Category Archives: Sermons

17 July – The one thing needful

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Pentecost 6

Colossians 1:15-23
Psalm 15
Luke 10:38-42

In a sentence:
The one thing we need to “do” is trust that, in Christ, we are already “right before God”, and then to live as in the world as if this were the case.

The ancient versions of our biblical text sometimes show great variation at particular points in the text. One reason for this is that what was probably the original text was just too hard for the old copyists to believe that it was correct. The text offended the copyists, so they changed it to make it more palatable or sensible. When it looks like this might have happened, modern biblical critics ask, What is the most challenging version of these variations – the hardest to swallow. This reflects the assumption that a copyist was more likely to change a passage to make it easier than to make it harder.

Our gospel reading today is one of these disputed texts. The difficult thing is the thoroughgoing unreasonableness of Jesus’ response to Martha’s complaint. Jesus says that sister Mary has hit upon the “one thing needful”, and so seems to say that her sitting at Jesus’ feet in devoted listening to him is more important than Martha’s concern to prepare their meal. The copyists knew that we have to eat and that it’s righteous to be a good host to guests, so they wondered in what sense attending to Jesus’ teaching could be “the better part” over Martha’s attention to the necessities of nature and society. Surely, as the variant texts propose, there are a “few” things that matter and not only one.

On hearing the story, it is almost impossible not to think in either-or fashion, and we almost always do. It seems we have to choose between work and prayer. This corresponds to other dualisms in our heads – doing versus hearing, nature versus spirit, science versus faith, worship versus mission. Some modern readings wonder what Luke (and Jesus) are doing with gender roles, adding a male versus female dualism to the mix.

Faced with this perception of what is at stake, there are a couple of options before us – probably another dualism itself! We can choose between the options, or we can seek a kind of compromise. The choice is generally simply too hard: how can we properly be “only” spiritual or only worldly, only Martha or only Mary? We can’t, but still Jesus’ words jar harshly against one of these apparent options: she has chosen the better part. A compromise is a balancing act and seems to work: we know ourselves to be both matter and spirit, knowing and believing. And so we seek a balance: now a bit of body, now a bit of spirit; now I believe and trust, now I reason and know. And yet this doesn’t work, either. The problem with a balanced approach to holding opposites together is that your balance looks imbalanced to me, and my balance is an imbalance to you. This is Martha’s accusation about Mary: Lord, confirm that I have got the balance right by telling Mary that she has got it wrong.

The problem with Martha’s call for balance is that there is no reliably defendable unpacking of all our either-or moral polarities. Polarities are either-or by definition: black cannot be balanced with white if we define black simply as not-white. If worship is not-service, faith is not-reason and private is not-public, then there is no true reconciliation possible in these life options but only “balance”. We can’t agree on the balance, so we shift the problem of how to live together before God a little to the polarised left or right until our anxieties move and we shift the other way again.

Who we are and what we do – and the rightness of our identity and choices – is defined solely in terms only of the world itself. Prayer is defined not in relation to God but over against work; mission is defined not in relation to God but in relation to worship – our worship work, our mission work. We have faith here but reason there; we trust here but know there. And then we debate which is the more important, or which applies where, how the money should be spent, whose efforts better reflect the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God being somewhere outside of what we do and are.

None of this can be resolved on its own terms and so, with the ancient copyists, we have to alter the text, knowing that we’re mucking around with it and knowing also that it doesn’t make the problem go away. It just makes Jesus seem more reasonable – and so more like us as we seek to be reasonable and balanced. There is, however, nothing very balanced about Jesus, from the perspective of polarised lives like ours.

What could save us from this deathly existence? What could save us from the consignment to mere choice between options on our part, and then from the need to justify to ourselves, to each other and to God our choice for more of this and less of that?

What could save us here? The answer is scandalous. What will save us is the recognition it does not matter what we do.

This can’t be true, of course. And yet, from a Christian sense of God and the human being, it is. It does not matter whether you are working in the kitchen or sitting at Jesus’ feet. It matters that you do and be something; this is called being alive. And what you do will properly span the spectrum between the poles of our dualisms; it will be private or public, faith or reason, and so on. But no choice here is, in itself, more godly than the rest. Christain faith holds that our lives are already hidden with Christ in God, and do not become so through the things we are or do. This faith holds that it is Christ-in-us who does the praying and the working – such that holiness precedes what we do and is not applied afterwards. To say that there is no condemnation in Christ is to say that doing and being “right” has already been covered.

