13-33

In a sentence:
God makes the cross of Jesus into the unifying time of our lives.

‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…’

With that confronting observation begins Qohelet’s famous account of what the world is like. It is an account of what is ‘the case’ with the world. We live in a world in which it seems that there is a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. People get married or are crucified, go shopping or get gunned down while at prayer – just as a matter of fact. Seeing that the world is like this does not in any sense justify this way of things. Qohelet only describes the way of things: the world as we experience it with up-times and down-times.

And he also does not do precisely what we are immediately tempted to do on hearing his poem, and more than tempted: Qohelet doesn’t ask the question, What time is it, now? We wonder, Is now the time for birth or death, for planting or for plucking up, for killing or for healing, for mourning or for dancing, time to defend or time to surrender? Is it a time to buy or to sell, to insure or to risk? It is a time to tighten or to liberate, a time to pay our debts or to borrow more? Questions like these are implicit in pretty much everything which appears on the pages of our newspapers or in dinner-table deliberations, indeed in the whole of politics at every level: What is the time? We can look forward to a lot of time-telling in the coming weeks of the election campaign…

To ask about the time is to ask about the responses required of us. The question about the times implies an ‘ought’, behind which always lurks some god or another, some sense for the order of things, or for the eternal (cf. 3.11). Our attempts to connect the times with eternity are what Qohelet elsewhere characterises as ‘chasing after wind’: the felt need to know where we are and how to act accordingly. This is in order to catch the elusive wind, in order to achieve the good and the right, in order to align ourselves to the true nature of things.

In various ways, Herod, Pilate and the religious authorities take a reading of the times. When they determine that it is a time to kill, it is not out of moral deficiency. So far as they can see, it is the right thing to do. Whether it’s Herod placating the Romans, Pilate placating the crowd or the religious authorities placating God, it is time to ‘pluck up’: ‘the wood is dry,’ toss it on the fire.

The crucifixion of Jesus is a reading and response to history with its times for this and times for that. As unpleasant as it is, it is time to kill, time to die. Sometimes we feel we can do no other. Deciding this – reading the times and acting accordingly – is how we seek to catch the wind. The crucifixion of Jesus, from this perspective, is no different from every other crucifixion, from every other choice for death. It is a calculation to catch the wind, to align ourselves to the order of things, to keep us safe. It is the ‘right’ thing to do.

All of this is to say that the church does not gather today or any other day to remember a crucifixion. Crucifixions are what happen in time – when the time is ‘right’ for such horrors, when the times ‘demand’ them. There have been thousands and millions of crucifixions and similar atrocities and tragedies.

We gather today not to recall a crucifixion but rather to contemplate ‘the cross’. The crucifixion of Jesus is just one more event in time but the cross of Jesus is not a mere time-bound event. The cross is not ‘in’ time but rather, as the hymn goes, the cross ‘towers o’er the wrecks of time’. Because of the peculiar light of Easter which shines back on Jesus’ crucifixion, the church sees in the cross of Jesus something which exceeds the ups and downs of history.

‘The cross’ is the crucifixion of Jesus taken to a whole other level. At this level, the distinctions we draw between life and death, between building and destroying, between love and hate, between peace and war, are blurred. The crucifixion, as something which ‘happened to happen’ is one half of these couplets and not the other; the crucifixion is death, destruction, hate, war.

But the cross is not just one half of these couplets, it is both halves. The godlessness of crucifixion becomes the glory of the divine Son; the sacrifice we make to placate God becomes God’s offering to reconcile us; the body we break becomes the body we are destined to be part of; the death we determine is necessary becomes the life God gives not out of necessity but as freely offered gift.

The world of many times – the world of anxiety-inducing oscillations of up-times and down-times – is a vale of tears. ‘Weep not for me,’ says Jesus; ‘Weep for yourselves, because you cannot tell the time. If they do this when the wood is green, what will they do when it is dry?’

This is the pathos in Good Friday: we cannot tell the time, else we would not have crucified the Lord of glory. This is mere crucifixion. All we can see here is death – a time to die.

