Monthly Archives: July 2019

28 July – Jesus the [whore]

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 7

Hosea 2:1-7, 14-23
Psalm 15
Revelation 22:1-15
Matthew 16:13-23

In a sentence:
The healing grief of God raises the dead and restores the lost

Recent statistics on the impact of domestic violence in our society indicate – among many other things – that each week a woman is killed, dozens of women are hospitalised and police make about many hundreds responses to domestic violence incidents.

Our recent awareness that this is part of our culture is the context within which we hear of what sounds like a violent ‘domestic’ incident between God and Israel, in which Israel is cast in the role of humiliated wife.

The parallels are not easily dismissed. Violence is rarely ‘mere’ violence – violence for the sake of violence. Violence is – to the perpetrator – just as all sin is: necessary, unavoidable (see last week’s sermon). ‘See what you made me do’ is the title of a recent study of domestic violence. The abuser calls his victim to recognise that ‘you made me do this’. This casts his violence as a necessary response to her and so he cannot be held responsible for it.

And part of the point of Hosea’s second chapter is, surely, ‘You made me do this’.

More distressing than that, the fact that such a dynamic of necessary violence could be read out of Hosea as Scripture lends divine permission for abuse in our own relationships: this is how some Christian communities have justified violent ‘discipline’ in Christian families. It is sad that, even in this place, it might need to heard that such violent and non-violent abuse has no place in the church of God.

Do we not have here one of Scripture’s ‘texts of terror’ (Tribble)? Any reading of Hosea, then, requires of us a careful [bracketing] of his language, even as we seek to hear in it the full depth of the divine accusation, punishment and promise which it would give us to understand.

To this end, we will treat tody’s passage from the very heart of Christian confession – that Jesus is the Christ – and proceed by identifying [whore] Israel with Jesus. The rationale for this is clearest in seeing where it leads us.

Of course, the impiety of speaking of ‘Jesus the [whore]’ will cause most of us to side immediately with Peter: ‘God forbid it! This must never happen to him’ (cf. Matthew 16.22). But what must never happen? Peter means that Jesus must never be – as Hosea explicitly prophesies for Israel – stripped naked, exposed as on the day he was born, made like a wilderness, turned into a parched land and left to die of thirst (cf. 2.3). And yet do we not see precisely Jesus on the cross here? Israel’s prospects, as described here by Hosea, are no more or less than what led Jesus to cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15.34).

Perhaps we want to object that the reason for the abandonment is different. Jesus suffers ‘innocently’ and for a higher cause whereas Israel is guilty, so that only Israel is ‘really’ judged here.

Yet this is too simple an account of the relationship of sinfulness to innocence – as mutually exclusive realities. Sin is not only moral failure, whether the failure of an individual or of a whole community (if the latter is even possible). Sin is no less effect, in the sense of ‘ripple’ effect. The sin of one in a relationship of two effects (delivers) two sinners, not one. Sin is always relational and so its effect is not only on the guilty one but also on the innocents to whom the sinner is joined. This is why we baptise ‘innocent’ infants; their innocence is corrupted by having chosen the parents they did; it is also why Hosea allows that the children of the unfaithful mother will are also condemned (2.4).

Into this dynamic of sin comes the ‘innocent’ Jesus.

Yet God does not really give us the innocence of Jesus, as such.[1] God gives us a Jesus who is ‘infected’ by the contagion of sin. This is an infection not from his own culpability but from his relationship to those around him. ‘Became truly human’ – as the Creed has it – means that he experienced what we all experience: living in a body, with other bodies, subject to sin-tinted death. (St Paul writes that God made Jesus ‘to be sin who knew no sin’ [2 Corinthians 5.17]; the verse continues, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ [2 Corinthians 5.17; cf. Galatians 3.13]).

What is important for the moment is that the outcome is the same, innocent or not. All – including Jesus – die the death of sinners, abandoned by God. The guilty [whore] of God and the crucified Jesus end up in the same place; the third verse of Hosea 2 could have been a kind of gospel Midrash on the crucifixion.

If we can, then, identify Jesus with Israel here on account of their common fate, how does this help? Having rejected a misreading of the innocence of Jesus, we now need to bring it back in appropriately.

The innocence of Jesus stands as a sign of God’s willingness to give up divine innocence, divine purity. ‘Go take for yourself a [wife of whoredom]’, God commands Hosea, ‘For that is what I have done’. The marriage metaphor serves here to speak not only of the divorce in Israel’s turning away; it speaks also of the ‘two-become-oneness’ which marriage entails: what happens to Israel happens to God. That Jesus is innocent is not to say that he is not sin-affected. It is to say that God’s being affected by sin is not a barrier to God’s desire for us.[2]

The death of Jesus on the cross is the revelation that God is willing, so to speak, to be contaminated by sin and all its effects. Put differently, the divinity of this God is not ‘above’ death but ‘through’ it. The rupture of this marriage is a tearing into two of the one – a kind of dying of Israel and of God. Not only Israel’s but God’s very being is torn here, and so also with the cross.