Jesus’ comment to Martha, then, is not that she too should be sitting at his feet, but that she should not allow herself to be distracted “by many things” from her particular responsibility at that time. Martha’s problem is not that she is in the kitchen – where for the moment she must be – but that she wants to be sitting at Jesus’ feet. Distraction is the inability to be where we are. Now is the time for rest, but we are distracted by the things we think need doing, and so neither rest nor work properly. Now is the time for faith, but we want to analyse, understand and calculate, so we finally neither trust nor know. Now is the time for worship, but we cannot get the world’s needs out of our heads; now is the time for “mission” and service, but we’re not sure we’re doing the right thing. Distraction has to do with anxiety – am I OK? Is this right, or that? Am I properly here, or there? Martha is distracted by many things – not least that Mary is not in the kitchen and that she, Martha, is not with Jesus.

And distraction has to do with judgement – first judgement of ourselves and then often of others and God. There seems to be another version of this story in John’s gospel (John 12.1-8) – familiar to many of us but not often connected to today’s version. In John, we are again at Martha and Mary’s house and hear again that “Martha served”. Mary is not “merely” sitting and listening to Jesus but takes a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages and pours it out as an anointing on his feet. In response, it is not Martha who complains to Jesus but Judas: Could this valuable thing not have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor? Is not our serving mission more important than worship? Is this not wholly (unholy) out of balance? Jesus’ response is no less appalling than in today’s (Luke’s) version: “Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”; there will always be mouths to feed but not always me to hear. Mary has done the right.

The strange word of Jesus is that it is OK for Mary to be with him, for now, without distraction. And that it is OK for Martha, for now, to be in the kitchen.

It is OK – or, in Christian-speak, it is righteous – to be where we are and to rest in that place, for now. It is OK not to be all things to all people, and even more OK not to be all things to God. It is OK not to know, or not to have done. It is OK to be a discrete, finite, mortal creature, the purpose of whose being is not to do and be all things but to do and to be according to the time and space given to us. Sometimes this will mean doing the dishes – and perhaps more often than we might think. Sometimes it will mean closing the door and our eyes and spending time with God – and perhaps more often than we might think.

The “one thing needful” – and the most difficult of all things – is to rest in the freedom and peace that God has already accepted us as we are, and will accept us as we become a different and new thing tomorrow. This is God in and for the world.

And this is what makes possible that we might be in and for God, and in and for ourselves: sometimes looking like we are working and sometimes looking like we are praying but, in all things, always thriving and alive in God.

10 July – God, our loving enemy

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Pentecost 5

Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18
Psalm 82
Luke 10:25-37

In a sentence:
God’s love is strange to us but just the love we need.

The best stories invite us into them, causing us to identify with some of the characters and enabling us to see ourselves as part of what is happening. In a good thriller, it is “me” who is about to walk into the room in which awaits the psychopathic killer with his ridiculously long, serrated-edged knife. In a good love story, it is “me” who gets the girl or the guy (depending on your preference!). The best stories enable us to be the hero, the victim, the lover, or whatever; what happens to the players in the story is what happens to us. A good story is our story.

Our gospel reading this morning presents us with stories on two different levels. First, there is the story of an encounter between Jesus and one of the religious experts of his day – a religious lawyer.  Second, as part of that first story, there is another story about a man mugged on a dangerous road. The fact that we still tell these two stories nearly 2000 years after they were first told suggests that these are good stories. And so we might wonder, Where are we in the two inter-mingled stories of our gospel reading?

Consider the first-level story of the encounter between the religious lawyer and Jesus. Most of us are humble enough not to imagine that we are Jesus in the story. These are told about Jesus because the church has long thought that he is the supreme Good Guy. Even people who don’t confess Christian faith would hesitate to imagine themselves as Jesus here. However, this leaves us with a problem. If Jesus is the good guy, and the lawyer is challenging Jesus, then the lawyer is kind of the bad guy! That is hardly acceptable either. We don’t want to be identified with Jesus’ opponents, especially if we’ve heard these stories so often that we know we should be on Jesus’ side. At worst, we can only admit to being a little like the religious lawyer. This leaves an open question about who we are at this story level. We are not Jesus but also don’t want to be the religious lawyer who gets it wrong.

Let’s look then at the second level of the story – the tale of the man mugged and left beside the road. Here we might identify with the robbers, the religious leaders who ignore the man in need, the Samaritan who helped him, the man himself robbed and beaten, the innkeeper, and perhaps even the Samaritan’s donkey!

