Monthly Archives: May 2019

MtE Update – May 30 2019

  1. Our second quarter study groups commence next week; details are here; if you have not already, please let Craig know if you are planning to come….
  2. A communication from the President of the UCA Assembly, in response to recent commentary in the ABC news about the reaction of some congregations to the Assembly’s 2019 resolution about same-sex marriage
  3. This Sunday June 2 Bruce Barber’s series on the Ten Commandments continues: ‘You shall not kill.’

Old News

  1. Advance Dates
    1. June 22 (Saturday) Hotham Mission Bunnings BBQ – volunteers sought! 

26 May – I believe in miracles

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Easter 6

Revelation 21:10, 22; 22:1-5
Psalm 67
John 14:23-29

In a sentence:
Jesus, crucified and risen, is the one miracle in which the church believes

Our Prime Minister believes in miracles. More than that, he has apparently recently witnessed one.

At the same time, critical analysis has felt less need to invoke divinity and has pinpointed clever or even cynical political strategy as the cause of the election ‘upset’. If there were anything miraculous about the election result, it looks like God had at least a little help.

It doesn’t much matter how serious the PM was in his remark; my interest this morning is that doubtless many have sent thanks heavenward for the outcome of the election, even as the political strategy is acknowledged. In the interests of full disclosure, no such thanksgiving has been heard from me, but my point this morning is not narrowly political but broadly theological: what is a miracle? To turn the matter around, would it have been ‘miraculous’ had the opposition been successful? Probably not, as many thought this to be the most likely scenario and miracles are not usually what we expect to happen. Still, many would hold that a Shorten government implementing its proposed policies would at least have been ‘good’, even excellent. And surely ‘and it was good’ denotes the miraculous.

To some extent we’re just playing with words here but it’s in an effort to give substance to the question of miracles, or to what is sometimes characterised as ‘divine intervention’. More put helpfully, Where and how is God active in the world? For talk of miracles is talk of the activity of God.

The Bible, of course, is full of miracle stories: an axe head floats, the sun stands still in the sky, and a little boy’s lunch feeds a great crowd. But the Bible is not a collection of historical ‘facts’ from which we deduce a few definitions or patterns in which to believe. What holds the Bible together is not similarities between the stories it contains or even common themes which might be discovered between the covers. What hold the Bible together is very covers themselves. Those covers have been put there by the church – that community which springs from the pre-biblical confession that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. It is the experience of continuing to engage with this Lord which causes the Bible and our ongoing engagement with it.

This is to say that, so far as miracles are concerned, the one determining miracle of the Bible is the resurrection of Jesus. Yet this needs to be qualified immediately because the resurrection looks too much like miracles looked ‘before’ the resurrection of Jesus(!). The resurrection looks to be ‘miraculous’ in itself, as might a dead-in-the-water government being returned to office.

But the resurrection is not like this, is not the most impressive of all the impressive miracles in the Scriptures. The qualification of the miraculous nature of the resurrection needed here is the totally un-miraculous-looking crucifixion, such that we must also say that the one determining miracle of the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus.

There is, of course, apparently nothing miraculous about the crucifixion. It’s the ‘natural’ thing which happens when matters get a little too ‘out there’ for comfort, rather like what might be expected to happen to an opposition with too many new ideas for a loss-averse community.

Separated into mere history on the one hand and divine intervention on the other, the crucifixion and the resurrection become mere ‘seasons’, of the type we saw Ecclesiastes – a time for dying, a time for rising, a time for the Right, a time for the Left (Ecclesiastes 3.1-14; see the sermon for April 19). Elections are mere seasons. There are no miracles here – at least, nothing which endures – for history allows a time for everything. History buries all political messiahs without hope of (political) resurrection.

When the church as church gives thanks for God’s miraculous gifts, it is not for anything which comes and goes in the manner of the seasons. The quintessential thanksgiving of the church – found in the Great Prayer of the Eucharist – names the miracles of God as creation, redemption in cross and resurrection, and consummation of all things.

