Monthly Archives: January 2021

Sunday Worship at MtE – 31 January 2021

The worship service for Sunday 31 January 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below.  The order of service can be viewed here.

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

31 January – Freedom bound for love

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Epiphany 4

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Psalm 111
Mark 1:21-28

In a sentence
Freedom is always properly freedom to love and to lift each other

If there is one question which is taxing the best minds of the church in this day and age, it is not the question about whether we ought to be eating meat which has been offered idols. The impact of the gospel has been such that we have pretty much relegated such matters to a forgotten past.

Yet, as foreign to us as those old arguments might be, there is a very close relationship between how Paul approaches the dispute and how we ourselves might deal with problems of difference in our midst as a faith community, as a denomination, or in our wider society. For Paul is interested in the nature of the freedom we have in the gospel, and the consequences of this nature for our exercise of that freedom.

The Corinthians understood themselves to be a people freed by the gospel. Yet their understanding of this freedom was badly skewed, and this was the reason for much of what Paul writes about throughout the letter.  As he often does in this letter, this morning’s reading has Paul apparently quoting back to the Corinthians a saying of their own: ‘all of us have knowledge’. It’s a seemingly innocuous statement, but its purpose here is to justify the practice of eating meat offered to idols. ‘All of us has knowledge’ implies, ‘We know that the idols of heathen worship are nothing, so we may safely eat meat sold from the temples without compromising our belief in Christ; faith in Christ has revealed to us which among the gods matter, and which do not.’

Perhaps surprisingly, Paul has no problem with this. He sees that the gospel does give such freedom. But at the same time he knows that not all Christians are equally free to enjoy the fruits of what they now know. Some Christians – quite probably those who were once regular participants in the temple cults – are unable to get out of their heads the thought that, by continuing to eat sacrificial meat, they are relapsing back into their previous beliefs.

Paul’s response to this situation, on behalf of these so-called ‘weak’ believers, opens up a new dimension on the character of the knowledge and freedom Christians have in the gospel. While there is no ‘in principle’ gospel-objection to taking advantage of the cult to get your meat, there is a local social or communal one. The knowledge and the freedom we have in the gospel is never a knowledge and freedom for us as individuals but for us as we stand together before God in Christ. Paul’s challenge to the Corinthians shifts our attention from the freedom which comes from knowing about God or the world to the freedom which arises from, and gives rise to, love.

If all we know is that we are free to do this or that thing, that is not enough, not the ‘necessary knowledge’. To ‘know’ is merely to be expanded – ‘puffed up’ Paul calls it. The richer possibility is to know, and yet to put aside knowledge and the freedom it might bring in order that another might not fall.  This Paul calls love – that which knows and yet does not allow what it knows to become a distraction for one who knows less. In more tangible terms: love knows that meat offered to idols is only meat. But love is prepared to treat the meat as contaminated by the cult in order not to destabilise the faith of some so-called ‘weaker’ believer who can’t get it out of her head that it’s tainted by the idol. Love abandons its freedoms. Love enslaves itself to the weaker one in order that together we might be strong. ‘Therefore’, Paul declares, ‘if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall’.

As we’ve already observed, whether we ought to eat meat sacrificed to idols is not a question which taxes our minds much these days. But Paul’s principle applies far beyond that problem. Whether in the church or out of it, the call is to an exercise of freedom which is the freedom to deny ourselves some of our liberties in the gospel, in order that the humanity of others might be enriched. In the church and in the wider world the variety of possible accommodations of the weaknesses of others is a great as the number of human relationships. Still the call is the same: ‘take care that your liberties do not become somehow a stumbling block to the weak’.

Of course, there are a thousand objections and qualifications which come to mind whenever a preacher generalizes in this way about how we ought to treat each other – whether the preacher is St Paul, or the one to whom you are subject. Fundamentally, we object to how easily an ethical system like this can be manipulated and abused by the hysterical or the tyrannical. God is not unaware of these problems, and even a preacher might sense that it’s dangerous ground. But that doesn’t make the call to deny ourselves go away. Hear the call, and seek to live it in your lives, with all the ambiguities which come with any commandment.

For the problem with commandments is not that they might be abused in their application, but that it is impossible to be confident that we’ve actually met them. Sooner or later we may say a loud ‘No’ to the puritanical ascetic or to the loose libertine; but we will never know just when enough is enough.