It’s still not easy to place ourselves here but what we think this story is told for will indicate to us who we really believe ourselves to be in the story. So, what is the story told for? Typically, we read this as a moral tale. The moral, it would seem, is that “we should love one another”, or “they should love one another”, if we think someone else needs to hear the story more than we do. The final remark of Jesus is, “Go, and do as he did”. This is an important lesson. Do not do as the robbers, the priest or the Levite did; do as the Samaritan did. Who, then, does this moral reading suggest we are in the story? Probably not the Samaritan and probably not the robbers. Perhaps we are a little like those religious leaders who should have helped but did not. Still, as with the first level of the story, it’s a bit of an open question. We may believe we are only a little like those Jesus criticises here but we can’t fully identify with them. It’s too difficult to criticise ourselves in that way.

Let’s consider now one further story level: the whole gospel story of Jesus. This seems to cast us and Jesus in very clear roles. The gospel encapsulates both the story-levels of Jesus and the lawyer, and the Samaritan and the beaten man. It does this by casting God in the role of the Samaritan, and us in the role of the man robbed and beaten and left by the road to die. This is a typically “religious” reading of the parable. The moral lesson about loving those around us becomes a religious lesson about God’s love for us. For some of us this extension beyond the moral lesson is a comforting one. But, of course, if you don’t think you need comfort, it’s not so impressive. And this brings us to “the twist”.

If one element of a good story is that it invites us to find ourselves in its characters, another element is the unexpected twist – the surprising turn which catches us off guard, and also catches our breath, causing us to stop and to reconsider what we always thought must be the case. The twist here is that the Samaritan is a Samaritan. This itself has a meaning – he doesn’t just happen to come from Samaria. It is of critical importance that he is what the Jews of the time considered a heretic from the North, and someone those same Jews refused to have dealings with.

This leads to an unexpected discovery about God’s approach to us. If we are the Jewish victim lying on the road, and if God-in-Jesus is the Samaritan, then Jesus comes to us as a stranger we would actually reject, perhaps even attack, if we were not too weak to get ourselves up out of the gutter.  To put it more strongly, Jesus comes to us as one we might even think of as our enemy. And yet he is, in fact, the only source of help for us.

This has wide-reaching – and troubling – consequences for what we might expect from the world. In the stories of our lives, we develop naturally a sense that we know what is wrong, a sense that we know what we need, and a sense of who might be able to deliver it. Certainly, we also have an idea of who would not be able to deliver it. But if the story of the Good Samaritan can be read as the story of God coming to aid us in the form of the scorned Samaritan, then our thoughts about what we might expect in our lives are thrown into disarray. If we are lying on the roadside, then those individuals or things we might have expected to have assisted us are shown to be worthless – our own strength or good sense to avoid the attack in the first place, and then the priest and the Levite as those we might have relied upon for help. Instead, in the hour of need, only this stranger, this foreign heretic, comes to assist. God’s love is a strange love – precisely what we need, but not what we would have expected. It lifts and restores and yet comes from the most unexpected of sources. (As an aside: perhaps this matters for our own future accommodations thinking).

Our gospel reading today hinges on the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is easy to reject that question today, if we imagine ourselves to have outgrown such religious worries. It is easy to misunderstand the question, particularly for the religious who’ve developed a certain way of understanding what “eternal life” is. And in both cases it is easy to miss the answer Jesus gives to the question, because we think we know what “love” is when we hear Jesus tell us to love our neighbour. Only when we know ourselves as loved – when we have been the poor soul beaten and left by the side of the road and been surprised to discover love from the most unexpected of sources – only then will we begin to know what it is to be called to love others… (Again, perhaps this has relevance for what we could expect in our next steps as a congregation).

The gospel is story of “love unknown.” It’s unknown because it runs deeper than any other love we have known, and so is strange to us. But though a strange love, it is love. It is the love of God for a world which considers him strange, foreign, perhaps even an enemy. And yet it is love which will not be denied. If we seek love – love for ourselves and the capacity to love others – our starting place is by the side of the road, receiving the love of the God who offers it when all other love fails.

This is love: that God loved us, in order that we might know how to love.

May the God who once loved us in his Good Samaritan, Jesus the Christ, surprise us again with his amazing love, and make of us surprising lovers.

