Monthly Archives: April 2021

Illuminating Faith – Scripture, Canon, Creed

The series of lectures linked below were presented by Robert Jenson 2009; similar material is covered in his book, Canon and Creed (2010).

These lectures have particular importance for Protestants in view of the emphasis Protestantism places on the biblical text, whether in biblicist or extreme liberal interpretative modes. Jenson honours the biblical text but shows how it is the product of a pre-existing complex of theological commitments. Theology, then, does not only arise from the Bible; it also precedes the Bible. This is important for making judgements about the nature and authority of biblical material.

The following links do not constitute an IF study as such – at some stage in the future we may produce a study document to assist the hearing and discussion of the material. Nevertheless, individuals or groups will discover much to ponder in this extending material on its own!

26 April – Sermon for the funeral of Audrey Joan Larsen

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Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 13:8-13

When we gather like this in a place like this, it is to tell not one story but two. The one is our story with each other, of which we have just heard a little today (and it is always too little); the other is God’s story with us, to which we now turn.

Yet, in this turn, we don’t leave the first story behind; we tell our own story and God’s story because they are intertwined. This relationship can be treated in all manner of ways, but today, taking the lead from the psalmist and St Paul, we’ll consider the relation of these stories through the question of what it is to know.

The quest for knowledge drives us, and some of you are here today because Audrey’s own quest for understanding drew you to each other. Among all the things that might be known, we ourselves are what we most deeply desire to know in this world. Of all the objects of knowledge we might consider, we ourselves are the most interesting, the most extraordinary. For, as the psalmist whispers, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we delight to know more of this.

The knowledge our searching will reveal by itself is of a certain, limited type. It is oriented toward ourselves-in-the-world as ‘problem’: the What and the How and Why of what we do, or need, or suffer.

Yet the knowing we encountered today in the psalm and St Paul is of a different order.

Psalm 139 is one of the most intimate passages of the Scriptures, in which the poet marvels at his very self and at God’s knowledge of that self.

1 O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

13 …For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Alongside the poet, we heard from St Paul, who is not often accused of poetry. Yet if not aesthetically, he poetises technically – not so much in his selection of words but in his sense for the order in which things should be said, the way in which things should be made relative to each other, the grammar of our being:

I know, but only in part; yet I shall know even as I am now fully known.

These two write not of knowledge as answer to question; they intimate knowledge of mystery. This mystery is not a solvable problem but that which, of its very nature, is impenetrable. It is unmistakably there, it can be seen, it matters, but it resists comprehension.

‘Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it…’

‘…For now we see through a glass, darkly’ (as we said it in the old tongue).

The particular mystery Paul and the poet contemplate is their own irreducible being, known to them in part, and yet fully known by another.

We are driven to know ourselves and to understand, and yet we will never reach that goal. This is not because it is too far – not because there is too much to know about ourselves – but because our comprehending in this way is not the point of it all.

The point is to know that we are known, to seek to understand out of that knowledge which is God’s knowledge of us. The mystery at the heart of our being is God’s knowledge of us, in all our strengths and all our weaknesses. We strive to grasp that God has grasped us in all our breadth and length and depth and height.

To know ourselves as God knows us would be to change what we think knowing is all about. Paul was writing against a certain interpretation of knowledge and experience. His criticism of knowledge in that community was that it didn’t carry the mystery of who they were, and the mystery of whose they were – the mystery of whose we are. And so the community was breaking apart all over the place. There was at play a knowledge which puffed up and divided rather than built up and unified.

You are more than this, he insists. And the only way you can know it is to love. Properly to be the mystery you are, to know yourself in this way, is to love. Love is the knowing which creates and builds.

For love always begins before we do, outside of us. Love is, first of all, the love we receive.

This is the love which nurses the unknowing infant; it is the love which teaches those who don’t yet know but now can understand. It is the love we hear in the ‘I do’. It is the love which holds the hand of one whose knowledge now passes in and out of reach, who is ceasing now even to know herself. It is the love which causes us to gather as we have today because we knew someone who no longer knows anything and yet is loved.

