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20 June – Grace to you, and peace

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Pentecost 4

Ephesians 1:1-14
Psalm 85
Mark 4:35-41

In a sentence
God offers a more profound peace than we think or dare to ask for

‘Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. This is how the Apostle addresses the people of God. Every New Testament letter under the name of Paul begins with words like these.[1] And so do our worship services each week.

In terms of function, these words look something like a gracious ‘hello’. But Paul’s benediction and that which begins our worship are more than pleasantry. What is a play here is an invocation of the gift of God, and so the naming of our need. We speak the whole of the gospel in these two words, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians can be read as an extended teasing-out of the meaning of this benediction.

To most people, peace is probably the more familiar of the two concepts. Peace is the motivation of most of what we do; to act is to strive for peace. All our desires are for a peace we don’t yet experience, and are reflected in things like wanting the bombs to stop falling, wanting a place to escape to when it all feels too much, wanting to be warm in this cold weather, or a safe neighbourhood for our children, or a reliable vaccine, or a quiet corner in a café. We act to make such things happen. ‘All we are saying’, we sang 50 years ago, ‘is give peace a chance’.

As desire, then, peace is something of a negative concept: it begins with a ‘not this’, ‘not here’, ‘not now’, ‘not her’, ‘not them’ – all in relation to the feeling that something is out of place. We are displaced, disappointed, dissatisfied, and peace is being properly placed, appointed and satisfied. Curiously, it is only of the dead that we say that they are ‘at peace’, which must be as about as negative a statement of the possibility of ‘peace in our time’ as we can make.

The ‘not’ hiding in our notions of peace is important because it makes it possible to see that our enemies also desire peace. For that enmity springs from them saying of us: not them, not that, not now. Our peace is often the desire that other people, in their pursuit of their own desires for peace, go away, for their peace conflicts with ours, their heaven competes with ours.

This is to say that our ‘un-peace’ is not as simple as the presence of a dangerous enemy who brings discord or threatens war. When we say ‘not this’, ‘not now’, ‘not them’, so also do those we distance. And the distancing, the reduction of those others, is the un-peace against which they react. Only the stupid act in such a way as contradict their own desire for peace, and those who oppose us are not usually stupid. But they see us as their un-peace, the shape of our peace as cast against the shape of theirs.

Seeing the desire for peace in those who oppose us might cause us to grow suspicious of our own visions of peace. What does our peace deny in the desires for peace in others? This is a question at the heart of struggles such as those between colonists and indigenes, oppressors and oppressed, the homed and the homeless, or within tense family relationships. We’ll probably see some of it in our efforts to find a new home for the congregation. The peace we long for now becomes much more difficult to define or to visualise, if indeed it is something we are all to recognise as peace. It is not merely irony that the church as a whole is most grievously divided at the Eucharist, the sacrament of peace; our visions of peace are the problem.

And so we come to a surprising and troubling possibility: that to link arms and sway back and forth as we sing ‘Give peace a chance’ might not point to the solution so much as manifest our confusion. More starkly, it might be that war is not so much overcome by peace but caused by it: the shape of my peace in conflict with the shape of yours.

What then of grace? In a place like this it is strongly emphasised that grace is the nature of something freely given, with particular reference to what God gives. God gives reconciliation with God grace­‑fully, freely, under no compulsion to do so other than from God’s own character.

The thing about a gift – a true, no-strings-attached gift – is that it doesn’t spring from need, or at least, it does not spring from the need of the giver – from the giver’s vision of unfulfilled peace. A true gift is not about an absence in the giver, a desire for what is not there. Such a gift, then, is unlike desire, in that it carries no potential for competition or conflict. There are no competing desires here, no competing shapes of peace.

This is to say that God has no peace-idea in competition with ours. Competing shapes of peace are dealt with on the cross. To crucify someone is to cast peace in a certain shape – again, negatively: not you, not like that, not now. To crucify someone is to declare, Peace is the absence of you. To be crucified, if this is something to which a person freely submits – if, we must say, it is a gift – this denies nothing, demands nothing. Jesus on the cross is in conflict with nothing and no one.