3 July – God is a resurrecting avenger

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Pentecost 4

Revelation 16:1-7
Psalm 59
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

In a sentence:
The violence of God in the Bible is “necessary” in a violent world but also contradicted by God’s final renewal of all things.

There are probably not too many here today with a good understanding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For those unfortunate souls, the MCU is a superhero movie franchise – the highest-grossing franchise in history, which is to say that pretty much everyone knows about it except for you. Numerous storylines run in all sorts of directions across these films, but a particular series recently (2019) concluded with the instalment Avengers: Endgame. The backstory to this finale is that one Thanos – whose name is suspiciously close to the Greek word for death (thanatos) – has determined that the universe is overcrowded and that space must be made for life to continue to thrive. Despite all the best efforts of the series’ superheroes to avert this, Thanos succeeds, and half of all living things simply disappear.

In the final instalment to the series, the surviving heros develop a plan to undo what has been done, now five years after the event. Overcoming enormous obstacles including time travel and Thanos himself – and all in spectacular computer-generated imagery – these “Avengers” manage to undo the evil, and everyone who was lost is restored to life. This is the happy ending the fans needed and is what makes whole the story a “comedy” in the technical sense – a restoration after a period of loss. Endgame is to this film series not unlike what Revelation is to the whole Bible: the comedic restoration of a fall from Paradise. Here is the point at which everyone can smile again.

And yet, as necessary as this ending is for the story to deliver the “required” final lift, it is a morally unjustifiable ending. With the loss of half the people in the world, economies would collapse and people would starve or go to war in order not to starve. Over the next five years, the widowed would re-marry and infant orphans would be adopted. Some people would just die because they were going to die anyway. And then, all the lost suddenly return. The collapsed economy now has at least twice as many people to support: more starvation and more violent struggle to survive. Those returned – who don’t even know what has happened – suddenly find themselves unmarried from former partners who’ve moved on, or widowed themselves because their spouse died in the interim, or find that their children don’t remember them. The heroic restoration to life of all who were lost threatens to be as violently disruptive to souls and bodies as was Thanos’ destruction in the first place. This is what resurrection looks like in the hands of amateurs: a prelude to more death.

The story, of course, is structured out of pure fantasy. Yet its purpose is not fantastical. It seeks to answer the question, How do we respond to a great evil such as Thanos’ wiping away of half of life? How do we respond to the pain of that loss in those left behind? Does good triumph over evil, and what does that triumph look like? The answer of the film, and of nearly every story we tell, is that good can triumph over evil. In the case of Endgame, the sign of this conviction is the heroic reversal of the evil itself. And so we find ourselves in the situation that the Endgame story is both right and wrong. It is right that evil does not triumph; it is wrong that evil could be reversed in the way the film proposes. Such a restoration would be morally unjustifiable for all the subsequent suffering it would bring. The film, then, says the right thing wrongly. It must do this because, in our violent world, it seems impossible that good could triumph over evil and still be good.

This rightness-in-wrongness matters because it guides us in how to understand the troubling notion of the wrath of God. We noted last week the violence in the book of Revelation and considered the violence directed at those people of God who appear as martyrs in the narrative. Today we’ll spend a little time with perhaps the more disturbing imagery in Revelation – God’s apparent violence. Drawing from how Endgame tries to deal with the problem of evil, we’ll see that God’s violence is “necessary” for an account of justice but also wrong – a kind of mistake about God the story makes in order to speak about justice and injustice in a world in which good responses to evil seem to be evil.

The apparent violence of God does not arrive with the book of Revelation. We have seen it in the Old Testament prophets we’ve considered over the last few years – Hosea and Ezekiel, in particular. What is new in Revelation, however, is the shift in direction of that violence. For the most part, God’s violence in the prophets is oriented toward Israel itself. Israel has been unfaithful, and the arrival of the marauding Assyrians and Babylonians is God’s punishment of God’s own people. However, one aspect of apocalyptic thinking we see in Revelation is that this no longer applies. God’s people are faithful and await God’s alleviating of their suppression by foreign powers. The violence of God in the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation is now not against God’s own people but is “vengeance” for the suffering they have experienced.

This, then, is not wild and capricious violence. Neither is divine vengeance in Revelation a retaliating eye-for-an-eye. It is vindication of those who have been killed for their testimony to the truth of God in Jesus. These died unjustly, and this injustice is proved by the death their oppressors. Divine vengeance is vindication. Divine vengeance locates true righteousness in those who are being avenged.

