Author Archives: admin

19 January – Christ, lamb or shepherd

View or print as a PDF

Epiphany 2
19/1/2020

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood


What did the Baptizer mean when he saw Jesus and said, ‘Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’?

This is quite a critical question for a congregation like Mark the Evangelist if for no other reason than we sing these words nearly every Sunday. It is one of the ordinals of the Eucharist, one of the texts that are common to every communion liturgy. These include the Kyrie (Lord have mercy), the Creed, and the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy).

The choirs I sing with have extensive repertoires of Latin masses. They always conclude with the Agnus Dei – Agnus Dei qui tolis peccata mundi, miserere nobis (Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us). It repeats this twice except the last time the miserere nobis is replaced with dona nobis pacem (give us peace).

The version we sing is a rewrite to get around the modern minds irritation with repetition and to introduce a few more concepts about the work of Christ. But still we begin by singing, ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.’

For a metaphor like ‘lamb of God’ there needs to be some context or it does not make sense. This particular image can be a bit confusing because a much stronger image in the gospels, that is to say a much more frequently used image for Jesus, is that of shepherd. Matthew, Mark and John think shepherd when they think of Jesus. Only John also thinks ‘lamb’ and only in the portion we heard this morning.

Understanding New Testament concepts often relies on knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. I remember a visiting teacher of liturgy telling us that if you need to leave out any of the set readings on a Sunday, don’t drop the Old Testament one. We can’t understand the gospels without knowing the Hebrew Scriptures.

That is certainly true for this metaphor of the lamb. However, we could start on this one without any ancient context to build on. The context of the story on its own stimulates interest and raises the eyebrow. John the Baptiser has been preaching that someone greater than he is coming along to step his mission to higher level. In the next breath he points at the man he is talking about and calls him the lamb. Not the lion or the bear or the elephant but the lamb. If that doesn’t make a first reader who has not sung the Agnus Dei hundreds of times for the last 40 years sit up and pay attention, then I don’t know what will.

John the gospel writer talks of Jesus as lamb only this once, but John the Theologian in Revelation calls Jesus the Lamb 26 times. We could write a few doctoral theses on whether the writer of John’s gospel and that of Revelation are the same person, but the lamb metaphor provides a link.

So, what was happening in the Hebrew Scriptures to help us understand what John was thinking? There are three that I have found and together they provide some of the richness and complexity for grasping the work of Jesus and his nature. Let’s go backwards through the books. This morning we heard part of the first of the Songs of the Suffering Servant of the prophet Isaiah. In Passiontide we often hear from the fourth Song of the Suffering Servant that includes the lines, ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’ (Isaiah 53:7)

We are reminded of Jesus silence at his trials. John is also the one who records Jesus words, ‘17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.’ (John 10:17-18) Was John thinking of Jesus’ posture of silence before his accusers, his do nothing to prevent his death is why we speak of Jesus’ self-giving for the sake of the world?

Let’s go back further to the Exodus, to the Passover lamb that was to be killed and eaten before the journey of escape. The blood of the lamb is given graphic mention in this story, but it is not sacrificial blood. This blood of this lamb is to be daubed on the door posts and lintels so that the angel of death will pass over the houses so marked, but the first born of households not marked with blood will be killed that night. John the Theologian lays great store on the efficacy of the blood of the lamb to maintain life for the faithful. Is this what John the Evangelist had in mind? Now to unwrap all that Revelation means of how the blood of the lamb works for the good of humanity would require a few more PhDs, so let’s leave it there.

Go back to Genesis to the strange and disturbing story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice. At the last moment a lamb caught in a thicket provides the substitute sacrifice. Was John thinking of Jesus whose death is our deserving?

Well, we don’t know what John the Evangelist was thinking or what John the Baptiser was thinking when Jesus was named the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He did not go on to say, ‘Now, what I mean by …’ and then give a detailed explanation so that what it means is this or that and nothing else. It is the power of poetry, music, parables and metaphors that they do not nail down the truth but allow emotions, current contexts and the movement of the Spirit of God to shape and reshape how we know what God has done and what God is doing and the life of Jesus in our world.

However the ancient texts of our Jewish heritage tells it, the image of the lamb as a metaphor for God’s love and desire and power to save us points to weakness and vulnerability. God’s saving act in Jesus is so risky. Put the salvation of the world in the life of a human born into world where the geopolitics and religious extremism is rife – what could possibly go wrong. A world so familiar to our own – what can possibly go wrong.

I glanced at the Synod’s calendar for 2020. Did you know that yesterday was the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? Well may we pray for Christian unity because if the church is better at one thing than another it is disunity. Did you know that today is designated ‘Day of Mourning, First Sunday before Australia Day’? Did you know that tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jnr Day? You probably knew that that next Sunday is ‘Australia Day’ (hurray for us) and, according to the calendar, ‘Survival Day’. The calendar asks us to remember the sin and trauma of the past, and this amidst current trauma of geopolitical chaos and natural disasters that would be less disastrous if we cared for the planet.

What goes wrong in our world yesterday, today and probably tomorrow? Just about everything. So we place our hope and trust in the vulnerable Christ who does not avoid his own destruction, who is caught in the thickets of the world gone mad, who marks humanity for life – to this one we pray:

Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, give us peace – give us peace.

12 January – Baptism – Jesus’ and Ours

View or print as a PDF

Baptism of Jesus
12/1/2020

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Matthew 3:13-17

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Rob Gallacher


The Baptism of Jesus is a very rich subject, and I am going to leave most of it out in the interests of getting you home before lunch.

I want to work with three building blocks, The Baptism of Jesus, our baptism, and the righteousness mentioned in the text. Actually “righteousness” has some overtones of moral or legal correctness that I want to avoid. I’m going to say “rightness”, to express this sense of things being right when relationships with Jesus are right.

BAPTISM OF Jesus. Jesus, who was without sin, submitted to John’s baptism of repentance. It is part of his becoming one of us. As he descends beneath the water he is identified as one with this sinful human race. We acknowledge this in the liturgy, “Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us”.

OUR BAPTISM If Jesus identifies with us in his baptism, we are identified with him in our baptism. We are baptised into Christ. It is that mutual indwelling so simply yet profoundly expressed by John 17:21, “As you, Father are in me, and I am in you, may they also be in us”.

RIGHTNESS And that is rightness. In the text, Jesus overcomes John’s unease with the words “It is proper for us to fulfil all rightness”. John accepts this and is accepted.

I wonder if you can sense this mutual acceptance in the way the symbols are arranged here. There are several ways of arranging liturgical furniture, and each has its own meaning. Since it is like this now, we’ll look at this one.