Which is also to say, we never really know when God does the same for us, because it is God’s dealings with us which is the basis of the ethic Paul describes here. Though God in Christ could have chosen freedom from the world, he joined himself to a world which neither particularly looked for him nor welcomed him. Paul speaks elsewhere of Christ as the one who had no sin, and yet became sin that we might become righteousness. That is, in his baptism into the highs and lows of human life, Jesus put aside his freedoms in order to be ‘for us’. He does not merely become human but allows himself to be thoroughly marked by human brokenness, to the point of becoming that brokenness himself, on the cross… It is only thus that brokenness itself is broken, in that God took it into himself, allowing himself to become something new – the crucified God, truly God even to those who cry out, ‘Our God, our God, why have you abandoned us?’ Our lives together are godly to the extent that they reflect, not God’s ‘moral’ perfection, but that perfecting liberty of God which is not afraid to be limited and made a little dirty, if perchance it might mean that some will be healed.

Knowledge of our freedoms merely puffs us up in our own little worlds, but loving towards the freedom of others builds us all up.

By the liberating power of the Spirit, may God’s people ever more closely reflect in themselves the freedom of his Son to lay down our lives for others, and to take them up anew by his power!

Sunday Worship at MtE – 24 January 2021

The worship service for Sunday 24 January 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below.  The order of service can be viewed here.

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

24 January – As if, as if not

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Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 7:29-32a
Psalm 62
Mark 1:14-20

In a sentence
The fullness of our lives is not in the things we have but in the freedom of God’s children in all circumstances

Chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians is the ‘marriage chapter’, and many people count it among their least favourite parts of Paul. What we have just heard is Paul’s summary of the teaching he has been giving about marriage in response to questions which had come from the Corinthian church:

… from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.[NRSV]

It’s tempting to read Paul as having no real interest in marriage or other worldly experiences. It as is though he says: ‘you might have to marry, you might be moved to mourning or rejoicing, you might need to acquire possessions, but these are only surface things – treat them “as if” they were not really there, as if they did not really matter.’ This does not do well for his reception today, for ours is an age which relishes experience, which encourages immersion in all the things of the world.

The discomfort Paul’s apparent attitude to the world might cause is compounded when he gives his reason for thinking this way: ‘the present form of the world is passing away’. Even if we might make sense of the teaching to live ‘as if’ we had no dealings with the world, it’s hard to take seriously now Paul’s strong conviction that the end of the world is imminent, that the living ‘as though’ we had no dealings with the world was really a calling only for a small length of time before the end. We cannot pretend that we don’t expect to have a long life and to die before there is any ‘end of the world’ to deal with. Add to that the apparent world-hating tenor of the teaching and Paul is easily dismissed here as simply out of touch – even dangerously so.

Yet, to dismiss Paul as a religious ascetic is to miss the point of what he says here. He encourages the Corinthians to live ‘as if’ they had no dealings with the things of the world, not to preserve them from perceived ‘impurities’ of the world, but so that they may be free in the world.

In the chapter prior to this one, Paul quotes back to the Corinthians their own words: ‘all things are lawful for us’ (6.12), with which he actually seems to agree. And yet he qualifies that agreement with the observation that ‘not all things are beneficial’ and ‘I will not be dominated by anything’.

It is perhaps this second comment which gets us closest to the heart of the matter. Paul’s concern is not merely moral but pastoral – what is best for human beings, to enable them to live freely and without anxiety in the world? How can we live free from domination? Out of questions such as these, he puts to us that many of the things we think are expressions of our freedom are, in fact, simply enslavements.

In the matter of marriage, Paul indicates that he personally thinks celibacy the better way to go. Yet, marriage in itself is not wrong, and it is better that we marry than be dominated and distracted by not being married. It’s almost a policy of ‘harm minimisation’, and it applies as much to the other normal and permissible things he lists as it does to our human relationships.

‘Let those who be mourn be as if they did not’ is not to say don’t be sad, but that grief can become an all-consuming thing which we allow to dominate us to the detriment of our own well-being and the well-being of others.

‘Let those who rejoice be as if they did not’ is not to say don’t be happy when things go your way, but don’t be distracted by an expectation that they will or ought always to go as you wish. Do not be consumed by the world’s failure to serve you as you would like.

‘Let those who buy be as if they had not possessions’ is not to say that we ought not to own anything, but that our things or lack of things are not what make us righteous or worthy, and are quite capable of enslaving us and suppressing the fullness of life which comes with the call of God.

To live ‘as if’ is not necessarily to live without – without marriage, or joy or mourning or possessions, or whatever. It is to allow these things to be material for God’s working of grace in our lives, and not to let them dominate or limit us or our possibilities in Christ. When what we have and experience is had and experienced in the grace of God, then it sets us free.