But this brings us to a strange tension between means of vindicating the righteous as those means appear in Revelation and in the Gospels. We have just seen that the vindication of the godly in Revelation – Revelation’s identification of the righteous – comes in the avenging destruction of the ungodly.  The vindication of the godly and the identification of the righteous in the Gospels, however, is seen in the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is fundamentally the assertion that the cross was a mistake. In raising Jesus, God saying to his persecutors, “Guys, you got this seriously wrong”. This is precisely what God’s vengeance is intended to say about the persecution of the faithful. The wrath of God in Revelation is a revelation of where righteousness is found in the world.

The Bible, then, employs two very different images to speak of the vindication of the righteous – on the one hand, the raising of the one persecuted and, on the other hand, the utter destruction of the persecutors. We must dare now to say that these are the same: resurrection is vengeance, and our God is a resurrecting avenger.

This means that a simplistic affirmation of divine vengeance is simply wrong; it does not take the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection into account. But a simplistic notion of resurrection into heaven is also wrong, because it does not reckon with the demands of justice. If God does not do with the unrighteous what Revelation describes, how are the demands of justice for the persecuted answered?

If you’re still wondering what we are doing splashing in Revelation as we have been over the last couple of months, let me try to explain again. In order for the foundations of our world to be shaken – and surely we desire this, for the sake of the justice and peace we don’t yet have – the foundations of our ideas of heaven have to be shaken. Revelation does this, although not by giving us “the answer” about heaven. Revelation’s portrait of heaven demonstrates not only confidence that there is an answer to our questions about truth, justice and peace – an answer to our questions about heaven – but also that any such answer is inadequate. Over the last few months we have wondered whether heaven might a be space of traffic jams or filled with people we don’t like very much – none of which seems very heavenly. That is, we have seen that heaven could not be very heavenly unless there is a God who can, at one and the same time, be holy and yet embrace an unholy creation – who could be just and yet satisfy the demands of justice without destroying the unjust.

In its interaction with our sense for justice and peace – with our desire for “heaven” – Revelation proposes that the God we worship is an impossible God. The vengeance of God in the book of Revelation is necessary if evil is to be utterly contradicted. And yet, at the same time, it is a kind of “mistake” in the story which cannot be sustained against other parts of the gospel which speak of the final power of God to make all things new: heaven and earth, the good and the evil, even us. But other parts of the gospel need the divine vengeance for the sake of justice. Rejecting the vengeance of God unthinkingly requires also that we reject cheap ideas of resurrection and salvation which don’t take evil seriously enough. The gospel holds death and life together in a necessary but impossible tension, and so we have to say that our God is an avenging God, until the time the gospel anticipates when God proves that he is not.

Today, the invitation is simply that we see this. There is no clear imperative which drops out here – no “go and do this.”

The best response to Revelation’s vision of heaven is not so much this or that action but wonder. This is not “to” wonder how such things could be, although this is part of it. It is more marvelling at the power – and the beauty – of a God who can do such a thing as justify the unrighteous: who can justify us who so often do bad things for good outcomes.

For only a God who can realise life out of death could be an answer to all that life and death seem to ask of us.

26 June – Dying to live

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Pentecost 3

Revelation 6:1-11
Psalm 16
Luke 9:51-62

In a sentence:
The witness – “martyrdom” – of Christians is against the powers which dehumanise the world.

The book of Revelation is a violent book, deeply marked by antagonism, conflict, threats, and death.

It is the violence of God in Revelation which is the most problematic. God’s four horsemen of this morning’s reading “conquer”, take away peace “so that people would slaughter one another”, and are given authority “to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth”: not everyone’s idea of a God of love. While the violence of God catches our attention, less obvious is the violence which has preceded the blood-letting of the narrative: the violence against the people of God. We might return to God’s violence before we finish with Revelation; today we’ll look to the martyrs in the text.

In today’s reading, John identifies “those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” (6.9). The word “martyr” doesn’t appear in our usual translation of the book of Revelation, although it is present throughout the text in Greek. The Greek word marturia means “testimony”, so that a “martyr” is “one who gives testimony”. The later notion of martyrdom extends from this root to understand the death of persecuted believers as being because of, or as giving testimony to, the truths of God. The original context of Revelation is still debated, but part of that context is likely to have been the persecution of Christians, even to death. It’s not always clear why they were persecuted. Just being different can be enough to cause the powerful to scapegoat a community, as Nero is said to have done when he burned a large part of Rome. Here, the sheer difference drives the persecution rather than the content of a community’s belief. Scapegoats can be politically useful.