And so, when we say that here, on the cross, there is grace, it is not yet the gift of any particular ‘thing’. There is no vision of heaven imposed over against our vision, no demand made of us over against our demands on God. The letter to the Ephesians will take us further into the cross, but for today let us note that when Paul greets his churches in this way, ‘grace’ precedes ‘peace’: ‘Grace to you, and peace, from…’ The gift precedes the desire, so that the gift and not the desired peace determines the shape of what is given. This matters because the word of peace from grace is spoken not only to us but also to our enemies. The peace given does not negate our un‑peace but exceeds it. True peace is more than we have thought to ask for. True peace springs from grace.

Perhaps we will say more of this in the next couple of months with Ephesians.

But for now we might say that grace – what God gives – is the knowledge that we are seen. Grace is that the Lord lifts up his countenance, and we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of God. The peace which this knowledge will finally realise is that it is the one God in whose eyes we all see ourselves reflected. What unites us comes from beyond us and our visions of peace. God’s peace exceeds our desire for it.

Heaven is being seen by the God who binds all things together, and the work of peace is calling others to turn towards that gaze.

Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, that you might know again your need, and God’s gift, and the call to become peace-makers, the very children of God.

[1] See a collection of these greetings in Paul’s letters here: .

Sunday Worship at MtE – 20 June 2021

The worship service for Sunday 20 June 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

13 June – Looking on the heart

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Pentecost 3

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
Mark 4:26-34

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

Some of the best told stories in the Scriptures are about David, the shepherd boy who became king and ancestor of Jesus. There are the heroic stories like David and Goliath, David and Johanthan, David the musician and some shameful ones like David and Bathsheba. The whole anthology of David stories begins with one of the most skilfully crafted bits of literature. It is all about David, and yet David just gets a walk on part at the end. It is all about David, but the centre stage is occupied by Samuel. It is even book ended by reference to Samuel’s itinerary. It starts, ‘Then Samuel went to Ramah’ (1 Samuel 15:34) and finishes, ‘Samuel then set out and went to Ramah’ (1 Samuel 16:13).

The political intrigue is wonderful. Samuel is instructed by the LORD to go to Bethlehem to anoint a king. Everyone is scared stiff. Samuel is scared of King Saul. The elders of Bethlehem are scared of Samuel. We would appreciate better why Samuel is so scary if we had read the story that immediately precedes this one. It concludes, ‘And Samuel hewed Agag (king of the Amalekites) in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.’ (1 Samuel 15:33). It’s OK, don’t be scared, says the LORD, just take a heifer with you and pretend to be doing something religious. Who could suspect any political intrigue if you are worshiping? I mean, look at us. Is what we are doing here political? Well, actually it is. Not party political, but we are declaring loyalty beyond our different national and ethnic loyalties.

Anyway, back to the story where everyone seems to have been fooled by the heifer and the invitation to Jesse’s household to join in offering a sacrifice. Behind the smoke and cinders of the sacrifice the real drama takes place.

David’s anointing as king comes after a long line of misdirection. It is obvious that Samuel should consider Jesse’s eldest to be king, and failing him, the next, then the next, and so on. The LORD has even given Samuel a clue as to what he should be looking for, or rather, what he should not be looking for – “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Interestingly, the storyteller reveals this human propensity to looking on the outside when the story focuses on the shepherd boy’s ruddy complexion and beautiful eyes. Michaelangelo also took a very human view when he released his statue of David from a lump of marble in Florence. Mind you, the story of Michaelangelo’s statue has some resonance with the anointing story because the lump of marble was a reject.

Sorry about all these side steps and diversions.  Life is full of side steps, misdirections and diversions that lead away from what is really important, away from what is life giving.

Samuel is to anoint a king chosen by the LORD. He must rely on the voice of the LORD to point in the right direction. He is to discern according to how God sees, not as humans see. The outward appearance will not do. God sees the heart or the core – that is what will reveal what a king should be.

God looked in the unexpected place for a king and found the shepherd from a family of one of the lesser tribes of Israel, a ruddy lad with beautiful eyes who had not been invited to the sacrifice.