Yet, this is not very helpful if all we hear is that God, in Israel and in Jesus, is willing to go down with the ship. It remains unhelpful despite how often such a word is offered as a ‘pastoral’ response to suffering – that God suffers with us. That we all drown – God included – is only half of the word of God. If we stop here we have only the comfort that God dies with us, which is not much comfort at all.

The only reason we find anything of real value in the death of God with Israel and Jesus is the resurrection of Jesus. For here is revealed the mystery which is this God.[3] 

There is a death in God which we might speak of as the death of God but it is death as death’s ‘sting’, death’s effect (1 Corinthians 15.22; cf. Hosea 13.14). This sting is the pain of separation and not the mere ending of God’s or some other’s life.

The principal separation in the biblical narrative is the loss of the son, the wife, we have been considering here (and which we might even read into Genesis 2 and 3).

We all know this pain: the death which is separation. Whatever fear we may hold of our own death, we feel the death which has separated us from others. The presence of death to us is in our separation from those who make us what we are – a separation which yet leaves us still standing, zombie-like. And so we fear the death which is the life of the survivor, the death which separation is. The God of the exile and of Easter Saturday is dead in this way – torn into two, only half a heart still beating.

The gospel of the resurrection of Jesus (anticipated in the promised reconciliation with wife‑Israel [Hosea 2.14ff]) is that – with this God – half a heart is enough.

It matters that God suffers with us not because misery loves company but because – unlike our grief – the grief of God raises the dead: who was dead is now come to life, who was lost is now found. Our tears barely drip from our faces but God cries a river, which flows from heaven’s throne, across which grows the tree of life (Revelation 22).

Noe of this is to diminish Israel’s apostasy in the time of Hosea or of Jesus, or our own here and now. It is, however, to relativise these failings to each other, with Christ at the centre.

Jesus’ suffering – as part of Israel – is prefigured by Israel’s own in Hosea. So also the suffering of God. We who identify ourselves with Christ find ourselves at the centre of this, suffering in Christ – even as we might be the cause of that suffering.

If we locate ourselves here in the Jesus who suffers all things, and so in the God who suffers and overcomes the death of Jesus, one extraordinary consequence emerges: there is no more sin to commit, no wrong which would make a difference to the totality of sin or the extent to which grace must reach, and has reached.

God’s heart is already broken, the Son is already crucified – cast out as a [whore] – and that is the end of sin, its goal and completion. To imagine that we – with our faithfulness or unfaithfulness, pure doctrine or apostasy, joy or grief, love or fear – could add or detract anything from what is already done is to have heard neither the bad news of the gospel nor the good news.

For what is already done is that the full impact of sin has been felt and, because it is felt by Jesus himself and not by us, sin matters ‘no more’ to us.

What is done is that God has lost, and then won. To our shame, it is indeed in the river of tears of God that we are washed in our baptism, but to God’s glory we now are clean, nonetheless.

[1] ASIDE The innocence of Jesus has, historically, been very important to the church, leading us even to go to the extent that we can speak of an ‘immaculate conception’. This refers not to the birth of Jesus but to the birth of Mary his mother; her conception was such that the contagion of sin was not passed to her, so that she would not pass it to Jesus. On the understanding that sinful character was transmitted through procreation, this isolated Jesus from the full impact of sin.

[2] It is also to say that the innocence of Jesus is not – as some atonement theories have it – a coin of salvation which ‘someone’ has to pay in order that God be satisfied and now able to forgive. This understanding over-reads the important metaphor of the sacrificial victim ‘without blemish’; cf. Leviticus 1.10, 22.17-25; 1 Peter 1.19; Hebrews 9.11-14.

[3] (We considered the relation of the resurrection of Jesus to the promises given to Israel in the two reflections on Hosea 11: June 30 and July 7).

July 30 – William Wilberforce

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.

William Wilberforce, renewer of society

Born on 24 August, 1759 in Hull, he was the son of a wealthy merchant, who died in 1768. Brought up by an aunt, he attended Hull Grammar and then St John’s College Cambridge in 1776..  In 1780, he became member for Kingston upon Hull. He was a close friend of William Pitt and an important independent, because of his eloquence and membership of networks. In 1784 he moved to the influential constituency of Yorkshire and travelled round Europe during 1784-85 in the company of Isaac Milner, who guided him into a deeper commitment to Christ and persuaded him to see a parliamentary career as a Christian vocation. He had two priorities – the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners, setting up a society for that purpose in 1787.