These defining miracles endure through the vagaries of history. And so, in seasons rich and poor, they are named as sources of peace, and this brings us finally to the Scripture text for this sermon!

The risen crucified Lord stands before his seasonally troubled disciples, and declares, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.’ ‘The world’ gives now peace, now division; now hope, now despair; now sunshine, now storms; a time for every politics under heaven.

Jesus does not give this way; what he offers here is not ‘with’ the times but through them – for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. The ‘my’ peace is crucial here, for the peace of Jesus is not the peace of the risen Jesus only but also the peace of the Jesus with a crucifixion looming in the near future. The miracle in which we are to believe is the peace which was Jesus’ own way in the world. His way was as a presence of the kingdom of God in a time and place in which that kingdom was apparently quite absent. The miracle of God is the possibility of peace in the midst a world which is apparently hopelessly divided.

This is not an easy miracle in which to believe, because it touches us here and now, in our own sense of the absence of God’s kingdom. To believe in such a miracle requires that we rise to the command we most desperately want to hear and obey, and yet find most difficult to hear and obey: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid’. This is not a word of ‘comfort’; it is no less a command than any other ‘do’ or ‘do not’ we read in the Scriptures.

As a command it is hard to hear because to let go of trouble and fear would be to rise to our responsibility to love and serve without reading the seasons as if they were signs of God’s power, without despair because of what has or has not happened, and without elation praising God for an accident of history.

Dis‑appointment ends when we recognise that our true appointment is to know who is God. To know who is God is to know what the miracle is which is being wrought: that, in life or in death, our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues loosed with a joy which will not end with a change of season, or an election, or even death itself. Any laughter or joy which might be ended by such passing things has known no true miracle, no deep good.

The miracle of this God is that, as much despite our efforts as because of them, God works our works to God’s own end. This end – in life and death, in wins and losses, in all things ‘under the sun’ – is a peace which passes understanding but under which we are to stand: to live and love and serve, testifying that even here the Father and the Son come to make their home with us.

May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus his Christ, now and always, Amen.

19 May – Not a politically correct God

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Easter 5

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
John 13:31-35

In a sentence:
God does not merely call us to love, but makes that love possible

The whole of the New Testament is written against the background of an unflinching belief in the resurrection of Jesus, not simply as a thing which was now ‘believed’ but as a thing which made a difference to the way we live and experience each other and the world. ‘Jesus is risen’ is code for ‘the world is now a whole other new place”.

The book of Acts, from which we hear quite a bit each year after Easter, looks like a history of what happened next after Easter. Yet, more than this, it is history as an account of the kind of thing which would necessarily take place if it were the case that Jesus was risen from the dead.

We can see the difference between a mere historical account of what happens next and the theological, resurrection-informed experience of what happened in the details of our reading this morning – in particular in the unexpected way in which Peter defends what happened in the house of Cornelius.

The crisis is that Peter seems to have transgressed the hard boundary between Jew and Gentile: ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?From the moral and ethical outlook of modern liberal western society it looks as if what Peter has done is ‘obviously’ the right thing. Most of us today hold that everyone should be treated equally, have the same rights, not be put down or otherwise mistreated, and so on.

Yet Peter does not offer a moral argument for his actions along these lines. Instead, he accounts for his actions by ‘blaming’ God. Speaking of his vision of being commanded to eat unclean foods, he quotes God:  ‘What I have made clean you must not declare profane.’ The reason for the breaking down of this barrier – that between Jew and Gentile – is not liberal ethics but divine command. Peter doesn’t know about the ‘brotherhood of man’ or any such thing; ‘God made me do it’ is the reason he gives for doing what we would consider simply to be the clear moral choice.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the moral ideals we have about everyone being equally human to everyone else. It is just that that is not what our text is about. The Cornelius incident is about what was thought to be a God-imposed distinction between Jew and Gentile now being overcome by God. And so the resolution of the dispute back in Jerusalem is not, ‘Ah, yes, of course the Gentiles are people too! How foolish of us!’ Rather, the Jewish Christians turn to the praise of God saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

In the election of Abraham and Sarah as patriarch and matriarch of the people of God there is actually nothing to suggest that God’s love for this people means God’s hatred or exclusion of all other peoples. In fact, just the opposite is found in the covenant with Abraham: ‘through you will all peoples be blessed’ (Or, ‘will all peoples bless themselves’, depending on the translation.)  But there had developed a very sharp distinction in the minds of the Jews by the time of Jesus, so that Peter could say to the Gentile Cornelius, ‘Even you yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile’ (Acts 10.28).

