Category Archives: Sermons

5 February – The visible and the secret

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Epiphany 5
5/2/2023

Isaiah 58:1-12
Psalm 112
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-20

Sermon preached by Matt Julius


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

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Mat 5.11)

The call in the Gospel to be salt and light picks up from this final blessing of the beatitudes. Each of the blessings of the beatitudes are not simply present gifts, but function also as future promises:

The poor are blessed and shall receive the kingdom of heaven
Those who mourn shall receive comfort
The hungry shall be filled
To the pure God will be visible

Running through the blessings from the beatitudes is not simply gift, but a sense of fullness that is arriving with Jesus himself; Jesus who offers this new way of life to those who follow the Anointed One. There is an eschatological dimension to the blessings which lead into today’s reading: that is, a dimension that is about God’s definitive intervention in the world to gather up all of history into a new order of righteousness and love. (Perhaps it’s worth noting that the Greek here translated as “blessing”, ‘makarios,’ can mean something like happy, fulfilled, and joyous, not merely “blessing.”)

It is in the context of this hope in hope itself, the context of hope in the fulfillment of hope, that we hear today’s Gospel reading.

Whatever we might say about the meaning and usage of salt in the ancient world (one commentary lists no less than eleven possible meanings for the metaphor of salt!), we are called to be the salt of the earth. There can be no limitations set on the scope of God’s redemptive work: it is the world, the whole world which God seeks to embrace in the saving work which Jesus’ teaching and ministry announces. So too does the reference to a light for the world, and a city on a hill recall us to the great expansive reach of God’s saving plans in Christ.

And yet here we begin to see one of the challenges with proclaiming with such confidence that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news to and about the whole world. If this good news speaks to the world, then it speaks against that other Gospel: that Gospel of Rome, which spoke of military might and victory. Gospel was originally a term for military triumph; triumph which ultimately emanated from the city Cicero called, “a light to the world”: Rome.

Part of what ought to make the original audiences of this sermon nervous – whether those who heard Jesus’ teaching during his ministry, or those who first heard these words recorded in the text of Matthew’s Gospel – what ought to make them nervous is that the teaching of Jesus has direct political implications. It can be very difficult for us, in contemporary Australia, to understand what is at stake in what Jesus seems to be teaching.

If Jesus really is the Messiah, who brings fulfillment of the prophetic utterances of Jewish hope;
if Jesus really is proclaiming the definitive intervention of God, to gather up history and fundamentally change the world as it was known;
if Jesus really is suggesting that the whole world is the domain of Christian discipleship;
then Jesus is consigning his followers to direct confrontation with Roman authorities. Jesus is signing the warrant of oppression for the communities that will be formed in his name. He not only looks forward to his own death upon a cross, but the deaths of hundreds, thousands, of Christians under the Roman persecution – and the various persecutions throughout history, and which continue today.

It’s here that some assumptions about the dynamics of power and authority in Jesus’ historical context need some revision. It has become almost cliche to talk about the Pharisees and Sadducees as the religious authorities wielding power to ultimately send Jesus to his death. Across history Christians have perpetuated the idea that the legalistic Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes misunderstood God’s gracious love, and instead contorted the law to maintain their place of power in ancient Judea.

Now, while it was true that Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes held positions of relative power within the Jewish communities of the ancient Roman empire, it should always be remembered that they were leaders within an otherwise oppressed community, within an occupied territory. In other words, while the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did indeed have power and influence, much of this power and influence existed within a broader context of disempowerment for the Jewish people as a whole.

This broader understanding of the power dynamics of the ancient Jewish community ought to give us pause when we move too quickly to condemn the religious leaders of Jesus’ day for their lack of understanding or faithfulness. In our Gospel reading today the righteousness of these religious leaders even becomes the standard for measuring the righteousness of Jesus’ own followers. Perhaps the point Jesus is making is that for all the disagreements Jesus has with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes, they are the ones who are the visible manifestation of the Jewish community. They are the ones who must negotiate the complex relationship with capricious Roman officials; they are the ones who have sought to keep a dispirited, dispossessed people faithful to God’s law.

Now this, of course, does not mean that the religious leaders are free from culpability: the Sadducees had a reputation for cooperation with the Romans, not all of which was for the benefit of the Jewish people as a whole; and all of the Gospels record quite heated disputes between Jesus and Pharisees.

Nonetheless, what Jesus seems to be aware of in his teaching is not only a new kind of religious ethos for a self-contained community. Jesus seems to be aware that his teaching implies a direct confrontation with the ways of the world. Not simply because his religious ethic is unpopular, but because he is the Messiah who fulfills the expectations of Jewish hope and brings the arrival of God’s Kingdom. While understood in different ways, this was the same hope held by the religious leaders, who sought to see this fulfillment of hope through engaging the messy, complex world of leading an occupied people.

For this reason it needs to be made abundantly clear, then, that what Jesus offers us in his own proclamation is not a repudiation of the law, not an impudent rejection of the religious leaders and their complex negotiations with Roman power. Rather, Jesus offers us in his proclamation the gathering up of Jewish hope, and a new way forward.

Jesus is saying:
Nothing will pass from the law, indeed that same God who the law draws us to is now calling us through and beyond this law. That same God is calling us to see that law fulfilled. That same God is offering us both gift and fulfillment. That same God is meeting us in the complex, risky world in which we stake our lives on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven.

For us today, 2000 years removed from unjust occupation in Judea, this can seem somewhat alien (though, of course, perhaps it shouldn’t, with the ongoing plight and violence in modern Palestine). We, in this room, are unlikely to be called upon to stake our lives on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. And yet, we are still recipients of this same call; still part of this same secret thread which weaves its way through the whole world and all of human history.

Our call is no less cosmic in scale: we are called to gather up the history of hope for the world and carry it forward. We may no longer do this in ways which seem as visible as the past, and yet we should not therefore diminish the scope of God’s redemptive work. The world is the domain of God’s salvation.

What we continue to learn as we move out into the world is that this redemptive work is not always something we carry with us. We often find the Spirit out there ahead of us. We are often called into the messy, complex work of negotiating the different forces which shape the Church and its relation to the world – sometimes needing to take a backseat to how others teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven. In this too we are to be lights that shine on the secret ways God’s will is working out in the world.

The call today is to be salt and light. This is a call which gathers up the hope of the oppressed, which carries the cry for justice into the whole world. The call to be salt and light is the call to highlight where the world needs promise, and where the world experiences fulfillment – even in small and secret ways.

And in all things we proclaim with confidence that the world needs the God who has been faithful since the beginning, and is faithful still.

29 January – Foolishness, wisdom, politics, God

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Epiphany 4
29/1/2023

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Psalm 15
Matthew 5:1-12


In a sentence:
God’s ways in the world call our ways and confidence into question, seeking from us humble action towards justice.

With his claims for a foolishness which is wisdom and weakness which is strength, Paul seems to be going all paradoxical and mystical, rendering these notions self-contradictory nonsense, with little offered to replace them.

At stake here, however, is not mystification but the question of the freedom of God. The Corinthian church was divided and confused, as most communities are! Paul’s concern is that God is taken to justify that confusion. The division arises from the exercise of a particular sense for wisdom and power – that which traces its source and legitimacy back to God. The way of the world – the order of the Corinthian Christian community – is justified by direct lines to God. Turned around the other way, the argument becomes not merely that our ordering of the world is like God but that God is like our ordering of the world.

Paul’s inversion of wisdom and power, then, is not about mystifying these notions but about God’s freedom: you can’t read God off the order of the world. God is not constrained by the way that we do things.