He married Barbara Spooner in 1797. They had two daughters and four sons, brought up in Clapham, where he was part of an influential network of Christian activists. Concerned about the nominal commitment of many Christians, he wrote a best- selling book of 500 pages in 1797 to challenge their limitations. Entitled A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians of  the higher and middle classes of this country contrasted with real Christianity, it went through many editions.

Wilberforce wrote passionately about the need for recognition of humanity’s sinful nature, the need for redemption and the importance of holiness, based on total commitment to the crucified and risen Lord. He thus outlined the main features of 19th century British Evangelicalism and its implications.

In addition, Wilberforce actively supported bodies such as the Church Missionary Society and the Bible Society, as well as assisting Hannah Moore’s work. He worked with Thomas Clarkson to achieve the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, after a wide-ranging combination of debate and publication. Initially supportive of Catholic Emancipation, he became more cautious on this after observing the results of the French Revolution. He helped to open India to Christian missions and was a strong ally of those working for comprehensive Sunday observance.

From 1823, he and his allies worked diligently for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, a goal achieved just three days before his death, 29 July, 1833.

Not always sensitive to social injustice in Britain and becoming more conservative in his later years, he nevertheless contributed to many changes which benefited the poor. His example continues to inspire Evangelicals worldwide to work for spiritual renewal and social justice.

J.Pollock, Wilberforce, 1977; J. Wolffe, The expansion of Evangelicalism, 2007

 Ian Breward

MtE Update – July 26 2019

  1. This Sunday July 28 there will be a discussion following worship regarding the recent resolution on ‘voluntary assisted dying’ by the VicTas synod. The following resources might be useful in preparation for the discussion:
    1. The Synod resolution (unconconfirmed minute)
    2. The Report to the VicTas Synod 2019 
    3. A pastoral letter from the VicTas Moderator has been circulated to congregations and agencies
    4. (By contrast:) the Report on VAD to the 2019 QUEENSLAND Synod
    5. and the Queensland Synod resolution (the resolution starts at the bottom of the first page)
  2. We continue this week with Hosea, delving into the confronting chapter 2 of the book; reading chapters 1 to 3 might be good preparation for the service. Accompanying texts will be , Psalm 15, Revelation 22.1-5 and Matthew 16.13-23

Advance Dates

August 18 Sunday Conversation – Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project

21 July – Encouraging God to be merciful

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 6

Hosea 1:1-10
Psalm 117
Luke 10:38-42

In a sentence:
Our mercy requires God’s mercy

1.2 When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ 3 So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim…

The characterisation of God’s relation to Israel as a marriage and off Israel’s unfaithfulness to God as ‘whoredom’ are central to Hosea’s preaching. It is powerful language and, with our modern sensitivities to the power hidden in language, it is probably too strong for many of us today. As will become even clearer when we get later to chapter 2, the language of ‘whore/dom’ must be referenced with great care. We must seek to discover what Hosea reveals about ourselves and God without allowing for any abuse of how he chose to express it.

But our focus today will more on the usefulness of the marriage metaphor for Hosea. This is not a straightforward observation of human relationships which is then applied to the God-Israel relationship. To understand how marriage is presented we need insight into the local pagan religion which has so strongly tempted Israel. Central is the Canaanite interest in fertility – the fertility of the fields which sustain human life. The Canaanites are not alone in that interest, of course, but pagan religion links the way of the gods and the way of the world in a closeness we cannot approach today. For them, the workings of the world depend on the action of the gods; the gods themselves make the fields fertile in a manner which compares to human sexual intercourse. The gods and the land are ‘sexually’ linked in order to bring forth the abundance of the fields. We encourage this divine activity by modelling it in a kind of spiritual homeopathy: in the right context, our sexual activity encourages the fertilising of the land by the gods. In certain circumstances, then, human sexual intercourse becomes a religious activity – even a pious activity, a kind of ‘prayer’ (although presumably some of the faithful were not in it only for the prayer). In this kind of religion, temple prostitutes are not a corruption of piety but a requirement for it (cf. 4.13f). In this process, the land and its people are ‘married’ to the gods.

What Hosea does not do is dismiss all this as nonsense. Instead, he adopts this understanding of the link between the gods and the land. He does this in order to make sense to those he addresses, for this is how they think about the gods. To this extent, he agrees with them: our actions reflect and encourage the actions of God, if he disagrees about what the action of God is.

Hosea allows, then, the notion that God does something to the land – the people – and that the people are expected to ‘do’ the same something in order to encourage God to do it over again. This ‘something’, however, has no relation to fertility, with sex as the currency of exchange with the gods.

For what the God of Israel ‘does’ to the land and its people is not fertilise them but have mercy on them. This is heard in Hosea’s many references back to the Exodus. And so what the land – the people – are to do is also to have mercy (cf. 6.6). The reciprocation of the activity of God and the people is the same as in the pagan system. We need what God does, so we do what God does, to encourage God to do it again. The dynamic is the same but what is reciprocated is entirely different.