The surprise is that the gospel in Good Friday is that God cannot tell the time, either. And so in God’s hands death can become a means of life, sin can become the shape of forgiveness, unbelief can open the path to faith. This is the cross. It is the word of the psalmist this morning: My times, O Lord – whatever they are – are in your hands, and this is enough (31.15).

The cross is liberation from the vicissitudes of time. A God who cannot tell the time, but who is truly God, is ready for anything.

The crucifixion of Jesus, as a reading of the signs of times, and as an attempt to save ourselves from each other and from God, is a mere vanity. We do not catch the wind.

But with a God who cannot tell the time, even our failure here is enough. God makes the cross of Jesus into the time of our lives. We do not catch the wind, but it catches us.

And, if we will but

spread our wings,


how we

will fly.

MtE Update – April 18 2019

  1. Holy Week and Easter Services
    • Maundy Thursday: Thursday April 18, 7.30pm
    • Good Friday: Friday April 19, 10.00am
    • Easter Vigil: Saturday April 20, 8.00pm
    • Easter Day: Sunday April 21, 10.00am
  2. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas in Holy Week As part of the orders of service for Holy Week, Tim, Stuart and Donald have put together three sonatas from the wonderful collection known as the Mystery Sonatas, by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704). Based on the 15 Mysteries of the Rosary, these works are notable examples of the mid-seventeenth-century German style of sonatas for violin solo and basso continuo (harpsichord/organ and cello). They are perhaps best known for their imaginative use of scordatura, a technique in which the violin is tuned in ways other than the conventional method. This changes the sound of the violin completely, giving it new sonorities and expressive means. As far as the listening experience is concerned, the approach to these pieces has been guided by the seventeenth-century concepts of personal contemplation. These sonatas are written according to ideas expressed in such works as St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. In other words, they are performed to assist in reflection and meditation. This eschews the idea of a programmatic narrative which serves only a singular goal, namely, to tell the listener what to hear and what to feel about it. As a way of illustrating this: the first four violin notes of the “Crucifixion” constitute a musical emblem of the cross. This is musical device which suggests what the subject of contemplation is to be, but it does not represent an ongoing description of the moment as it is described in the Gospels. For the music to draw attention to itself in this way, would destroy the very concept of personal reflection.
  3. Mark the Evangelist Day Lunch: Sunday 28 April 2019 – After Worship : On Sunday morning, 28 April, we will be celebrating Mark the Evangelist Day with a lunch after worship.  All are welcome – the more the merrier.  The lunch is always a great occasion for sharing our life together over good food. As usual, we will cater for this event ourselves, with people contributing food. SO, please give your names to Rod or Ann if you can come.  AND equally important – please talk with Ann, Peggy, or Barbara and let them know what you can contribute for the lunch. 
  4. Justice and International Mission (JIM) Unit April Update
  5. JIM Unit (above!) on the forthcoming election…
  6. VicTas Synod eNews for April
  7. Our final Ecclesiastes readings for the present series of reflections are
    • Ecclesiastes 3.1-14 for Good Friday: ‘Catching the wind – the vanity of the crucifixion’
    • Ecclesiastes 8.6-8 for Easter Day: ‘The wind blows where it wills : the vanity of the Christ’

Other things potentially of interest 

  1. Queen’s College ANZAC Commemoration Chapel

Old News

The Master, Dr Stewart Gill OAM, warmly invites you to attend the Queen’s College Anzac Commemoration Chapel Service, with Professor Geoffrey Blainey AC, Fellow of Queen’s College
“Anzac: The Guns Are Not Yet Silent”
DATE: Sunday 28 April 2019
TIME: 6:30pm
VENUE: Queen’s College Chapel

  1. Advance Dates
    1. April 28 — MtE Day Luncheon after worship
    2. May 12 — Congregational AGM 
    3. May 19 — Speaker from Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project
  2.  A Good Friday performance of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion
  3. Details of our Lenten and Easter services are here.

April 28 – Dorothy Soelle

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.