Whatever we might strive to know, it is finally only resting in the knowledge that we are known which will answer that striving.

Prophecies, tongues, knowledge – these things of ours all come to an end, and we will leave them behind. Yet if love ever ended, then we would too.

But Paul and the poet testify: Love never ends because it begins not with us but with God. We were known before we knew; we know now only in part; we will be known still, once we cease to know any longer.

We know and love – and strive after these things – because God knows and loves us. We know less than we should and love less than we ought, but God’s knowledge and love exceed ours.

This excess is like wisdom to foolishness, strength to weakness, life to death. And so when, for all our best efforts to understand, to love and to live, we find ourselves to be fools, or indifferent, or dead, God abides and exceeds and carries us over to himself.

This is how our stories are intertwined with the story of God. It is given to us to find our way to God, in the knowledge that God has already found his way to us.

To know as one known, to love as one loved: this is the call of God and the gift of God.

Let us, then, open our ears to the call that we might receive the gift.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 25 April 2021

The worship service for Sunday 25 April 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

25 April – No other name

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Easter 4

Acts 4:1-13
Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

In a sentence
There is no salvation without reconciliation – the reconciliation of real persons in real disputes; this is what God promises.

Acts 4.12  There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

That name, of course, is ‘Jesus’.

Here, perhaps, we find the heart of all objections to Christian faith, whether against doctrine or biblical testimony or Christian ethics. To modern ears, Peter’s declaration seems to be about as exclusive as could be made: only here, in the name of this one person among all persons of history, is salvation to be had.

And so the desire to discard this declaration, or at least soften it, is strong, whether it be from our concern for the ‘salvation’ of those good people who don’t believe – perhaps even members of our own family – or our rejection of the idea of salvation altogether and the triumphalism of those who consider themselves saved and others damned.

What the various objections share is a concern about the exclusivism implicit in this announcement. The problem is that the name of Jesus is not common to all people. The implication seems to be that only those who come into contact with the name ‘Jesus’, and then have believed on it, only these receive ‘salvation’. If salvation is tied to one such event – as the name ‘Jesus’ suggests – this is, at the very least, unfair. Historical events and persons are common only to those who come into contact with that event or its ‘downstream’ history, and not everyone will have that contact. How much better it seems to us that, whatever salvation is, everyone has equal access to it.

But we ought to give a little thought to what ‘saved’ might mean. The history of religion has delivered us a notion of salvation deeply coloured by the negative: we are saved from something. That something is, broadly, ‘damnation’: the wrath of God and associated hellfire, in the various versions of various religions. But salvation is properly also – even predominantly – salvation for something.

We are saved for what we are saved as: we are saved as human beings to fulfil our very humanity. Put more simply, to be saved is to be made fully human or, as is more the case for us, the process of being saved is one of becoming more fully human.

If Jesus is somehow the means of this, it is hard to see how he is of use to those who do not – and could not – know him because of his historical particularity. And so we seek other things we think make us human, or more fully or valuably human. The most common appeal here is to one form or other of moral achievement. When we feel moved to say something like ‘all religions are really about love, and even atheistic secularists are really about love too’, we are asserting that salvation is not about what we know – the name of Jesus or whatever – but about what we do. For, while people will always know different things because of their different histories, they all have to act in relation to each other and, we presume, all know what it means to act ethically or lovingly in their own situation. Surely, then, salvation is about being the right kind of person – being human in the right way – for everyone surely has the opportunity to be that. In this way, no one is implicitly excluded from at least the possibility of salvation; we include everyone.

Yet, a strange irony now emerges from the broader sweep of Peter’s preaching. We object to the declaration of Jesus as the way to God because it seems to exclude so many people but, in fact, the Jesus Peter proclaims is the excluded Jesus. The words which come just before today’s problematic text run like this, referring back to the lame man healed in the preceding story:

Acts 4.10… let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’

It is only then that we hear the disturbing assertion,

12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name…by which we must be saved.’