And it reflects a different sense for what we actually are. The pagan system turns the wheel of the seasons one more time around to where it once was and to which it will again return. Nothing really changes for us or the world. It is an existence of ‘eternal return of the same’.

Israel’s receiving and giving of mercy, however, has nothing to do with natural cycles. Mercy is unnatural – outside of what is necessary by law. It is a violation of what should happen. It is this breaking of expectation which creates history: the possibility of something which should not have been there given what has happened before. Mercy does not make the world go ‘around’; mercy moves the world on to something new.

It is this ‘something new’ which is disappearing from Israel. The failure of the people to reciprocate in mercy and justice leads to the withholding of mercy on the part of God. This turning away – this withholding of God’s mercy – is what is threatened in Hosea’s preaching, and this is how he and the survivors of the Assyrian onslaught interpret the fall of the northern kingdom.

But this is not merely a moral problem – something that Israel can simply rectify by starting again in mercy. Mercy no longer has value because the people do not encourage God toward mercy, and so God does not give mercy, and so the meaning of mercy is lost. With this, true history is lost, and we are back in the realm of necessity.

To see that this is no mere ‘theoretical’ matter we might glance sideways for a moment at the recent resolution of our Synod regarding ‘voluntary assisted dying’ (VAD) – something which, for the record, I consider to be bad idea. That much can only be heard as personal opinion but what comes next is more than that.

There are many things which could be said about the way our church has dealt with this but I’ll draw attention to just one. Read most charitably – and we must be charitable, because this brings us to where the resolution is strongest – read charitably, a community would affirm such a thing as assisted suicide by understanding it to be an act of mercy. This seems to be the rationale of our Synod in its allowing of VAD, although there’s not anything in the resolution to this effect and we have to read between the lines. Such a reading suggests that when a person is suffering greatly and has no prospect of recovery, facilitating her early death at her request is a matter of rendering aid, out of mercy. Honesty might require that anyone of us would feel the temptation to ask or assist if the circumstances were extreme enough, and perhaps even succumb to it.

But whatever any one of us might choose under such circumstances, that personal choice is less important than the framing of the issue by the Synod. For this framing effectively encourages what we have to call a Godless mercy. In affirming voluntary assisted dying in the way that it has, the Synod seems to declare that neither the ill person nor anyone who helps her has need of God as the bringer of mercy at that moment or in the aftermath. We might have need of the God who ‘comforts’ – if we believe in God – but that is as much as God seems to contribute here.

The point is that, on this understanding, we do not need to ask for mercy for having chosen or assisted in voluntary dying; the work – the grasping after death, or the putting to death – is held to be inherently righteous; God does not judge us here. (It would be unrighteous only if it contravened the legislation.)

Put differently, there is here no ‘fear and trembling’ before God as we reach out to contradict what seemed before to be God’s promise or command. God might require us to suspend ethics at some point but, should that happen, we will not have a Synod resolution to assure us. Fear and trembling – an utter casting of ourselves onto the mercy of God, even as we tell ourselves that it is right to do this – this is the only way in which we could act in such matters. This is the true leap of faith: living in the knowledge that God’s mercy is not guaranteed.

Yet against God’s freedom here our Synod resolution has made God part of a system: a guarantee. And so we have no need of justification by grace in VAD, for our actions are already sanctioned, kind of ‘pre-approved’. Whatever we might say about the sanctity of human life and injunctions not to kill, the mercy intended in the Synod’s resolution is Godless because there is no gospel in it. There is no gospel in the resolution because it does not allow that we can be wrong here.

In this reflection on VAD we have not wandered far from Hosea. The failure of Israel is not so much that it failed to be merciful, as if mercy were an end in itself. Rather it has failed to acknowledge and to seek mercy – the mercy it once sought and acknowledged. On the model of the pagan cult, Israel has failed to do seek what God gives by ‘helping’ God give it, and so God does not give it.

To recall our second reflection on Hosea 11, once divine mercy and forgiveness fade from the scene, so also does knowledge of sin – knowledge of sin, if not the sin and its effects themselves. There will still be moral and social breakdown – such as Hosea describes – but these things come to be seen as ‘necessary’, part of what is required to keep things ticking over. The surprising thing about sin is that it is always necessary so far as the sinner is concerned. A merciful God is not required for what counted is necessary, for there is no failure to forgive. But against this, on the day of judgement we will be better served by declaring, ‘Lord, the devil made me do it’ than ‘Lord, I had to do it.’

To link back to the VAD reflection, the Synod seems to have allowed that VAD might be ‘necessary’ in this way, and so sets anyone who chooses or assists in VAD outside judgement, as a matter of course. (The same assessment applies to those who choose not to opt for or assist in VAD; this too is righteous, of itself).