Jesus looked in the unexpected places for the kingdom of God. He did not find metaphors for the Kingdom in palaces or temples, in mighty armies or libraries stacked with wisdom. He looked rather at a farmer scattering seed and waiting for the harvest. He looked at the tiniest of seeds and saw the tree and the birds that would nest in its branches.

All very interesting, but what are we to do? The story of David’s anointing reminds us of our humanity and how different our perspective on what is important from how God looks to the core. Well, as followers of Jesus there is the invitation to see differently – to attend to what Jesus made of the world and what is important. To look for signs of the Kingdom coming. Sure, we will continue to be fed misinformation and distractions, so the challenge will always be to look for God’s view and listen for God’s word. We are bombarded by news and commentary on all manner of local, national and world affairs. There is plenty of advice on how to deal with them, or, indeed, whether to deal with them. Anyone grappling with how to see what God sees has little difficulty with some of our disputed issues – should we be doing something about carbon emissions? Should we be dealing compassionately with a family incarcerated on Christmas Island? Even here we find professing Christians in leadership failing to come up with the same answers you and I see so plainly.

Paragraph 3 of The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church tells of our journey to God’s promised goal and concludes with this sentence: ‘On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.’

Our seeing and hearing and acting in God-like ways is possible by gifts that keep us on the way. The prophet Samuel went to Bethlehem to share in a religious ritual and performed an act, guided by the word of the LORD that impacted a nations future under the reign of God.

We gather for religious ritual, for worship, and impelled to act in ways that reveal something of God’s kingdom coming. Little acts are fine – like a farmer spreading little seeds.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 13 June 2021

The worship service for Sunday 13 June 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

6 June – The sovereignty of God

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Pentecost 2

1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20
Psalm 24
Mark 3:20-35

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Rob Gallacher

The people of Israel want to be like other nations.   And the Lord says, “They have rejected me from being king over them”.    Accepting the Lord as your king makes you different from other people around you.

When Jesus began his ministry it was so different that people said, “He has gone out of his mind”.    His family went out to restrain him and the Scribes said the he was a servant of Satan.

As Christians we are called to be different from the world around us.   The issues have changed.    For one thing, some of you will be wanting to get rid of the monarch, whereas Israel was wanting to have one.    But there are more significant areas where affirming God   as sovereign might cause us to be different.     See if we can apply this sovereignty of God to just two sensitive areas this morning – the use of money and the care of the environment.

Of the few Sunday School lessons that I can remember, the one on gambling sticks with me.    The teacher made a short list of what was good about gambling, and then a long list about what was bad.    The point that made me think was that gambling is not a good way to distribute wealth.   Winner takes all leaves a lot of losers with nothing.   “Over the course of your lifetime”, said the teacher, “you will handle a large amount of money.   Consider well what you do with it.”    That led into the concept of stewardship.   What I have is not my own.    It is a gift entrusted to me with which to do good.    Being a Methodist, this was backed up by John Wesley’s sermon on money – Earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can.   Wesley himself said, “In the first year that I earned money, I received 30 pounds.  I lived on 28 and gave away 2.   The next year I earned 50 pounds.   I lived on 28 and gave away 22.   The third year …..  “and so on.

Some years ago I returned from a conference of Reformed Churches in Ghana.    The conference had been very strong on resisting the exploitation of the poor by the rich.    An incident drove this home.     We were in a taxi in the centre of Accra, when I mentioned that I would like to taste Ghanaian chocolate.     The driver pulled over and beckoned to a young lady who was carrying a large plate on her head stacked with chocolate bars.   I gave her the small amount asked for.   She reached up and retrieved a chocolate bar.   And on we went.    The chocolate was terrible.    I guess it had been on her head, in the tropical sun, for a very long time.     When I looked at the world through the eyes of that chocolate seller, in the context of the conference message, I asked myself, “What can I do?”    One thing was to increase my contributions to overseas aid.    It so happened that the small increase in my contribution, coincided with the Australian Government slashing millions from its foreign aid budget.