Start with the font, the reminder of baptism. I haven’t studied your behaviour closely, but I have the impression that most people acknowledge its presence only by avoiding it, or sometimes stumbling over it. I see it like the turnstile at the MCG. You pass through into another space, where exciting things will happen. The font is the beginning of sacred space. Once you have passed this point you are in the place of the baptised. There is a rightness about your being here.

Now look at the line from the font to the table. I wish we could call it the altar, the place of sacrifice, where the body of Christ is broken so that the baptised may be fed. I can give you several examples where the table/altar is also seen as the tomb. It is not just the body that is broken open to give life, but all the restrictive powers are fractured. So behind the altar is the empty cross, the new life of the resurrection.

So when you take your seat, you locate yourself between two great symbols, the font, the baptism identifying Christ with you, and also your identification with Christ, and secondly, the altar and cross that represents the final rightness between you and God. So there you are, somewhere in the space between the two symbols, the place of worship, sacrament and pilgrimage, the place of sacrifice, brokenness and renewal. There is a process going on. We speak today of spiritual journey. But that is a bit : New age-y”, a bit “me” centred The old fashioned word, “sanctification” seems stronger to me. The Spirit of God working in you, the descent of the dove on the body of Christ, till the Father says “I am well pleased”. That is rightness.

And it’s not just an individual holiness. Notice how the liturgy moves from “Jesus, bearer of our sins” to “Jesus redeemer of the world”. The rightness here is to be reproduced out there. Isaiah put it, “I have called you in righteousness … to be a light to the nations”. (Isaiah 42: 6) Even the lectionary moves us from Baptism, on this first Sunday after Epiphany through steps to Transfiguration on the last Sunday of Epiphany. You, and the world around you, will look different. You will see differently, rightly.

The three pietas of Michelangelo pick up some of these themes.

Look first at the best known, the one in St Peter’s in Rome, done when he was only 23. When Norma and I first went into St Peter’s we had two young children, so we took one each and went our separate ways, except that we kept bumping into each other as we went back to the Pieta for yet another look. It is the classic view of a young man who sees everything very clearly. It is highly polished, balanced in composition, expressing great emotion, yet serene. It is the view of someone looking in on the scene from the outside.

The Florentine pieta is different. Michelangelo is now in the fullness of adult life, in his late 60s. The figures of Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea have been added, and the face of Joseph is a self-portrait. He has placed himself in the scene. It is no longer smooth, the lines are not so clear, and the people supporting the body of Jesus with one hand support one another with the other hand. Bonhoeffer wrote a poem called “Stations on the way to freedom”. His second stanza contains this line: “Make up your mind and come out in the tempest of living”. When you are involved in the action, the lines are not so clear, the surface not so polished.

The third Pieta displays a stage yet further on. We discovered this in Milan, and I find it the most profound of them all. Clarity has given way to mystery as Michelangelo contemplates his own death. He is 89, and this is his last work. You can make out the two figures, but who is supporting who? While Mary is supporting the dead body of her son, the crucified one is supporting her. And when you look into the indistinct face of Christ, you see that Michelangelo has dared to carve his own features onto the face of Christ. Identification. Rightness. Can you see your own face on the face of Christ? We see the face of the hungry, the sick, the poor and the imprisoned as the face of Christ. But do you take the identification of Christ with you and your identification with Christ to this point? Do others see a Christlikeness in your face? Transfiguration!

As you sit amongst the baptised, ask, Where are you on your spiritual journey? How far has that descending, sanctifying dove led you, pushed you, towards rightness?

Soon you will be invited to reaffirm your baptism. As you return from the font to sit in the sacred space, I invite you to reflect on how far you have come from your beginning in baptism, and how close you feel you are to the altar, the place of sacrifice and resurrection life? Where there is a proper rightness connecting these three.

Christ’s baptism identifies him with us.

Our baptism identifies us with Christ.

Our growth in this relationship that is right, proper righteousness.

5 January – The Epiphany of our Lord

View or print as a PDF

Epiphany
5/1/2020

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Sermon preached Andrew Gador-Whyte


Today we are marking the Epiphany of our Lord. We celebrate the coming of the wise men paying homage to the infant they recognise as king.

We celebrate the revealing in Jesus of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles, all of us, in his saving work.

And we look forward to the coming restoration of all humanity and the whole cosmos in the reconciling death and life of Jesus Christ.

What has been revealed at epiphany is the purpose behind the life of all human cultures and indeed animals and the whole creation – participation in the life of God through Christ, Christ who is the unifying principle and radical generosity within and behind all created things.

In recounting the coming of the Gentiles to worship their infant Lord, Matthew is drawing on the rich prophetic imagery we have heard in the Old Testament today.

Isaiah and the psalmist proclaimed that exile will end, and the integrity of the nation and its families will be restored. In former times, Judah’s kings were humiliated before the violence of Babylon. But soon the nations will recognise in Judah their true centre, the epitome of human flourishing.

By God’s faithfulness, the roles will be reversed, and the kings of the Gentiles will fall before the king of Judah. But although Isaiah’s image is one of an imperial capital, it represents instead a reconciling power exercised in the world. This power will above all be for the restoration of the life of the poor and weak. A restoration beyond the violence that seems so intrinsic to the world and the exercise of power.

All of humanity, and particularly those in authority, will be transformed by obedience to the one reigning with the authority of this reconciling God. Judah’s king will act in a way that is recognisably authoritative in the true sense, that is, oriented in service towards reconciliation. Think of the spontaneous cry of the crowd in Mark’s gospel as Jesus begins his ministry – ‘A new teaching – with authority’.

God’s reconciling authority will be revealed to the nations through his people, and particularly through one who will act among God’s people with justice. This justice flows from receiving it as a gift to be worked out in the world through human integrity.

The coming of the wise men inaugurates the streaming of the nations to Jerusalem. Their homage before Jesus initiates the movement of those outside the Jewish nation now into obedience to the Promise.  They herald the establishment of the Church as a wild olive tree now grafted into the Promise, now fellow heirs along with our brothers and sisters, the Jews.

Who are the wise men? There is a tradition of their being kings – for us, perhaps politicians, academics, other powerful shapers of public discourse. They are astrologers, possibly even sinister workers of magic. They are clearly not Jews. Yet these foreign, powerful, even shadowy figures have nonetheless become a means by which God discloses his reconciliation of all nations in Christ. God works through their human integrity and wisdom. Through their recognition, God makes them a source of revelation to the Gentiles.

But even more strangely, the movement of the comets and stars have themselves become a means of revelation. Time itself has not been left unchanged. With the coming of Jesus, no longer do the movements of celestial bodies dictate fate. Rather, their movements have become from now on movements of praise.

Time is now marked by the movements of the higher creation in praise of the Lord revealed at the heart of creation. So epiphany is the revelation that the whole universe has been invited into a new obedience to God in Christ.

