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8 December – Prepare the way of the Lord

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Advent 1

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

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Advent 1

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

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Pentecost 23

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

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Pentecost 22

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.

3 November – God’s blessed rage for disorder

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All Saints

1 Timothy 3:14-16
Psalm 149
Luke 6:20-26

In a sentence:
The ‘piety’ of Christians always joins them to the broken world, and never separates them from that world

Working constructively with 1 Timothy in our reading over the last couple of months has proved more of a challenge than I expected – certainly more than was the case with Hosea and Ecclesiastes earlier in the year. This is partly because the Pastor – the writer of the letter – doesn’t say much I, at least, find especially interesting. With a couple of important qualifications, there is nothing wrong with the letter but that in itself doesn’t make it enlivening or even necessary.

The principal theme of the letter is summarised in our snippet from the middle of this morning’s short text: ‘how one ought to behave in the household of God’ (3.15). In this connection the letter expands on how bishops and deacons ought to conduct themselves, and women, and widows (apparently a kind of religious order), and elders and slaves, and Timothy himself. All of this is directed towards ‘a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and dignity’ (2.2).

And who would not want this: a community carefully ordered so that all know and prosper in their station?

And yet, this might also be characterised as what a poet once called a ‘blessed rage for order’, ‘blessed’ in the ironic sense of ‘damnable’ (Wallace Stevens, ‘The idea of order at Key West’). There is a rage for order which seems to be required – which seems to be blest – but which may finally be blesséd – cursed.

For alongside the Pastor’s encouragements we have texts like today’s beatitudes (or ‘blessed-s’) from Luke. Luke’s beatitudes differ starkly from Matthew’s, in that they seem to allow a stark identification of the groups blessed or threatened by God, according to economic and social categories: the poor, the sad and the powerless, over against the rich, the happy, the powerful.

But we’ll allow Luke his own take on things and notice instead the contrast between the order of the world in Luke and that of the Pastor.

While the Pastor is right that there is a virtue in good order, his rage for such order must be held in tension with the blesséd disordering which is the work of God Godself.

Where the Pastor will have it that a woman will not speak in the orderly Christian assembly, Luke allows for a God who disorders and makes her the means by which God will be heard. Where the Pastor will have it that the upright bishop or deacon will be all good things to all good people, Luke allows for a God who does not need such good order, a God through whom even poverty or grief or brokenness might yet be blessed.

The kind of life to which the Pastor calls us is a good one, and rightly commended. Yet such life always carries the potential of the error of the morally and religiously upright. We heard of this last week, when Jesus contrasted a Pharisee and a tax collector together in the temple. There the self-contained and orderly religious hero poured scorn on the one whose righteousness, or order, could only come from God.

Against this, Luke’s beatitudes present the righteousness which can only come from God. This is not foreign to the Pastor although he doesn’t make much of it (perhaps apart from the biography of Paul himself [1.12-17]). At the end of our short text today we heard again doxology which has been part of our Great Prayer of Thanksgiving over the last 5 or 6 weeks.

The translation is not straightforward. We heard ‘great is the mystery of our religion’. In fact ‘our’ is not in the Greek, and ‘religion’ can also be translated ‘piety’: great is the mystery – or great is the ‘secret’ – of piety. This mystery or secret is Christ (or God – also unclear in the Greek) ‘manifest in flesh’. The secret of piety is God in the messy midst of ‘flesh’ – God in our messiness.

At the heart of Christian confession is this rage for a new order out of disorder, even ‘in’ disorder. The holy life is not simply ‘in the household of God’, as if holiness could limited only to that place. The life of holiness is ‘in the flesh.’

Among ‘the saints’ the temptation is great to separate themselves –those who are saved from those who are not, those predestined from those not, those who know from those who do not, those who have from those who do not. This temptation, of course, is not merely a Christian one. The same rage for the same kind of order is heard each day in school-yard bullying, on talk-back radio, across the chambers of parliament, in the bombs rained down on distant enemies or carried into their midst in backpacks. This is a purity which atomises and isolates, the purity of ‘holier than thou’.

But a piety which begins with God manifest ‘in the flesh’ disrupts the order of the pure and separated. It is no ‘holier than thou’ but ‘holy for thee’. This is a holiness which makes holy, which brings ‘value’ to other things, other persons. Such value – true holiness – is only ever received; holiness is always gift.

The holy, saintly life is certainly one of action, and so is properly about ‘how to behave in the household of God’. Yet it is always first an activated life, activated by the God who would be manifest even in our unholy lives.

Unholiness’, then – ‘unsaintliness’ – is that attitude or orientation which will not receive or give such ‘value’, which will not be disrupted or disrupt orderings which seek to constrain God.

