Monthly Archives: September 2021

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 27B; Proper 22B (Sunday between October 2 and October 8)

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Series I: Job 1:1; 2:1-10 see also By the Well podcast on this text and Psalm 26

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 see also By the Well podcast on this text

Mark 10:2-16 see also By the Well podcast on this text

Sunday Worship at MtE – 26 September 2021

The worship service for Sunday 26 September 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

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

26 September – Who Speaks for the Church

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Pentecost 18

Numbers 11:24-29
Psalm 124
Mark 9:38-50

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

Who speaks for the Church? Our texts tell us this has been a problem from the beginning. We have just heard John the jealous disciple: “We tried to stop him because he was not following us”. To which Jesus replies: “Don’t stop him!” Or much earlier, Joshua, a dedicated “law and order” administrator, blurts out attempting to silence “unregistered” prophets: “My Lord, Moses: Stop them!” To which Moses responds: “Are you jealous…?”

According to our text, then, the word of Jesus is unequivocal: “Those who are not against us are for us”’ Recall, however, that we are told elsewhere that Jesus can also say: “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12.30). Only a blinkered flat earth rationalist will shout: “Another contradiction. The Bible is riddled with them”. To which the rejoinder must be: Context is everything!

So, what do we make of the Gospel today?  Who speaks for the Church? Who is truly a disciple? and What can disciples expect?

Teacher, we saw a man who was driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he doesn’t belong to our group’.

So, there we have it. The disciple censures the stranger because he was ‘not following us’. Note that: not following you, but not following US! So, it’s clear what the real problem is: the disciples don’t want to be followers, they want to be the ones followed. When this happens, party spirit becomes inevitable. The history of the Church might well stand as testimony to the exercise of such self-appointed guardians.

A mentor of mine used to say that church union became a problem the moment Jesus called his second disciple. This is not an exaggeration. Before the ink is dry we hear: I am of Paul. I am of Apollos. I am of Cephas. I am of Christ (1 Cor 1:12f). So the Pastoral Epistles try to solve the problem. Let’s have bishops, presbyters and deacons! But this is hardly more successful. Which Bishop? Alexandra or Antioch? Rome or Constantinople? Rome or Canterbury? Geneva or Canterbury? Canterbury or Wesley? Wesley or Booth? Stop them! Or closer to home, for its first 20 years the Uniting Church had a Doctrine Commission. No longer. Now it is Consensus. So, who speaks for the Church?

Today, as we know, it is not so much institutional denominations that stand over against one another, but factions within denominations: self-styled conservatives, progressives, liberals, fundamentalists, charismatics, social justice exponents – we know the list. Stop them!

No wonder Luther’s dying words are reputed to have been: “We’re beggars that’s for certain!”

So, “Who speaks for the Church?” is always a real question. And the answer? If we want to think properly about the Church, we will have to think first of all about Jesus himself. That means the requirement to resist party spirit. Against ‘exclusive brethren’, whether understood literally or figuratively, the definitions of belonging must ultimately be fluid. This is the first burden of today’s text.

And the second is this: the breaking of solidarity may well occur from outside pressure. It’s clear as the text unfolds that apostasy – rejection of the faith – has a long history from the very beginning. Here it is apparent that external persecution was causing some members of the church, not only to defect from the faith, but also to betray other members. For Mark’s community then the question understandably was: ‘How is this fracturing of the Christian community to be handled?

In graphic images, he tackles it by offering four parallel penalties undoubtedly repugnant to the squeamish: first drowning – literally adopted, recalling the same Luther’s remedy for re-baptizing Anabaptists – then selectively, the removal of eye, hand, and foot to prevent a prospective casting into “hell”.

If it all sounds pretty awful, cheer up: context is everything!  First, this confronting word “hell” is not what we might imagine. Here it is a regrettable translation in the text of the Greek word “Gehenna”. Gehenna is the name of a ravine in South Jerusalem. In the 1st century, the purpose of Gehenna was understood metaphorically. Although it was permanently ablaze as a place of fiery judgement for defaulting individuals, the crucial factor to grasp is that this destination was only temporary. Presumably it serves as forerunner to the later concept of purgatory. In any case, it was certainly only later in the Graeco-Roman period, and under Persian dualistic influence, that the bizarre permanent terminal imagery we associate with the word “hell” emerges – hell as a fiery alternative permanent destination to “heaven”.