…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

The ‘boasting’ here is not about how handsome, smart or otherwise godly I might be, but a celebration of the gift of God. Boasting about myself is precisely a claim to godlikeness, and it is this which is the source of human division – the appeal to a righteousness outside of the present relationships in which I find myself, which sets me free from responsibility for you. It is this lack of responsibility for the other which divides the Corinthians, and us today.

Paul’s ‘boasting in the Lord’ sounds to modern ears like an unnecessary otherworldliness, but it stands as a challenge to all the concrete worldliness-es – the wisdoms and powers – we usually exercise. In particular, it stands against all claims that there is a system which will work things out for us, a set of necessary steps we need to take to set human being right. If there were such a system, we’d have to admit that we have yet to discover it after thousands of years of effort.

The current debates around the Parliamentary Voice are a case in point. Increasing recognition of our complicated and violent colonial history, continuing need in aboriginal communities and general goodwill on the part of the majority of Australians are not enough to show us a way forward. The reasonable desire for a clearer communication of what is intended, mixed with cynical political tactics from some opposition parties, mixed with division within the indigenous community, mixed with the possibility of compassion fatigue, risk aversion and self-interest in the voting populace, all amount to anything but clarity as to what is to be done to undo some of the injustice of the past and the present. The same could be said for the numerous other challenges in the social, political and economic spheres whirling around us. These spaces are filled with social and political slogans which are both right and wrong at the same time. They are right in that they name an injustice, and wrong in that they imagine that those injustices can properly be made just. The justification of this claim – that the injustice cannot be rectified – is the experience of history itself: we have not seen it happen in any final way. This recognition is not new. It is not for nothing that old Israel opted for apocalyptic thinking. This embodied the notion that if there is going to be any experience of final justice, it must come from outside the dynamics of normal history. Apocalyptic thinking is not an escape from life in the world but a recognition of the world’s unresolved problem: when will injustice be overcome?

The question then becomes, how are we to live under such circumstances? And this is a question of how to live together, because dropping out of circulation is easy, denying as it does that the other is part of me and I part of her.

Paul’s answer to the question of justice seems weak, given the scale of what confronts us in contemporary social and political division. This answer is crystallised later in his first letter to the Corinthians, in his famous ‘love chapter’ (chapter 13). The apparent weakness of this response springs not least from the context in which we normally hear Paul’s appeal to love: in weddings. There, Paul’s thoughts on love are heard as an account of what the marrying couple themselves already experience. In modern marriages (weddings), we commit because of our experience of love. This is the presence of a kind of justice, so that there is no call for what Paul is actually doing in that chapter – commanding an unloving couple to love each other. Such a command might make sense in an arranged marriage but not in our modern marriages, at least not to the beginning! Paul’s love chapter, then, is reduced to what we feel about people we already love, which has little to do with those from whom we are alienated, which was his own situation.

And so, love becomes a weak political proposal. What does love look like now, in relation to Australia’s colonial history? This is precisely the question. But if, with Paul, there is to be no boasting save in the Lord, then there can be no all-encompassing answer – no proposal that love only looks like the Parliamentary Voice, or a treaty, or one of the less novel approaches to the problems of indigenous experience in Australia. Any one of these is as full of possibility and risk as the other because, for all the good which might still be done, the injustices we want to address here can only ever be partially addressed. And they can only be partially addressed because, at heart, human beings are fanatics for this or that wisdom or power which ultimately excludes and denies. The tone of modern politics is nothing if not fanatical.

This is not intended to be pessimistic but realistic. To commit to some political action (such as the Voice or a treaty) is not to have solved the problem. There is no righteous deed which does not need constant re-negotiation. Justice is a continual balancing act or perhaps, in our direct experience, an inbalancing act.

Paul’s ‘boasting in the Lord’ is not, then, the confidence that with God everything is clear and in good order, much less that the present order is God-ordained. This was the claim of the happier Corinthians, who were confident they had settled into God’s way. To ‘boast in the Lord’ is to delay claims about the achievement of righteousness while at the same time acting towards justice. It is to hear a call to justice and to turn towards that voice within the messy now of human life together, where it will always be the case that we can do better. It is to debate and to work for justice, but also to be ‘above’ arguments about any final solution. It is to be broken and whole in the same moment, in a way which denies neither the need for our action nor the unearned gift of God.

Faith in the God of the crucified Jesus is recognition that we are not, in history, ever finished – not ever righteous. The closest we come to completion is in the person of Jesus, who is himself defined by the ambiguity of the cross – that confusion of human and divine judgement which, Paul declares, turns our sense for power and wisdom upside down, and should shake our confidence that we see clearly.

Paul’s attempt to dislocate our confidence – that we see and comprehend truly – is an invitation to humility. In society and politics, humility is much lauded but rare. What looks successful and gains attention is the exercise of wisdoms and powers which lift you above me. What distinguishes humility from this is that it is not deluded: it claims no extraordinary and unambiguous power or value but acts according to justice, and looks to see what the next just action might have to be.

This is the life of faith to which Paul calls the Corinthians, and us: to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6.8). In the broadest of our politics and the most intimate of our relationships, let this be how we are there for each other: with a wisdom which is ever more open to deeper love, and a strength which comes from God’s own persistent faithfulness.

By the grace of God…

22 January – The cross and the power of God

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Epiphany 3
22/1/2023

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Psalm 27
Matthew 4:12-23


In a sentence:
The power of the cross is that it “levels” us, given as our common situation before God

Paul’s account of the situation at Corinth is sadly familiar. With our Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, high church and low church, traditional and contemporary, exclusive and open communities, the problem Paul names remains today, if now on a much larger scale.

Yet it’s noteworthy that we don’t hear in Paul’s response such simple encouragements as “Love one another” or “Do try to get along”. He sees that the issue runs much deeper than simple moral failure. What is at stake is not a social, moral, psychological or motivational deficiency but is specifically theological; it is a failure to identify correctly what is at the heart of Christian life and so of human life more generally. Christian division, then, is a crisis in doxology: a crisis in the correct praise of God.

Because of this, Paul casts these divisions in the light of the cross:

“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. … For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” [NRSV]

The “power of the cross” to which Paul refers is its function as the great leveller of humankind. Power and wisdom are how we distinguish and rank ourselves in relation to one another: stronger, smarter, richer, older, prettier, or whatever. But such divisive power and wisdom dissolve away if the crucified Christ is the reference point for all the meaning, power and wisdom the world needs. If the thing which matters most – the “thing” we call “God and Father” – identifies itself with the rejected and outcast human being Jesus of Nazareth, then no rankings in human knowledge and ability will impress God. God is “happy” with the nothingness of the cross. The saving power of the cross, then, is not that it adds something to us to make us better, wiser or stronger. The power of the cross is that it takes something away.

What is taken away are the additions we are tempted to make to Christ himself, marked by one of the most potent and problematic of theological concepts. This concept is the little word “and”. The “and” appears as a supplement to the crucified Christ. Fellowship at Corinth revolved around Christ “and” – Christ “and” Paul, Christ “and” Peter. If you did not have the same “and” as your neighbour, it becomes less clear that you are truly one with each other. At the Corinthian communion table, it was Christ “and” having food to eat – having no food to bring to the meal meant no real participation in the fellowship of the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11). In civil society, it was Christ “and” the law courts (1 Corinthians 6); common Christian conviction was not thought to cover how to deal with disputes between believers. Again at the table, it was Christ “and” maturity – the “mature” in faith feeling free to eat meat which had been offered to idols, the apparently “immature” being greatly troubled by this, perhaps even to the point of losing faith (1 Corinthians 8, 10). A similar confusion arose around speaking in tongues in that community (1 Corinthians 14).