It is not simply the name Jesus presented here as the means of salvation, as if it were like the magic spells we considered last week. The name refers to particular events in which the specific people to whom Peter preaches are implicated: this Jesus ‘whom you crucified’, ‘rejected by you’. The reason Jesus is the only means of salvation for these people is that he is their victim – the one they have excluded – now presented back to them in a reconciling offer of forgiveness.

If Jesus is the means of their salvation, and their salvation is a turning to a fuller humanity, then this fuller humanity has to do with overcoming the exclusion: a reconciliation to their victim. Salvation comes only with the reconciliation of oppressors and victims, the overcoming of exclusion.

Thinking about salvation in this way, we have also re-thought the problem to which Jesus might constitute an answer – what it is from which we are saved. While we might be troubled by Peter’s declaration as a verse plucked from its setting, the full context of the verse suggests that perhaps the thing we all have in common with each other – if not yet the name Jesus – might be the fact that we all have victims, that we all exclude.

We here today cannot be guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus. Indeed, may whom Peter addressed in his sermon would not be directly responsible either. But we can learn from the preaching of Peter to those who were guilty what it would take for forgiveness truly to be discovered in our lives, with our particular guilts and afflictions. Salvation begins with a repenting – a turning towards our victim and a receiving of forgiveness. Salvation has to do with reconciliation – not ‘merely’ to God in the abstract but to each other, concretely.

Today, of course, is ANZAC Day, on which we recognise many things, if perhaps not sufficiently what it signals about the victims we make or are of each other and the need for difficult reconciliation war creates. The following is a poem from the American writer and poet Hermann Hagedorn, published in 1917, which conveys a vision of salvation as post-war reconciliation, under the title ‘Resurrection’.

NOT long did we lie on the torn, red field of pain.
We fell, we lay, we slumbered, we took rest,
With the wild nerves quiet at last, and the vexed brain
Cleared of the wingèd nightmares, and the breast
Freed of the heavy dreams of hearts afar.
We rose at last under the morning star.
We rose, and greeted our brothers, and welcomed our foes.
We rose; like the wheat when the wind is over, we rose.
With shouts we rose, with gasps and incredulous cries,
With bursts of singing, and silence, and awestruck eyes,
With broken laughter, half tears, we rose from the sod,
With welling tears and with glad lips, whispering, “God.”
Like babes, refreshed from sleep, like children, we rose,
Brimming with deep content, from our dreamless repose.
And, “What do you call it?” asked one. “I thought I was dead.” 
“You are,” cried another. “We’re all of us dead and flat.”
“I’m alive as a cricket. There’s something wrong with your head.”
They stretched their limbs and argued it out where they sat.
And over the wide field friend and foe
Spoke of small things, remembering not old woe
Of war and hunger, hatred and fierce words.
They sat and listened to the brooks and birds,
And watched the starlight perish in pale flame,
Wondering what God would look like when He came.

Resurrection’, by Hermann Hagedorn (George Herbert Clarke, ed.,  A Treasury of War Poetry.  1917)

If there is the slightest critique which might be made of Hagedorn’s vision, it is what we might read into the last line – ‘Wondering what God would look like when He [comes]’, as if God has not already come in the vision.

For, what Hagedorn has already recounted – the reconciliation of victims and oppressors, of those who revel in war and those who just want to go home, of the innocent and the guilty; the reconciliation of the German and the French, and the Australian and the Turk; the reconciliation of the Bolsheviks and the Czarists, the Americans and the Japanese; the reconciliation of the Nazis and the Jews, of the Israelis and the Palestinians, of needy refugees and the blind eye; the reconciliation of the Aborigines and we colonists – all of this is what God ‘looks like when He comes’: the reconciliation of the living and the dead.

There is no salvation without justice, no justice without peace, no peace without reconciliation, no reconciliation without grace.

To say that Jesus’ name marks salvation is not to exclude anyone. It is to draw to our attention what about us is excluded by others, and what about others we exclude. In one excluded man’s grace towards those who cast him out, we see the beginnings of a reconciled humanity.