The problem here is not so much – or not only – an unaccounted-for contradiction of the command not to kill. [The contradiction is ‘un-accounted for’ because the resolution itself does not tell us why we might do this, other than that some believe we can]. The problem is the sanctioning of what I do or say apart from the justifying mercy of God – the fact that what I do is Godless: a mercy which does not seek mercy.

As we noted before, there is much more we might say around the VAD legislation but it’s enough for us to note from the Synod’s resolution that not much has changed between God and God’s people in the last 3000 years.

What, then, is the good news here?

We have seen that Hosea takes on the pagan system of encouragement of the gods, substituting mercy for fertility as what we most need from the gods. But the thing about mercy is that it is radically disruptive even of disruption. For, if we fail to seek mercy, will God then fail to be merciful?

1.9 you are not my people and I am not your God.’ 10 Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people’, it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’ 11The people of Judah and the people of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head; and they shall take possession of the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.

This mercy against all expectation is a word which seems irrelevant to the sense for God’s grace and mercy implied in the Synod’s resolution, for the resolution allows no judgement which mercy might yet overturn.

Be that as it may, let us also keep in mind that the Word did not come to Hosea convict us of the sins of others. This reading of the Synod’s resolution at least serves to show how our very best intentions – and they are good intentions – can betray our best convictions: and so we can crucify the Son of God for God’s own sake.

In our best intentions we still need the mercy of the One whose very property is to be merciful. It is only then that we might begin to be merciful as God will be.

If our best effort today reveals that nothing much has changed since Hosea, we might wonder whether the prayer for mercy, for ourselves as well as for others, is more central to life with this God than we typically care to admit.

It’s not for nothing that this prayer falls in the very middle of our worship each week.

MtE Update – July 18 2019

  1. SUNDAY WEEK July 28 there will be a discussion following worship regarding the recent resolution on ‘voluntary assisted dying’ by the VicTas synod. The resolution can be found here. If you would like to discuss the resolution outside of that Sunday meeting, please get in contact with Craig.
  2. A service to Celebrate the Life of Rev. Prof. Emeritus Harry Wardlaw will be held at the Deepdene Uniting Church, Burke Road Deepdene, on Tuesday July 23rd 2019 commencing at 2.00pm. A private cremation will be held at a later date.
  3. Some may be interested in a screening of a new film about Jean Vanier and the L’Arche movement, Thusday July 25, 2.30pm at ACU. More information.
  4. Despite an advice otherwise last week, Craig will be preaching again this Sunday July 21 from Hosea, with the focus being Hosea 1.2-3a; reading the rather confronting chapters 1 and 2 might be good preparation for the service.

Old News

Advance Dates

July 28 After-church conversation on the recent VAD legislation resolution from the Synod

August 18 Sunday Conversation – Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project

14 July – The Seventh Commandment – You shall not commit adultery

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 5

Hosea 4:1-3, 7-10
Psalm 51
Ephesians 5:21, 28-33
Mark 8:34-38

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery, (therefore)….
“You shall not commit adultery”

In our journey through the commandments it is worth recalling the way we have come. The first four, or perhaps five, commandments have to do with the being and character of the God of Israel. The promise: “I shall be your God; you shall be my people” inevitably implies how the covenant people are to live. That is what we have already heard in the demands of the previous commandments: what it is to have no other gods; to reject an idol; to honour the name of the Lord; to remember the Sabbath day; not to kill. That is to say, what is significant about the commandments is not merely their individual focus. The reason why each is to be obeyed is because the identity of the God of the covenant has first of all been established.

Therefore, each commandment illustrates the offer of a genuine freedom guaranteed by the covenant, not a new bondage. To isolate these commandments from this covenantal basis would be to make them into mere arbitrary assertions as to how people should behave. The fact that as a cold legalism this is how such injunctions are invariably understood readily gives rise to counter claims and contrary opinions, such as: “This commandment once made sense, but really not now in the modern world”.

To be specific, and given the inescapability of human sexuality, this seventh commandment concerning adultery appears to be one historically honoured as much in the breach as in the observance, and certainly no less in our day. Some weeks ago, an article appeared in The Age, by of all people a female Jewish rabbi, encouraging the potential value of a little bit of adultery. Although the article concluded by asking for reader response, there was none.  What does that silence signify? Presumably that the matter is of no real consequence to the wider society. Why, then, persevere with our undertaking?  One answer is that only if we can provide compelling reasons for taking account of anything that looks like a commandment is it conceivable that such considerations might gain a hearing in the contemporary climate.