So it went in that church, each issue a manifestation of the same problem: community built on the kind of power and wisdom which is “added” and so which some have and some do not. What more I have raises me above you: Christ “and”…

Paul’s correction is that each of the “ands” we append to Christ has to be subject to the levelling effect of the cross. The cross unites by levelling. It marks the lowest common denominator among us – godlessness – and, from there, opens up the power of grace which builds upon nothing. Our calling is not to be clever, not to be wise or powerful. It is not, that is, to accumulate as many “ands” as possible. Our calling is to be faithful and to trust the one who has determined that the cross, and no other “helpful” addition we can imagine, will be the way by which God is effective in us and in the world.

What does this mean for us? It means that we are free before God. If the word of God in the Crucified is an assault on all things by which we would supplement ourselves or Christ, so also is it a liberation from the need to supplement ourselves before God. If I don’t have to be right in order to have the fullness of God in Christ, I need not be anxious about whether or not I’m always doing the smartest thing. And if anxiety is stripped out of our work, then our work approaches something more like play – be it our work as individual persons or our work as a Christian community. We can try this or that – not because it’s the cleverest thing, but because we are free to do so in Christ, the wisdom and power of God.

In our personal lives, we are free to do it differently – start a business, retire early, get a divorce, give away a lot of money, buy a puppy, or whatever. In our common life as a congregation, we are free to experiment – playing with worship styles, or times, or locations, or mission investments, or whatever. In the next couple of weeks, this is just what we’ll be doing as we begin conversations with the theological college about what relocating into a partnership with them might look like. In all that, we need to keep in mind that the college is a mere “and” to us, and is not the gospel promise itself – is not any kind of salvation for us. And we have to ensure that the college sees us in just the same way. If it doesn’t work, whatever we might lose we don’t lose that which is most basic. We don’t lose what binds us to God and is the possibility of our being truly bound to each other: the Christ who died by our wise and powerful hand and yet who graciously returns to us to speak of a different wisdom and a different power.

The crisis with which Paul begins at Corinth is human division, but the response is the grace-full heart of the gospel. The church is called to unity not because unity and love are “good things”. We are called to unity because what we have in common in Christ exceeds all things that distinguish us from each other. Our human wellbeing is not secured by our own efforts and allegiances, but by the God who names us as his own, giving us himself and a common humanity by seeing us in the Christ we rejected. God sees us through Jesus. If we are in the Christ who is rejected, we are in the Christ whom God raised to life. This is grace.

There is, then, no place in the reign of God for division through merely worldly and selfish preferences and concerns. We are called out of ourselves to discover our lives hidden together with Christ in God.

Let us, then, open ourselves to this grace and, little by little, ever become something of this grace to those around us.

15 January – John the baptizer and the Lamb of God

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Epiphany 2
15/1/2023

Isaiah 53:1-7
Psalm 40
John 1:19-51

Sermon preached by Rev. Em. Prof. Robert Gribben


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.  Isa. 53:7. NRSV

The next day, [John the baptizer] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’             Jn 1:29 NRSV

Our two readings this morning are linked by a single vivid image, a lamb waiting at an abattoir. It is John the Baptist who makes the link and today’s Gospel follows on from last week’s.[1]

You may remember Matt Julius’ arresting title, ‘The wrong baptism’ where he rightly drew our attention away from Jesus’ baptism (which St John does not actually describe) to the baptism of Jesus on the cross. [Since we will talk about two Johns this morning, the gospel writer will be ‘St’ and the other, mostly ‘the Baptist’]

John the Baptist, named for his profession not the denomination, is such a strange figure. He has already opted out of normal society, an ascetic, perhaps connected with some of the communities we know lived in the desert beyond Jerusalem. He also stands between the biblical Testaments, the last prophet – and, as St John makes him – the harbinger of a new chapter in God’s dealing with humankind, the Forerunner (as Orthodox Christians call him).  He reached back into the Jewish tradition to quote the prophet Isaiah and his moving four poems or songs about another strange figure called ‘the suffering servant’. He too was cast out, and as the fourth song (today’s reading) says,

cut off from the world of the living, stricken to death for my people’s transgression’ (Is. 53:8)

You can see why the first Christians, all raised in Judaism, saw a close portrait of their crucified Lord. The figure of the ‘Lamb of God’ is its focus.

St John began his Gospel with the image of the ‘Word’, the ‘Logos’, but he now takes up the Baptist’s ikon and repeats it no fewer than three times – but what does it represent?

If you read all of chapters 42 to 53, you will find no single answer. The Servant of God, of which the Lamb is one image, is seen as a representative man, a leader perhaps, a messiah, perhaps, or a remnant of the faithful Israel, guided by God’s promises, or a kind of ambassador to other nations on God’s behalf (which, by the way, is a common task of a biblical servant, as it is of a deacon). Modern Judaism, I learned from reading commentaries by modern rabbis, choose the communal image, God’s chosen people, Israel. In Isaiah’s time, they were an exiled nation with its temple in ruins and its culture cut off from its sources. The Servant is not one man, he is Israel.

We heard from St John this morning about the interrogation by some pharisees from Jerusalem, to whom the Baptist denied that he was the Messiah, nor Jeremiah who would return to announce the messiah, nor a prophet – like Isaiah. The John verses are the Baptist’s attempt to distinguish himself and his ministry from that of Jesus.

There is a subplot here which need not detain us. Both Johns are addressing two communities – the followers of the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus. The Christians were wary that the baptism story looks as if their Lord Jesus submitted to John and was thus somehow less than him. But John was executed and in time his disciples chose to follow Jesus or withered away.

And there were two baptisms, John’s in water, Jesus’ with fire and the Holy Spirit.  St John is careful to add the Baptist’s testimony that he saw the Holy Spirit ‘remain’ over Jesus at his baptism (1:32).

The next day he sees Jesus in the street and proclaims to the crowd, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ quoting Isaiah – and we will sing it again before this service is over.

Now, Christians believe that it was the mission of Jesus to ‘take away the sins of the world’. But Isaiah’s servant was to take away the sins of Israel. The revolution announced in the Second (or New) Testament is that God’s promises are open to all humankind, to the ‘Gentiles’ as well as to God’s beloved first people.

But what happens when we name Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’?

St John believed that Jesus’ death on the cross took place on the day when the lambs were being killed for Passover. No other gospel makes that connection. St Paul calls Jesus ‘our Passover Lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7). I asked myself what the Jewish tradition thinks of the lamb of isa. 53. They insist that the Passover Lamb was not a sacrifice. It is the story of origins for Jews. On the eve of Exodus, the whole nation prepared itself for a hard and dangerous journey from slavery to freedom. The lambs were for a meal to sustain them, to be eaten in a hurry.  Blood was sprinkled on their doorposts as a sign to protect them. None of this is ‘sacrifice’ in its normal meaning.

The other major penitential event in the Jewish Year is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In its background story (Levit. 16:7-22), two goats were selected; one was sacrificed, and its blood poured on the altar; the other, over which the priests listed the sins of Israel, was driven out without further ceremony into the desert where it died, hence our ‘scapegoat’.  But the goat associated with Israel’s sin was not the goat which was sacrificed.

Sacrifice is a word in the Christian vocabulary, but it needs to be very carefully used. Jewish sacrifice, for ordinary people like Joseph and Mary, was concerned with such things as doves and pigeons; the more serious, national rituals took place in the Temple, and with its destruction in AD 70, all animal sacrifice ceased, and since then Jewish understanding of sacrifice has been spiritual and ethical. They are horrified at the thought that the death of a human being could achieve these purposes.

From the earliest centuries, philosophers have offered ’theories of Atonement’ – to make sense of death of the innocent Jesus. The most popular for Protestants – though there are Catholic equivalents – is called ‘the Penal Substitutionary’ theory, which holds that the primary purpose of Jesus’ death was to satisfy God’s justice. It was a brutal payment to God for others’ wrongdoing. Many modern Christians reject this theory because it is morally offensive. And something of it remains in other theories and is kept alive in conservative Christianity. (This was the doctrinal dividing point between the Student Christian Movement and the evangelical Union in the 1960s.)