Living this way becomes a possibility when we see it achieved by another. We cannot say with Paul that we think the world is about to end. Yet we can agree with him that, in Jesus, we have seen the world come to an end with the drawing near of God’s kingdom in the person of Jesus. In the life and ministry of Jesus, the world comes to the end of its skewed power over us. In him we see one who lives completely in and through the events which take place around him – good and bad – and yet one whose living through these events is coloured with light from a different source and a different calling. Jesus doesn’t withdraw from the world, or fear it, but embraces it in its transitory character as the sphere in which God acts, to bring about a end of our story which no one has yet heard or seen or perceived.

Living ‘as if’ one were or were not rejoicing, does or does not have possessions, is living which allows God to be the distraction from such things when necessary, rather than allowing those things to be a distraction from God. This is Christian freedom from the world in itself, and for the world and God.

With the Corinthians we can agree that all things are given to us in Christ – only we should not allow ourselves to be dominated or lorded over by anything other than the Lord himself, who does not dominate but sets free.

To get a little more concrete for a moment, at least so far as our life together goes: what would it mean for us in twelve or twenty-four months’ time if – as might be the case – we have moved on and no longer have all this or anything comparable but lived and worshipped and served together as though we did? We can test our answer to that question by asking another: What would it mean for us to live now ‘as though’ we had no suite of buildings such as this, even as we continue live within and enjoy them? Are we more because of what we have? Will we be less if we do not have it? The joy and the grief  will be what they will be, but they are also not quite the heart of the matter.

So it is for any such thing in our common or personal lives. Our lives and all that fills them are given us ‘as if’ they were ours. Through God in Christ they become truly ours to take up, or to put down according to Christ’s call.

It is God who takes what seems to be the mere givenness of things in our lives and makes them the means by which we might discover Christ’s call to us and live our lives in renewed freedom.

May we, then, discover in God and his Christ such a freedom to take up or to put down life’s options in love and desire, in grief and joy, that we may conformed to the likeness of Jesus and be our richest selves in all that is given us.

Study Groups 2021 – An Introduction to the New Testament

After Easter in 2021 we will be following up on last year’s study – An Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures – with a similar resource surveying the content, history and interpretation of the New Testament.

The study materials are available from the MtE website, and you are most welcome to use them independently if you can’t join one of our groups.

The discussion groups will likely gather via Zoom on Wednesday evenings and Friday afternoons. If you would like to receive details of this study when they are finalised, subscribe to the ‘MtE Reading Group’ list in the box below/right.

MtE Update – January 21 2021

  1. First update for 2021 – and just a short one!
  2. The most recent Presbytery News is here (Jan 4).
  3. This Sunday January 24 we will have a short ‘hymn-learning’ session to complete the second of the MtE communion settings by learning the till-now ‘missing’ Gloria for the setting! This will be shortly after the conclusion of the service.
  4. This coming Sunday January 24 we will hear some of the set readings for the day, Epiphany 3B, The details of the readings and some commentary are available here; our focus will be on the 1 Corinthians reading.


  1. Worship update Worship is now a gathered service in the church buildings. The services are also being live-streamed, with the links to this stream accessible from the congregational home page. We have sufficient space to accommodate those members of the congregation who would like to attend the service. VISITORS (from outside the usual membership) who would like to attend should register their interest and can be admitted only up to the maximum number allowed in the building. Visitors should register their interest prior to the service by contacting the minister via his email address on the contact page. We ask for your understanding should we not be able to admit you on the day.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 17 January 2021

The worship service for Sunday 17 January 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below.  The order of service can be viewed here.

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

17 January – Faith, Flesh, and Freedom

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Epiphany 2

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God, may my words be loving and true; and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.

We are currently in the season of Epiphany. The season in the Christian year when we attend to the manifestation of Christ to all people. This is the period of the Christian calendar when we reflect on what it means for God to be made visible in Jesus of Nazareth. What it means that God’s creative works find their centre in Jesus the Christ, from whom radiates the light of the world. This is a season in which we see the God whose pulsating life forms and sustains the world enmeshed within that created order itself. The God who forms us in our mother’s wombs has also been formed in a mother’s womb; the God whose knowledge of us is wonderful and high has now become intimate with poverty and lowliness. It is in this way, in this person — Jesus of Nazareth — that we see God most fully. This is the manifestation, the revelation of God which epiphany invites us to consider.