Jesus himself was both an ordered life such as the Pastor describes and the presence of God’s own blessed disorder. Blessedness is turned on its head – or not; when this God is the source of holiness, we can never know quite how orderly we are. We can only know that, in the end, it will have been God who has set us straight.

To worship this God is to give thanks that God meets us wherever we are, for, in the end, the household of God is the whole wide world.

To worship this God is to be willing to be drawn forward from where we are to a new and better place, and to be willing to call and draw others there with us.

So, saints of God, lift up your hearts, and see what God does with you.

27 October – The Freeing Grace of God

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Pentecost 20

Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

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

Today’s readings centre around the temple in Jerusalem, the temple atop Mount Zion.

The psalmist proclaims:

“O God, in Zion …
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.” (Ps. 65.1, 4)

The prophetic voice of Joel calls out a divine promise:

In the last days, “in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem … shall be those whom the Lord calls.” (Jl. 2.32)

Narrating the last days of the Apostle Paul, Second Timothy speaks of Paul:

“… already being poured out as a libation …” — the image here is one of being poured as a sacrifice on God’s altar.

And in the parable taught by Jesus:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.”

And the tax-collector prays like a prodigal son — “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

And the Pharisee prays like an older brother — “God, I thank you that I am not like other people …”

What strikes me about these four reflections centring on the temple is how each of them speak differently about the saving work of God.

The Psalmist speaks of the temple as the place where God forgives transgressions. And from this centre point in Zion the deliverance of God opens up and reaches out to the whole world.

“O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.” (Ps. 65.5)

Psalm 65 gives us this sense of the reach of God’s saving power from the temple to the world. Earth and water, sea and sky, mountains and valleys, the teeming life of God that covers the earth, that is tended by the Great Gardener of Eden: showered by rain, carved by the natural “wagon tracks” of God’s intimate mercies through creation, overflowing joy, and abundant bounty, richness. All creation sings — from the mountains to the valleys — sings and shouts together for joy!

For the prophet Joel, the rain of creation is not simply for the grain. But becomes, in the prophetic utterance, the healing rain that reconciles and redeems in the aftermath of struggle. The lost become found. That which was consumed by hopper, destroyer, and cutter is washed away in readiness for renewal. And shame shall be no more. For the Lord our God will intervene and pour out — like a libation — an offering of the Spirit to the world: on young and old, free and slave, male and female, on flesh: the bodies sustained by the overwhelming grace of God in the food we eat, the lands we dwell in, the people who are gathered together in communities of love and trust.

Throughout today’s readings from the Psalms and the Book of Twelve Prophets we hear the effusive praise for a God who bears with God’s people. The unashamed thanksgiving to God who gathers a people in the temple, and from the temple expands the reach of saving glory to the whole world, to all people, for healing and renewal: as the Spirit is poured out, and the healing waters over which the Spirit brooded in the beginning, continue to cleanse and restore the world.

These themes of praise for God’s faithfulness continue even as the end of the Apostle Paul is narrated. The same clear ring of praise can be heard, that God has granted favour to the Apostle to the Gentiles. Though Paul was deserted in his time of defence God was there, giving him strength. And so, “To [the God of our rescue] be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (2 Tim 4.18)

Across these three readings — from the Psalms, from Joel, and from Second Timothy — we hear a note of praise: “Thanks be to God who has chosen to grant us favour, in the temple, in the world, by his Spirit, in the midst of times of defence and in the aftermath of struggle.”

Praise the Lord! For the Lord has chosen to bless us with all good things!

As if to provide a counter-voice to this effusive praise rising up to heaven with open

hearts, Jesus says:

“… the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Lk. 18.13-14)

There is a certain sense in which our Gospel reading cuts across the grain of the other readings set for today. Unlike the calls to praise that we are invited into, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector cautions us about the misuse of praise.

The two figures:

a Pharisee — a religious leader, a diligent keeper of the law, a teacher, a good man, pious and true.


a tax-collector — worshipping in the temple, and so a Jewish man, trying to be pious, and yet a tax-collector: collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers, whose presence placed the Jewish people under burden; perhaps perceived as a traitor to his own people, complicit in the ongoing occupation; perhaps dishonest, taking more than he was rightfully owed.

These two figures gather together in the temple. And pray. One a prayer of praise; the other a prayer of repentance, a call for mercy. Jesus says, it was the one who prays for mercy that is justified.

What has gone wrong with the Pharisee’s praise?

At first glance the lesson seems to be one of humility. The Pharisee’s praise goes awry because he fails to be humble, emphasising too much that he is the special recipient of God’s grace, one of the chosen few. And for that reason is a Pharisee, and not like those thieves, and adulterers, or — thank God — a tax-collector.