It is seldom easy to affirm the sovereignty of God, and to actually make a difference.   Consider our present situation.  We already live in a society based on selfishness and driven by consumption.   Yet our government want us to spend, spend, spend our way out of recession.     But I am not convinced about buying what I do not need and have nowhere to put.     Instead of being like everyone else and complaining about the rigours of lockdown, is there something positive that we can do to alleviate suffering?   A caring phone call here and there is not too difficult, but when it comes to people watching their businesses fall apart, or workers losing wages the only schemes I could come up with were deeply flawed.    Our Mark the Evangelist News has been encouraging us to donate to the Christian Hospital in Vellore, so we can do something about the dire situation in India, but what about here? All I can do is raise the question, “What does it mean here and now to affirm that God is sovereign, and how do we steward our resources to that end?”

I turn now to the care of the environment.   I want to affirm all the concern being expressed about global warming and climate change, but it’s not enough.  Our Christian faith should add a spiritual dimension to what is being said.   You only to have to listen to Greta Thunberg for a few minutes to see a clear pattern.     With emotion she will express fear about the world she will have to live in, and then she supports this with scientific data.   The formula of fear and figures must be heard, but there is more that needs to be said.    In Psalm 24 the Psalmist starts, “The earth is the Lord’s”.    That sets us on the pathway of sovereignty and stewardship.   The earth is the Lord’s, and our role, says Genesis 2:15 is to till it and to keep it.   It is this more spiritual attitude that is under-stated.   In 2019 the Assembly put out a “Vision Statement for a Just Australia”.    It says, “The Uniting Church believes the whole world is God’s good creation ….  It takes seriously our responsibility to care for the whole creation.”   Sovereignty and stewardship are implied.   But we can go still deeper.

Simon Winchester, near the end of his book called “Land” quotes from the indigenous chief, Sealth.    When he was asked to sell his land to the government of the United States he replied, “Buy or sell the land?   The idea is strange to us.   If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?   Every part of the earth is sacred to my people….”      The government went ahead anyway.   They carved the land up and sold it off in bits.   Sky scrapers were built on it, and as a final insult, they named the city after the chief – Seattle.

Much the same happened with the indigenous people in Australia.    In his book, “Changing Fortunes” our own David Radcliffe has documented how it happened in this very area, and how Batman and his associates had misgivings about the treaty they wrote, but went ahead anyway.  So we too have private ownership of little bits.   Caring for your own little patch can develop into an affinity with nature.   On a larger scale, that spiritual connection with God’s creation may develop into a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and mystery of God’s life in nature.    Jan Morgan and Graeme Garrett, who teach at theological colleges here in Melbourne, have written “On the Edge”.    They have a discipline of standing still for half an hour each day, listening to the ocean.    “They have gone out of their minds”, some will say.   But what the ocean has told them over time is very moving.

At one point David Radcliffe (p 61) says: “As a society we still struggle with fundamental questions about our relationship with the natural environment.   Is it a finite, renewable resource to be stewarded wisely or something to be exploited in the immediate term with scant regard for any longer-term ecological consequences?”

It would help if people, especially the decision makers, could see the beauty of the earth and sense the hand of the creator who is behind it all.   We might even say who is through it all.   If we confess that the earth is the Lord’s our care for the environment becomes a sacred trust, an act of worship, a way of participating in the life of God.

A couple of weeks ago, in “With Love to the World,” a past president of the Uniting Church, James Haire, was commenting on a passage in Ephesians.   He said, “political and social norms and powers are useful secondary guides in life, but they cannot replace our prime allegiance to the ascended and ruling Christ …   We are called to live out our primary allegiance to Christ in our lives”.

The view that our money, our land and our environment are not our own, but gifts of which we are stewards will make us different from many.   Some will say we are out of our minds, and seek to make us like other nations, wanting us to turn away from the living God whom we acknowledge as Lord and sovereign of all the earth, and for whom we are stewards.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 6 June 2021

The worship service for Sunday 6 June 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

Sunday Worship at MtE – 30 May 2021

The worship service for Sunday 30 May 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

30 May – That God does not exist

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Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
John 3:1-17

Our psalm, as we heard it this morning, began with a call to the ‘heavenly beings’ to ‘ascribe glory and strength’ to the God of Israel. There is an older translation, however, which runs like our call to worship this morning: ‘Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.’ Either translation can be justified, in part because many biblical scholars believe that the psalm is probably borrowed from one of the neighbouring polytheistic religions and pressed into service for Israel its God.