The next penalties – the amputation of limbs, or the removal of an eye, obviously sound extreme. But the truth is that, in the first century, and still today in some Muslim communities, amputation of the offending member is in fact a liberalizing of punishment for capital offenses. Instead of losing an entire life, much better to lose only a part of the body. In any case, we can be confident that these vivid images were best understood metaphorically, the real point being that, in seeking the health of the whole community, expulsion, not execution, may well be the antidote to betrayal.

To this end, we are offered two remedial images – those of salt and fire. In the then practice of medicine, salt and fire were used to close amputation wounds. Drastic severance of eye, hand and foot obviously required prompt and decisive healing agents, otherwise death would be immediate. Knowing this, the whole passage surely looks quite different. ‘Everyone will be salted with fire’ we’re told. That’s the remedy for amputated limbs. That’s the remedy for apostasy: radical healing.

The point is that whatever we make of today’s text, one thing is clear: then, certain safeguards were required. Faith matters. It comes at a cost. There is a destiny at stake. Amputations, fire, and salt are a permanent scenario.

But salt has another function too. It is a healing remedy in a deeper sense. The injunction: ‘have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another’, is a recalling of the fact that in the Old Testament, salt is a symbol of the covenant. To share salt with others means really to share fellowship with them.

Today’s gospel reminds us, then, that being church is to experience both internal as well as external pressure. For this reason, to live as Church is like riding a bicycle. When you come to obstacles you have to dodge them – or you’ll fall off. This means that there is healing for all who metaphorically might consider themselves to have lost hand or foot or eye.

Today we can take comfort in the promise that the salt rubbed into wounds, though painful, is actually redemptive – not only in the reminder that Jesus said it would be like this, but that he himself lost not simply limbs but the whole of his being. The potential culling of limbs in our case is merely the start of what for him meant a final radical deprivation of life.

Yet the gospel is that we do not have the last word at all. For this dead one is sovereign Lord over all murderous, vindictive hearts: Where we fracture, he heals; whom we are against, he is for; in place of death he offers life.

So – despite the scary graphics – the Gospel today leaves us with real encouragement for a problematic future:

“Be salted with fire … and be at peace with one another”.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 19 September 2021

The worship service for Sunday 19 September 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

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

19 September – Of principalities and powers

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Pentecost 17

Ephesians 6:10-20
Psalm 1
Mark 9:30-37

In a sentence
God meets us in the midst of life and in the midst of life God takes shape

It’s not news to many of us that life is something of a struggle. The present pandemic context would be proof enough of that, on top of the ins and outs of daily life: working and learning and loving and dying.

Such things are the form of our struggles, but what makes them struggles?

In our reading from Ephesians this morning, Paul offers an explanation verging on incomprehensible to us today. We struggle, not against enemies of blood and flesh – not against what we can see and touch – but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the forces of evil in the heavenly places. Even if it is still alive in modern fantasy books and films, this is strange language in our modern world. The ‘cosmic powers of this present darkness’ and the ‘spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ have little traction in what we consider to be our ‘real’ world lives. We have put these things to one side – even in the churches – except for when we want to play.

Yet, this is more problematic than it first seems. What embarrassment we might feel about Paul’s language of evil cosmic forces is in strange tension with what doesn’t embarrass us – the belief in God. For surely God is a spiritual power – albeit a much ‘bigger’ one, and a good one. We find ourselves, then, in a strange situation. We believe in what we might call a spiritual goodie – God – but not in spiritual baddies – the Devil and [his] cohort. And so it is commonly held in the churches these days that God is a personal spiritual reality but the Devil is not.

This has the effect that God is left ‘hanging there’ in the spiritual realm. And so is revealed something of the modern pathos of faith: we have largely dismissed the spiritual realm but still cling to a ‘spiritual’ God. The God of the Old and New Testaments inhabited a heaven filled with the forces of good and evil; the God of the modern mind is alone in heaven, with little to do. This emptying of the heavens has facilitated the recent resurgence of popular atheism: there is now only one spirit left to deal with, and now we outnumber it. Evangelism can feel like the call to leave the world to keep God company.