This distinction had taken on God-proportions, and its violation was understood to have consequences for a person’s standing before God (in terms of ritual cleanness). It doesn’t go too far to say that, for pious Jews of the time, God required of them their self-isolation from Gentiles – it had become to be understood to be divinely instituted. And so it would have felt to Peter that God was changing God’s own rule here: God was contradicting what had being held, and held for the sake of God.

And now we can see how this is an event which has to do with the resurrection of Jesus, and so with the power of God, and not simply with human ethics. For it was for God’s sake – as an act of piety – that Jesus was executed, because he was perceived to be a threat to the religious and political safety of the people. The resurrection, then, is God standing against God, God in heaven contradicting the God in our hearts, revealing that the two are not the same and that we are serving the wrong one.

When God pours out the Holy Spirit on the household of Cornelius the resurrection happens again: God raises the dead. Only, those who are raised are not just Cornelius but Peter and, later, the other believers back in Jerusalem. These are raised in the sense we know from Saint Paul, who describes this God as the one who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which did not exist. What ‘did not exist’ for Peter and the other Jewish Christians was that God’s work in Christ had anything to do with the Gentiles, for how could it? ‘It is unlawful for a Jew to associate with Gentiles…’

But now that Christ clearly did have something to do with the

Gentiles, a new beginning met with a new understanding and the dead were raised, eyes were opened, and God was glorified.

If we take away from the story of Peter and Cornelius only the message that God loves everyone and so we ought to too, then we render the story irrelevant because it tells us nothing most of us don’t already know. Perhaps more problematically, this seems to imply that such love is actually possible – that we ought to be ‘able’ to love each other, and so to usher in the kingdom.

But the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem praise God for what Cornelius experienced, and we must take this with utter seriousness. The implication is not simply that we should be loving and accepting of each other but that such love and acceptance begins as a work of God.

This being the case, we might also note that the rather modern notion of ‘love and acceptance’ doesn’t really fit the story, or isn’t rich enough for the story. For the Gentiles are not given a mere welcome but a repentance: ‘… God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’ (11.18). The love of God is that the loved are now free, or even ‘allowed’, to change. Their humanity is indeed recognised but so also its deficiencies; God’s ‘love’ is here the possibility of repentance, and not of mere ‘inclusion’.

So neither the Jews nor the Gentiles are the ‘good guys’ here, or the victims. Borrowing again from Paul, all have fallen short of the glory of God. This is the accusation, the ‘bad news’ of the gospel.

But the important thing is that the accusation is a diminishing echo which sounds after the ‘big bang’ – the moment of creation – the act of resurrecting grace which stands Peter and Cornelius and all they represent on an equal footing of being loved, forgiven and accepted by God.

And so it is, as we sang in our opening hymn, that we pray that we might love, and see whatever love we might manage as an answer to prayer – the acts of today’s apostles, working out the logic of the resurrection of Jesus, to the glory of God.

For the benefit of all God’s people, may this prayer be ever on our lips, and find its answer in the faithfulness of the God who keeps his promises by making it possible for us to love one another.


MtE Update – May 17 2019

  1. The latest Synod eNews (May 10) is here.
  2. May Social Justice Events Nationwide from the Synod Justice Unit.
  3. If you would like to do some background reading on the texts for this Sunday May 19, see the commentary links here

Old News

  1. Advance Dates
    1. Speaker from Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project POSTPONED to a date TBC
    2. June 22 (Saturday) Hotham Mission Bunnings BBQ – volunteers sought! 