Dorothy Soelle, Christian thinker

“God, your Spirit renews the face of the earth.
Renew our hearts also
And give us your spirit of lucidity and courage.
For the law of the Spirit
Who makes us alive in Christ
Has set us free from the law of resignation.
Teach us how to live
With the power of the wind and of the sun
And to let other creatures live.”
~ Dorothee Soelle

Dorothee Soelle was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1929.  As a child she played no personal role in the rise and fall of the Third Reich; she was fifteen when the war ended.  But as revelations unfolded about the full extent of the Nazi crimes she was filled with an “ineradicable shame”: the shame of “belonging to this people, speaking the language of the concentration camp guards, singing the songs that were also sung in the Hitler Youth.”  Her young adulthood was spent reflecting on the great question of her generation: How could this have happened?  The hollow answer of the older generation, that “we didn’t know what was happening,” impressed on her the duty to question authority, to rebel, and to remember “the lessons of the dead.”

The moral and existential challenge of her times led Soelle to study philosophy and, later, theology.  She was one of the principal authors of the so-called “political theology” – an effort to counter the privatized and spiritualized character of “bourgeois” religion through the subversive memory of Jesus and his social message.  In light of the Holocaust she was particularly critical of a “superficial understanding of sin” largely confined to personal morality.  “Sin,” she wrote, “has to do not just with what we do, but with what we allow to happen.”  Her initial challenge was to develop a “post-Auschwitz theology,” an understanding of God who does not float above history and its trauma but who shares intimately in the suffering of the victims.  Such an understanding of God defined, in turn, a new meaning of Christian discipleship.

A true prophet, Soelle did not simply denounce the way things were, but looked forward to a “new heaven and a new earth.”  Her theology was inflected with poetry and drew on her wide reading of literature and her love of music and art.  She bore four children from a first marriage.  The experience of motherhood strengthened her hope for the future, while reminding her that pain and joy are inextricably combined in the struggle for new life.  She met her second husband, at the time a Benedictine monk, when they collaborated as organizers of a “Political Evensong” in Cologne.  Beginning in 1968, this ecumenical gathering of Christians joined to worship and reflect on scripture in light of the political challenges of the day – whether the Vietnam War, human rights, or the campaign for social justice.

It became a hugely popular event, regularly drawing up to a thousand participants.  The gatherings were controversial, however.  Their notoriety was among the factors that prevented Soelle – despite her thirty books – from ever receiving a full professorship in a German university.

Nevertheless, from 1975 to 1987 she spent six months each year as a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  It was a particularly fruitful time for her, as she broadened her theological perspective in dialogue with feminism, ecological consciousness, and third-world liberation theologies.  She also continued to translate her theology into political activism – in solidarity with embattled Christians in Central and South America, in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and in particular in resisting the nuclear arms race.

The decision of NATO in 1979 to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Europe made her decide “to spend the rest of my life in the service of peace.”  She was arrested several times for civil disobedience and was tireless in challenging the churches to take action against what she saw as preparations for a new global holocaust.  In an address to the Geneva Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1983 she began, “Dear sisters and brothers, I speak to you as a woman from one of the richest countries of the earth.  A country with a bloody history that reeks of gas, a history some of us Germans have not been able to forget.”  It was this experience that impelled her to raise a cry of alarm.  Never again should a generation of Christians employ the excuse that “we didn’t know” about plans and preparations for mass murder.

In her later writings she increasingly spoke of the need to join mysticism and political commitment.  She defined mysticism not as a new vision of God, “but a different relationship with the world – one that has borrowed the eyes of God.”  Soelle died on April 17, 2003, at the age of seventy-three

Robert Ellsberg

MtE Update – April 11 2019

  1. Worship this Sunday will incorporate an extended reading of the passion narrative of St Luke, with hymns, prayers and psalms. You might like to read this before hearing it in church — Luke 22.1-23.47.
  2. Mark the Evangelist Day Lunch: Sunday 28 April 2019 – After Worship : On Sunday morning, 28 April, we will be celebrating Mark the Evangelist Day with a lunch after worship.  All are welcome – the more the merrier.  The lunch is always a great occasion for sharing our life together over good food. As usual, we will cater for this event ourselves, with people contributing food. SO, please give your names to Rod or Ann if you can come.  AND equally important – please talk with Ann, Peggy, or Barbara and let them know what you can contribute for the lunch. 
  3. Details of our Lenten and Easter services are here.
  4. News from the Justice and International mission