This older translation perhaps jars with the sensitivities of believers today, for we’ve long held that there is only one God. We have understood that there has been a progression from a polytheism (the belief in many gods) to henotheism (the belief in only one god, among many options), to monotheism (the belief that there is only one god – not least because it is a nice neat philosophical idea. And so it seems odd now to speak again about ‘the gods’. Yet perhaps it’s time to take up once again talk of a pantheon – a field of many gods. The reason is, perhaps surprisingly, the rise of the current form of popular atheism.

The basic assertion of popular atheism is, of course, simply that ‘there is no God, God does not exist’. But what, in the first place, could we mean if we declare that ‘God does exist’ or that ‘God is’? Our the first problem here is the word ‘is’. We say ‘is’ about ourselves and other things in the world: that chair ‘is’; that man ‘is’, that tree ‘is’. These things ‘are’ or ‘exist’. ‘Isness’ is a characteristic or property of stuff lying around the place in the world. To say then that God ‘is’ – that God ‘exists’ – is to reduce God to being an object like a chair or a man or a tree, somehow also lying around the place in the world. Atheism observes that we can’t find God anywhere in the world, and concludes that God does not exist.

The logic is impeccable, on the assumption that God is a part of the world – that God ‘exists’. Perhaps surprisingly, however, faith also holds that God does not exist in this way. God is not a ‘part’ of the world, not even the biggest thing in the world. The doctrine of creation recognises that God and the world are related but also that they are different. There is, of course, much difference within the world but the difference between God and the world is a ‘different difference’ from every other difference and distinction we see around us. The difference between God’s ‘is-ness’ and our ‘is-ness’ is so great that it is most simply expressed by saying that God does not ‘exist’.

But see that this is said not at all to deny God but that we might give God right praise – that we might know at least what can’t be said about the God who matters.

If we were, as a matter of definition, to insist that God does ‘exist’, we would then have to say that there’s a very important sense in which we do not exist. None of this is to say that God or we don’t matter, but only that questions and assertions about God’s existence won’t get us anywhere very interesting. The existence of God is not a question which ought to exercise us too much one way or another,  because it is a question which is usually too confused to admit a sensible answer. From the point of view of Jewish and Christian faith, to say that God does not exist would simply be to say that, however God is, God is not like we are, which is simply the logic of a sensible doctrine of creation.

Of course, we wonder about the existence of God because many Christians (and other theists) do assume that God’s existence is central to belief – we assume that faith is faith that God exists, and that God exists as an explanation of ‘all that is’. Yet talk about God would do well to take the lead of the older translation of Psalm 29 with its many ‘gods’, and begin to speak again of a pantheon. For the question of the Scriptures is not whether God exists. Rather, the Scriptures are always interested in which god matters, and not whether there ‘is’ a God, or how many gods there are.

To make more sense of this, there’s one more thing to note about our use of the word ‘God’, which is that we use it in a double sense, sometimes to denote a kind of thing and sometimes as a name. This is a little like the words ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. A child knows that everyone has a ‘mummy’, but when he addresses his mother the word mummy is not a thing everyone has but the name of his mother. There are many mummies, but we only call one of them ‘Mummy’. It is much the same for the word ‘God’. In the Scriptures there are many entities which are called gods, but when we say ‘I believe in God’, we mean only one of them. The question is, which one of them?

The psalmist gives his answer: the one whose name is ‘Yahweh’ – which is translated as ‘the Lord’ (with the small capitals). In almost every line of the Psalm we heard this name repeated:

[you gods…],2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars…
7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness…
9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl…
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

What the psalmist does here is have all the (other) gods turn their gaze towards ‘the Lord’, and ascribe to this one the sovereignty over all things, including the many lesser gods themselves. The poet’s concern is not oneness of God but the sovereignty of this particular [g]od over all the others.