Here God’s eternal purpose is unveiled, that all nations will find themselves included in obedience to God in Christ. But this is even more cosmic. The powers under which the universe labours, the authorities and forces which govern the world, will come to find their true purpose in obedience to Christ.

By the power of the Spirit, the Church will become a means by which God makes his will clear to all humanity. By its own obedience, the Church is to lead the nations and – startlingly –all of creation into obedience to Christ.

Matthew hints at a shift in the wise men. In searching for the anointed one, they go first to the place where authority is most visibly and brutally expressed, to Herod’s Jerusalem. But afterwards, they return by another road. They have been met by the authority of the Child, which upsets the violent balance of authority as we understand it.

TS Eliot imagined the return of wise men to their own country in this way – ‘we were led all that way for Birth or Death?… this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation…’

In our times when for many the economic and social balance seems hopelessly tilted against them, there is an understandable desire for politicians who will at least upset that balance. The terrifying rise of racist and authoritarian governments is in part an indictment on the way progressive politics have often become distant from the needs of the disadvantaged. And to our shame Christians have often been complicit either in political elitism or in this impulse towards authoritarian, exclusionary, insular politics.

In these times, the Church must allow itself to be transformed by the feast of the epiphany. Our liturgical life, our life of prayer, is meant to bring us more and more deeply into unease in the ‘old dispensation’. Our life of worship and prayer, our living out of our baptism, is a slow birth out of a slow death.

Our life together in the Church is a slow dying to the violent patterns of authority that run through all our relationships and interior lives. And it is a life where, by the grace of God, the strong and the powerful grow into solidarity with the weak, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged; a life where a new unity is possible and where the lip-service of mixed economies is replaced by the radical equality of God’s coming kingdom.

The Church must be renewed in obedience to the Prince of Peace. Our urgent task – in our worship and our engagement in our national life – is to hasten to the feed-trough, where we lay the whole of our lives before the Christ Child.

And this urgent task is from beginning to end an act of joy – joy at the coming of Jesus into this world, this tangled web, these relationships, this crisis. Joy at the humanity of God who remains in our midst in this world. Joy against the crushing pessimism of our times, joy against the fearful exclusion of the stranger. Joy that persists in proclaiming that in Christ now nothing can separate my neighbour, my enemy, from life and communion.

We must allow our lives to be reordered from being the definers of our own fate, to become an act of praise. We must allow our lives to become a star pointing the nations towards Bethlehem, an invitation into the joy of obedience – just as we trust we are being renewed along with all of creation.

By the grace of God, may our lives become a constant invitation to kneel before the one who became poor, weak and vulnerable, in being born among us – the one who chose the cross as his throne.

The crucified and risen one, the Christ Child –
he it is who rules with the authority that is healing;
the one who arises as the dawn,
making our dark cities shine with their coming restoration;
the one whose body we are in the world. Amen.

29 December – Boxing Day Buns

View or print as a PDF

Naming of Jesus
29/12/2019

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21


In a sentence
God does not notice our seasons – even our godless times – except to the extent that God can use them to claim all our times as God’s own

Rumour has it that, the day after Christmas, you could buy ‘Boxing Day buns’ at Coles supermarket: hot cross buns with a Christmas re-labelling. (Woolworths will apparently follow next week, and Aldi the week after). And the cry has gone up that the supermarket is ‘changing tradition’. As with roses so also with buns – a hot cross bun is a hot cross bun by any other name, and hot cross buns are only for Easter time.

There probably is something to lament here, as there is something to lament in the way in which Christmas has changed culturally under the pressures of capitalism. But these cultural pressures are less interesting than what is implicit in the complaints about the changes they bring. What is implicit in the complaint about Boxing Day buns is that we should not eat them until the ‘right’ season, as if the time of year tells us what hot cross buns themselves ‘tell’ us.

To consider this more deeply, let’s put to one side the question of when we should eat them and ask a less obvious but more important question: when does God eat hot cross buns?

We’ll ignore the obvious problem with that question simply because it is more interesting to do so. Does God only eat hot cross buns in Holy Week? And when does God stop eating hot cross buns? (As it happens, no one seems to be too interested with the question of when we should stop eating them, although if there is a time we should start eating them then presumably someone should also get worked up about how long the buns remain in stores after Easter, as well!)

It might not surprise you that these questions are not typically covered in the average course in theology for ministers in training – which is lamentable – but we’ll do our best with them this morning, and this brings us to our reading from St Paul.

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
 did not regard equality with God
 as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
 and became obedient to the point of death—
 even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
 and gave him the name
 that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
 that Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father.

There is a lot going on in this text but what matters here for God’s interest in hot cross buns is right in the middle of the text, and scholars find that it appears as an interruption to the flow of what was probably an early Christian hymn, quoted here by Paul. The words ‘even death on a cross’ break the rhythm and balance of the text, suggesting that Paul has inserted them here. In this way he draws attention to the meaning of Jesus’ death, as determined by his crucifixion.

Paul, then, is not giving an account merely of what happened – that Jesus was crucified – as if he might have died some other way. ‘[Even][1] death on a cross’ shifts the crucifixion from what might have been seen to what was actually happening. What could be seen was a man on a cross, among other men on crosses, and indistinguishable from them in that. But because of who he is, the crucifixion becomes part of him in a wholly (and holy) unexpected way.

And so the crucifixion becomes part of God in an unexpected way. Paul claims for Jesus that he was ‘in the form of God’ – that he bore God’s image, we might otherwise say. The important thing is, however, that even death on a cross – even a Godforsaken death – does not change that status as ‘image’, even if the image is now cross‑ed.

The silly question about when God eats hot cross buns is actually about God’s relationship to the cross: when is God ‘interested’ in Good Friday?

God’s image bears the cross; so also, then, must God be marked by the cross, if the image reflects its source truly. And this is the heart of the matter: that God’s heart is cross-shaped.

This we are easily able to forget, given as we are to festive seasons, to there being a time for everything and everything in its time. Yet the seasons – as seasons – are distractions. They are the chapters which, though they seem to divide up a story, are only there because of the particular story which is being told. A good editor chops everything, no matter how interesting, which does not contribute to the whole which is the story itself, which is not there only because of what it contributes to the whole.

But this is very hard to sustain. Divided up into seasons as the story of God has become, each season now provides us with an opportunity to get God wrong in a particular way, and so also to get ourselves wrong. We see a cradle without a cross, a cross without a resurrection, a sceptre without a scourge, a Spirit without a crucifixion, or a teacher without a saviour, so that the story is now sentimentalised, now mere tragedy, now triumphalist, now ‘religious’, now moral.

The problem, then, is not that hot cross buns come too early or too late. It is that we can imagine that the cross is only a seasonal matter, that Christmas and Easter mark different things, are different lessons in a curriculum.