To declare that salvation is found in Jesus is not arrogantly to exclude an abstract person in some distant time or place who could not possibly know Jesus’ name. It is humbly to preach and seek reconciliation wherever we can with the real and tangible people who are part of our lives.

There is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved but the names we would rather we did not know. These will save us, or we will save them. Salvation is reconciliation of what we have divided and separated.

This is what it is like when God comes.

A number of elements of this sermon have been drawn from Rowan Williams’ very helpful study, Resurrection: interpreting the Easter gospel, Morehouse, 1994 [1982].

MtE Update – April 22 2021

  1. New Testament STUDY GROUPS have begun — Wednesdays April 21 and Fridays April 23. This is a great course on the New Testament from a contemporary scholarly perspective, using online video (lectures), complemented by printed transcripts. Details of the discussion groups and how to register can be found here (registration helps!). Join with members from 5 or 6 other congregations for great conversation and learning together — late starters most welcome!
  2. REMINDER — it is now mandatory that attendance at MtE services is registered electronically; you can make this easier for the door steward by having the ‘Service Victoria’ app installed on your smartphone and scanning yourself in. If you can’t do this, we’ll have a system in place to add you to the attendance list!
  3. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster (April 20)
  4. Check out what’s happening at Hotham Mission
  5. Please note the change of time for Audrey Larsen’s funeral – now to be at 10.30am on Monday April 26.
  6. This coming Sunday April 25 we continue to focus on the Sunday selections from Acts. Some comment on the readings for this week can be found here.

Old News

  1. Religion in the University – a one-day symposium at Newman College, Parkville; details

FUNERAL NOTICE – Ms Audrey Larsen – Monday APRIL 26

The funeral for Audrey Larsen will be conducted in the MtE church/hall, 4 Elm Street, North Melbourne, at 10.30am on Monday April 26. Hospitality will be offered in the hall following the service.

This service can be viewed on a live stream here and is now available as a recorded service on the MtE YouTube channel for a short while.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 18 April 2021

The worship service for Sunday 18 April 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

18 April – Miraculous

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Easter 3

Acts 3:1-19
Psalm 4
Luke 24:36b-48

In a sentence
The miracle at the heart of faith is that God makes sense of us for our own understanding, and calls us to renewed life.

The events at the Easter-heart of the Christian story seem to beg to be ‘made sense of’. How can we comprehend a resurrection or any purported miracle around Jesus?

Yet, while the desire to make sense is a natural one, we must recognise its limitations. This is not to say that we ought to allow ourselves to be ‘unsensible’ or irrational. It is more a question of what makes sense of what. What will bring us closer to the heart of Christian experience is entertaining the possibility that these biblical texts might ‘make sense’ of us, might comprehend us

The story of the man miraculously healed in our Acts reading today is another ‘need to make sense of’ passage in the Easter account, reflecting as it does the ongoing impact of Easter and Pentecost.

While there is a lot of scepticism these days (and, even back then!) about miracles, even those who stand as a matter of principle against any purported miracle retain an interest in the idea of miracles. The credulous and the sceptic alike, we all would that someone enter our lives and declare, ‘in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk!’ or ‘be poor no longer’ or ‘be lonely no more’, and not only declaring this, of course, but the miracle then taking place. This is a story we would all love to believe for the relief it seems to promise.

However, as we ponder the idea of a miracle, we must be mindful of what the miraculous is not: miracles are not magic. Magic has to do with the possession of a certain knowledge about the way the world works and, so, possession of knowledge about how things might be manipulated. If you know the correct incantation and say it in the right way, then you can bring about what you desire. And so in the Harry Potter stories, for example, the young witches and wizards are gradually inducted into the mysteries of their craft: the words which must be said, and how they must be said. We see them struggle to get their Latin phrases right, and to wave their arms in the right way, in order to make happen whatever the spell is supposed to effect. In this, magic is much closer to modern scientific technique with the potential of its descriptive formulas than it is to biblical miracle.