This distinction between the gods is central to Old Testament theology. The divine names are a way of differentiating between the gods as different powers available to us to deliver the life we seek. In the Old Testament a god is something you call upon for security, health and prosperity, something you fear, or invoke against your fears. The only question is, which of the gods will deliver? It is the purpose of the gods – their function in human life – which is the important thing for re-casting our talk about belief and unbelief today.

To the extent that we today call upon powers to save us, we find ourselves in the theological space of the Scriptures, whether or not we call these powers ‘gods’. There are many such powers we seek to placate or to control and wield in modern life. We might name the economy as one, with its doctrines of the need for constant consumption and for constant increase in consumption. You don’t have to be a professor of economics to notice how large economic concerns loom for us as a society or the religious fervour with which it is served. We might name the nation as another power-cum-divinity with a powerful grip on us. The nation-state is a relatively recent invention in our history, but something like it has been with us for as long as we’ve drawn distinctions between tribes and clans. And we see the tragic consequences of our service to different national gods every night on our TV screens.

Other quasi-divinities lurking in our world, their divine characteristics unrecognised, include ‘tradition’, ‘the individual’, ‘youth’, ‘money’. Any one of these has the potential to take on demonic dimensions by which what is small and specific and precious is crushed by what is large and general. The poverty of popular atheism is not the paucity of its arguments about God but the absence in all that polemic of a viable economic political model or ethical framework which would make sense of us in our malaise and our tendency to worship worldly things as if they were heavenly. This fundamental confusion about ourselves and our world is central to the testimony of Scripture.

Our problem is not God or religion as such – at least as they are cast by our atheistic critics. Our problem is that we cannot save ourselves, without a lot of us being lost or crushed along the way, and that is scarcely being ‘saved’. Getting rid of religion is not going to solve the problem, for getting rid of our religious bent has been the work of God among his people at least since the call of Abraham, and it’s not been managed yet.

We need a better atheism than that which is trotted out every now and again as the solution to all our problems. This better atheism would be one like that of which Christians themselves were accused in the early days of the church in Rome – an atheism which does not deny the presence of the many god-like powers in our lives, but distinguishes between them in order to identify which is the one which speaks us – all of us – the best.

There is much more which must be said, but today it will have to be enough simply to suggest that, for the sake of the gospel, we might have to allow that the God we gather to worship on Sundays is in fact one among many gods in our lives, and yet this one actively seeks us out, that we might have peace and freedom. This the psalmist knows better than most of us. We are under the influence of the gods, and they are at best untrustworthy and, at worst, outright dangerous.

It is, then, to the God of Israel – the God and Father of Jesus Christ – that the poet calls the gods and all peoples to turn, that they might watch as this One – Yaweh, the Lord – sets his people from the powers which diminish us and takes from our hands those powers we exercise over others, and so blesses all people with peace (v11).

May God’s people, then, hear the poet’s call, and turn with the gods to the Holy One of Israel, that he may put us right.

23 May – Unbearable

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Romans 8:22-27
Psalm 104
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

In a sentence
The Spirit of God makes heaven out of us

Jesus says to his disciples, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.’

The text is not explicit about what the unbearable things are, and the neither do the commentaries seem to be very interested in the question. Yet this might be important for a church which finds much ‘unbearable’: decline in numbers, deteriorating and unmanageable buildings, a much-bruised reputation and increasingly complex governance responsibilities. No small part of our own thinking about a future off this site will be ‘What can we bear?’ What is the relationship between these unbearable things here and now, and the things Jesus considers his disciples will not be able to bear?

The unbearable things Jesus speaks of here come a little more into view when he refers to the work of the Spirit. The work of the Spirit here is to ‘convict’, to ‘prove the world wrong’ about sin, righteousness and judgement. This is not a Spirit who sits well with much contemporary interest in ‘spirituality’. This is a spikey Spirit that does not waft or flow or comfort but skewers us with the pointy end of sin, righteousness and judgement.

‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.’ They cannot bear them ‘now’ because the Spirit has not yet been given. The Spirit has not been given because Jesus has not yet been crucified. The unbearable thing, then, and our being able to bear it, have to do with the cross.