Maybe all of this sounds quite sceptical about the things of faith, but scepticism is not the point. The point is clarity about what our language means – to ourselves and to others, for our language is not innocent. Our words cast a world, cast God, cast our very selves. And we are able to hide in those words, or between them. Our language can hide from us who we are, who God is, or what the world is. The question is then whether our words capture us as we truly are.

If it is the case that our words about the heavens (and ourselves) have so shifted that God is now alone in heaven and distant from us in the world, then those words won’t do any more to speak of the struggle of life. To persist in talking that way is to become increasingly infantile in our speech. We place words next to each other in the way of a pidgin language which lacks an organising grammar: us here, God there. To what struggles we already have is added the struggle to link what we believe about a spiritual realm to what we live from day to day.

Yet one way of characterising what the Bible does is to see it as unravelling the world our words have made in favour of the world God’s word makes. God’s word does not separate but binds together.

At the heart of our confession is the presence of God in the person of the very real and worldly Jesus: the Incarnation. What happens in the very worldly struggles of Jesus, culminating in the cross, is the cosmic spiritual struggle. This much Paul has already declared in the first part of Ephesians.

The thing about the Incarnation, however, is that we tend to see it as a ‘one-off’ which comes to an end: Jesus is born, lives, dies, and returns to heaven. To be fair about this confusion, Luke does give us a graphic Ascension – which is pretty unhelpful – and the Creeds use this to amplify the suggestion. And so it seems that the powers are dealt with, and God is again alone in heaven, although now we see a Trinity rather than a monotheos – a kind of divine isolation ‘bubble’ of ‘intimate partners’ and perhaps a little less lonely. Most importantly, the Incarnation looks to have ended, and the world and God are again separated as they were before – into historical and spiritual realms.

But, the point of the Incarnation is that if God comes to the world, it is to stay.

And so, the world becomes the means of God’s work with us. If, as our modern society has come to understand, evil is not in some spiritual realm but can only be believed to exist in the ins and outs of history, then this is also the place where we meet God. And real-world actions are the form of so-called spiritual struggles.

This is to say that when Paul calls us to arm ourselves with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of faith, these are not ‘spiritual’ things. These are disciplines – practices – which will necessarily be part of the life of every believer who is seriously engaged in the struggle for an authentic human life. The shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation are things we do. The sword of the Spirit is so specific a way of acting that it could cut off the hands of a fool who tries to wield it without sufficient training and familiarity.

God’s place is not a lonely throne in heaven but is properly in the world. We find a firm footing in life by attention to God’s calling, through practice and discipline, through study, prayer, fellowship and service in accordance with patterns which bring live and love, meaning and order into the loveless and disordered worlds our words so quickly create.

One Christian commentator has remarked that one reason our Christian faith often doesn’t make sense to us is that we don’t have practices which reflect it and make it real. If God is only a head and heart thing – and in this sense a ‘spiritual’ thing – then the things of God will make little sense in a world less about heart and head and spirit than it is about what we actually do, touch and manipulate. Christian life is habit and action which will strengthen us in lives of love and righteousness.

It is a struggle to be a Christian. There is much to unlearn. We are already armed, if often against the wrong thing – even God.

Yet God is faithful. God meets us with grace even when we fail in our discipleship – even if we arm ourselves against God. How much more, then, will God meet and strengthen us if we seek earnestly to be shaped according to his will by preparing ourselves, putting on the armour of God, growing in knowledge of the Scriptures, growing more confident in prayer, more accomplished in service, and more at peace in the world which God is healing.

Stand firm, Paul says to us, echoing the call of God. Act firm. Work firm. Pray firm.

In this way is Christ’s Body risen among us, here and now, we its members, for our life and for the life of the world.