To this end, each of the readings charts a profitable course for us to take. Hosea makes clear that moral confusion and disobedience in his day arise through religious apostasy. Because Israel has become faithless, there is no knowledge of Yahweh in the land. Despite his constancy, the people play the harlot in the attempt to forestall anarchy by making gods of the forces of nature. As night follows day, who the god is determines what the worshipper performs. In that religious culture, cultic prostitution existed in order to encourage the “gods” to be equally fertile by bringing rain, without which all is lost. For this reason, the commandment against adultery has real force in demonstrating the difference between Yahweh and the fertilising rain god Baal. When the prophets, as does Hosea, chastise the people for “whoring after false gods”, they use the word adultery because in that religiously pluralistic world loyalty to the one God is diluted, or adulterated. Again, and again the prophets show us how hard is the fight between the pure worship of Yahweh and the fertility rites of Baal and Ashtoreth, and of how idolatry and sexual license go together. For example, Jezebel, Ahab’s queen, is treated as “a whore’ for no other reason than that she introduced the worship of Baal into northern Israel. So, we are certain to miss the point if we restrict the matter of adultery merely to that of sexuality.

It is in this sense that eight centuries later Jesus describes the actual situation in which the world finds itself as an “evil and adulterous generation” seeking some sign. This description helps us to understand that adultery in the Bible refers in the first place more to theological irregularity than it does to sexual.

It is perhaps not made sufficiently clear that the word adultery is derived from the same root as the word “adulteration”. The word refers to corruption through association with an alien source – not the comedian’s play for laughs that adultery is associated with adults as infancy is with infants. Adultery always has to do with adulteration, with a breach of loyalty. That is why there is such a close connection between who God is understood to be, and what people believe is open to them in their dealings one with another.

But the difference between that world and our own is now considerable. Whereas the ancient texts link the religious and the sexual, we now live in the secularised Western world, where the self and its own future is detached from any redemptive context, and where religion is increasingly held in quiet or strident contempt. Because relationships become self-constructions, and because they are all we have, literally everything is expected of them.

In the final analysis, given the logic of the repudiation of the covenantal foundation of the commandment in favour of self-determination, the risk of adultery has to be inevitable.  With nothing to qualify the self, Jesus’ description of his own day as “an evil and adulterous generation seeking signs” assumes some force in our own technologically predatory society. While the serious minded are likely to espouse practical, if not theoretical serial monogamy, for many all that is left it seems is the frequently experienced insecurity, anxiety, and loneliness of the always at hand on-line search for the elusive encouraging “sign”.

Where God is not, compensatory “sign seeking” reveals how serious is the misunderstanding to think that today we are liberated from the ancient connection between human sexuality and faith in the God of the covenant.  But it is not just a case of their mutuality. It is how that mutuality is understood. In this respect, and with regard to marriage, Paul is saying something that otherwise would be exceedingly odd – that is, he makes marriage dependent on the love that Christ has for the church. Who would have thought that it is the Gospel that actually constitutes a marriage? That is to say, that the covenant of the natural – the relationship between husband and wife – is made dependent on the covenant of grace, the love that the Lord has for his church.

Once rooted in the Western tradition, secular society no longer understands this reversal, if indeed it ever did. It is not simply that marriage is able to be dismissed as “only a piece of paper”. It is that even if any connection at all is made between marriage and God, invariably it is to reverse this priority, and to make what the culture vacuously calls “religion” secondary to natural instinct. The problem is compounded when, as the increasingly hostile letters to the daily press reveal, it is apparent that the culture believes that “religion” should only be about religion, and not anything to do with the actual substance of what it means to be a human being. “Religion” thereby becomes merely a form of therapy if, or when, things go wrong, but only if one happens to be so inclined.

Inevitably, the culture must be incredulous of Paul’s insistence that it is Christ’s love for the Church that constitutes marriage. Perhaps we share that incredulity. Not surprisingly, therefore, where marriages are in difficulty it is as much likely to be due to an inadequate theology as to some manifestation of human incompatibility. What secular marriage guidance course helps rectify that? Is not the human condition to expect far too much of each other and ourselves in matters where we should not really expect much at all? And on the other hand, where we have every right to expect the gifts of God, just here in relation to human commitment, that we seldom seek them even if we knew that we can and should.

The Easter gospel of the vindication of the crucified One declares that this commandment has been so believed, and, consequently, has been truly lived in unadulterated faithfulness, even to death. This is what we affirm when the liturgy invites us to confess the faith of the Church, for example in the Nicene Creed, when we say “for us and for our salvation”.  And since this “us” of salvation is both public and universal in its scope, the commandment, too, has now become public truth, not just a private ethic for Jews and Christians.

In other words, continuing to live as do the people of the covenant in “an evil and adulterous generation”, the command: “You shall not commit adultery” has now become not only possible in principle, but actually achievable in practice. And that has to be good news.

MtE Update – July 12 2019

  1. The most recent Synod eNews is here.
  2. The most recent Presbytery newsletter (July 2) is here.
  3. Justice and International Mission Unit News
  4. This Sunday we pick up again our series on the Ten Commandments — Exodus 20.14 ‘you shall not commit adultery’ — supplemented by Mark 8.34-38, Hosea 4.1-3,7-10, Ephesians 5.21,28-33 and Psalm 51.