I should now solve all these mysteries for you, but I cannot. This sermon is an unfinished symphony.

Certainly, our present era has a major challenge in articulating our faith in categories both true to the biblical tradition, and meaningful in our contemporary contexts. We cannot follow our mediaeval ancestors in wholesale but uncritical borrowings from either Testament. It is a task we preachers attempt every time we speak, and in the end, we stand dumb before the ‘Mystery of faith’.

Let me add some comments which need to be explored if I were to complete my sermon (some of these have been added post-preaching!).

The image of the lamb of God appears elsewhere in the scriptures. Some (e.g. Calvin) have seen Jesus’ silence before Pilate and Herod as a parallel to the Lamb/servant‘s innocence. In Revelation, the lamb is also a lion overcoming God’s enemies; the martyrs are dressed in white garments ‘washed in the blood (!) of the lamb’ (7:14). In eucharistic and liturgical history, the bread is called ‘the lamb’, and the Agnus Dei is sung while the bread is broken after the Great Prayer and before Communion.

Are any of these uses tied to a sacrificial understanding of Jesus? Well, yes, but not in a penal substitutionally way! Christ died for us, yes, but is its meaning to be found in the blood of his execution, or from the whole of his incarnation, teaching, healing and in his constant communion with and obedience to the Father? The hours in Gethsemane seem to be a critical point here. The Lamb of God image has anchored our attention on the death of Jesus. In Isa. 53:7, after the lamb is mentioned, the parallel analogy is of a sheep before its shearer, i.e. not faced with death. I do not wish to remove death and suffering from Jesus or his work of salvation, but I want to release it from a narrow interpretation.

The graphic on today’s order of Service is of a mosaic of the 6th C AD in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It is situated at the top of the vault in the dome, supported by four angels and the background is of stars and flowers of paradise – but there are no wounds or blood.  That is the main way Christian artists have portrayed it. There is another strand where the lamb is pierced in the breast and blood spurts out in an arc, sometimes into a chalice; obviously that comes of a catholic piety and goes beyond the meanings I believe are justified.

We believe that Jesus/the Lamb rescued us from the debt we owe God. I want to take ‘on the cross’ as a summary of his whole ministry. His ‘work’ is done, but ours is not, and we live and work through the hope based in Jesus’ unique victory: as a human being in communion with his Father, he broke through the barriers which prevent us from being who God wants us to be. That was the otherwise impossible task the Lamb was prepared to take on.

We need to live within the paradox set for us by John the Baptist, who baptised Jesus but knew there was another baptism.  That baptism, which we share, makes us members of the body of Christ and heirs of his promises, ‘through the water of rebirth and the renewal by the holy Spirit’ to life eternal in Christ.

[1] I also chose the Fourth Song from Isa. 53, which is where the image appears.

8 January – The Wrong Baptism

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Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus
8/1/2023

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

Sermon preached by Matt Julius


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

My Dad had a cousin named Dawn Mount — she has now passed away. Dawn was so named because she was found abandoned at dawn at the base of a mountain. In lieu of family, or birth certificate, she was named by a police officer: Dawn Mount.

Dawn entered our family through my Great Aunt Biddy, one of the living saints of this world. Aunt Biddy has fostered dozens of young people — their photos cover the walls in the living room. Often her home provided respite for young people facing quite significant challenges. Young people the social service system in Aotearoa, New Zealand, has not always known how to cope with.

Dawn entered the house, I imagine, as everyone does: through the front gate, down the path to the door, to be greeted by Biddy’s unending kindness.

On occasion young people were accompanied inside by a social worker, who conveyed to Biddy the backstory, conducting the handover. On these occasions as soon as the social worker left it was back to the front gate, bags under arm, to come in again: through the gate, down the path, to be greeted, properly by Aunt Biddy and her unending kindness.

Biddy met no “cases” at the door, she took on no “problem children,” Biddy met children, young people: those who they were.

And they were all embraced as her own: expected to attend Church on Sundays, sent off to the same school adjacent the Church, and welcomed into a chaotic, and wonderful, and complicated, and generous home.

Dawn entered this home as a teenager. Years later she asked my Aunt, “how many people do you know who were born as teenagers?”
“None,” Biddy replied.
“Yes, you do … Me.”

What my Great Aunt Biddy knows in her bones, shaped by her Christian faith I’m sure, are the lessons of baptism.

Not baptism merely as a ritual avowal of our beliefs. Nor baptism as a routine rite of passage into one among many of the cultural and religious communities of the world. Nor baptism as the commitment of parents to induct and instruct their children in the ways of the tradition.

Aunt Biddy knows that new life must always begin at the beginning. Aunt Biddy knows that baptism is always the welcome home. Always meeting people as themselves, as those who they are.

It is the beginning of new life.
It is the welcome home.
Baptism is for the sake of the quiet, secret work in which love restores the world.

One of the things that’s interesting in the emphasis on baptism on this day of the Christian calendar, is that the text from the Gospel is actually the wrong baptism. Christians take our understanding of baptism not from Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan, but from the baptism Jesus undergoes in his crucifixion.

So it is that The Basis of Union — the founding theological statement of this church — talks of, “[Christ’s] baptism, which was accomplished once on behalf of all in his death and burial…” (Basis, §7)

Of all the Gospels Matthew seems to recognise this awkwardness in the way Jesus comes to John at the Jordan to be baptised. Matthew — unlike Mark and Luke (the two other Gospels that seem to tell the story in similar ways) — makes a point of including the awkward conversation between Jesus and John. John refuses to baptise Jesus until Jesus argues him into it.

As a historic point, the commissioning at the end of Matthew’s Gospel — for the disciples to go and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit — likely reflects, and in turn reinforce some of the earliest baptismal liturgy and practice of the Church. For this reason one can understand why Matthew makes a point of telling the story of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan slightly awkward. To make clear that this baptism is not the primary source from which later baptismal liturgy and practice should take its lead.

Nevertheless, although today we have heard the story of the wrong baptism, Jesus’ baptism by John does teach us fundamental lessons about what baptism continues to mean for us.

John, perhaps taking the lead of my Aunt Biddy (although she’d probably resent the suggestion that she was quite that old), understood that baptism is for the healing of the world: turning from captivity to sin, and towards the restoration and freedom offered by God. If this is what baptism means, then what need does the Messiah have for baptism?

Jesus’ decision to be baptised reinforces that he too was on the journey towards the restoration and freedom offered by God. The journey begun at baptism is always a journey with others: the restoration of ourselves is always a restoration in relation with others. It is not first and foremost about what we do, but about the unending kindness we receive ultimately from God.

So it is that The Basis of Union speaks of baptism as being, “united in one fellowship of love, service, suffering and joy.” (Basis §7)

And above all, what Jesus’ baptism signifies is the declaration that Jesus is the beloved child of God. And this is the meaning that baptism must carry with it.

That each of us have become children of God. Not by virtue of the water, but by virtue of the work of love which is renewing the world. By virtue of the Spirit of love which emanates from the true site of baptism: the place where Jesus’ journey with others ends, and where only Christ can go. We have become children of God because of the true baptism of the cross.

In the river we see the glimpse, and at the cross we see in fullness, that God meets us at the front gate on our worst day, and walks us down the path to the doorway home. There we are met with unending kindness.

Baptism is the beginning of new life.
It is the welcome home.