Against this, we should not ask ‘when’ God eats hot cross buns because God eats only hot cross buns – only the cross. ‘Jesus is Lord’ means ‘the crucified one is Lord’. And this is ‘to the glory of God the Father’ because God’s glory is that even the godforsaken are God’s own, and not lost forever.

It is, of course, unlikely that the product line manager at Coles has been reflecting on all this and has determined that, for the spiritual health of the nation, we ought to have free access to hot cross buns all year – a kind of daily self-administered Eucharist.

It’s unlikely, and it doesn’t matter.  Our getting the times wrong is about getting God wrong, in a way peculiar to whatever time it is, and supermarket shelves are scarcely the worst of it.

But to name Jesus as Lord – to see the cross at God’s heart – is to say that God is untimely, and to set Boxing Day buns in a new light. To confine the work of God to a season is to get God, and ourselves, wrong.

Let us, then, not be distracted by the approach of a ‘new year,’ or the arrival of Easter too early. Time is not our lord.

But there is a Lord of time whose untimeliness is God’s freedom. If Jesus is Lord of time – the image of God in whose image we are made – then Jesus himself is the time of our lives, and we are lords of time with him.

Let us then, fear nothing – least of all Boxing Day buns – for our times are in God’s hands and only when we are so held are we free.

[1] The ‘even’ is not in the Greek but inserted into some translations to draw attention to the disruption of ‘death on a cross’.

 

25 December – Gift-ed

View or print as a PDF

Christmas Day
25/12/2019

Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Luke 2:8-20


In a sentence
Christmas is about what it means to give, receive and be a gift

The comic musician Tom Lehrer has a song entitled ‘A Christmas Carol’, a cynical mishmash of re-worked Christmas favourites, part of which runs like this:

Hark the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.

God rest ye merry merchants, may
you make the yuletide pay.

Angels we have heard on high
Tell us to go out and buy!

Something of that cynicism is probably shared by most of us at this time of the year. Christmas seems to have lost its way.

To that seasonal cynicism we could add a cultural scepticism at any attempt the Church makes to claw back some Christmas ground. God might have got the whole show going but is, surely, no longer necessary. Indeed, for many, Christmas will not bear its own story; whatever Christmas needs, it could not be God.

Whether cynical belief or sceptical unbelief, then, there is not enough Christmas in Christmas for any of us.

Yet what is, in fact, most missing is not ‘the spirit of Christmas’ at all – whether a divine or simply seasonal spirit. Rather, we ourselves are largely missing from Christmas. The season has an extraordinary capacity to reduce rather than expand us, to take more than it gives, to diminish our freedom.

This is an extraordinary thing, for Christmas is the season of the gift, and a gift is supposed to ‘add’ something to us. We might wonder, then, whether what we experience at Christmas time is the corruption of ‘gift’.

We feel something of this corruption when we find ourselves in the awkward situation of having received a Christmas gift but having nothing to give in return, and feel compelled to apologise for the oversight or to make a recovery offering a little later.

It’s telling that we don’t usually feel this when the gift is given outside of the ‘gifting season’. The unexpected gift in June or September is something we can receive without implied obligation, and is less likely to feel contrived. It springs not from a calendar trigger but from the free initiative of a person, and this touches us.

It is the scheduled gift which is the problem, and Christmas is scheduled giving par excellence. The thing about the scheduled gift is that it is not a really a gift at all; it is half of an exchange springing from obligation. At its most crass, a scheduled ‘gift’ is given in payment for a ‘gift’ received or anticipated. To exchange ‘gifts’ might sometimes have an important social function but it is not about ‘gift’ as such.

Christmas, then, as we experience it as a society and often enough as a church, promises gift but doesn’t deliver; it delivers obligation. It is the tension between the language of gift and our experienced reality at this time which can make Christmas a burden or even, for some, literally quite crushing. The corruption of Christmas, then, is not commercialisation. Commercialisation reflects that gift has already been corrupted. The exchange economy of capitalism finds a comfortable home in a calendarised gifting season.

But let us notice something unexpected which now arises here. If the absence of true and free gift corresponds to our sense that we are ourselves absent from Christmas, we might wonder whether ‘gift’ is actually at the centre of what it means truly to be human. That is, if we got gift right we would get ourselves right.

——————–

For many years now I’ve made a habit on Christmas Eve of listening to a particularly beautiful rendition (Laurisden) of the Latin chant ‘O magnum mysterium’. An English translation of the text might run:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bearChrist the Lord.
Alleluia!

The magnum mysterium – the ‘great mystery’ – is not some great unknown. It is the startling appearance of God in the world, out of season, unexpected. The trimmings to the magnum mysterium – a young woman ripe before season, watched by animals which cannot even tell the time – are fitting signs of what is at play here: pure gift, determined not by scheduling but by the Giver. And, so, this is a coming which – as any true gift does – takes place without expectation of reciprocation or exchange, because the ‘time‑ed’ cannot respond in terms of the ‘un‑timed’. True gift is overwhelming and the only appropriate response is thanksgiving.

In the birth of Jesus there is no frustrating mismatch of promising season and failed gift, to give rise to cynicism. Cynicism in politics and relationships at every level arises from failure to deliver. And scepticism that such a thing could happen is shown to be deeply pessimistic about the possibility of any gift really being given by anyone – the denial of good in human being, with or without God. The sceptic sees only by the dim light which we ourselves generate.

And so the story admits neither cynicism nor scepticism, even if the cynic’s disappointment and the sceptic’s self-loathing determine that the story ends on a cross.

True gift arrives from outside the times and seasons, and changes them by virtue of being something startlingly new. And this is Christmas, rightly told. And it is mystery, a kind of resident contradiction in our midst, calling us to a new thought. For we are cynics and sceptics and, in a world like ours, the Christmas story can only be a quiet rumour of freedom, peace, joy, gift. The rumour calls into question what we take for granted but is not quite true: that we are free, and able to give and receive true gifts – able to be truly and richly human.

For we are not free in this way, even in the season of the gift, the season of the free offering. And so the cynic and the sceptic are right, so far as they can be: our times and seasons are not working, and will not work.

To rumour a great mystery – a story of a true gift in a world which cannot properly give or receive – is to draw attention to unfreedom in our freedom-infatuated world. It is to say that the gift we are is to be found somewhere other than we are usually given to look.

But it is also to give impetus for us to do what Isaiah proposed this morning: to take up the rumour and to give God the true Giver no rest until we are freed from cynicism and scepticism, and experience ourselves as gift: liberated and liberating. For it is not that Christmas happened but that it had to happen, if we are to see the possibility of freedom, something only God could work:

the great mystery of beauty in the midst of unbeauty,
of freedom in the midst of unfreedom,
of gift where only exchange is known.