Of course the lesson that we should be humble is the stated lesson of this parable, and so we should heed this lesson.

And yet, like all good parables, if we dig a little deeper, if we take a step back we might see something more.

This parable in Luke’s Gospel sits within a broad movement of sayings, and parables, and teachings of Jesus. From stories about lost sheep and coins — and a lost son. Banquets and managers and widows seeking justice. Mercy sought by the tormented rich man, from the one who God saves. There are themes of hospitality, mercy, and generosity: in other words, grace, running throughout these stories and teachings. I want to suggest that these themes continue into the story of the Pharisee.

The Pharisee does not get wrong the importance of praise. We have heard from the tradition we share with the Pharisee today in a Psalm of praise, and a prophetic voice speaking of God’s salvation. And both of those readings speak quite clearly about the ones God will and does choose in the temple, and in the end days.

But what about the hospitality of God? In the prayer that says, “oh, but not like the thief, or the rogue, or the adulterer, or the tax-collector — they are not welcomed in my prayer of praise.”

But what about the generosity of God? In the prayer that says, “well, I do the right thing, so I must be good; and if that one over there betrays his people, or doesn’t take responsibility, then nothing good can come of them.”

But what about the project of the great and generous God we meet in Jesus? In the prayer that says, “forgive us our sins … for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”

It is fitting that we should read this caution about praise in Luke’s Gospel. Because Luke’s Gospel constantly pushes us to think about the open arms of God for the world. The open arms that welcome home a lost son, and warns us not to be a resentful brother. The open arms of those with plenty to give to those with need. The open arms of simple faith that welcome the grace of God into the world in surprising ways.

The Gospel of Luke is not saying that we should not offer prayers of thanksgiving. But if we must praise, let our praise recall the grace at the bottom of the well of God’s deep, deep love. Let our praise recall our freedom to be honest about our failure. Because our praise should be marked not by self-righteousness, but by the hospitable, merciful, and generous love of God.

What goes wrong with the praise of the Pharisee is that he does not see that the tax-collector too is found and held by the overwhelming grace of God. That psalms of praise that begin in the temple often open up to the whole world. That prophetic words of divine promise that begin with restoring what is lost for the chosen, often open up to the bountiful outpouring of the Spirit.

The Pharisee needs to look further along in the Gospel of Luke. When the temple gives way to a house, and the house gives way to the Spirit, and the Spirit promised by Joel gives way to a new temple: the holy communion of saints, moving out into the world with the proclamation that God’s hospitality, and generosity, and mercy: the grace of God has come into this world and embraced us all! From the waters that grow the plants, the beauty of the world we are given, the restoration we find in tender mercies, the grace of God blows through the world and holds us, finds us, loves us.

And so … let us never look to those who stand a little way off and say they are not sought by God, that we are loved and they are not, that we have received mercy and they must still be uncertain.

Let us be freed by the knowledge of God’s grace. And recall the deep praise of our ancestors. For in the embrace of God’s grace we are free to confront our failing, because even that shall not erase the generous gift of God’s love.


20 October – Fight the good fight

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Pentecost 19

1 Timothy 6:6-12
Psalm 40
Luke 18:1-8

In a sentence:
The good fight of faith is the struggle to let God be God

Most of us are fully aware that we are going to die. With that comes for many also the awareness – even the fear – that much of what we have done in our lives might well be mucked up by those who come after us.

This concern, of course, doesn’t need our impending death to be active for us. It might only be that we vacate a position in which we think we have done well done and then see that much of that achievement squandered or thrown away by our successor. We have fought a good fight, and then someone else seems to throw in the towel.

It takes great humility to be freed from fear of such loss, or from judgement of those who follow us. Or, to put it differently, it takes great humility to die: to have done what we had to do and then move on, without looking back, perhaps without any ‘true’ successor.

This dynamic of perceived loss is sometimes read into the letters to Timothy and Titus: the writer seems to weaken the penetrating and dynamic work of Paul, in whose name he writes. Paul is captivated by the justifying righteousness of God while the writer of Timothy seems principally concerned with the righteousness we ourselves must achieve.

We have already touched on the theme of ‘pseudonymity’ – the theory that Paul did not write these letters but another wrote them in his name. We won’t spend much time on why this theory is strongly held by many biblical scholars (check a commentary!) but, assuming the theory to be correct, why might someone engage in such an ‘impious’ act as forging letters like this. Why does ‘the Pastor’ (to borrow a name some have given our unknown author) write in Paul’s name?

The simple answer is the authority that name carries, and the Pastor plays heavily on Paul’s authority in the letter. But this is not yet enough. What is the need to add to what the real Paul had already said? The answer here is that Paul is no longer available, while the church has continued and now has new issues which require an authoritative word.