Baptism is not our entryway into an exclusive club, but our witness to the whole world that each of us are embraced as divine children. For all the wrong baptisms, false starts, and fractured beginnings of our lives. Baptism is the renewal, the beginning again, always from the beginning. Baptism is the invitation to be the person who we are: who we truly are, in the love and restoration and freedom of God.

Baptism is good news.
This is good news:

You are a beloved child of the divine
You have a place in the chaotic, and wonderful, and complicated, and generous home of God

No matter the abandonment of your dawn, you are born again on this day
No matter how partial, fragile, or fleeting the love which formed you, you are met with the unending kindness of God

And friends, hear this the Good News:

Christ journeys with us, and before us, going to the cross.
God meets us at the front gate, walks us down the path, and welcomes us with unending kindness again, and again, and again, and again.

Through those we have met in this room, in our lives, as if by chance — and through the baptismal wisdom of the living saints of this world.

May the Spirit who hovered over the waters:
At creation, at your birth, at your baptism
Grant you the gift of the freedom of Christ:
in the name of God,
who created you,
who formed you,
who loves you.
Amen.

 

1 January – God who enters history

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Christmas 1
1/1/2023

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-12
Luke 2:15-21

Sermon preached by Matt Julius


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

What does it mean for God to enter history?

What does it mean for God? And what does it mean for history?

We are perhaps comfortable with the two touch points of God in history set out in two of our readings for today. Perhaps in part because they speak of something that is not quite history: something long ago, to be sure, but not the history of documentaries, newspapers, and academic texts.

God enters history in the act of creation. Ordering the world, and human beings within it, in a grand act of grace and freedom. Many can sit easy with a God who enters history through the whisper of the wind, the ancient forming of galaxies, the mysterious something which makes the world tick.

And we can well enough get our heads around the touch point of God’s presence in the holy of holies. In the tabernacle, and temples dedicated to the Lord. In God’s bearing with the Jewish people, through their long history. Perhaps there is a sense of God’s people as an ancient, almost mythic past, that no longer impinges on the present. … Of course, that cannot be true, when the people of the unspeakable divine name were subject to unspeakable evil.

Nevertheless, God entering history in quite abstract ways can be enough. Through the long ago creative act — the wind breathed into those first embers of creation. The long ago sacred site, where God was present as if only as a rumour.

But when God enters history in flesh and blood, as a person. When the haziness of more ancient texts gives way to a frightfully recent picture of a person. Albeit not a direct, unvarnished window, but something more … tactile.

When God enters history not simply as an unspeakable name, an ancient whispered wind, a sacred presence … When the holy unspeakable name takes on a face, and flesh, and a familiarity: Yeshua, Iesus, Jesus. This anointed One. The holy name now wholly speakable.

What does it mean for God to enter history in this way?

What does it mean for God? And what does it mean for history?

There is in our two New Testament readings two accounts of this history. The rather mundane story of a Jewish child undergoing their rites of passage. And the grand history, as if from God’s own view, in one of the earliest confessions of faith for which we have a record.

In the grand theological history of Philippians there God is emptied out, God empties God’s own self out. As one theologian puts it, it is the story of God’s journey to the far country, and then the journey home. As if, could it be, God ceases for a moment to be God. Letting go of eternal equality with God the Second Person of the Trinity becomes human, takes on the form of a slave.

The theological question, with which early Christians wrestled is:

Whether God must cease to be God in order to enter history? In order to take on human flesh, human face, and human name?

The early Christian wrestling with this question responds with a resounding, “No!”

At one of the early councils of the church at Chalcedon the formulation was offered:

One divine person, with two natures: human and divine, neither confused nor separated.

Jesus never ceasing to be divine, never ceasing to be human.

But perhaps we can go further than this. It is not simply that the divine person takes on a human nature, as if there were a question of whether there ever would be an incarnation. Rather, God so entwines God’s being with our human life, through the human life of Jesus, that we cannot think of God apart from this one.

Hear these words of Scripture: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God, in love.” (Ephesians 1:4)

In just the same way we cannot think of God as other than the one whose being flows through creation. That ancient wind which flared the embers of creation to a guiding and abiding flame.

In just the same way we cannot think of God as other than the one who brought liberation to a people born of grace and freedom — God who speaks through Psalms and prophets.

In just this same way: we cannot think of God as any other than this one who is emptied, this one who takes the journey into the far country, our home. We cannot think of God apart from the entry into human history. In freedom and grace God chooses that divine destiny would be bound up with our human being: our history, your history, my history. In Jesus we see coming to fruition the God of all creation who seeks to make a home in the far country, to make a home in our home.

There is only God in this fragile child among humanity. Heralded by shepherds and strange sights in night skies — as if entering the layers of sacred stories which hold the precious memory of his own people’s history. There are no accidents here.

When Jesus comes to be circumcised we are led to see this as a new child taking their place among God’s people. Tying the child’s fate and future to God.

And yet, it is not a child who is taking their place within the people of God. Rather, here is God taking his place among the people. God freely and willingly binds divine destiny in this moment to human care. So fully does God give of herself in this Child that God becomes vulnerable to these figures of history, subject to their care.

Here the history of God’s people is inverted. It is no longer that God’s people can not exist apart from God’s sustaining power; here God can not exist apart from the people. Into their hands, into our hands, God offers God’s very self and child.

This is the ultimate demonstration of God’s self-giving love. Not simply that God would love us, but that God in an act of freedom and grace, chooses to be no other God than the one who embraces our humanity. God in freedom and grace chooses to be no other God than the one who is present with us, even in our frailty and vulnerability. God is no other God than the one who makes the journey to the far country, our home.

Ecce Deus. Behold God!

Let us then go all the way with our proclamation today of the Good News. The unspeakable holy one of old has now placed the name of Jesus on our lips.

So let us go all the way with our proclamation of the journey home. The God who binds divine destiny to our humanity gives Godself to us, but does not give herself away.

Gathered around this child in history is the tender love of parents. And this tender love responds to the self-giving love of God heralded by shepherds. And this tender love has echoed throughout history, it has touched the lives of each of us.

We, then, are the sign of renewal. However partial, fleeting, or fragile we have received this same divine love which has reverberated through the millennia. We have been grafted into the history which begins with this child and has been carried to today. We are gathered in this place to proclaim God’s presence with us.

So friends here is the Good News:

God has arrived and placed a name on our lips: Jesus, the Messiah — anointed One that we may all be anointed.

And we are anointed with the love that kindled the stars
The love that led the march of liberation, that sounds the call for justice

And we are anointed with the mercy that binds the broken
The peace that lies ready to be discovered in the heart of the world
The joy that breaks free everyday

This is the Good News:

God is with us, the divine destiny bound to our human history.
That every one of us may bow in wonder, and every tongue confess that love reverberates through the world.

And even at the end of our own fragile, fleeting moment.
God is with us in the sunset and the dawn of the new life.

25 December – The meaning of a child

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Christmas Day
25/12/2022

Genesis 1:26-28
Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-7


In a sentence:
The birth of Jesus is the meaning and purpose of all births

Somewhere in the middle of 2022, the eight-billionth living person drew breath for the first time. From a rough guess about when modern humans emerged, demographers calculate that this puts the number of human beings born in all of history at around 117 billion. “Be fruitful and multiply”, God commands the book of Genesis – perhaps the most closely observed divine command of all!