As this Christmas continues to unfold today and tomorrow and the next day, may some small measure of God’s giving be discovered in what is happening around you, that you might be filled where you are empty, freed where you are unfree, and take up the rumour of the angels, in a quiet alleluia.

Amen.

_________

Considerably adapted from AUC and KUC, December 25, 2008


15 December – Offended at Jesus

View or print as a PDF

Advent 3
15/12/2019

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11


In a sentence
Jesus’ ministry troubles even his closest allies because, if this is the Messiah does, everything must change

A report this week related that Bill Shorten, the former leader of the federal opposition, was the least popular of Australian major party leaders for nearly 30 years. The apparent offensiveness of Mr Shorten and the policies of his party was enough, of course, to bring about the surprising election result of May this year.

Whatever we might make of that, what are we to make of Jesus’ declaration, ‘Blessed are they who take no offence at me’: ‘Blessed are they who are not scandalised by me’ (the key Greek word is the root of our English word ‘scandal’). We have some pretty clear ideas now about the offence given by Labor and its policies but why might people take offence at Jesus, given the kinds of things he has been doing? The blind are regaining vision, the lame are walking, illness is being overcome, the deaf are hearing, the poor are hearing good news and the dead, even, are being raised. What political leader could imagine that, if she were doing that kind of thing, she could possibly fail a political popularity test? To those for whom life is struggle for relief, Jesus is said to bring precisely what we desire, and we would consider anyone a saviour who performed such wonders for us.

So where is the offence? It is not the rumour of the miraculous. John would have expected the Messiah to be working miracles, and it is to him that Jesus makes this unexpected declaration: ‘Happy you are if I am no scandal to you.’

Indeed, John already knows and believes what is happening; it is Jesus’ incontrovertible miracles themselves which seem to cause him concern: are these the miracles the true Messiah would perform? What matters is not the miracles themselves but the kinds of miracles they are said to be, and for whom they are performed. This is to say that the offence which might be taken here is not the offence implied against ‘the laws of nature’. The offence is political; it is against the social, moral and religious order. Why is the Messiah performing this type of miracle? Why is the Messiah concerned with the blind, the ill, the poor and the dead? What are these in face of the expected approach of the reign of God?

Of course, we know – after a fashion – that God is concerned about such things. This is the source of Christian activism and political engagements, and also of many of their secular equivalents.

But the needs of the poor are not quite the point in Jesus’ comment, ‘take no offence’. That Jesus happens to help the poor is less the point here than that helping the poor is all that Jesus does; the only evidence that Jesus is the Christ is that he does these things for these people. In the context of his own preaching, John hears what Jesus is doing and wonders to himself: Is this the axe at the root of the tree? Is this the winnowing fork that sifts the just and the unjust? Is this the baptism with fire (cf. 3.1-13) which is God’s oncoming storm of righteousness?

Jesus tells the crowds, There has never been one ‘born of women’ who has been greater than John the Baptist and yet the one who can answer those questions with a Yes – the one who knows that the Messiah of this God would do such things – such a one is greater than John. The wild-eyed prophet who calls the people to prepare the way of the Lord knows that that the Lord is coming, but does not yet know the Lord. For it is the healing touch of Jesus which is John’s axe and winnowing fork.

What does it mean that the Messiah does this? It does not mean that we are to do as Jesus does. We are, of course, to do as Jesus does, but this text is not about us becoming healers or helpers. This is because the possibility that the greatest of us all might be offended at Jesus is the possibility that we might be offended at Jesus.

How could it be that a vision towards the improvement of the lot of those with less might be offensive? Mr Shorten would be right still to be pondering that. In that connection we might say that to be offended at Jesus’ expression of God’s righteousness is a ‘vote’ against him. And a vote against Jesus is a vote for what?

A vote against Jesus here is a vote for ourselves, against others. It is a vote against the thought that when God comes it might not be for us but perhaps against us. For, if we are not those in need of Jesus’ healing touch are we, then, among the ‘brood of vipers’ against whom John railed (3.7)?

In fact, the gospel doesn’t accuse us in this way. It simply raises the question: do you take offence that God’s righteousness comes for those who don’t look particularly righteous? Do you take offence that God’s righteousness comes not in disintegrating judgement but in integrating reconciliation?

Funny kind of righteousness it is which puts the axe to the root not of the person who might seem to deserve it but to the weeds which have grown strong and choked out the gospel for her. Funny kind of God it is whose winnowing fork does not separate the good from the bad but the needy from that which has made them so. Funny kind of fire it is which burns to heal.

There is a shock in ‘Blessed are those who take no offence at me.’ The shock is that we have no part in Jesus if do not, in one sense or another, know ourselves to be poor, blind, lame, in captivity, dead. If this is what the Messiah does, then the unrighteous and the unrighteous, the poor and the rich, the dead and the alive have some something to see and receive here.

The greatest of all born of women sits in a prison and wonders, Are you, who does this, the one we have been waiting for? Because, if you are, this changes everything.

8 December – Prepare the way of the Lord

View or print as a PDF

Advent 2
8/12/2019

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Rob Gallacher

“You brood of vipers!” I get the impression that John the Baptist was not too impressed with the attitude of those Pharisees and Sadducees, the cultural leaders of his day. The point he held against them was that they didn’t act. They didn’t “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. They thought they were all right because of their past, they were descendants of Abraham, and that was all that mattered.

Matthew presents John as Elijah come again to announce the coming of the Messiah. The belt, the camel’s hair, the diet, all paint a picture of Elijah. And Elijah set the pattern for being critical of the prevailing culture. Though the lectionary points us to Isaiah for a description of the messiah: – a shoot from the stump of David, a branch that will bear fruit, … with righteousness he will judge the poor. … Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist. … And the whole of creation will be transformed. The wolf shall live with the lamb … They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.

The pattern for preparing for the Messiah is first exposing unrighteous attitudes towards the poor and then taking action to relieve poverty. But it is also interesting to note that John was actually executed for his criticism of the marriage of Herodias to Herod Antipas, while Elijah didn’t like the marriage of Ahab to Jezebel.

In his address to the Anglican Synod recently, Archbishop Freier pointed to the marriage debate as “the issue of our times”. The Anglican position is at variance from recent legislation about marriage equality. This leads the Primate to make several points:

  • Our society no longer looks to its Christian roots on moral issues,
  • The Church must point to the coming reign of Christ, and witness to the judgement of Christ in order to transform the culture around it,
  • that witness needs to be expressed in actions that minister to the poor and oppressed.