Paul wrote when the Christian movement was small and its organisation was strongly ‘charismatic’. Apostles could relate directly to the few scattered communities.

For the Pastor, it is quite different. If Christ has not come as we expected, what then are we to do? The answer is a kind of ‘settling’ of the church into an ongoing life in the world. And so the church takes on a clearer institutional order, apparently now authorised by one of those great charismatic leaders. Authority shifted from the conviction and encouragement and correction of recognised apostles to authority reflected in structure.

And so the Pastor is interested in bishops, deacons, elders and even a kind of order called ‘widows’. Orientation to the imminent coming of Jesus shifts to living lives which reflect that Jesus is Lord, irrespective of whether he might come again. Paul expects the arrival of God to vindicate Christian conviction and practice. The Pastor expects piety and peacefulness to speak for themselves.

Which of these responses to the times – Paul or the Pastor – is the ‘truer’? Were we to ask Paul, we might find that he would read these letters in his name with disdain, or even horror. There is not much wrong with what is in the letters, but there is much missing which mattered greatly to him. And yet the letters remain – for us – Scripture.

We noted in our first reflection that, ultimately, all Scripture comes to us under a pseudonym – necessarily separated from the real people who wrote it and who feature in it. We can have no confidence that we read it with a historical correctness, in the sense that we understand what the writer might have intended. This is, in part, because we are in a different time and place. Paul may not hear himself in our reading of him. In this way, we change the author as we read.

But, perhaps more importantly, all Scripture is pseudonymous because we cannot be confident that the authors themselves quite knew what they were doing. Certainly they did not imagine that they were writing Scripture. This categorisation comes later, when the church hears something in the material which makes Jesus present again. We speak of ‘Paul’ for convenience’s sake but, for the sake of faithfulness to the gospel, it is ‘Scripture’ and not ‘Paul’ which addresses us. On the breath which is the Spirit, Scripture speaks a word which has a history in such a personage as Paul but the true orientation of which is toward making history. When the Pastor claims Paul’s authority he does what we all must finally do: he ‘becomes’ Paul, becomes scriptural authority in a new situation, even if Paul would no longer recognise himself.

To preach the word, whether in words – as from a lectern – or in actions, is to say or do what matters now. It is possible that we do this badly, but even this is difficult to recognise. Hindsight only guesses at what might been better. We know that every moment is different although we never really know properly how it is different. In every moment we must speak and act, seeing only as in a glass, darkly.

This would be to almost reason to give up the game altogether, for what is righteousness if we cannot know that it is righteousness? What could keep us in the game is the true miracle at the heart of the gospel. This is the cross – which was so central for Paul, if almost totally absent from the Pastor’s writings.

The cross is the sign that, even though every ‘now’ is different from every other ‘now’, the God who alone is present to every ‘now’ is present to claim it as his own. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing – and whatever others are doing – God claims our and their ‘now’ for God’s own live-giving purposes.

The life of Jesus himself is the life to which the Pastor calls us: the good fight of faith in righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness as the Pastor describes it (6.11). Faith holds that God was present to this life in Jesus. At the same time, the cross is the denigration of Jesus’ life and ministry. In the light of the resurrection, faith holds God present also to the crucified Jesus. Judged by us to be righteous or unrighteous, Jesus remains God’s.

Jesus becomes, then, two things at once: the ‘good life’ of one who is truly righteous, godly, faithful, loving, steadfast and gentle and, at the same time, he is the crucified and so at as great a distance from God as one can be.

What bridges that contradiction is nothing in Jesus himself but only the desire of God that Jesus be God’s in whatever situation he be found.

The Pastor’s call to the good fight of faith is not merely call that we be righteous and piety and steadfast and kind in a simple moral sense. Such things are too relative to the times in which we happen to live, and change with cultural seasons.

The good fight of faith is the struggle to allow God to be the one who is righteous and who justifies, the one who is kind and makes gentle, who endures and causes in us steadfastness. The good fight of faith is the struggle to allow God to be our only true successor – the one who follows and proves and justifies.

To let God be the God who made and still makes us is to die the death of the humble, and so to be raised to the life of the humble in righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.

Let this life be yours.

13 October – The Tenth Commandment – You shall not covet

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Pentecost 18

Micah 2:1-3
Psalm 10
Romans 7:7-12
Luke 18:18-27

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery, (therefore)….
“You shall not Covet”

Considering the nine weighty matters with which we have previously been confronted, we seem to be concluding not with a bang but with a whimper.  In comparison with where we have been, “You shall not covet” seems somewhat innocuous. Until we consider this. Unlike the previous five commandments bearing on how to live, “You shall not covet” is beyond all legislation. Killing, adultery, stealing, slander, even – in former generations – Sabbath observance: all have legal constraints. Break these, and you break civic law. But not the covetous spirit. It’s not for nothing that envy is held to be one of the deadlier of the seven sins. Like the power of the tongue, nothing external can control the covetous heart. Ability to keep this commandment, then, will prove to be the ultimate test.