Just how remarkable this claim about God is can be seen in how long it took the Christian church to truly understand it. Of course in many ways that God becomes human, becomes a part of God’s own creation in Jesus is a mystery which we are still unravelling. But pointedly we can see this in the early debates of the church leading up to the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. There church leaders argued whether or not it would diminish God to be found fully in the created man Jesus of Nazareth. Those who opposed the divinity of Jesus probably saw themselves as the defenders of God’s dignity: surely God, who is above and before all creation, could not bear the indignity of being enmeshed in flesh and blood. God could be represented by a created being, by this one Jesus Christ, as the greatest and clearest manifestations of God in the world; but this could not be God fully found in the flesh.

It is against this that the church emphatically affirmed the full divinity of Jesus in the teaching of the Trinity. Jesus is in fact fully God:

God from God
Light from Light
True God from True God

This is the case even while we confess that he was born of Mary, made human, lived a life marked by history, and died. God is not diminished in freedom or in dignity by being found in the human one Jesus Christ. Rather than making our understanding of Jesus conform to our received assumptions about God, our tradition calls us to always set our assumptions about God alongside Jesus — in whom we see God most fully.

This is important to bear in mind as we consider Paul’s ethical teaching in our reading from the First letter to the Corinthians. I want to suggest that key to Paul’s ethical teaching here is an account of freedom which is bound up with the world of bodies, and our concrete lives in creation. Paul’s ethical teaching cannot be understood without reference back to Jesus, who lived in the messy world of bodies, and food, and flesh.

Paul sets his teaching against what appear to be slogans well known among the Corinthian community:

“All things are lawful for me!”

“But,” says Paul, “not all things are beneficial … and I will not be dominated by anything”

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.”

“But,” says Paul, “God will destroy both.”

These slogans, seemingly well-known enough for Paul to quote, represent an account of freedom which Paul seeks to challenge. It’s impossible to get fully behind the text to know exactly what issues are at play in the Corinthian community. Nevertheless, we get the sense that some in the community have taken the teaching that Jesus frees us from being bound by the law to an unhelpful extreme. Rather than calling us to faithfully share in the way of Jesus the proponents of these slogans—

“All things are lawful … Food is meant for the body!”

The proponents of these slogans seem to have taken the freedom Jesus offers us to mean that what we do with our bodies no longer matters. We are free, and this freedom means we can do whatever we desire to do. At first glance, then, the manner in which Paul challenges these slogans seems obvious. Against the permissive, “Yes!” these slogans suggest, old moralistic Paul is heard offering a stern, “No!”

Undoubtedly the Apostle Paul would express rather strong moral convictions were he with us here today — views which might seem strange 2000 years later, and in a part of the world unknown to him. But I want to suggest that what we see in Paul’s ethical vision First Corinthians 6 is richer, and more life affirming than the common moralism for which Paul is usually known.

Paul’s moral lesson here is expressed primarily with the language of bodies — and even the intimate acts of bodies. Within Paul’s broader corpus the language of bodies primarily functions as a metaphor for the community of faith. Most famously later in this same letter: where Paul talks of the church as a body with many parts, each with their own role to play. Here, however, the focus of the body language Paul invokes is not the diversity of the Christian community, but rather its call to united faithfulness.

“The body,” this community, “is meant not for fornication,” that is, intimate unfaithfulness, ” but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” (v13b) As Paul continues, drawing on the language of prostitution, this point is extended. We should think back to Paul’s own scriptures (what we receive as the texts of the Old Testament), and the ways in which prophets also used the language of prostitution as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. Paul, like the prophets before him, is calling us back to God.

There are layers of meaning operating at the same time here. At one level the body is the church, and Paul is warning the church against unfaithfulness. At another level, our literal bodies — our world of flesh and blood and our encounters with others— is the very stuff with which we are to express our faithfulness: while Paul is using metaphoric language, he is not only using metaphoric language. The reference to the raising of Jesus’ body ties these two layers together: in the fact that God becomes incarnate in flesh and blood we know surely that our bodies matter, that our concrete world of flesh and blood is the domain of God’s redemptive work: our embodied lives are the tools with which we express obedience to God; alongside this, that God breathes new life into the dead flesh of Jesus, opening possibilities for newness beyond what ordinary flesh and blood seems capable, suggests a new order of creation into which we are all, collectively called.

The language of prostitution in this passage, then, may contribute to our views on contemporary sex work. But we should be wary of missing the deeper lesson which is also being taught here. I think we should be wary about too quickly using texts like today’s reading to reinforce the stigma experienced by contemporary sex workers. Regardless of what we might think about sex work today, we should be careful when we read scripture not to avoid how its words challenge us by instead turning the words towards others. Indeed the insights of some contemporary sex work activists can provide helpful insight as we think about what Paul’s teaching might mean for us today.