Without this last point, action on behalf of the poor, there can be little impact on our multi-cultural society. John the Baptist was right about that. There is plenty to criticise in the world around us, from banks to cricket balls, and the attitude of ‘Whatever it takes”. As Thackeray put it in Vanity Fair, “We live in a world where everyone is striving for that which is not worth having”. But just verbally resisting corrupt practice or progressive legislation, only paints the church as reactionary. There is a need to create evidences of the reign of Christ, signs of that which is to come. “Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”.

Meredith Lake has stirred up a lot of interest with her book, “The Bible in Australia”; – two literary awards, favourable reviews and insightful interviews. I heard her give some examples of the way the Bible has influenced Australian society, and they fit the pattern of seeing something wrong, calling it out, and then doing something about it.

In 1849 there was a Bible Study Group meeting in Sydney. They were discussing poverty in the light of Scripture, and came to the view that belonging to a provident society and having life insurance would give hope to the poor. So they founded the AMP. A decade later another Bible Study Group thought poverty was still a blight on society. They saw the need for the poor to have a means of building up their savings. They started the Bank of New South Wales, which we know today as Westpac. Fast forward another 20 years. There was a committed and fired up Wesleyan layman, whose name I didn’t manage to get. He was critical of the previous approaches and argued that the only way to relieve poverty was through a just wage. He became instrumental in the foundation of the Australian Workers’ Union.

We have the history. Abraham is our father, if you want to use John’s phrase. But appealing to the past is useful only in so far as it inspires us to act in the present. Each Sunday, in our liturgy, we say: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”. We call it the Easter Mystery. It is a tiny creed. Note the change of tense in the verbs. “Christ HAS died”. We have an unshakeable heritage from the past. “Christ IS risen.” We live in his company and can act with confidence in the present. “Christ WILL come again. We have the vision of the reign of Christ to guide our actions in the present. The vision that the prophet Isaiah put so poetically: “With righteousness he shall judge the poor …. The leopard shall lie down with the kid. … They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” It is a whole new creation.

So hear this voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord”. “All the people were going out to him”. It is not surprising that people, then and now, should fervently long for authority figures and institutions that they can trust. “They were baptised, confessing their sins”. That is the place to start, with the plank in your own eye. John’s baptism was for repentance because the kingdom is near.

Then “Bear fruit worthy of your repentance”. Act on behalf of the poor. Restore the sanctity of marriage. “Do not … say, “We have Abraham as our Father”. It is not enough to live in the past. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down.” Royal Commissions will see to that. “One who is more powerful than I is coming.” Do not reduce the messianic vision to a set of statistics, focus groups or a marketing survey. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” That was the task of a slave. John sees the difference between himself and the Messiah as even greater than that between master and slave. (When Ghandi was in prison in South Africa he gave General Smuts a pair of his sandals. Many years later, when Ghandi was leading his non-violent protests against British rule, General Smuts sent them back, with a note saying he was not worthy.)

“He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The Holy Spirit is the power that moves us from conviction to action, and the fire is that which gets rid of all the useless baggage we carry. It is the presence of Christ in our midst that enables judgement between the wheat, the good fruit, and the chaff which is blown away or burned.

So, this present Advent, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”


1 December – The coming God

View or print as a PDF

Advent 1
1/12/2019

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

 


In a sentence
The God who is coming is the one who has already come, and comes again in the same way

On the first Sunday of Advent each year we hear a gospel reading like that today, from the synoptic gospel of the liturgical year’s new cycle of readings. These texts are strange to modern ears. First century Palestinians expected the world to end in a way not unlike Jesus describes but we have great difficulty committing to that expectation.

The difficulty is largely in that these texts appear to us to be someone else’s ideas about the arrival of God. In fact, it is the force of the ‘someone else’ which makes them mere ideas, mere speculation in our hearing. Because we cannot find ourselves in them or – more to the point – because we can’t find these ideas naturally within ourselves they are mere ideas, and don’t seem to be very good ones at that.

But this ought not to trouble us too much if we understand how the Scriptures work. For not even Jesus’ own ‘ideas’ are to be found in the Scriptures. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is not that they are the ideas of Jesus which makes them important.

This is because, despite all appearances, such passages are not in the Scriptures simply as theories about the end of the world. They are, rather, part of the Scriptures of a community which believed they had something to do with that end of the world which has already been seen in the person of Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection. This is the true end of all things, around which all other Scriptural thoughts revolve.

And so, our text this morning is not speculation or even sure information about what will happen ‘next’. If Jesus ever said anything along the lines of our reading this morning – and he almost certainly did – the importance of what he said is not in his authority as teacher but in that he himself is the ‘Son of Man’ he describes. The ‘Son of Man’ is a complex figure in the New Testament, drawing on several Old Testament concepts in nuanced ways. Yet, in the end, we do justice to the concept by recognising that Jesus himself is this figure. This is because, in the end, Jesus is the reference point for everything which matters in the Scriptures.

Who he is, then, deeply affects what he speaks about in these sayings. Or – to put it more concretely – any approach of the Son of Man will be in accord with what we have already seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who is coming is the God who has already been in Jesus. That Jesus is Lord – that Jesus is the Son of Man – changes everything, even what seems to be Jesus’ own understanding of what is yet to come.

The effect of this is to introduce a deep irony into our hearing of Jesus’ words in today’s readings. For if Jesus himself is already come as the Son of Man, then the result has not been the radical shaking of the world in old-style apocalyptic terms. Amazingly, and in stark contrast with the expectation, the Son of Man comes and scarcely anyone notices, even after the resurrection.

But this hiddenness of the end of the world is not a weak thing. Remember that there is a resurrection from the dead at the heart of this story – the radical creation of something new from the nothingness of death.

For the New Testament asks the unexpected question: what is the end of the world if Jesus is Lord, if Jesus is the Son of Man, is the Christ, is judgement, is grace; what is the end of the world if Jesus is the economy, is the environment, is the significance of death? What is climate change or a terrorist attack or crushed protests in Hong Kong, if Jesus is Lord?

‘What is the end of the world if Jesus is Lord?’ is an important question  because our worlds are full of endings, full of public and personal ‘apocalyptic’ moments which come crashing down upon us: the news of serious illness, the death of one we love, lasting disability from an accident, road rage, divorce, the loss of employment or reputation. These are apocalyptic not only in the narrow sense of ‘thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening’ but also in the sense that they reveal who we are and who we think God is (‘apocalypse’ come from Greek words meaning ‘[bring] from hiddenness’). ‘Why did this happen to me?’ is not just the pathos-filled cry of the suddenly wounded; it speaks deeply of my sense of my own righteousness and of God’s obligations, both now under serious strain.

The same applies, of course, to the positive ‘apocalypses’ in our lives: falling in love, the birth of a child, the receipt of a much needed gift. We don’t usually ask ‘Why did this happen to me?’ on these occasions but even that is telling.