MtE Update – September 17 2021

  1. Worship this September 19 will be again be live-streamed VIA ZOOM at 10.00am. Please see the streaming link on the homepage for the Zoom link; the service will also be recorded for later viewing, although only those with liturgical roles (readings, prayers, etc.) will be ‘caught’ in the distributed recording. PLEASE NOTE that it is not necessary to have a web-camera to view the live-streamed service; connect via Zoom and you’ll see what is to be seen, but just won’t be seen yourself!
  2. Hotham Mission in the news
  3. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster (Sept 14)
  4. The most recent Synod eNews (Sept 16)
  5. The most recent news from the UCA Assembly (Sept 15)
  6. This Sunday September 19 the service we come to what is likely to be the end our series of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (6.10-20), hearing also Mark 9:30-37 and Psalm 1; see here for some commentary on the gospel text. For more information on the Ephesians series, see the series page.

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 25B; Proper 20B (Sunday between September 18 and September 24)

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Proverbs 31:10-31 see also By the Well podcast on this text and Psalm 1

James 3: 13-4: 3, 7-8a see also By the Well podcast on this text

Mark 8: 27-38 see also By the Well podcast on this text

Sunday Worship at MtE – 12 September 2021

The worship service for Sunday 12 September 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

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

12 September – While the days are evil

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Pentecost 16

Ephesians 5:21-6:9
Psalm 116
Mark 8:27-38

In a sentence
Make the most of your time, while the days are evil (5.16)

Some Bible texts are too dangerous to read in church, or so it would seem. And so our reading from Ephesians this morning never appears in our standard lectionary readings for Sunday services, and neither do similar readings from other letters in the New Testament. This is to say that, if you’re only going to hear from the Bible on Sundays, this is not a text you need to hear. This means that this text may not have been heard in this congregation in living memory (One of those parallel texts has been heard and considered at MtE at least once!)

Why is this a text we need not hear? The problem will seem obvious to most listening in just now: she subordinate to him in a hierarchy within marriage. And the teaching on masters and slaves is scarcely more palatable today, although we’re probably less troubled by the direction that children should honour their parents!

The problem is that this sounds like divine law, and we are all biblical literalists at heart – believer and unbeliever alike. What else could this be but a moral claim made on us? Or, if we imagine ourselves not to be biblical literalists, we expect that the next person might be a literalist and that she will either seek to impose this understanding on us or be willing – and dangerously so – submit to it herself. We have no desire to return to a social order like this, and so it’s best not to read these texts in church.

Let it be clear that we’ll make no defence of the notion that Paul’s directions here should order our lives today. But we will consider, in a roundabout way, whether it might still have been good that this was written to those who first heard it, perhaps 1900 years ago.

This possibility is difficult to comprehend from the point of view of a strict sense of moral justice. Justice tends to be set, such that if something is wrong once (now), it is always wrong (then). The moral campaigner, or the campaigner for justice, struggles for all people in all times, not least those who have suffered and endured in the past.

As far as it goes, this is a sound argument if we overlook the possibility that a historical snobbery might be lurking within it – us, now, looking down on them, back then.

On this moral understanding, justice and righteousness can only occur when justice (the communal dimension) and righteousness (the personal dimension) are both in place.

Yet, the world is not a just place. Here and there, we strike a workable balance between justice and injustice which is workable for some of us, at least. Perhaps – at least in modern western society – we have moved past the worst of patriarchy and the suffering of slave economies. And yet, our lives are not just, from the perspectives of others. Is the world, then, a place without true righteousness?


Whatever else might have happened in the process of colonization of Australia, we know what did happen, and we cannot change that. The language of justice surrounds indigenous issues today; can any of us be righteous in the midst of it all?

We strongly suspect that the future of life on earth might hang in the balance and that the ‘smart’ – the just – thing to do would be to wind down fossil fuel use dramatically. The solutions are obvious: stop mining coal and pumping oil; perhaps tax large cars highly and transfer those funds to low emission transport. We cannot, of course, do this, even though it would contribute greatly to heading off the threatened disaster. Injustice will abound here. Where will righteousness be found?

The seas are choking with micro-plastics. How hard would it be to wind back plastic production or to skew production towards biodegradable materials? Have we fulfilled all righteousness by taking our soft plastics back to the supermarket?

We know that it is unjust that millions of lives are wasting away in refugee camps and detention centres. Can we do nothing about this? Perhaps, we cannot, even if we started some of those fires in the first place. Can, then, true righteousness be found on either side of those fences, if the fences may never be torn down?