What do all those babies mean in view of the prophet Isaiah’s declaration: “a child has been born for us”? What is the meaning of the one child in relation to the 116,999,999,999 others?[1]

To answer this, we need to back up a little and consider first what the old Genesis commandment might tell us about the meaning of any child. “Be fruitful and multiply” is an odd commandment, seemingly given as if not multiplying might have been an option. But at the end of the account of the creation of Adam and Eve in the next chapter, we are told, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2.24, KJV). The thing about “cleaving” is that it’s quite good fun. And so, having cleaved once, the man and the woman are likely to want to cleave again (and again and again), with the typical result being considerable multiplication. This happens naturally so that, of all the cleaving required to produce 117 billion babies, very little has been in direct response to the command to multiply. What, then, is the point of the command to be fruitful, given that the widespread enjoyment of clefts and cleavers results in fruitfulness anyway?

hen what happens naturally is endorsed with a commandment, we’re in the realm of giving “meaning” to the ordinary. The command to be fruitful is a kind of overlay on what would happen anyway, by which God hijacks natural human procreation for some purpose. By claiming an interest in human fruitfulness, God gives a particular meaning to a child. Children are to be born now not merely “of blood or of the will of the flesh or of [human will], but by the will of God” (cf. John 1.13). Children are now born “for God’s sake”. That is, regardless of the motivations of their parents, children are now God-purposed.

And the point here is not simply about children. We were each born, so we are thinking here about the meaning of any human being. And the issue is not whether we are or aren’t fruitful (for whatever reason) but that we are fruit. What does that mean? What were each of us born “for”? We need an answer to this to be able to say something sensible about why we have gathered today to hear St Luke tell us that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son”.

The faith of the church makes a connection between the one birth of Jesus and all other births, and so proposes a meaning of the one and the many births. And this connection and meaning are as unbelievable as all miracles are. The meaning of the Genesis commandment to be fruitful and multiply is that God claims all subsequent human history as a preparation for the arrival of Jesus: Have babies, God commands, so that Jesus might finally appear. Or, to put it the other way around, the birth of Jesus is the meaning and purpose of all other births. By making babies we make history, so that history might be made in Jesus.

Imagine if that were true…

Yet, as I’ve just said, it is quite unbelievable. It’s unbelievable, first, because it’s an impossible thought that one could be the meaning of all, especially when that one is not the first or the last but arrives in the messy middle.

And it is unbelievable, second, because who actually thinks anything like this when it comes to baby-making? The drives of the flesh and the heart are, most of the time, far from any thought about the will of God.

Yet, unbelievable as it is, this connection of our births with Jesus’ birth is the only thought which makes sense of the celebration of Christmas. We don’t have to believe the connection, but without it Christmas would be merely sentimental wonder at childhood, or a desperately wishful hope which distracts us for a moment from the harsh realities of life.

Do this, God commands in Genesis. Be fruitful and multiply not merely because you are driven to cleaving but so that the humanity of Jesus might appear. All human being is oriented towards this. And so, though Genesis speaks of all of us as created in the image of God, the New Testament speaks of the one Jesus as that image. His way of being human is our destiny. Do this – be fruitful – so there may be a history within which Jesus can arrive. This is the meaning of a child – our meaning, our purpose.

And now there appears a third and final unbelievability concerning what I’ve proposed. Meaning and purpose have a future orientation, but the baby Jesus is now very much in our past. How can our birth after the appearance of Jesus be a preparation for his appearance? How can the goal of all human history be in the past?

After hijacking the absolute human necessity of being born, God does the same with another absolute necessity: staying alive by eating and drinking. Do this, Jesus says – eat this bread and drink this cup – that my humanity might be present among you again. Do this, for the appearance of me: eat and drink and become the many members of the body of Christ.[2] This – the body of Christ – is no mere or weak social metaphor. Become the body of Christ: become the appearance of the humanity of Jesus in a community of love, even if only for a moment. In the act of creation comes the command, Do this: Be fruitful. In the act of re-creation comes the command, Do this: Take, eat, drink, together. All of this is towards the appearance of the kind of being human we see in Jesus in the manger, on the roads of Palestine, and on the cross.

Do this: be fruitful. Do this: eat and drink. Seeing these together is to see that, at least so far as God is concerned, the Eucharist is as good as sex. For our part, we might wonder about that! But we can at least see that they have in common that they make possible the appearance of the rich and open humanity of Jesus, the presence of the kingdom of heaven on earth. We are, so that a humanity like Jesus’ own might appear. And Jesus appears, that we might see what life can be, and will be. We are for him, and he is for us.

The difference between us and Jesus is only that, between the promise of the cradle and its rejection in the cross, he succeeds in being fully and freely human, and we usually don’t. This is lamentable, but not the end of the story: “a child is born for us”. While we are the reason this one child can be born, he is born for us. Our failings, whatever they may be, are simply that the humanity of Jesus is not yet our humanity. When we talk about “sin” we mean just that we don’t often live freely in love as he did. But this is secondary to his being for us and not over against us.

For the humanity of Jesus is not only the “model” for our own but is also a promise: we will be as he was, knowing God as he did. We will be the presence of God’s kingdom of love and freedom. This “for us” is so central to the story, that we can might dare even to say, Mary wrapped us in cloths and laid us in the manger of the world, and God looks to make us come alive and grow in God’s own Spirit.

For the final time, none of this could possibly be true. It contradicts everything we think we know, which is that the many give meaning to the one, and not the other way around.

Yet here we are, a remant gathered 2000 years after the event of one birth. We might be here because of tradition or obligation or curiosity or misapprehension. Or we might be here in order to be reminded of something we think we’ve forgotten, and so to understand once more.

In any case, let us understand what it would mean if it were singularly important to hear that “a child is born for us”. What would it mean that there, in that one place in the messy middle of our history, is the beginning from which all things have sprung, and the end towards which all things are headed? What would it mean that there is found a humanity which, to date, we have only seen as in a glass, darkly, but through which God sees us as if face-to-face?

To believe that this one child is indeed born for us would be to believe that each gurgling bundle of joy, each callow youth, each jilted lover, each soldier lining up the sights of his rifle, each bearer of terminal cancer, each tearful refugee, each self-satisfied magnate of industry, each frail old soul moving slowly from her bed to her window seat… Everyone, Everywhere, All at Once is purposed for the appearance of God in a humanity like Jesus’ own. To believe this would be to see in another person not only what we think they are or even what they think they are – which is too often to see only the straw in the manger. To believe that Jesus was born for us would be to see in another person the child who is purposed for the appearance of God. And it would be to begin to live differently, as if our lives and the lives of others mattered far beyond anything we could have imagined, because it is God we are to become.

Of course, this is all quite unbelievable, Wonderful as it might be were it true.

But in view of everything we see going on in and around us, this might be the one thing we need to believe, and to begin to live, for God’s sake, and for our own sake, and for each other’s sake:

we are born,

that Jesus might be born,

that we might become like him.

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. And his name is called, Wonderful…

[1] While Isaiah wasn’t thinking of Jesus here, his words have been borrowed by Christians to say something about Jesus.

[2] The other absolute human necessity is dying, which is “covered” with St Paul’s reading of baptism – dying with Christ – a thought for another time!

11 December – Peace as reconciliation

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Advent 3
11/12/2022

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Luke 1:46b-55
Matthew 11:2-11


In a sentence:
The promise of God is not for our well-being alone but for peace in our midst, reconciliation across divided communities

Ringing through all this morning’s readings is the news of God’s approach to set right all that has gone awry in the world.

Jesus summarises this in his response to the Baptist’s question about who Jesus is:

‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them’ (Matthew 11).

Such promises, and the declaration of their imminent fulfilment, are words gladly heard even by people like us, for whom life is a relatively ‘relaxed and comfortable’ reality. Yet, regardless of whether we imagine that the kingdom has largely come for us, or whether we still long for some missing healing or security or restoration in our lives, we can easily miss the point here. One mistake is to hear what is said about what God will do as a charge as to what we should be doing. Another error – and the one we’ll focus on today – is to imagine that the mere restoration of sight or hearing or social and economic rights will, in themselves, amount to a return to a full humanity.