On a magical understanding, Peter knows the magic word – ‘Jesus Christ’ – and the lame man is healed. (A little later a magician named Simon even offers to pay the apostles if they’ll teach him the ‘magical’ gesture by which the Holy Spirit was imparted to new believers ([Acts 8.9-23]). Yet, neither Peter nor Luke are interested in magic. If there is a tendency towards a magical interpretation of miracle stories like this, it is in us and not in the story itself that the magic is found. Such a magical understanding appears in us when we find ourselves thinking that, if only we knew the right words to pray, and if we prayed them with an appropriate air of authority or with the right degree of sincerity, or with the right amount of faith, or if we could find someone else who can do that for us … if only we knew the spell, we too could do what Peter did.

Yet, closer attention to the story contradicts this reading. Whereas our interest here is most likely to stem from the possibility (or the impossibility) that we too might share in such a healing, Peter is interested in communicating the possibility of the forgiveness of sin. He makes no implied promise of the healing of our bodies; the healing of the lame man is almost incidental to the point of the passage. Recall here what we said last week about the secondary status of the resurrection of Jesus itself: the resurrection is not the main event but a sign pointing to something else – in fact, a sign that also points to matters of judgement and forgiveness.

Peter declares not, ‘Repent and turn to God so that you may all walk again, or see again, or stand up straight again, or be healed of your sadness’, but ‘Repent … and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.’ The big news in the story is not that God acts in the name of Jesus to enable a lame person to walk again, but that God acts in the name of Jesus to forgive sin.

The introduction of the theme of forgiveness here disrupts the magical reading of the miracle. Magical thinking, with its the desire to know how to make this or that happen, is not just about what we might be able to do but is also about how we understand ourselves. To want to change things magically is to demonstrate that we don’t think of ourselves as part of our problems. Magic doesn’t change us in ourselves but changes others or the world: my love potion is given to change you, not me. Magic is a tool in our hands for shaping what is outside us.

But Peter’s preaching is directed at a different target. With the charge of sin and offer of forgiveness, Peter opens up the thought that we ourselves need to be changed. To be guilty of sin is to have a share in the reason for what is wrong. ‘Sin’, as an idea, gathers us into the problem, makes us a part of the problem.

The difficulty of the miracle now shifts. In terms of where we started, the hard text we seek to make sense of now offers us a new sense for ourselves. The crowd respond to the showy miracle, but Peter wants to show them themselves.

This is a bigger shift than we might think.

It is as difficult to believe that I might need real change as it is that the lame could walk again in this way. Pressing further, it is as difficult to learn and understand what might need to be done in me as an individual or in us as a community as it is for a dead man to stop being dead.

It is much easier to make sense of something – to know it on our own terms – than to be made sense of – to know ourselves on another’s terms, especially if that ‘other’ is one whose knowledge of us cannot simply be dismissed.

The death and the resurrection with which Easter faith is concerned is not the lame man’s disability and healing or even the death and resurrection of Jesus himself; it is the death which is in the people – the capacity to ‘kill the Author of life’, Peter says (3.15) – and the possibility of their rising from that in repentance (3.19). Jesus dies and rises, that we might die and rise too.

To proclaim Jesus as risen is not to believe in magic; it is to declare ourselves to be under judgement. And yet, miraculously – here is the miracle – to proclaim Jesus risen is also to declare that we are within reach of forgiveness by the sheer grace of the one who brings the charges against us.

We will hear more about these charges next week. But, for now, the point is the need to entertain not the abstract idea of a miracle but the concreteness of the repentance to which the miracles point. It is only when we let go of making sense of Easter on our own terms, and let the story speak to us of things we don’t yet know, that a rethinking – itself a kind of re­pentance – becomes a real and close possibility. And with that comes the possibility of a life lived with new understanding, vigour and hope.

This life is what the people of God – and all people – deeply desire: hearts once crippled now having cause to run and leap and praise God (3.8).

This life is what the gospel of the risen, crucified one makes possible, by making more profound sense of us than we yet have made on our own terms.

Jesus dies and rises that we might, too.

So let us die, and rise, and walk and leap in love and praise.