Setting aside what the Christian tradition might want to say about contemporary sex work, many sex work advocates point out a common pitfall of attempts to reform the sex work industry. Namely, that such attempts are not built upon relationships with people working in the industry, and so do not treat such workers with the dignity which they are due. This is a helpful insight, again, not because it necessarily leads us to a clear view of this industry as a whole, or different aspects of it. But rather because it reminds us that the work of moral discernment, to which the new reality of Christ’s resurrection calls us, must be done in the concrete terms of real relationships, of real communities. It is precisely in this concrete, embodied work that Christ continues to work.

It is this which Paul’s letter teaches us today — and perhaps why it is set along other stories of God’s calling and our human response. That our response to God’s calling is enacted precisely in the circumstances in which we find ourselves: the world of our bodies, of our concrete everyday lives. That our response to God’s calling is discovered through faith-filled communities, filled with the Spirit. That our response to God is not first and foremost found in our ability to be perfect: neither in a divine, “no!”, nor a simplistic, “yes!” to everything. But rather, we respond to God in being willing to learn from each other, holding together as one body, here and now. This is the life-giving message Paul offers us that: that the Lord is for the body: this collective body, and your individual body. This is where God’s redemptive work takes place, this is where the light of Christ shines. In our bodies, beautiful and bold. To the glory of God eternal.

April 22 – Toyohiko Kagawa

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.

Toyohiko Kagawa, renewer of society

Kagawa – evangelist, social reformer, author and mystic

Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) lived in a turbulent period of Japanese history – the time of rising militarism and deepening xenophobia.

Born to a mistress of an unsuccessful politician businessman and orphaned at four, he learnt resilience through a difficult childhood. He was brought up by the austere and resentful widow of his father in his ancestral village in Shikoku.

At sixteen he became a pacifist, influenced by Tolstoy’s writings; this coincided with Japan’s war against Russia. Toyohiko was beaten as a traitor by his fellow students and teachers alike. Christianity too was regarded with suspicion; he was disowned by his remaining family when baptized in the same year.

Kagawa became an evangelist, preaching on street corners. He focused on those forgotten by society and neglected by the churches – the urban poor. At twenty-one, at death’s door with tuberculosis, he had a mystical experience of healing, of “being enveloped by bright light”. This was a formative experience and his life took on a great sense of urgency.

He left his seminary for the Shinkawa slums in Kobe, living there for the next 14 years surrounded by disease, vermin, and overwhelming stench, harassed day and night by drunks and criminals demanding money. He was threatened with the sword and beaten, yet persisted with his pacifist stance, kneeling before his abusers in the posture of prayer – not a ministry for the faint hearted.

Kagawa was impatient with those who saw the faith as a mere collection of correct doctrines: the Kingdom of God is to be lived in every dimension of life. He became an entrepreneur for the poor, starting clinics, low-cost food outlets and cooperative factories in the slums. He organised trade unions, and led strikes in the Mitsubishi and Kawasaki Shipyards in 1921. He preached “Brotherhood Economics”, peaceful cooperation between capital and labour, based on the Cross of Christ. He later organised unions for share farmers and farm workers, as well as consumer cooperatives throughout Japan.

He was the author of 150 books, often drafted on toilet paper; in a five-year period from 1929 he held 1,859 evangelistic meetings. He made twelve overseas speaking tours, to Australia, the USA, Canada, Europe, China, India and the Philippines. He studied for two years at Princeton University, obtaining Master’s degrees in theology and Experimental Psychology.

Kagawa was jailed several times for his role in the union movement, yet during the Depression the Mayor of Tokyo invited him to head the city’s Social Welfare Bureau. He was jailed in 1940 for his apology to China for Japan’s attack, and in mid- 1941 led an unsuccessful peace mission to the USA.

During his Australian tour (1935), Fletcher Jones (an iconic Australian clothing brand) invited Kagawa to address workers at his Warrnambool factory.  Jones, a Methodist, believed that “spiritual growth was achieved through productive and satisfying work, and the object of business should be social advancement rather than individual profit”. He visited Kagawa’s cooperatives the following year and proceeded to turn his business into a cooperative. By the 1970s, over 70% of shares were owned by the staff.

Kagawa remains a transnational inspiration for all who seek to live the Kingdom on earth.

by Rev Atsushi Shibouka

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