As we have seen in our eleven-fold journey, the commandments exist positively to guarantee what we call the good life; they are not tedious moralistic fences to rein everyone in. So, the question here is: what can we do with covetousness? How can we move beyond assuming that here we encounter a merely conventional moral exhortation about the need for economic restraint?  And if we take the prophet Micah seriously, how must it sound in our day to those who are forced to rent, or are homeless, while others are not only home owners but are also paying off investment properties? Who is prepared to propose observance of this commandment to this increasingly disadvantaged population?

In any case, experience surely demonstrates that moralism never really works, which makes it all the more depressing that society has come to accept that Christian faith is only morality “slightly dressed up”- for many, unnecessarily, if not incomprehensibly. At any rate, the crisis adverted to in the commandment is way beyond legislation and high-minded approval. Only a firm theological grounding will be able to carry the day.

But let us stay with the moral dimension a little longer. The commandment reveals that the natural estimation of the “good life” has apparently become inseparable from the maximum possible consumption of things and experiences. To those trained for decades to desire change through obsolescence, or to compile “bucket lists” of new experiences, or to want new things even before the old have been partly worn out or used up – in other words, to the majority of  us – the commandment highlights the gravity of  the imminent global ecological and environmental catastrophes we now face.

At the same time, the antique quaintness of the commandment confirms that it would be a mistake to assume that covetousness is only a modern problem, as if the last two centuries were an ungodly mistake. Clearly it is not technological advances in themselves that have let loose a deluge of covetousness and greedy hearts. On the contrary, to a large extent the materialism of Western culture has realised an age-old dream, even as we are beginning to register the downside of what we call the market economy.  In this respect, we can surely be grateful for the now growing Western realisation that enough is enough, and that increasingly the critical issue is not the accumulation of resources, but rather that of their global distribution.

One way or another, it seems that every civilisation has sooner or later got around to discovering that it is a matter of diminishing returns when happiness is equated with an insatiable appetite – in the manner of Oliver Twist in the poorhouse holding up an empty bowl and begging: “I want some more”. The solution of the religions of the East, with their espousal of non-attachment, does have the advantage of rescuing people from slavery to their envies. Yet wanting nothing, when carried to extremes, leaves one not wanting help, not wanting love, not wanting God – and the name of this self-sufficiency is pride.

The ancient Hebrews saw such matters clearly. They recognised that the secular gifts made possible by the God of the Covenant are certainly worth having, but they forbade desire for them in the wrong way. So it is that here in this tenth commandment we come to the heart of what was at stake from the very beginning. That is to say, “You shall not covet” is a direct corollary of the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God…..”

This final commandment reminds us, then, that every other commandment that has come between the first and this last must be obeyed in spirit as well as in letter, with the heart as well as in the outward life. Pointing in this way to the heart as it does, the tenth commandment makes compelling the coming to grief of the so-called “rich young ruler” in the Gospel. He was able in good conscience to claim to have kept the five commandments referred to by Jesus – until challenged precisely on the ground of this tenth commandment. Hearing this, he had no option but to turn sadly away.

If nothing else, this encounter helps us to fill out more precisely one dimension of what it means to understand how we are, and will remain so while this life lasts, sinners before God. “Sin” is certainly a depressing, and, by virtue of its current trivialisation, has in our day become a useless word. But if we let Paul speak, it may possibly be retrieved. He proposes that covetousness is the very essence of sin. Who, in one way or another, can claim to have escaped this universal attachment to wanting and dreaming of something larger, whether that be something tangible, or more likely an intangible? One thinks of the envy that wells up from the subconscious accusing us of our inferiority when we wish. or wished, that we could be like X or Y or Z. The fact is that every apparent presumed lack we experience is being challenged in the call of this commandment.

Certainly, when he measured his life against it, the apostle Paul was brought into a state of deep despair. He was like the rich ruler in the Gospel, only conceivably more so. As we hear him this morning, apparently above all others, he had made scrupulous, noble and sustained efforts to keep the commandments so that he might please God. He felt that he had achieved considerable success, and had made substantial progress until the true meaning of “You shall not covet” dawned on him. So, he writes: “I had not known sin, except that the Lord said: You shall not covet.” Are we reading autobiography here, or is everyone included? Surely both – his own history, now universalised.  He proposes that this commandment brings the core of the human problem to the light of day. When we come to realise that what is at stake is obedience of the heart as well as the outward life, then the reach of the commandment is truly exposed. Here, then, is both its power as well as its weakness. The strength is that it holds up a mirror to our real situation; the weakness, that its counsel remains only negative. It forbids coveting, but it does not tell us what to do instead.