Other News

Upcoming Taize in Melb prayer:
Friday 26th July @ 6:30 pm. 

We will be setting up at ACU Chapel from 6 pm. It’s on the ground floor of the Daniel Mannix Building, 115 Victoria Parade, Fitzroy. Come and enjoy an evening of prayer, reflection and music. 

After the prayer we’ll venture down Brunswick street for a bite to eat. Hope to see you there! All welcome! 

Advance Dates

  • August 18 – Sunday Conversation – Lentara on the Asylum Seekers Project

7 July – On being a better sinner

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 4

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 30
Matthew 2:7-15

In a sentence:
The true meaning and catastrophe of sin is known only to faith

I’d like to begin this morning with the observation that most of you are lousy sinners. By this I mean that you – and I with you – don’t sin very well. And this is a serious shortcoming for us all because it is the poverty of the quality of our sinning which is the source of our continuing fears and uncertainties in faith. The more accomplished our sin, the deeper will be our faith.

As a way into justifying why this might be the case, we let’s consider the relationship between our readings from Hosea and Matthew this morning. Those passages are linked by Matthew’s assessment of the Holy Family’s return from Egypt after taking refuge there from Herod. This looks like prophecy and fulfilment: while Hosea was in fact looking back to the Exodus, Matthew’s borrows ‘out of Egypt I called my son’ and makes it appear as if Hosea is looking forward: here is an old prophecy about Jesus, now fulfilled.

But Matthew’s borrowing from Hosea is much more significant than this; in fact, it is so significant as to change our reading of Hosea – and of ourselves – altogether. For Matthew does not claim a prophecy to be fulfilled in Jesus. Rather, he identifies what is called, technically, a ‘type’ in the Exodus from Egypt and links it to Jesus, the ‘antitype’. An antitype is an overlay of an event or person on an earlier one – on the type. This links the two in mutual interpretation, although ‘skewed’ towards the later. The type doesn’t look forward to the antitype, the first thing to the last, like a prophecy. The relationship only appears when the antitype, the last thing, appears. The Bible is full of this method of self-interpretation.

Matthew’s use of Hosea in this way enables him to cast Jesus as a kind of new Israel. Matthew also describes Herod’s killing of the Innocents, reflecting Pharaoh’s killing of the young boys in Egypt prior to the Exodus, and his portrayal of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount casts Jesus as a new Moses. ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ sends a signal about the nature and scope of what we meet in Jesus: here is the history of Israel in the process of being recapitulated.

But it is not merely a re-occurrence of what once happened. The antitype is the true reality of which the earlier type was a shadow. Or we might say that the type – the earlier event – is a memory of what has not yet happened.

This is easier to illustrate than to describe. Hosea 11 gives an account of the coming into covenant of God and Israel, then Israel’s turning away, the punishment, God’s longing for restoration and a promised reconciliation. Matthew’s casting of Jesus as Israel invites a comparison here: the intimate relationship between parent and child (the Father-Son relationship), a turning away and punishment (Good Friday), the longing of God for a restoration of the relationship (Easter Saturday), and the restoration itself (Easter Day). The life of Jesus from incarnation to the resurrection repeats the history of Israel as Hosea describes it.

But in a typological reading – the dynamic of type and antitype – Jesus’ experience from incarnation to resurrection is not an echo of Hosea’s account of Israel. Rather, Hosea’s account is an echo, or a memory, of what happens to Jesus.

That requires a bit of reflection because we are used to thinking of all which precedes Jesus as pointing to him, building up to him, so that what is remembered is how we got to that point. And perhaps there remains a sense in which this is so.

But the crucial point is this: while this section of Hosea is important for understanding who Jesus is, it is not as mere ‘illustration’ that Hosea relates to Jesus. Hosea’s preaching does not give us the clue to Jesus. Hosea relates to Jesus as a reflection of him, as a memory of him, now revealed as such because the truth of Jesus himself has been revealed. Jesus, then, gives us the clue to Hosea’s preaching. The rejection of God by Israel described in Hosea is the crucifixion of Jesus. The promised restoration is the resurrection of Jesus. Incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are the meaning of what Hosea describes, accuses of and promises.

This is not mere theological trickery. The consequences of this way of thinking are, in fact, quite stunning – and now we come to why believing more profoundly makes better sinners of us.

We noted last week in Hosea’s 2750 year old text – and we experience every day of our lives here and now – that the promised restoration or resurrection by God has not occurred. This is to say that we and Hosea’s original audience reflect or echo the restoration and resurrection in Jesus imperfectly. It has happened for him but not yet fully for us. But this is also to say that our rejection of God has not properly occurred, that we also echo the crucifixion imperfectly.