MtE Update – April 16 2021

  1. Please note that it will be mandatory from April 23 that attendance at MtE services is registered electronically; you can make this easier for the door steward by having the ‘Service Victoria’ app installed on your smartphone and scanning yourself in. If you can’t do this, we’ll have a system in place to add you to the attendance list!
Cover art
  1. New Testament STUDY GROUPS commence next week, Wednesday April 21 (7.45pm) and Friday April 23 (1.30pm). This is a great course on the New Testament from a contemporary scholarly perspective, using online video (lectures), complemented by printed transcripts. Details of the discussion groups and how to register can be found here (registration helps!). Join with members from 5 or 6 other congregations for great conversation and learning together!
  2. The next meeting of the newly-forming UCA CBD Justice Action Coalition will be next Tuesday April 20 at 7.30pm via Zoom — contact Craig if you’ve not already received the meeting link (different from last time!)
  3. The MtE AGM will be conducted following worship this Sunday April 18.
  4. The most recent Synod eNews (April 15)
  5. This Sunday April 18 we continue to focus on the Sunday selections from Acts. Some comment on the readings for this week can be found here.

Old News

  1. Religion in the University – a one-day symposium at Newman College, Parkville; details

11 April – Don’t be dead

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Easter 2

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
John 20:19-31

Imagine that tomorrow morning’s news bulletins reported six new locally-acquired COVID-19 infections in Melbourne today; and that then, on Tuesday, there were ten more; and, on Wednesday, another 25. This being the case, we would be right to guess that next week’s worship service would be pre-recorded and that we would need to re-stock our mask supply!

In a way which, 18 months ago, would have been unimaginable to all except infectious disease epidemiologists, we all now know the signs of an approaching community lockdown. Rising infections from unidentified sources mean a tight constraining of community movement: if this – rising infections – then that – isolation.

Yet, if tomorrow we read a well-corroborated report of the return to life of a person previously quite dead, it would have almost no meaning for us whatsoever, in the sense that almost nothing would change in our going about our daily routines. Our contemporary thinking is that the dead can’t rise. This means that, even if we are wrong about this, we have no framework for understanding what ‘risen’ might mean. If the resuscitation of a well-dead person could be established, it would quite simply be meaningless. By this I mean that talk of a resurrection would have no application for us: it would not signal what we should do next.

In Jesus’ time, this was not the case. While our way of thinking about ourselves and our world is such that the dead don’t rise because they can’t, many of his generation held also that the dead don’t rise, but that they can. This difference is what makes the New Testament proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus at least possible: the dead can rise – or God can raise them, even if God usually doesn’t do so. And, of course, the New Testament declares: now one has been raised.

But there is more to resurrection than this in the New Testament. The notion of resurrection was an element of apocalyptic thought. This arrived late in Jewish thinking and was attractive because of the kinds of problems we have recently seen developed in Job (and also in Ecclesiastes and the Psalms): the world as it stands is unjust, and it seems that God must also, then, be unjust. ‘Apocalyptic’ concerned itself with the ‘apocalypse’ – literally, the ‘revelation’ of what has been hidden (Greek: apo [from/out of], kalypt­o [hide]). What will be brought out from hiding is the righteousness of God: God’s inherent righteousness in God’s setting right what is wrong. God will judge the world, and reveal righteousness in the process. Resurrection matters here because the judgement is of the totality of history, including those who have already died, and we cannot hear the judgement of God if we are dead.

This judgement – the revealing of where righteousness resides – is the heart of the matter, and not the rising. This is to say that ‘resurrection’ – often thought by us to be the central notion – is a subordinate idea in apocalyptic thinking. Resurrection is like the money we need to have in our pocket in order to buy our lunch. The money is not the point – the lunch is.

To say, then, that a person has been raised from the dead, is to say that this process has begun: the end of the world has begun, with ‘end’ now meaning not termination but completion, goal, final purpose. God is about to do what needs to be done to set things right – to set us right, to set the world in the way it should be.

If this is what we expect – as first-century Palestinian Jews – what are we to do if a resurrection signals that the judgement is imminent? We are to turn from what is not right to what is right.