For despite our assumptions about how our worlds should end or continue, if God is part of the picture there is no real ‘why’ about what good or ill happens, because God is not properly part of any equation.

To find God in these things – to see God’s proper relation to the ups and downs of our lives – is a difficult and rare thing, because we prefer life to be an equation. That God does not fit into this preference makes it difficult to see God, present in God’s own strange way. It is rare, that is, to hold that the world is God’s natural habitat, that God could be with us in the midst of all this mess and still be God, still be calling us and enabling us to be more richly and deeply human.

To borrow from the imagery Jesus uses, we all experience the same world of gift and threat. In his example, two are working on preparing the same rows in the same field, or working together on the same meal in the same kitchen, but this is the work of God only for one of them. It is not so much, then, that one is taken and one is left behind. It is rather that one was not really, fully, there in the first place.

And this is the question put to us when God comes: are you really there in the midst of the swirling world? Do you know, in that storm, who you are and where God is? The answer for us all will be, at some time – most likely just now – that we do not know: that we have not heard, or that we have forgotten, or that we fear that God’s naming of us is not true. The question in Jesus’ vivid account of the end is not so much ‘will you be ready?’ but will you recognise God as the one who has brought you ‘safe thus far’, and who comes finally to ‘lead you home’?

Such recognition takes practice – eyes trained to distinguish between dots and blurs on the horizon, ears attuned to hear unexpected harmonies in life’s discord. For this we have the faith of the church, not that Jesus is Lord – mere information about God – but that the crucified Jesus is Lord: that God is shown to be present in our very midst, whether in the unbounded possibilities of gurgling life in a manger or in the hopeless last breath of a executed criminal.

God is already shown to be present to the height and length, the depth and breadth of our worlds.

This is to say that the Son of Man does come at an unexpected hour – this very hour, claiming us again as God’s own. Our end is in God’s beginning with us, which has already begun.

Now, then, St Paul reminds us, is the time to wake from sleep and walk in the Lord’s light.

17 November – Where God’s Presence Goes

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 23
17/11/2019

Isaiah 65:17-25
Isaiah 12
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-9

Sermon preached by Matt Julius


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

It begins in a temple. Where the wind meets the sea.

Where light and dark, sea and sky, water and earth, are set in their place.

Where there is a place for buying animals, and a place to sacrifice them; a court for Gentiles, and a court for Jews.

It begins in a temple.

It begins in a temple. Filled with the breath of life.

Filled with lanterns to guide our path; teeming with fish and birds, creatures of kinds beyond kinds, and our humanity among them.

Filled with conversation in the marketplace, teaching and prayer, devotion and piety and praise.

It begins in a temple.

And God was there. Where the wind meets the sea. Filling it all with the breath of life.

But then the world of order descended into chaos. There was a war, and wars after wars. And the Jewish people lost. Placed under foreign occupation, sent into exile, returned … placed again under foreign occupation, and eventually crushed.

And the temple?

Years upon years, history has marched on. The temple mount in Jerusalem remains in ruins, the site of bitter conflict … and creation is on fire. The teeming life of fish and birds is at risk; the sea is reclaiming the land; our places of worship are literally and metaphorically crumbling; from where will the prayer and praise and devotion come?

The temple has been torn down.

Is God there … anymore?

“By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

These are the words of Jesus that we are left with at the end of today’s Gospel reading. Our Gospel reading recalls the culmination of the defeat of the Jewish resistance by the occupying Roman army: the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. This defeat continued as the Jewish religious movement which would become Christianity began to spread throughout the empire. Moving from the temple to houses, this new movement was met by persecution as it grew.

Luke’s Gospel does not recall these stories of defeat, destruction, and death as memories of long ago. Rather, the Gospel gathers contemporary experiences into the prophetic words of Jesus. Like all good prophets Jesus is not a seer who peers into the future, but is a voice calling out what is true behind the veil of history and the present world.

The words of Jesus pierce through the intervening years between Jesus’ earthly life and the communion of Luke’s audience as the Spirit-filled body of Christ.

Luke’s original audience knew what it meant that they met in a house, no longer able to worship in a destroyed temple. They knew what it meant to be members of a movement where their spiritual siblings were being killed. And so when we step back to see Luke’s Gospel alongside Luke’s other work, the book of Acts, we can see how the text tells the story of Jesus, while also structuring the story to make sense of the experience of early Christians and catch them up in the ongoing work of God in the world. The Gospel of Luke begins and ends in the temple; and the book of Acts moves from the temple to a house, and then to the furthest reaches of the world.

What is at stake in Luke’s two-volume work is nothing less than the coming to fruition of Isaiah’s vision of a new creation. When we step back to see how Luke takes us from the temple — which served as a symbol of God’s heavenly palace — to local places of worship in houses, to the ends of the Earth, we begin to see how Luke compresses the biggest stories Scripture has to tell into the person of Jesus.

Whether we are talking about creation and new creation, God’s promised liberation of Israel, the reconciliation of all nations or the tender presence of God to those who worship, Luke brings these all together in Jesus himself — it is telling, after all, that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus goes back to the very first human, adam, and ultimately to God.

What holds together the cosmic vision of Isaiah, the destruction of the temple, and the endurance of the persecuted is the central thread of God’s presence in the midst of hardship.

God is present in Jesus as he walks the road to the cross.
God is present with Isaiah in the midst of exile — sustaining the hope for a renewal of creation and the return home.

God is present with the first audiences of Luke, as they formed new communities in the face of persecution.

We should be wary of too easily reading our experiences back into the ancient texts we call Scripture. As if the concerns of a church in modern urban Australia can be simply read into the wise reflections of writers in the Ancient Near East. As if the experiences of people under foreign military occupation, facing exile and persecution, can be identified with our situation. In our situation we find ourselves members of a religious movement that has significantly shaped the majority culture of our colonial society.

This wariness about reading our situation back into the texts of Scripture is not simply a reflection on the incongruence, or implausibility of connecting our direct life experiences with those recorded in Scripture.

At the heart of what it means to receive Scripture is precisely to be bound in some sort of continuity with the people and communities that gave us these texts: to

see our God in their experiences of God; to see our experience of the Spirit in their experience of the Spirit.

In other words, what makes Scripture so central, what makes our sacred texts so vital to the life of faith isn’t that our lives look like the lives witnessed to in these stories. But that our God is reflected in these stories, the same Spirit we encounter breathed these words into being. This is to say, we should read Scripture not to find ourselves, but first of all to find and be found by God.

It is from the centre point of an encounter with God, who we meet fully in the person of Jesus, that our connection with one another here, and our connection with the writers and first audiences of these texts opens up. What binds us together as a community of faith across time and place is not that we share an old book, but that we share the living presence of the same Spirit, and the same Risen Christ. It is Christ and Christ alone, by the power of the Spirit, that constitutes our unity.