The promises made through the prophets, and said to have been consummated in God’s work in Christ, can read as if they concern merely this or that thing which God might rectify. The blind will see, and the deaf will hear, which is surely good news. The poor will be lifted up, and the hungry will be fed – again, surely good news. Yet the point of these texts is not simply the removal of obstacles to fullness of life. Good health, by itself, is not the promise of the gospel. Well-being and economic fairness, by themselves, are not the promise of the gospel. Such healing and restoration are important, of course. Yet, we tend to think about them in quite closed and individualised terms. The point about the types of restoration the gospel points to is not only that bad things are fixed up, but that broken relationships are restored. This is a subtle qualification but an important one.

The restoration of relationships will require the opening of eyes and ears and the loosing of tongues, and so on. Yet, these miracles themselves are necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions for the healing of relationships; more is needed. Peace is not everyone having a job, or universal healthcare, although these must be part of it. By themselves, these are not enough because, if I can now see when once I could not, I may still choose not to look at you. If I can now hear, I may yet choose not to listen to you. If I am no longer imprisoned or enslaved or downtrodden, I may yet become your gaoler, enslaver, or oppressor. The justice of God is not simply a matter of cutting the ties which bind, a loosing of tangled wings and a healing of broken bodies and hearts. God does not simply heal and liberate but reconciles. Indeed, this reconciliation is between ourselves and God, but it is inseparable from social reconciliations between ourselves. We can’t state this too strongly. And, in connection to our readings, it also can’t be too strongly said that our natural tendency is to focus on what God promises to do in the ‘vertical’ between us and God, and to miss what is said about the ‘horizontal’ you-and-me dimension of reconciliation.

Each Sunday, we gather for what looks like a vertical engagement but is deeply horizontal. We meet around prayers and hymns of invocation, we listen for the word in scripture and preaching, we pray a prayer of confession, hear a declaration of forgiveness, sing a doxology or hymn, say a creed, gather around the table, pray prayers of intercession, and then are dismissed under a blessing. So far as reconciliation goes, the interesting part is that which follows the preaching in our usual order – the prayer of confession and the word of forgiveness. This is the moment at which, we might say, reconciliation is declared and enacted. Who is being declared to be reconciled to whom at this point? The easy answer is that we are, whether as individuals or as a whole, speaking here of reconciliation between ourselves and God. Perhaps you can verify for yourselves whether that is what you hear and experience at that point in our worship when it comes in a few minutes!

But there’s complicating thing which happens in the Eucharist. Holy Communion enacts a reconciliation or communing not only with God but with each other. In preparation for the Eucharistic liturgy, we ‘pass the peace’, which is not an act of greeting but a declaration to those around us that we constitute no threat to them; we are ourselves claiming to be reconciled and reconciling agents of peace. We move then to pray that, in taking the sacramental signs of Christ’s body and blood, we might ourselves together become the body of Christ.

An individualised God-and-me understanding of reconciliation obscures the bigger picture – that the salvation God brings is not just for us in our notions about where we need healing, but for others. And the ‘for others’ raises the possibility that salvation may actually cost us something. God comes not to heal ‘me’ as I am in this or that particular distress, but to heal us. The gospel promises not only the lifting up of the lowly, but the humbling of the mighty – maybe us. Not only are the captives set free, but presumably those who locked them up unjustly are chastised or corrected – maybe us. What takes place is a ‘setting right’ of disorder. Such a setting right requires the work of God not only because we can’t heal and set right all things ourselves, but because we have too much vested interest in things remaining much the way they are, or in others suffering for our gains. If we doubt this, consider only the rhetoric of election time with its shrill clash of conflicting desires and proposed futures.

We will hesitate at such a vision of the kingdom and its healing work because it will cost us too much. A healing and restoration to wholeness which is just our own is easier and costs us less than one which heals others at the same time. We often have an interest in others being a little less healed and restored than they might like. A bit of blindness and lameness and poverty about the place is convenient and comfortable for many. Being reconciled to God but not necessarily to each other is easier and allows us to keep the things of God merely ‘spiritual’ and disconnected from the ‘real’ world around us. The criticism of religion that it promises an other-worldly escape from each other is, then, shown to be wrong. Indeed the critique rebounds: there is nothing religious in the observation that our world trades on difference and oppression, so that any vision of reconciliation will be uncomfortable for us all. Of this the conversation around the indigenous Parliamentary Voice is just one proof. The vision of justice in the gospel exposes the religious and the unreligious with a harsh light.

In Advent, we focus on the desire for God’s justice and hear a whisper not of new religious possibilities for our relationship with God but of the possibility of a wholly different world. This new world comprises a setting-right which is a lifting up and a casting down, a gathering in and a sending away, and yet is also salvation for all – for those elevated and those humbled, for those made rich and those made poorer by the action of God.

The fulfilment of such a promise as this would be worth waiting for, and worth living towards, as painful as its realisation might be for many.

May God’s people take comfort not merely in God’s love for them but in that God’s love is for all, and carries a promised future in which all have a place, and a right relation both to God and to each other.

And may God’s people live ever more deeply in ways which model this promised future, here and now.

4 December – The kingdom is come: enough of God and enough of us

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Advent 2
4/12/2022

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


In a sentence:
Jesus is where the reign of God happens, and we live within this reign as we are conformed to his humanity

“Repent”, John advises (demands!), “for the kingdom of heaven is come near”.

Repent is a loaded word. Mostly it means for us “stop doing something.” See where you’ve done wrong, be sorry, and do rightly. More fundamentally, however, it has to do with thinking again, seeing anew, turning to move in a different direction. And, while the force of John’s preaching comes from his conviction about a coming day of judgement, repentance is not just a religious notion. Within a day of last week’s state elections, the clamour for change was heard within the state Liberal party: the party needs to turn around, become something different, think and see differently. In other words, the party must “repent”.

This repentance, of course, is not in response to the approach of God but because there’ll be another election in four years, and we (the Liberal party) can’t endure another such loss. But the principle of repentance is the same: we were not ready this time, and we fear we might not be again when the election comes around once more. This is repentance motivated by fear – understandably so, but fearful nonetheless. The news of the approach of the next election is bad news because we’re clearly not ready for it.

Yet the proposal for change here is odd. The election seemed to declare that Liberal party policy was not welcomed by the majority. Repentance in this circumstance is a commitment of the Liberal party to stop being itself. The focus is not on what is right but on what will see us through the next electoral moment.

John’s preaching seems to resemble this. “Repent” is spoken in the context of a presumed crisis – that God is coming. On this surface reading, the approach of God is bad news because – as with the Liberal party in its present condition – we might not be ready. There is not a little fear at play in this hearing of John.

Yet the problem with repentance arising from fear is that it can only be superficial. Such repentance is not about what we believe to be true but what we need to do to survive the coming crisis. It’s like the Liberal party thinking it should ask what the people in Melbourne’s West want and then shaping policies to those desires, rather than imagining – as political parties tend to – that there are certain things which need to be done despite the will of the people. If – as one Liberal supporter probably now regrets having said last week – Victoria is populated by idiots who simply couldn’t see the merit of the Liberal policy platform, must the Liberal party itself become a party of idiots to win back ground next time around?

I’m not interested in all this to analyse the election nor to criticise the Liberal party; any party in the same position would likely think this way. The point is to see the temptation to superficiality which comes with fear: the temptation to sell out. Or, if the plan is not to sell out but to “trick” the approaching menace, then we are planning to manipulate by deception. In either case, our true selves are obscured as we re-colour to hide in the shadow of the approaching doom.