Other things potentially of interest 

Queen’s College ANZAC Commemoration Chapel

The Master, Dr Stewart Gill OAM, warmly invites you to attend the Queen’s College Anzac Commemoration Chapel Service,
with Professor Geoffrey Blainey AC, Fellow of Queen’s College
“Anzac: The Guns Are Not Yet Silent”

Old News

  1. Advance Dates
    1. April 28 — MtE Day Luncheon after worship
    2. May 12 — Congregational AGM 
    3. May 19 — Speaker from Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project
  2.  A Good Friday performance of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion

7 April – Against ‘building the kingdom’

View or print as a PDF

Lent 5

Ecclesiastes 5:1-20
Psalm 126
John 12:1-8

In a sentence:
We are not called to do God’s work, but to do and be as God has given us

We’ve heard from Jesus today what is perhaps the most scandalous thing he has to say in the gospels, at least to the ears of the modern, left-wing-ish liberal: ‘you will always have the poor with you’.

This, in fact, is heard in three of the gospels, with the exception of Luke who, perhaps because of his sense that the poor and the marginalised symbolise something central to God’s work in Jesus, omits at least this version of the story and these words, although he has a story which is similar in some respects (Luke 7). (We might note in passing that John’s remarks about Judas here are unique to him, and something of a distraction; in Mark and Matthew’s versions, it is the disciples as a whole who say what Judas says, without apparent ulterior motive).

The problem for us is that not always having the poor with us is one of the aspirational engines of modern liberal democracy, although we’d have to say, looking at the evidence, that Jesus has the right of it.

So far as our friend Qohelet is concerned, the poor don’t loom large as an explicit concern. He does lament the situation of the oppressed (cf. 4.1-3) but he comes at poverty more from the perspective of risk and unpredictability: the rich cannot know they will not one day be poor, the righteous might well be accounted unrighteous and the living might suddenly not be.

Both Jesus and Qohelet, then, are in the same place on this, even with their very different framings of the matter, and it is a place quite different from where our political efforts are typically centred.

But there are two further questions about charity raised by Jesus’ response to Judas: What is charity, and When is it? These questions arise from the contrast Jesus draws between ‘you will always have the poor with you’ and ‘you will not always have me.’

If we ‘always have the poor’, What then is the meaning or purpose of serving the poor? What is achieved if, like Sisyphus rolling a great stone up the hill only to see it roll down again, we will not see the end of poverty through our efforts? It is obvious that, in any particular instance, what we do will make a difference for that individual. This is truly wonderful but it is not our political dream: the eradication of need. Some answer to this question – to the ‘What?’ of charitable work – is important for us as we consider once again our motivations and intentions in auspicing Hotham Mission.

Related to this is the second question arising from Jesus’ word here: the ‘When?’ of charity. When do we ‘not have Jesus’, so that we are then to serve the poor? Jesus’ point seems to be that not having him is having the poor; that that is the time for charitable work. Yet this also is less straight forward than it might seem, for the ‘when’ of Jesus is always coloured by Easter. The resurrection speaks of a continuing presence of Jesus (something like what Matthew has Jesus say at the end of his gospel account: ‘I am with you always’). It is too simple – and just not correct – to say that Jesus is no longer with us. All of this indicates that what Jesus means here – what the relationship is between the worship of God and the service of those in need – is not as clear as we might first think it to be.

Elsewhere we hear from Qohelet that ‘there is a time for every purpose under heaven’, and wonder what time is it now: time for service or time to worship, time to work or time to ‘enjoy’? We’ll come to consider that text more closely on Good Friday (I think!) but the idea of a ‘time for everything’ throws over to us the pressing question of what time we find ourselves in, here and now. This is the urgent question of all politics. The cause of all human anxiety is that we might not be in the right time, doing the right thing for this particular time. Is it the time for worship or for service? Should a years’ wages of perfume be spilled on the ground or sold and the money given to the poor? What should we spend on accommodating the life of the congregation? How big a percentage of the church budget should Hotham Mission claim?

To all of this uncertainty and anxiety, a strange word from Qohelet: ‘With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God’ (5.7).

Vanities and multitudes of words are the ‘form’ of getting the time wrong and sustaining ourselves in the error of ‘many dreams’. It is Qohelet’s ‘chasing of the wind’ to misconstrue where we are and what we are doing. With a federal election looming, let us be prepared for a vain multitude of words!