But other times it is the belief itself which causes the persecution. We have a record dating from early in the second century (AD 112), which describes the test put by one Pliny the Younger – a local Roman official – to Christians:

I interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. [1]

Pliny elaborates further, but the threat of execution in the interrogation was clear. Given that threat, are these believers themselves not being a little extreme, a little fanatical? What is lost if one softens a bit, especially if we keep our fingers crossed – if God knows we still believe even if we tell the Romans we don’t?

But we can’t begin with this question until we see what Pliny describes from another critical angle. We might think it extreme to die for convictions and creeds about something which can’t be seen. But we should also wonder: What is it about these “mere” beliefs which makes believing them reason to execute the believer? The death sentence reveals that what is at stake is not merely “religious” – not merely about what we might believe and others might reject. Pliny the Younger was sane and measured. He observed and investigated – if by torture! – and found only that Christians were deluded by “depraved, excessive superstition”. But these were for him no mostly harmless late-afternoon nutters on public transport. Pliny held the delusion of the Christians to be utterly dangerous to the community, the temple and the local economy. And so the Christians were executed if they would not sacrifice in the temple or worship the emperor’s image. Christian belief had consequences which threatened to break the social and political order.

In a decision to execute over “mere” belief, faith is revealed not merely a “belief” thing, as distinct from a political or social matter. Pliny killed Christians because the social and economic consequences they drew from their “deluded superstitions” were perceived to be positively dangerous. This is clear. But let us also see that if we consider the martyr to be a little unreasonable in her refusal to change her beliefs “a bit” under threat of death, we should also hold that it is unreasonable to threaten and execute her over such things in the first place. We might lament this clash of worlds and the blood it spills, but we should not do it too loudly, for Pliny might mistake us for Christians. No well-meaning “wish” that we could just get along better together is going to overcome the fact that, even today, people are killed because they see the world differently – often rightly – and such vision is dangerous. We might think here of those crushed in dark, faraway places by the interests of large corporations, or those who see the lies in despotic politics, or those who expose to us where we benefit from overlooking inconvenient truths. The history wars playing out in Australia are caught up in a similar dynamic; we’re just not as bloody-handed about it (anymore). To say “it all happened so long ago” is not unlike saying “it’s just something you believe”.

There is a lot of blood spilt in the book of Revelation – the blood of the martyrs and the blood of the perpetrators. This is because there is a lot of blood spilt in the world. The witness – the martyr – says, against too-easy claims about peace, justice and life, that is not peace, that is not justice, that is not life. The need for wide-ranging judgements about life and death, peace, justice and life are not as distant as we imagine. How will we handle the needs of the millions living on low-lying coastlines when rising sea levels render them homeless? There is no technological solution to this question; solar panels don’t float. How will we handle increasing hostility in the superpowers we don’t like or understand? Will there be true peace or the more likely return to killing as a means of “peace”? What truths will require witnessing – “martyring” – in these contexts?

We “hope”, of course, for less blood than more. By this, we usually mean that we have our “fingers crossed” because we know that the powers of darkness are very strong, for all our effort against them. We don’t need the book of Revelation to tell us this but opening our eyes to the world around us should at least explain why Revelation is violently dark and red. Indeed, revelation tells the story of the God of love, but it is the story of God’s love for us who are too familiar with blood.

For this reason, we gather around the table not merely to receive “the bread of life” and a “cup of salvation”. Indeed, this language is appropriate, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth, and here of all places, let us tell the truth. We are given what is named explicitly as tokens of the body and blood of Jesus because the very people of God – people like us – are capable of making a martyr of the Lord of life. “Bread of life” and “cup of salvation” are Christ broken “for” us; “body” and “blood” are Christ broken by us. Salvation is salvation from this “having-broken” another. The mystery of Christian faith is that, without justifying the violence, God uses it for the revelation – for the apocalypse – of God’s persistent love for his enemies.

Christians do not “wish” for peace. We “hope” for it. That is, we confess a God who exceeds the possibilities of a world of predictable cause and effect – the cause which is violence and the effect which is more violence. To hope “Christianly” is to say that violence is not the only thing which can follow violence. The violence of denial does not have to follow the violence of dispossession or neglect. The violence of war does not have to follow the violence of escalation. Yet Pliny shows how, in a violent world, even such suggestions seem violent, a challenge to the prevailing order: depraved, excessive superstition. Christian hope – not mere belief – can be costly.