Except when it comes to us as hidden promise. A promise always awaits a fulfilment. So it proves to be when the gospel is grasped that we do not really any longer need to make comparisons between ourselves and others with regard to talents, privileges, deprivations or, at its most trivial, just “stuff”. This, Paul never tired of repeatedly saying to himself, and to any prepared to listen: “All things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” This is only another way of saying that all worldly life exists primarily as a kind of currency of love – a means whereby we can exchange justice with one another on a macro as well as a micro level, and so enter into the love of the creator who, in Jesus Christ, has given his creation all things.

Were these words to be heard, that is, if they were to be lived, then not just this old commandment: “You shall not covet”, but equally all the previous nine would have been stunningly fulfilled. Indeed, all commandments – of any sort – would then be quite superfluous, for we would have truly passed from a land of slavery into the undreamt freedom of God’s new creation. Which surely warrants the only proper worth of the slogan beloved by the current Prime Minister: what could be better than this?

6 October – The life which is really life

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Pentecost 17

1 Timothy 1:12-17
Psalm 143
Luke 17:1-10

In a sentence:
True life is hidden from us until God reveals how we have gotten life wrong

In one of our reflections on Hosea I suggested that most of us are lousy sinners: when it comes to sinning, we don’t do it very well.

Next to this, we’ve heard today that Paul (or, at least, the writer of this letter) is not susceptible to this charge, being the ‘foremost’ among sinners.

Yet, when Paul lists his faults, they are not especially impressive. Blasphemy, persecution and violence are certainly bad enough but in quantity and quality it would not be difficult to name a person or two who far exceeded Paul in these or other things; perhaps some such high achievers are sitting here among us today.

Paul holds these to be so heinous because they had to do with his active persecution of the church. More particularly, in the account of his conversion we have in Acts, a voice is heard out of blinding light: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? (as distinct from ‘my church’; Acts 9.4). The voice identifies itself as the crucified and risen Jesus, the true object of Paul’s rage.

What makes Paul the foremost among sinners is not, then, ‘moral’ failings we might read into his behaviour. He does not violate this or that rule when he should have known better; he has stood against the crucified Lord.

In the account we have in 1 Timothy, Paul holds that it was ‘in ignorance’ that he did all this. The thing which matters for understanding sin and grace in proper relation, however, is that he did not know at that point what he did not know. His rage against the church was righteous so far as he and his supporters could see. He rejected – for good reason – the notion that the crucified Jesus, with the emphasis on ‘crucified’, could be the Christ. The least sympathetic critics, with Paul, read the crucifixion as proof that Jesus was a heretic.

And so the ‘ignorance’ of Paul’s actions is one of the key moments in our short passage today. The passion with which that unknowing was defended and forced upon others reveals something quite contrary to the assumption of our information- and knowledge-based culture today: the assumption that we can be confident that we are right about our rightness. It is at his pious best that Paul fails, without knowing it.

What shifted Paul from persecutor of Jesus to his champion was not reflection on the logic of belief, unbelief or heresy, or reason versus unreason; ignorance will not out.

What shifted Paul was being stopped in his tracks, confronted with a vision of God not only different but deeper and richer than he had known till then. It was only this which revealed his miscalculation of God and his lack of understanding of the breadth of God’s love and extent of God’s power.

Coming to terms with the new vision was not straightforward. It was a long time between Paul’s conversion and his beginning on missionary work. But the effect of that reflection was that he came to see how his ignorance had cast his saviour as his enemy. When we find ourselves in that situation, it is only that saviour who can save us, despite ourselves. We cannot find our way to him because, to us, he is only our enemy and everything he does would seem to be to hurt us. This is the pathos of those who, because there is no hell, necessarily find themselves in heaven but are miserable nevertheless: it is a torment to be in the presence a God we imagine to be a threat to us.

To be in heaven and to know it as heaven is to have received a new vision of ourselves and God and the world, and to have begun to live it.

This is what the writer of the letter calls, in his final remarks to Timothy, entering into real life: ‘…take hold of the life that really is life’ (6.19).

We gather here each week precisely to be reminded of, and – God-willing – to be drawn a little more deeply into, the life which really is life. This will not always begin as a beatific vision of God and the angels, and ourselves in their midst. It will sometimes hurt. In the story of his conversion in Acts, Saul is struck blind. That his eyes no longer worked is less important than that he was reduced from clear-mindedness to being not able to see, to understanding nothing. The blind Saul is a dead Saul, shut as it were, in a tomb and waiting for the stone to be rolled away again, that a new light might flood back in. In this way, only the believer can properly sin, and so properly be forgiven, because only the believer remembers the stone being rolled away.