Put differently, there is a sense in which we are not restored because we have not yet sinned well enough. This is clearly wrong… but we’ll stick with it for a moment to see whether it might still get us to where we need to go. To say that we have not yet sinned well enough is not to say that we haven’t – between us – managed to commit every sin which can be committed; we seem to have that covered. Committing sins is not problem but recognising what we do wrong as sin is a problem. That is, we do not really know ourselves as sinners. It is easy to know a moral failure, but moral failure is only half-sin. A half-sinner will only be half-reconciled to God, and so feel that the good, restorative things promised are still ‘not yet’.

If this is the case, what is required here is not a deeper ‘wallowing’ in sin or a talking-up of the sinfulness of human being. The understanding of sin is not a matter of heaping something up. The clue is found, again, in Jesus. Israel’s problem is that when it hears Hosea declare, ‘out of Egypt I called my son’, the people don’t really understand that it is them he refers to. The catastrophe is in the failure to be ‘son’ – child – to this divine mother, father – the failure to thrive in the peace of being lifted to this divine cheek and the failure to die after wriggling out of that embrace. What is lost is so central to their – and our – being that, once lost, it is no longer understood.

By contrast, on every page of the New Testament Jesus is the one who definitively hears and responds to the address ‘son.’ All that he is and does springs from that address and answers it. In crucifying this one, Israel denies the true form of sonship, the true form of intimate relationship with God. The sin of Israel, then, has no proper reference point for Israel itself. It is ‘mere’ sin, ‘mere’ distance from God. The only thing which can give sin its quality as sin – which can make us ‘high quality’ sinners rather than lousy ones – is a renewed experience of the intimacy with God. In the great parable, the prodigal son forgets what it means to be a son and imagines he is a servant (and the older brother makes the same mistake). This is the prodigal’s true sin, to which the waiting father answers ‘not servant, but son’. It is the light of such a restoration which reveals sin for what it was and will be if we allow ourselves that option again. Salvation makes real sinners of us – if redeemed sinners.

It is for this reason that the only real sin is the destruction in crucifixion of the Son of God as a son, as the child of God; every other sin is just a ‘memory’ or an ‘echo’ of this – not quite the real deal even if we can discern the pattern in it. And it is for this reason that the only thing which will deal with sin is the return of the Son, the return of such intimacy with God.

And so Jesus is raised, that the Son might be once more and that we might see and know and understand.

And so we break bread and bless a cup, and take to eat and drink, that together we might be that Son in our own re-Spirited flesh-and-blood life together.

Out of Egypt God calls us, to discover ourselves to be daughters and sons in the Son, to know our sin – and to know it behind us – and to rejoice.

By the grace of God, may such knowledge and joy be ever more deepened in all God’s people. Amen.

July 7 – Jan Hus & Peter Waldo                                           

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.

Jan Hus & Peter Waldo, reformers of the Church

These two men were ‘reformers before the Reformation’, and the 16th century European Reformers entered into their tradition. Waldo of Lyons, a merchant, was converted ca 1170 and began preaching in the streets, calling his considerable audiences to a faith and life of evangelical simplicity. His movement was one of lay people, and spread into Europe until settling in the Alpine Valleys and around the River Po in northern Italy where the Waldensian Church of today is still centred. They applied to Calvin in 1732 to join his reform. Throughout their history, they have been a persecuted community in a country dominated by the Roman Catholic Church (Pope Francis apologised for this in 2015) and now form a ‘double Synod’ with the Methodist Church of Italy.

Jan Hus (or John Hus) was born ca 1369. He was a bright student and graduated from the University of Prague; soon after his ordination in 1400 he became the University’s Vice-Chancellor. He was known for his public criticism of the morals of the clergy, bishops and the papacy, but the influence on him of the English divine John Wyclif (ca 1331-1384), regarded also as an early reformer, brought him to attention of the papal powers, who had issued a decree against Wyclif, especially over his views on the eucharist. Ironically, the criticism of the papacy occurred at the time when a schism occurred which produced two rival popes. It was a low point in Catholic history, and Wyclif and Hus were both condemned by the Council of Constance; Wyclif had already died, but Hus was burned at the stake and died on this day in 1415. These reformers were part of a movement in Bohemia for frequent communion, and the regular offer of the chalice to the laity, a century before Luther. Hus’s death encouraged this movement further, until the revolution in his name in 1419 was defeated by the king and they were forced underground.  Their views emerged again in the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), the spiritual ancestors of the Moravian church, who also influenced John Wesley.

It is now ecumenically agreed that the Church is semper reformanda, always being reformed. This principle is at the heart of the Uniting Church, which, like Waldo and Hus, insists that reform is led by the Holy Spirit, and soundly based in a reading of the Holy Scriptures (Basis of Union, para. 10-11).

Robert Gribben