To hope Christianly is to live as if we have done the worst and been forgiven, and to relate to others who have done badly in such a way that we become the means by which they do better. It is in this that we “martyr” – that we give testimony to a truth which is not known until someone points to it by being it. “This is what truth looks like”, says the risen Son of the Jesus hanging on the cross.

In none of this is there any revelling in the possibility of martyrdom – that martyrdom which is dying. This corruption has certainly infected the church and many other movements at times, but it is a corruption. Death is never a means to an end with this God.

In reflecting on the martyrs, there is only the invitation to open our eyes to the violent ways of the world. This is not easy for those of us served well by violence. Nevertheless, testimony – martyring – in word and deed – speaking the truth about God and the truth about ourselves – is our purpose as a church and the expression of our faith. Violence might be the way of the world but it is not to be our way.

Let us, then, be willing witnesses to the peace of God, for the sake of all world, believing and not.

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[1] The text of the letter can be found at

19 June – Heaven is not our favourite things

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Pentecost 2

Revelation 21:1-6a
Psalm 42
Luke 8:26-39

In a sentence:
Heaven is where we are made by other people, not the absence of other people.

History has delivered many images of what heaven is like, which are usually connected to certain notions of what hell might be like, the one contrasted with the other. Hell is a place of fire and punishment; heaven is a place of sunshine and bliss – so the story typically goes. The book of Revelation has contributed considerably to these expectations!

Our Revelation text this morning provides a vision of heaven with elements of the blissful existence we might be hoping for: God will dwell with them, will wipe away every tear from their eyes, death and mourning and crying will be no more. These are things we all long for.

But there’s another aspect of John’s vision which may be more troubling if we consider its fuller ramifications: heaven is a place where others are. We might take some comfort in being in heaven with others if we could choose who else is there: friends, the family members we actually like, perhaps our favourite artists or musicians or thinkers. Yet not only they are there if heaven is a city. As a city, heaven is a communal place and not a place of isolated individuals with their narrow desires. This means that heaven may be a place where there will be people we don’t like or have even learned to hate and who return that favour. And there doesn’t seem to be very much heavenly about that.

Of course, if it’s a city, we expect heaven to be pretty large. Perhaps we could be in heaven without running into those people who rub us up the wrong way. Yet, given that that’s how we do things already here and now, there’s still nothing very heavenly about this vision if we have to plot when and where we’ll be to avoid being annoyed or threatened by others. If heaven is a city full of people, it could be just plain hard work. So, after a lifetime of being commanded to love people whom it’s hard to love, we’ll go to heaven and meet more of them. Praise the Lord.

This is all a bit silly but unpacking the ideas of the text in this way shows how they can be misunderstood. There are a lot of half-thought wishes and dreams about heaven (and hell) which have little relationship to scriptural imagery. Whatever heaven is, it is not our favourite things.

Day after day, our televisions, newspapers, radios and social media feeds fill the space around us with the cacophonies, the dissonances, the traffic of city life. What would it take for life in a city to be a harmonious reality, for the heavenly city John describes actually to be heaven?

The answer is that we cannot imagine. By this, we mean that we do not know how this could be possible and so we can’t create this Utopia. The bad news the church has is that we are unable to save ourselves, to the extent that we would have to be alone in heaven if we were to be there on our own terms and not be hassled by other people – even by those we love and yet who are still quite capable of driving us up the wall. Every dream of a new city, every vision of a new society, every “solution” for some communal problem creates just another problem. This is the dynamic between the left, the centre and the right in our politics, each crying out in turn “That didn’t work”, after every social and economic pendulum-swing solution.

But let’s turn all of this towards something more concrete and specific, and closer to home. What about us and our search for a solution to the problem of our future as a congregation? What do we dream of here? What is our vision? How will the next thing for MtE be “heavenly”? For indeed, that is what the next thing must be to be worthwhile.

In another reflection on our situation late last year, I quoted from a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Life Together – in which he makes a powerful statement about ideals and human community:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who fashion a visionary ideal of community demand that it be realised by God, by others, and by themselves.

They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge the fellowship and God himself accordingly… They act as if they are the creators of the Christian community, as if their dream binds people together.