The preaching of John – if we take it seriously – can be heard in just this way: stop doing what you clearly think you should be able to do, and do something else. This is an invitation to the superficial – in John, a moral superficiality. You can’t deny the power of God or the poll booth, so deny yourself. The superficial is what sits on the surface, so that we look like one thing but are really something else. Superficiality is a mask behind which is the true me. In the end, John sounds like he’s saying, “Stop being yourselves”.

It is, of course, impossible to stop being ourselves if we honestly value what we are. We can’t healthily desire one thing and be another. The commandment we don’t want to hear instils in us this tortured dynamic. Certainly, what we do – our moral action – is important. But the call to goodness and the motivation of fear are in deathly conflict because the fearful can’t know when they’ve done enough. John’s preaching, then, must be heard as a kind of pre-repentance call: a call which cannot bring about what it demands. Hearing the call, we begin to wonder, how can we repent? How can we be both ourselves and different? And how much change is enough?

The answer is hinted at in John’s preaching and developed in the wider context of the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is not distant and on its way. Rather, the kingdom has drawn near; the kingdom is come with the arrival of Jesus. The call for repentance – the call for reign-of-God-like human being – is answered in the person of Jesus. Jesus is our repentance, our re-thinking, our seeing again.

If Jesus is the kingdom, John’s call changes radically. The kingdom is now not first something demanded of us but given to us: The kingdom is come. So far as repentance goes, Jesus is enough.

And the “enough” is crucial. If we intentionally do something wrong – which is John’s moral observation – it is because of fear about “enough”. We fear that there will not be enough – not enough of me, not enough for me – and we act against the rules to secure enough or we calculate to prove that we are enough (which is what we call self-righteousness). When it comes to repentance, the question will be, have I repented enough? How moral do I have to be? How much does God – or the electorate – need to let us through? These are the moral uncertainties we face if it ever occurs to us to think about them.

With Jesus, it is different. The question is not our “Am I good enough?” or “Have I got enough?” Jesus answers God’s own question: What is required when the question is always “How much?” What is required is assurance of enough. And this is what comes in the arrival of Jesus. Jesus does not ask the superficial How Much? As the presence of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is simply Enough. The miracle is that he is enough as one of us. Limited in time and space and culture, limited in how much good he can do, still susceptible to the charge from those around him that he has not done enough, our faith is that this one is enough – that Jesus was enough human being, enough God: the definition of the kingdom of heaven.

God’s answer to the question about enough is Jesus: this is enough for God. And God gives him as also enough for us. Not a mere model of how to be, Jesus is made the fullness of God’s kingdom for God and for us. With this, repentance is no longer becoming enough by doing better here or there but receiving this fullness, pointing to the coinciding of our desire and God’s desire in Jesus. Christian repentance stops trying to be enough and lets God’s gift be enough.

Of course, the moral imperative to do better doesn’t go away. There is no question that we could not do better and, most of the time, we probably know what and where this is the case. Just do it. But do it not because there approaches some crisis to avoid. Do it because the only crisis – the only judgement – which matters has already come: enough of God has come in Jesus to liberate us from fear we can’t do and be it all, and to liberate us for works of love and mercy for their own sake.

Repentance is not a wondering about how to win God’s favour but the conviction that we already have it.

And so the moral life is not about storing up reserves against the judgemental onslaught of God or the world but about expressing that favour for those who do not yet know it.

We are not called to avoid the approach of a menacing God but to become the approach of God’s grace, mercy and peace.

Repent, therefore, and believe the good news, so that the kingdom which has come may come again.

27 November – On making time

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Advent 1
27/11/2022

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


In a sentence:
Time is what passes between persons; love is time.

On the first Sunday of Advent each year, our readings touch on time and the coming judgement of God. Yet these themes are set in an apocalyptic key far from modern thinking about the nature of time. While these old texts answer a question about the kind of time we live in, we would need to share the apocalyptic sense of the times for the answer to make sense to us.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is impossible. We can’t unthink what modern culture has taught us about the nature of time, and become first-century apocalypticists. What we can do, is get a clearer sense of how time and life are connected for us today, and ask what someone like St Paul might say into that.

For us today, time is a “forever” thing: it rolls on and on. We might calculate that one day the universe will end with the heat-death of all things (everything ending up at the same cool temperature) but this is not a limit on our experience of time. Time is close enough to infinite that we can think it to be stable and ourselves to be placed in it to fill it up. This time is like a jar into which we pour what we do. The “bucket list” method of living our lives is perhaps the quintessential symbol of this for our time. The bucket list names those “experiences” with which we hope to fill our few moments in infinite time. The great time-bucket, of course, is indifferent as to whether there’s anything in it or not. It remains a bucket if we never get around to doing anything. But even a life rich in experiences is but a drop in the enormity of the infinite time-bucket. And so, when our actions in time’s ever-flowing stream are merely “in” time, they finally amount to nothing. It matters not what we do; time rolls on and sweeps everything away. Infinite time is finally empty time. (Consider a thought from a few weeks ago, that eternal life might be boring). The old Greeks had it right when they imagined that the god Chronos consumes all his children.

If we hear St Paul this morning through this notion of time and our place in it, he can make little sense. For him, time is not infinite but has an end, and soon. But the “end”-thing is distracting. If we don’t expect time ever to end, why not simply dismiss what Paul says about life in time? If you’re never going to get to the end which is the judgement, why bother how to get there? How could our unending time finally come to something, come to some meaning, to some sensible summing-up? And so Paul’s exhortation that we live a certain kind of life makes little sense to many today not because his morals are out of step with ours but because his idea of time looks wrong. What we do cannot matter for the reasons Paul seems to propose.

And yet, for all this, it is not an end to time which concerns Paul; he anticipates less that time will end than that a judgement will be made. This judgement reveals the nature of time: what time is for. Paul’s call to the sleepers to awaken looks at first to be about keeping ourselves safe in the coming judgement. Yet his concern is not the threat of judgement but the nature of our time here and now. What is the purpose of our being, and how does what we do embody that purpose (or not). “Live this way”, Paul says, not because the final judgement is coming but because this is what time properly requires.

This, then, is the difference between our sense of time and Paul’s sense: our unbounded time finally swallows us up and sweeps us away, while Paul’s time is waiting for us. The time in which we live is for him not empty and indifferent about whether or not we pour anything into it. God’s time waits for us. God’s time expects something, looks for something, demands something. And it is not yet God’s time until this demand is met.

And this brings us to the surprise in the gospel’s proposal about time. To wake from sleep (as Paul commands), to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, to live into the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control Galatians 5.22f) – all this is to make time. This “making” of time is not what we usually mean – finding time for some good work, making time “for” something. It is the making of time into God’s own time: the creation of a true timeliness in our lives. What Paul criticises – drunkenness, debauchery, jealousy, the “fruits of the flesh” – these are empty time, time within which meaning is eroded as mutually responsible relationships are broken down. Election season in a democracy like ours is empty time in this way.  Time is what passes between persons, and properly to “make time” is live toward an interpersonal human being made from love and gentleness and patience.

Do this, Paul says, and time – the substance of your lives – comes into being.

But also, “Do this”, Jesus says, for the remembrance of me – also a creating of a certain kind of timeliness. Do this, take and taste bad time – broken body and spilt blood – and hear the promise: This is my body given for you, that you might have bodies, my blood that you might have blood. Or, this is my time, given for you, that you might have time. If we’re paying attention, we might marvel that God can make time for us from the nothingness of broken time: from our choices for sin and death.

This is no mere wish or other-worldly thing. The word the sacrament acts is that, gathering as we do around the one table, all the time we need is standing next to us, the (only) time which matters.

Making time is now not about “finding” time but creating it through lives of love and care. The time of our lives has a face which turns towards ours and asks, Do you love me?

Sleepers, awake. Paul says. Open your eyes and see. Live love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And you will have time enough.

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