12 May- The Fifth Commandment – “Honour your father and mother”

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Easter 4

Exodus 20:1-2, 12
Psalm 71
Mark 10:28-31

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery”, (therefore)….
“Honour your father and mother”

It is entirely a happy coincidence that we have this text before us on what society calls Mother’s day. However, as we reach the halfway mark in the journey that the commandments unfold, this fifth offers us the chance to do something different from what might be expected on this secular occasion. Two preliminary observations deserve some thought.

The first has to do with its location. It falls between the commandments that have to do with the proper worship of God, and those that have to do with right conduct towards other people. Right conduct is certainly the case for the commandments to follow.  When we come to them, six, seven, eight and nine are now all enforceable by criminal and civil laws. But this fifth: “Honour your father and mother”, like the tenth: “You shall not covet”, is not legally enforceable. The interesting question then is this: does “Honour your Father and Mother” belong to the first table of the things that have to do with the proper worship of God, or is it the first of those that have to do with right conduct towards others? A further intriguing question follows: Should the commandments be read as occurring in order of importance? If so, then the commandment to honour father and mother is more important than not committing murder! Imagine that! We ought at least to be open to the possibility.

The second observation is that we need to remind ourselves that in the nature of the case this commandment is a word directed to adults, not children. What might it mean for adults to hear: “Honour your Father and Mother”? Perhaps what is at stake is best summed up by the difference between the word “authority” and the word “authoritarian”. Authority is a good word, authoritarian not so much. Authoritarian people are fundamentally insecure. “Do this because I say so”, or “Because I am wearing a uniform”.  Fathers and Mothers are not immune to the authoritarian mindset, not to speak of contemporary politicians. It’s a bit like the preacher’s text found in the pulpit with the marginal note: “Argument weak – shout here”. Authoritarian people shout.  “Authority”, on the other hand, is an innate gift. Some have it, others don’t; some have it in some matters, but not in others.

This commandment, then, like all the others, is about true authority, not a demeaning authoritarianism. This means that they are to be understood “gracefully” – as expressions of life, and love, and joy, and power, quite literally as grace: not as legalistic fiats, as might be supposed, given the clout of their divine origin. So here parents are to be honoured as those given the task of communicating the authority of God as the guarantee of a genuine freedom for their children.

This is why the fifth commandment offers a future promise: “that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Today Israel’s promise of a specific physical territory is unquestionably politically inflammatory. At the very least, we may well reflect that the only possible way to resolve the contemporary fate of the land of Israel/Palestine is this ancient promise of a grace – a grace now to be shared, rather than as an oppressive national self-possession.

At any rate, it is crucial to grasp that for the people of Israel, then and now, the community of faith and the social community are identical. The religious necessity of honouring parents is at the same time a cultural tradition. It was taken for granted, for ancient as well as modern Judaism, that fathers and mothers are to be human mediators of the promises of God to their children, with the consequence that parents are to be reciprocally honoured.

But not for long. As we heard in the gospel today, that given identity was radically, indeed explosively, called into question by Jesus,: “Truly I tell you,  there is no-one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses and, brothers and sisters, mothers and children… In the midst of such radical disjunctions did you notice what is missing? Fathers. Why are there no fathers in this list? Because God has become the only necessary Father through the obedience of the Son.

What could be more iconoclastic in a patriarchal society than that! Now a true Son has emerged as the ultimate radical, reconstituting the whole Hebraic succession of generations of male and female parents and children. This means that this side of Easter, where we stand as Christians rather than as Jews, we literally have a new creation to explore, “a new land” to live in. Now that land is not just a piece of turf, but a world that is given to us from the hands of this paternally obedient Son.

But just here let us take the full weight of this revolution. In the gospel, the community of faith in him has been radically severed from the cultural community. Who would have imagined such a fulfilment of the Old Testament expectation of the promise: that here final authority is taken away from natural fathers and mothers? That is to say, “where God is”, parents and children by nature give way to parents and children by grace. That grace is a “Son”.