But, while it is easy to slip into cynicism here, Qohelet is not cynical and neither is Jesus. They ‘merely’ call us to the truth. This is largely by negative means in the case of Qohelet and largely by positive means in the case of Jesus, but it is the truth nevertheless in both cases.

Jesus’ ‘You will always have the poor with you’ and Qohelet’s caution against vain dreams and words are statements of what is the case. There is no accusation here, unless we persist in vanity and fear not God but some lesser thing. There is no permission to passivity here with respect to the needs of the poor or, more generally, with respect to the need to work that we and others might live. These are to be held together, appropriately.

The gospels finally resolve the worship-service question by Jesus’ own self-identification with the poor. To turn to Jesus is to turn towards the outcast and oppressed, the seemingly godforsaken and all-forsaken. In the case of John’s account of Jesus, the cross of the godforsaken becomes the throne of the divine Son. To see the one is to see the other, if the ‘seeing’ is sometimes worship and sometimes loving service.

In the case of Qohelet, the ‘fear of God’ he commends matches his other principal commendation, heard again today: ‘it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us’ (5.19). Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ of food and drink and each other is a refusal to allow the poverties of life under the sun to be feared. It is a refusal to be distracted from what is good and worthy and approved by God.

Only God is to be feared or, what is the same thing in Judaism and Christianity at least, only God is to be worshipped, only God is God. This is freedom from all utopias and visions, from all dreams and multitudes of words, ever threatening to crush us with the responsibility of making them real.

Our vocation, whether through a structure like Hotham Mission or in our quiet assistance of our next door neighbour, is not to usher in the kingdom. Our vocation is to know what time it is.

It is the time to live and to love for life and love’s own sake, and to leave the rest – whatever ‘the rest’ is – to God.

In this, may God ever keep us occupied with the joy of our hearts (5.20). Amen.

MtE Update – April 5 2019

  1. Following worship THIS Sunday April 7 there will be a congregational conversation about the re-drafted ‘Vision and Mission’ statement of Hotham Mission, which is being re-visited in preparation for the development of the next year plan for the Mission. The draft will be available for you to consider before the Sunday of the meeting.
  2. This Sunday April 7 there is a fun-run near the church which will affect access on some roads; see here for details. It’s also the end of daylight saving, so you’ll have more time to find your way!
  3. For those interested in the recent change of name for UCA Funds Management, a letter from the Synod
  4. Uniting Church accepted into National Redress Scheme [From the VicTas UCA Moderator]:
    Dear friends, I am delighted to be able to advise that the Uniting Church in Australia has been officially recognised as an active participant in the National Redress Scheme for people who experienced institutional child sexual abuse. The Federal Minister for Families and Social Services, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, notified the UCA on Friday that the Church has met the requirements to begin participation. As you are aware, we have been committed to becoming active members of the Scheme since it was announced last year so this is truly welcome news. I would like to endorse the comments made by National President of the Assembly Dr Deidre Palmer after we were notified of our successful application. “First and most importantly I want to acknowledge those who have been waiting for this decision, which follows months of work and cooperation with Uniting Church bodies across the country, the Department of Social Services and other State and Federal government agencies” Dr Palmer said. “I would also like repeat once more the sincere apology I and past Uniting Church Presidents have made to people who were abused in our care as children. I am truly sorry that we didn’t protect and care for you in accordance with our Christian values.” You can find out more about the Scheme and how to access it at the UCA Redress website or the federal government’s official site You can also use the freecall line 1800 737 377.  Grace and peace, Sharon Hollis, Moderator
  5. If you would like to do some background reading on the texts for this Sunday April 7, see the commentary links here (with particular reference to the psalm and the gospel reading; our Ecclesiastes text for this Sunday will be Eccles 5.1-20).

Old News

  1. Advance Dates
    1. April 28 — MtE Day Luncheon after worship
    2. May 12 — Congregational AGM and ‘music’ discussion
    3. May 19 — Speaker from Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project
  2.  A Good Friday performance of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion
  3. Details of our Lenten and Easter services are here.

« Older Entries