And this brings us to the potentially terrifying passage we have heard from Acts this morning. We read to this point of the unfolding ramifications of Jesus’ resurrection and the gift of the Spirit that thousands of people have believed the preaching of the apostles. And now we hear, ‘for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’ (4. 34f).

Of course, this will likely only be terrifying for those who have lands or houses, and if the implication of Luke’s telling us this is that we should do the same, even now. We have already decided this latter is not the case if we have heard this passage before and not done as they did! (And that we need not do so is suggested in the story which immediately follows – the death of Ananias and Sapphira, not for failing to sell their property ]they did sell it] but for lying to the community about the proceeds).

In fact, in view of other aspects of the New Testament witness (later, for example, Paul plans to take up a collection among the Gentile churches for the poor Jerusalem believers), we might conclude that the sale of these assets is a naïve and harmful response to the resurrection, assuming that they did as the text tells. But we must be careful here. We are not the judges of these first believers, least of all if we judge them as an act of self-defence.

As we have just outlined, their belief in the resurrection of Jesus entailed also a conviction that the final resolution of the tensions of history was imminent. In their selling and sharing, a belief about the true nature of the world, now about to be revealed, takes concrete and specific shape here and now: ‘there [will not be] a needy person among them’. They ‘believe’ by ‘acting’. As the apostles have been testifying with great power, so also do these new believers also testify to their conviction with great power: with economic and social action which reflects the promise in the apostles’ preaching.

It might seem that it was easier for them to let go of their things because they expected not to be needing them much longer; this was indeed likely part of their thinking, and was still in Paul’s mind 25 years later (see his teaching on marriage, ‘in view of the impending crisis’, 1 Corinthians 7). Yet, it was not so much easier as clearer to them how to testify to the resurrection and the impending judgement it signalled. There being no tomorrow changes our sense of what matters for today, and we declare that there will be no tomorrow by acting like it is the case.

But what does resurrection faith look like for us, who have every confidence that tomorrow will come? A general policy of selling, dispersing and casting ourselves onto the generosity of others looks like irresponsibility.

About this, three things…

The first thing is that our resurrection faith – like theirs in Acts – will ‘look like’ something. Faith in this God takes a recognisable, lived shape in this world. The believed word only makes sense when it is reflected in a life which corresponds to what is believed. If our beliefs do not make sense to us, it is likely because our actions don’t resonate with them. That we are forgiven will only ‘feel’ true to the extent that we live like forgiven people, and forgive others. Resurrection-talk only makes sense when the power of death in its many forms is seen to be pressed back in our lives and relationships.

The second thing is that our resurrection faith – like theirs in Acts – will ultimately be seen to have taken the ‘wrong’ shape. There is no pre-determined set of self-evidently righteous actions for expressing Christian belief or, if there is, we can’t know what it is. What is justified is so from God, and not because we got the formula right. It was once the right thing to do, to sell possessions and share the proceeds. It was once the right thing to do, to build 900-seater churches with towers. These were appropriate forms for the expression of a resurrection faith – and indeed may be again in the life of any individual or community.

The third thing is that God nevertheless looks to us to see what shape our resurrection faith – like theirs in Acts – will take. If we cannot know beforehand what we ‘should’ do, then God cannot know either. If there is any requirement God has, it is only that God’s people not look like they are dead. To us, in age and in youth, in health and infirmity, in darker times and lighter, when alone or in company, God commands: Don’t look dead.

To the church as a whole, confronted by wide-ranging changes and challenges around its place in the community, Don’t look dead.

To us as a congregation, anticipating a differently shaped future, Don’t look dead.

How we act – how we appear to ourselves and to others – is what we believe ourselves to be and testifies to what we think will come of us. The gospel is that Jesus is risen, and that we are being raised with him. This will only make sense if we don’t look dead, if we – and others – see in us that the worst of death is behind us and that before us is only deeper, richer life.

To recite the creed of the church, with its central theme of creation out of nothing, of life out of death, is to declare ourselves equipped and ready for the task of living and enlivening.

Let us, then, receive this life, live it, and give it.

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