Now remembering that the entire people of Israel, male and female, were designated Yahweh’s “Son”, it is crucial that we understand that being a Son is not a gender word, but a theological designation. That is to say, in being a true Son, Jesus has at last accomplished what to that point was deficient by the whole people of Israel in enacting their “sonship”. This means that because the  “sonship” of Jesus is not a gender description, it is an inclusive possibility for both human daughters and sons. For this reason, a disciple of this Son, must renounce parental ties precisely because of the urgency of this promise. Parents who have understood this reformulation of the fifth commandment should be neither surprised nor resentful that this should be so.

But now we live in a society that increasingly celebrates not this theological disengagement envisaged by Jesus in the gospel, but rather an increasingly Western cultural disengagement from the Christian community that gave it its life. In varying degrees this has always been the case. But it is increasingly apparent that today the community of faith is in principle in the process of daily being severed from the wider society. This is inevitable when our contemporary culture insists that whatever “religion” might be, it must necessarily be a private matter.

The question then is pertinent. Has the original implication of the commandment any social future, not to speak of any radically reconfigured Christian form?  What sense can be made of the role of fathers and mothers in today’s culture – parents whose only purpose in the light of this commandment is to be mediators of a life-giving tradition: the promise and the mystery of the grace of God to their children?

Especially in our day do we face an even greater contemporary expression of the commandment’s distance from its foundation. Today we are required to recognise that we inhabit a culture neither envisaged nor comprehensible to that of our text, or indeed to that of every subsequent culture up to our present day. For example, what is the status or meaning of the commandment in the majority of Western societies that have made lawful same sex marriages where the duality of mothers and fathers is in principle rescinded?

In the same way, our text can make nothing of the provision for the bearing, or the adoption, of children to partners of same sex marriages. It is more often the case than not that in later life – when they become adults – such children are likely to want more than surrogate fathers and mothers. Will their search for their biological parents be a “faint echo” of the force of this ancient commandment: to honour father and mother?  Will they find themselves to be in a better or a worse position to receive the benefit of this commandment than the children of broken marriages, where fathers and mothers, though no longer living together, are nevertheless still in principle accessible to their children?

Perhaps it is too early to assess the implications of this change to the law that has now been enacted in Western cultures that were originally formed by the gender particularities of this commandment. At the very least, it now appears to make obedience to the commandment anachronistic in principle, if not seriously problematic.

Regardless of contested answers to this question, this fact is inescapable – that there can be no history if there are no mothers and fathers. And if there is no history, then there can be no God worthy of the name. Christians, then, must continue to hear the commandment’s ancient words of promise of parenthood in their original intention, no less as in their revolutionary reconstitution in the gospel.

To this end, we might well take to heart the declaration of the great third century Bishop of Carthage, St Cyprian, when he proposed: “You cannot have God as your Father if you do not have the Church as your Mother”.

If this be so, see how the commandment looks now:

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery”
(therefore) “Honour your Father and Mother”.

God and Church – a reconstituted Father and Mother – inextricably united as true source of healing in a now fragmented world. God as Father, Church as Mother: surely a climactic fulfilment of this fifth commandment.

So, remember this transformation when in our final hymn we will sing the lines: “Who from our mother’s arms – has blest us on our way” (TIS 106).

Study Groups

Our read-and-discuss groups are generally held each quarter over 4-7 weeks, although 2021 will be a little different!

Intro to the New Testament 2021

The principal study groups this year will continue the online Yale courses in the Old and New Testaments. Having covered the OT course last year, the Wednesday and Friday groups will commence the NT course following Easter. These are lively courses with online video and printed resources. The materials for the NT course are here.

Groups will be 

    • Most Wednesdays, 7.45pm via Zoom from April 21
    • Most Fridays, 1.30pm via Zoom from April 23

The groups are coordinated so that if you can’t make your preferred group one week the other will be treating the same material in that week, and you can switch between the groups as you need to. You are also most welcome to join us ‘late’ — after the series is started; it’s never too late to engage seriously with the bible!