The death of Jesus must be a part of what will be unbearable for the disciples, yet the Spirit is no mere ‘comfort’ for this difficult experience, no soft cushion in a hard world. The Spirit will re-cast the cross, moving it from the world’s judgement on Jesus to God’s judgement on the world. The unbearability of the death of Jesus will become a new vision of righteousness.

But what then about those things we find unbearable here and now? What is the relationship between the unbearable thing Jesus would say, the way in which the Spirit makes that bearable, and our own unbearable things?

The Spirit makes bearable the unbearable things to which Jesus refers, most surprisingly, precisely by creating the unbearable church. The Spirit tells the truth about Jesus by doing Jesus again: now as the church – the unbearable church.

This is surely troubling.

When we condemn the church for its heresy or dogmatism or managerialism or incompetence or corporatism or wishy-washiness, or for its wealth or anxiety or triumphalism or self-interest or lack of faith, or whatever, we declare: surely this cannot bear the Word of God, be the presence of God, even be useful to God. Surely there is more of God somewhere else. This is part of the appeal of modern, popular nowhere-in-particular spirituality and its aversion to being ‘locked in’ to place or community or ritual: the spiritual cannot be found here.

But the gift of the Spirit – the gift of this particular Spirit – is the gift of the extraordinary ordinary. Here, now in the church – even this church! – the truth the Spirit brings is the possibility of ‘heaven’ – God’s kingdom come, here. This we declare not because what of we see but because of who chooses to name this place in that way – because of whose Body we are said to become, according to the will of God.

It matters not whether the same might be said of places other than the church. It matters for us only that this place – our place – is claimed by God as God’s own, embraced as if an Only-Begotten Child. This is a new vision of righteousness.

This is the gospel – that, even we as are, God wills to have us. The Spirit takes what is in a community such as ours and declares that even this can bear the grace of God.

It is not for nothing that the creed has us declare, ‘We believe in the church.’ To believe in Jesus is to believe in the church. To love Jesus is to love the crucified Jesus, to see in the world’s abandonment and judgement of him the truth of God. In the same way, to believe in the church is to love the church as it actually is.  This is not to baptise or endorse all that the church is in its externality; it is, instead, to declare, Where else would we expect the deep grace of God to be manifest except in such an unbearable place? It is here that our belief in Jesus, even our love of Jesus, becomes concrete and specific – in the particular, tangible community of which we are a part.

And out of this springs the imperative: love the church. Love the church not as an idea but as it is. Love your congregation; love not only the one you’re happy to sit next to, but the one who sits in front of you, or behind, or across the room. Love your church council. Love your presbytery. Love your Synod. Do this not because they are lovely, yet. Any of these can sometimes be quite unbearable, entirely unlovely.

Love, because it is the love which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things which makes the beloved lovely. When this happens the unbearable is not made not merely bearable but a joy.

This matters for the process through which our congregation is presently passing – the long, drawn-out, expensive, laborious, frustrating, disappointing, dispiriting, unbearable process of trying to deal with these buildings in the context of the kind of church we are as a denomination. It also relates to the stage we are now entering – hopefully, the last few steps towards determining a future for the congregation. We can’t enter into this expecting that it will be easy, or that it will be obvious what to do, or that we will completely satisfy everyone.

But we could take our next steps in the love of which we have just spoken. We could, then, not so much work toward an outcome for a future for the congregation as love one another in that kind of direction. Then, what is ahead of us would not be something we ‘have’ to do – another unbearable thing in the life of the church. It would simply be the kind of thing we should always be doing – another work of love: thinking together, discussing, debating, planning, praying, and then looking to see what God can make of all that.

To believe in this God is to believe in the church which God’s Spirit creates – even ours, and out of ours. To believe in the church is not yet to see it, but to expect that it will come into view, and to act now in such a way that when it does appear, we will recognise ourselves in it – no longer unbearable but cause for joy on account of God’s work of grace.

Let us, then, begin and continue to live and love according to the wholly new righteousness we expect God to make out of us.


Re-worked from a sermon previously preached at MtE (2015)

Sunday Worship at MtE – 23 May 2021

The worship service for Sunday 23 May 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

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