We might quibble about any such injustice and the degree to which we can or can’t change things in any particular case. Yet, the point is that there remains much that is unjust which we cannot change, whether because it is too entrenched or we are too complicit in the structures which oppress.

Is the world, then, as irredeemably unjust, a place where righteousness can occur?

The writer to the Ephesians could not change patriarchy or slavery, if it ever even occurred to him that he might try. What then? What does a righteous life look like in the midst of injustice? More pointedly, because we will come to this in a few minutes’ time: what does the word of divine forgiveness mean when sought by and granted to those whose lives are caught up in variously suffering from and contributing to the injustices of the world?

The moralist in us is tempted to a kind of ethical mathematics, balancing demands, striking compromises or, at the full extent of frustration, flinging accusations about the place.

For all the felt need for such moral calculus, a central faith-question at stake: can the good God ‘appear’ in the broken world? Can righteousness coincide with injustice? More pointedly, can injustice be a source of righteousness, or can injustice be a blessing?

Each of these questions escalates the problem, in turn.

Can the good God ‘appear’ in the broken world? This is what we speak about at Christmas, in particular: God takes on flesh – our flesh. God and the world are seen to sit within each other. This might be an interesting thought but it has little moral traction, which is why most talk about the Incarnation at Christmas doesn’t come close to convincing us that Jesus is better than Santa.

Can righteousness coincide with injustice? The Incarnation can be read in this way, but more moral traction is found here when we observe that, while Jesus was righteous, his rejection and crucifixion was unjust. Righteousness and injustice here coincide in that the injustice is in the wrong reading of righteousness. The moral lesson is, Don’t get righteousness wrong, but the possibility is also raised that we can’t be confident about what is and is not righteous or just. Good people, after all, crucified Jesus.

Can injustice be a source of righteousness? This is surely a horrifying suggestion and raises the moral tension to a fever pitch. Yet, something very like this is affirmed at the heart of Christian faith: the unjust crucifixion of Jesus saves the world, brings righteousness. No moral theory can account for this, despite all the valiant efforts of atonement theorists through the centuries. The true moral outrage of the call to deep forgiveness is revealed here. Jesus cannot be un‑crucified, history cannot be changed, and yet not death but life is granted to the guilty: righteousness under the condition of injustice. The injustice which cannot be changed becomes the source of a strange righteousness: a righteousness which changes the meaning – and so the possibilities – of injustice.

Our passage from Ephesians today – on a charitable reading – does not require mere acquiescence to injustice but a transformation of its possibilities. And so the writer addresses both those who might be oppressed and the ones who might be oppressing them.

If we, today, are beginning to put behind us the legacies of the patriarchy and slavery of biblical times, good for us! But we still have injustice enough to which we are subject or of which we are guilty, and about which there is very little we can do to change how things are or work.

And so we still need to hear that gospel word which responds to what we have done or what has been done to us – the word which, in the guilt and the suffering, miraculously liberates us for whatever righteous thing we must do next in the midst of injustice.

‘You are forgiven’ breaks all moral expectations and possibilities, and sets us free to live toward a deeper justice, making the most of our time, Paul says, even though the days are evil (5.16).

Let us, then, work and pray to discover the shape of righteousness in our own situation, however just or unjust it may be.

In this, we live towards the hope at the heart of our confession: the day when righteousness and justice will finally be the same thing.

MtE Update – September 11 2021

  1. Worship this September 12 will be again be live-streamed VIA ZOOM at 10.00am. Please see the streaming link on the homepage for the Zoom link; the service will also be recorded for later viewing, although only those with liturgical roles (readings, prayers, etc.) will be ‘caught’ in the distributed recording. PLEASE NOTE that it is not necessary to have a web-camera to view the live-streamed service; connect via Zoom and you’ll see what is to be seen, but just won’t be seen yourself!
  2. The most recent news from the UCA Assembly (Sept 8)
  3. This Sunday September 12 the service we continue our series of sermons on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, this looking at the somewhat probelmatic 5.21-6.9…, hearing also Mark 8:27-38 and Pslam 116; see here for some commentary on the gospel text.
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