PREPARATION — prior to each session, please view/listen to the YouTube video/audio or read the printable transcript from the resources page (link above); the studies revolve around responses and questions arising from the video/printed material

(If there is sufficient interest, another OT course might also be run this year. The materials for the OT course are here).

To register for these Intro to the New Testament discussion groups, please fill out the following form, in order to receive the Zoom meeting details.

(for the unlikely event of any last minute changes – email or mobile phone). PLEASE NOTE: an email address is required for the online sessions.

Please indicate which group you will join. If you plan to switch between the two, indicate which will be your 'main' group. Contact details for the online sessions will be sent to the email address given in the contact details above

To keep informed of our upcoming study series, sign up to the MtE Reading Group Notifications list on our sign-up page.

MtE Update – May 10 2019

  1. This Sunday our congregational AGM follows morning tea, including the reception of annual reports, financial statements and the election of elders. Please plan to stay for the meeting if you can!
  2. This Sunday May 12, we return a monthly treatment of the Ten Commandment from Bruce Barber; for more information, here. This week, ‘honour your father and mother’!
  3. The Hotham Mission web site has had a complete makeover. It’s still a work in progress, but have a look here…
  4. If you would like to do some background reading on the texts for this Sunday April 28 17, see the commentary links here

Old News

  1. Advance Dates
    1. May 12 — Congregational AGM 
    2. Speaker from Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project POSTPONED to a date TBC
    3. June 22 (Saturday) Hotham Mission Bunnings BBQ – volunteers sought! 

May 14 – Matthias, Simon, Jude

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.

Matthias, Simon, Jude,  apostles

Matthias filled the place left vacant by Judas Iscariot after his betrayal of Jesus subsequent demise (Acts 1:23-26). Peter depicts his death as foreshadowed in scripture and then points to the need to replace him as apostle with someone who had been with them throughout Jesus’ ministry. “So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias” (Acts 1:23). Having prayed, they cast lots, and Matthias was chosen. The author, Luke, assumes that praying and doing the equivalent of tossing a coin would achieve the desired outcome. We hear nothing more of Matthias. Luke’s story of Matthias reflects his view that there were (and needed to be) twelve apostles, almost certainly as symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. Limiting who could be called an apostle to the twelve stands in some tension with Paul’s view, who claimed also to be an apostle (1 Cor 9:1). In his day some denied his right to be so, possibly because they understood “apostle” as Luke or Luke’s source had done, although Luke also knew stories which called Paul and Barnabas “apostles” (14:14). Otherwise we know nothing of Mattias except for sayings attributed to him as part of a Gospel or Tradition of Matthias believed to have been composed early in the second century.

Simon, named as one of the twelve disciples, is sometimes called the “Cananean”, an Aramaic word (Matt 10:4; Mark 3:18), which Luke translates as “Zealot” (Luke 6:13; Acts 1:13). A group called “Zealots” were part of the uprising against Rome in Jerusalem which Rome crushed in 70 CE, but the term could also be used for zealous devout Jews, although readers of the gospels which appeared after 70 CE may well have understood him to have been a sympathiser with those who resisted Rome. He is not to be confused with Simon Peter, Simon the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3), Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21), Simon the magician (Acts 8:9), or Simon the tanner (Acts 9:43).

Jude (also called Judas) was one of Jesus’ brothers along with James (Jacob), Joses (Joseph), and Simon (Simeon, not “the Zealot”). He is not to be confused with the two disciples with that name among the twelve: Judas Iscariot and “Judas, son of James” (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13; John 14:22), nor with Judas of Damascus (Acts 9:11), nor with “Judas called Barsabbas” (Acts 15:22). Mark tells us that he and his family once wanted to take Jesus home because they thought he was beside himself (3:20-21) and that his family did not accept him (6:4). The image of Jesus’ family in Matthew and Luke is more positive. Eventually we find his brother James running the church in Jerusalem, but also Jude being attributed with leadership and penning the Letter of Jude. He may have done so, although many conclude that it was more likely written in his name much later like the Letter attributed to James.

William Loader

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