We each need to be buried in the same kind of way, in order to come to see how we have misjudged, over-reacted, denied what is true or affirmed what is false. And we need to see also how that new sight is both judgement and grace. Each of these two matters although, if the crucified Jesus is Lord, the judgement is something we look back on from the perspective of grace.

In our first reflection on this letter I suggested that the basic condition for which we are created is ‘timotheic’: we are all ‘Timothies’ created for the honouring of and being honoured by God (the ‘Tim-’ meaning ‘honour’ [time] and the ‘-thy’ meaning God [theos]). This is the substance of heaven.

If we are all created to be ‘Timothy’ in that sense and yet fail to be so, we are, then, also all Paul as he describes himself today: either ignorant of the life which really is life and needing to hear of it, or now looking back in wonder at what we once thought to be true.

To grow into this estimation of our unworthiness and yet great worth is also, with Paul, each to become ‘the foremost among sinners.’ A new and more penetrating light now illuminates our world.

When this happens, it becomes possible that we might be saviours ourselves, of a kind: people who reveal and deal with the captivities of others not by accusation but by words and actions of illuminating grace which bring the light of our great worth to God and, by the way, reveal the judgement of sin, already yesterday’s news.

Such a life of righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness (1 Timothy 6.11) is the life of Jesus himself, by which we have been saved, and which we are now called to live.

Let us, then, so live that others might also live.

29 September – The Rich Man and Lazarus

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Pentecost 16

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91
1 Timothy 6:16-19
Luke 16:19-31

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

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

“For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins —
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.

Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate …” (Amos 5.12, 15a)

These prophetic words from the book of Amos ring out in response to today’s Gospel reading. Lazarus has been laid down outside the gate of the rich man.

Lazarus has been laid down. Perhaps he has been laying there for a long time. Long enough, at least, for the rich man to learn his name, as we see later in the reading. Or perhaps we are to understand that Lazarus was himself unable to choose where he lay, someone else lay him outside the gate. Lazarus has been pushed aside.

Whatever the case Lazarus has been laid down, he is there, covered in sores, hungry, longing. Outside the gate. He receives no justice in the gate.

“For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins —” (Amos 5.12a)

Before this parable about the rich man and Lazarus Jesus told the story of a dishonest manager. A manager who squandered the wealth of his master, another rich man. When the manager’s transgressions became known the rich man asked for an account of his management. Sensing his imminent firing the manager used the last moments of his employment to forgive some of the debts owed to his master. We are not told if, in the end, the dishonest manager was in fact fired. We are told only that his master, the rich man, commended his dishonesty as shrewdness.

This is a confusing story — which is probably why a lot of sermons last focused on the lectionary reading from 1 Timothy. But this story is important background for today’s Gospel reading, because it sets up the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. It is within this confrontational context that Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

The Pharisees found the first story as confusing as we do, it seems. In response they ridiculed Jesus, not knowing how to make sense of his teaching — as we often don’t. And so Jesus makes cryptic statements about the law and the prophets: they were in effect until John the Baptiser came, since then the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. And many try to enter the Kingdom of God by force.

This is not to suggest that the law and the prophets are to be done away with. For Jesus says that it would easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one letter of the law to be dropped.

We are supposed to understand the story of the rich man and Lazarus as some sort of explanation and rebuke to the Pharisees. And, perhaps — I might add — an explanation and rebuke to us.

“you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.” (Amos 5.12b)

The Pharisees, we are told, were lovers of money. And so Jesus tells a story of a rich man.

Not merely rich, but richer than rich.

Not dressed in the white that showed he did not need to work in the field, and could afford staff to do his laundry. But a rich man dressed in purple, which showed he could send away to foreign lands for dyes or exotic fabrics with which to dress.

Not a rich man who put on a grand and special banquet. But a rich man whose banquets had become mundane, so often were they held — daily. Mimicking the lavish style of Kings and Emperors.

If the Pharisees love money, then let them hear the story of this rich man.

And, given their affinity for the law, let them hear of a poor and unclean man. Covered in sores, and laid outside the gate. Even dogs would come and lick his sores.

And this man’s name was Lazarus, or in Hebrew ‘Eleizer,’ meaning — in a feat of irony — “God has helped.” The point, of course, is that no one helps, and Lazarus dies.

This rich man also dies.

The story seems to be about the eternal fate of these two people: the rich man and Lazarus.

The rich man, who the Pharisees are wont to praise, is of course the villain. Uncharitable, lacking in generosity and hospitality. He dies and goes to the bad place, tormented by fire.