At the end of it all, what should strike us about the talk of calamity in our reading from Luke isn’t simply that it gives voice to the experience of some Christians, though this is important. Rather, the talk of calamity prepares us for the coming betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion of Jesus.

The promise of God’s presence in the midst of difficulty is assured because God in Christ willingly goes into the midst of hardship. God chooses to be present even among the crucified, even among the dead. Because of this fact, that Jesus is present even where we think God cannot go: into the place of death beyond life, we are assured of God’s presence wherever we are.

The centre point of the cross gathers the calamities experienced by the faithful through time and place, it gathers the experiences of persecution into the experience of the one who is himself God. And from this centre point opens up a tomb, the place of death, and from it comes life; and cascading from the risen Christ is the outpoured Spirit which remains with us.

Not a book, or a building. It is this Spirit which remains with us, makes Christ present for us. Which calls us out to seek the God who creates new life out of death, and gives life to the whole of creation.

Because God acts in Christ to go where we once thought God could not go, we are assured of God’s presence even in the midst of calamity. It is this act which creates the new temple: us, you and me. It is this Spirit who forms us into the body of Christ.

Even as the sea is reclaiming the land; and our places of worship crumble, still we can say:

And God was there. Where the wind meets the sea. Filling us all with the breath of life.

10 November – Of fanaticism

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 22
10/11/2019

1 Timothy 6:1-5
Psalm 145
Luke 20:27-38


In a sentence
The fanatic knows and mis‑takes; the believer is known and finds peace in this

One of my all-time favourite little quips by a theologian is from Gerhard Ebeling: “Theology is necessary because [the human being] is by nature a fanatic.” This little remark has exercised me somewhat recently.

Ebeling is almost certainly right here. Yet, correct – and cute – as the comment is, in the hands of fanatics themselves it quickly becomes something like ‘we’ need theology because you are fanatics. The ‘we’ is intentionally inclusive – for theology must ‘include’ – but the ‘you’ is quite exclusive: you are fanatics and this theology will tell you why.

If course, this won’t work because it indicates what we already know: that fanaticism just as much springs from theology as it might be treated by theology. The word ‘fanatic’ springs from a Latin word for ‘temple’; the fanatic is en‑thusiastic, filled with God (from the Greek en theos – ‘in God, God within’). Ebeling, then, is correct but uselessly so. The problem is not the absence or presence of thought about God but the quality of that thought. And the quality of our thoughts about God is always hidden from us. This is signified by a crucified Christ: ‘oops’…

Some of my thinking about Ebeling’s remark has been in relation to the fanatics the Pastor deals with in the letter to Timothy, of whom we have heard a little this morning. Yet, their particular mistakes aren’t so important here as the fact that the Pastor does not offer much good argument over against them. His approach is narrowly credal: here is the true faith, asserted without engagement. Orthodoxy agrees that the Pastor is correct but his failure to engage with his opponents leaves him himself open to the charge of fanaticism, and illustrates the problem with Ebeling’s explanation of the need for (good) theology: all theology borders on the fanatical.

In our gospel reading today we hear something rather more engaging, if we are not distracted by the form of the question put to Jesus. That form is a challenge about marriage and resurrection, put to trip Jesus up. If a person is legally married multiple times before death – which is common enough – to whom is she married in the resurrection?

Jesus’ response is first clever and then rather shocking: marriage doesn’t really matter much in eternal life. The life lived in God’s restored kingdom is oriented toward God and not toward the history which has led up to it.

This is surely troubling. The argument for life after death is won at the expense of the life we might have valued before death and look forward to continuing in eternal life. And it cannot only be marriage that is affected here. What Jesus says affects also parent-child relationships and friendships and even enmities. It affects our greatest achievements, and our worst. This doesn’t make such life experiences unimportant but it does relativise them, and starkly.

In fact, Jesus’ point is less about marriage or resurrection than it is about how the things of the world are related to the things of God. Marriage is a part of our present experience of time. Yet our experience of time and God’s experience of time are as radically different as if it were the case that the bonds of marriage could be broken. Or to put it differently, the difference between our experience of the world and God’s experience of the world is the difference between life and death.

What has this got to do with fanaticism – whether explicitly theological or in its more ‘secular’ forms?

The fanatic gets hung up on marriage, or resurrection, or life, or death, or the nation, or race, or youth, or health, or money or any other thing we value, as things in themselves. The Sadducees separate both marriage and resurrection from the reality of God. Marriage is ‘a thing’, and resurrection is a thing and God, too, is a thing, each in themselves. Against this, Jesus refuses our division of ourselves into parts with their own intrinsic value. Everything is finally relative to – oriented towards – God.

The fanatic requires that our experience becomes God’s experience. From here, my faithfulness – as I understand it – becomes God’s obligation to honour me. And so I know what God’s future looks like, or can’t look like. For the Sadducees, the divinely sanctioned series of marriages of their highly tragic serial widow means there cannot be a resurrection.

The fanatic requires that our experience becomes God’s experience. It’s part of what we do in gathering in this place to suspect that we all might be fanatics of this sort.

What hope do we have if we must believe and act and yet know also that we might find good reason later to repent of our creeds and actions? How do we both know ourselves to be right and know ourselves to be wrong?

While the fanatic requires that our experience becomes God’s experience, hope is found in the promise of the reverse: that God’s experience might become ours. This promise is the word of peace brought by the risen Jesus.

God’s experience is quintessentially the impossible mismatch of the source of all life dying on a worldly cross. Here good and evil coincide, the Word marries flesh. But God’s experience is also that the cross is God’s own, and not only worldly. The cross, then, becomes a lively place, despite all appearances. It was set up by us as a final word, yet God makes of it the beginning of a conversation.

That conversation runs something like this:

“Here is your final word,
be it your marriage or your divorce or your singleness;
be it your pride or humility;
be it your greed or generosity;
be it your fear or confidence;
be it your grief or happiness;
be it your life or your death.

“And here am I, God, taking those things and making them my own.
And when I make them my own, I fill them with life.

And I give them back to you, that I might be all in all, and that you might know the peace which passes all understanding.”

The fanatic knows that he understands, and expects peace to drop out of understanding’s equation. My future with God can be calculated.

The true child of God knows only that she is understood – comprehended – and loved nonetheless. It is a mystery how this could be so, but peace is peace, even when we do not understand it.

There is much to comprehend, much to argue, much to fight for, much to testify to, much to grieve over… We wed ourselves to many things and make them our own.

And yet, the argument and the struggle and the testimony and the grief are finally God’s, and God will overcome. This is the mystery, the secret, of our lives.

In the resurrection, whose wife shall the much harried and fanatically married church be? She will be Christ’s wife: peace beyond all understanding.

« Older Entries