The poor man, Lazarus, is of course the one to whom we should attend. He dies and goes to the good place, to be with Abraham — the great father of Israel.

In their eternal resting places their fates are reversed. The rich man is punished for his failure to live out the virtues taught by the law and the prophets. While God, through Abraham, vindicates the poor man Lazarus, and makes everything okay. At last “God has helped.”

And when the rich man seeks in this afterlife the mercy he himself failed to show on earth, he is told: “no.” His fate has been set and sealed. His choice made. The gate that kept Lazarus outside of the rich man’s property, and away from any experience of mercy, has become a great chasm in the place of the dead, and so makes it impossible for the rich man to receive mercy. Perhaps this is the final justice of God.

“Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate …” (Amos 5.15a)

We might be able to see in this story a simple moral lesson, and a warning. Echoing the prophetic cry of Amos: take care of those in need, do good. Do not be like the rich man. Because the judgement of God is coming, and in the afterlife all will be set and sealed: justice will be done inside the gate of God’s Kingdom in heaven. No one can enter by force, or by petition, but only by living now the virtues taught by the law and the prophets.

Go then, and do likewise.

I want to suggest, however, that the way Luke recollects this story points us beyond simple moral lessons.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus in the hands of Luke’s masterful retelling does not give us a simple moral lesson, but proclaims who we are as God’s people, as the body of Christ.

Lazarus is the only character named in any of parables told by Jesus. His name means, ironically, “God has helped.” But his name has another heritage: Lazarus, or Eleizer was the name of the heir of Abraham, before the birth of Isaac.

Lazarus recalls not simply a poor man outside a gate, but those who seemed to be left outside of God’s promises through Abraham for the whole world. Lazarus is a sign for all of us that God’s redemptive plan for the world have not forgotten anyone. God’s redemptive plan for the world includes those who seemed to be left outside of God’s saving work through Abraham and ancient Israel. Not because the promise to Abraham has been replaced, but because this new Kingdom of God, here and now, brings to a crescendo the teachings of the law and the prophets.

Before telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus says it would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one letter of the law to be dropped.

The story ends with the statement: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

With this Jesus is making clear that his resurrection is not a passing away of the world, and is not a passing away of the law, but is a fulfilment of the law, and brings the reign of God once and for all into this world.

As readers we already understand that this story is recollected by communities founded on the assumption that someone has risen from the dead: Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified Messiah. And in this rising from the dead God has displayed the salvific plan for the whole world. Establishing the Kingdom of God.

This is the point of the ironic twist at the end of the story. Even if someone rises from the dead they will not believe. We read this and proclaim that someone has risen from the dead and so the Kingdom of God has not been established in an afterlife, in a looming resurrection, but has taken root in the very midst of creation.

Hear then these words from the Apostle Paul:
‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (That is, to bring Christ down.)

Or, “Who will descend into the abyss?” (That is, to bring Christ up from the dead.)

“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart.” (Rom. 10.6-8)

This is the proclamation that the story of the rich man and Lazarus points to. The reversal of who is rich and who is poor, who is inside of the gate experiencing justice and who is left outside, has been completed in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Before we learn the moral lesson to help those in need, we must first recognise that we ourselves have been brought into a new relationship with God and the world. We must first see that we do not enter the Kingdom of God by force, but are freely and graciously welcomed in.

We are Lazarus. The ones who seemed to be left outside of the promise of Abraham.

We are Lazarus. The ones left outside the gate, victims of injustice.

We are Lazarus. Longing to be fed like the prodigal who seeks to return to the loving Father, and a banquet of welcome.

We are Lazarus. The ones who cannot enter the Kingdom of God by force, but are welcomed in by the freely given, overwhelming love and grace of God.

Before we declare what we must do, we proclaim who we are in light of the risen Christ. We are Lazarus: those who “God has helped.”

For all the unloving words that have been spoken to us, we proclaim that God is love and loves us.

For all the wounds that do not heal because they continue to be reopened, we proclaim that the crucified Messiah transfigured a scarred body into glory.

For all the exclusion, we proclaim that we rest in the welcome embrace of the Spirit.

And we are called to be this reality, in this community, here and now: a witness to the expanding reach of God’s love, glory, and welcome home. We are the body of the one who has risen from the dead.

From this proclamation. This foundation of hope. Not what we do, but what God has done in Christ.

From here we overcome the chasm that stops mercy flowing out and redeeming those who have lost their way.

From here, we find rest in the overwhelming love and grace of God. That does not guilt us into goodness, but loves us into new life.

From here we begin to open the gate and welcome others in: to make sure justice is done. Because true justice is found on the cross of the risen crucified one.

“We shall be judged, but with Christ. And there lies our salvation.” — Karl Barth


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