When their ideal picture is destroyed, they see the community going to smash. So they become, first accusers of the fellowship, then accusers of God, and finally the despairing accusers of themselves.” (SCM 1954, 17f)

This is to say that it is not a brave person who declares “this, and only this” is how to give shape to heaven, is the future of a Christian community. It is not even a fool who says this. It is a blasphemer who declares that God’s home is not with mortals (Rev 21.3) – that God’s home is not with those whose existence is indelibly marked by brokenness and death, who are prone to get it wrong: even us.

We worship a God who justifies sinners. This is not a declaration that there is a safety net for when we break the rules. To say that God justifies sinners is the rules. “Who-justifies-sinners” is God’s name and not merely what God sometimes happens to do. “Home-is-with-mortals” is God’s name.

The shadow-side of this is that if this God is our God, then we are those in need of being justified. Why? In relation to the need to decide our future together, it is because we mistake planning for hope, our work for God’s.

It is, of course, necessary that tomorrow have some particular shape in our imagination: we must plan. This is so that we have something worth doing today. But we can have no confidence that our planned tomorrow will not amount to a crucifying of the Lord of glory. Instinctively, we know this. It is what causes us so much anxiety in the whole process. We wonder, Will we get it wrong?, with particular ideas in our heads of what “wrong” looks like. That is, we have a clearer sense of hell than of heaven. And we wonder, how will we account for ourselves? Who will accuse us for what we choose and how it works out? Perhaps those who went before us, giving us so much, only to see it lost? Perhaps the Presbytery or Synod, which imagine they could have put the resources to better use? Perhaps those sitting in the row in front of, or behind, you, who advised that we go a different way? Perhaps most powerfully: Does God have a plan for us, which we are supposed to guess? Do we risk failing God in this?

To put the question differently: what is the relationship between what we have to do and what is said from the throne in John’s magnificent vision: It is done? What is done? The “done-ness” is the revelation that God’s home is with mortals. God home is with those who built all this, and then died, leaving it to us to sort out. God’s home is with us who will decide what to do with it all, and will then die. God’s home is with those who will have to live with our decisions before they die.

All this is to say: our decision is not the source of our life. The God named home-is-with-mortals – this God is the source of life.

We are a baptised people. The only death which matters we died in that baptism; there is no condemnation of those whose lives are hidden with Christ in God. Weekly we are fed with the signs of death – broken body and spilt blood – not because we are a cannibalistic death cult but because with this God death has no power but what God gives it.

The decisions before us cause us so much trouble because we are afraid that something will die, that tomorrow will be less than heaven. But God’s home is with mortals, with those who die. There is nothing to fear.

“It is done” declares that death has no power; it is overcome, and there is nothing to fear.

What then are we to do? There is only one option. Let death be behind us by choosing life.

What kind of life? Life together: God’s will done, on earth as it will be in the impossible, promised heaven.

Based on a sermon
preached at MtE April 2016

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12 June – When three equals one

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Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first one orders a pint of beer. The second one orders half a pint of beer. The third asks for half of the last order. The fourth orders half of the last order. The next orders half of the last order and so on it went. The barman pulled two one-pint glasses of beer. Gave one to the first mathematician and told the others to share the other pint among themselves. They didn’t argue about this arrangement because they knew that the halving of each order even an infinity number of times, the amount of beer would not quite reach one pint. It is when thinking of puzzles like this that I don’t feel quite so bad when I can’t get my head around the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

The human mind likes to picture things. We make pictures of things that cannot be seen.

Mindful of our love of visualising everything, God told Moses there had to be a limit to this desire. God got Moses to include this injunction into the Ten Commandments. God decreed thou shalt not draw pictures of me. A little aside – such is our love of images that Cecil B. DeMille made a film in 1956 of the Ten Commandments. Of course, anyone who had read the Bible realised that the film missed what the Bible is about by a long shot. This is the problem. When we make an image of anything or anyone we only get a little bit of it right and most of it wrong.

And God said, ‘Thou shall not paint me!’ So what possessed me to have an icon of the Holy Trinity on the cover of our order of service? There was a season in the history of the church when painting any kind of icon was against church law. Thou shalt not paint any kind of image of God or God’s Son or God’s followers. There shall be no images. Then John of Damascus said:

I have seen God in human form, and my soul was saved… In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with humans, I make an image of the god whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter.

So the church said OK you can paint icons, but THOU SHALT NOT PAINT ICONS OF GOD THE FATHER!!! For the most part icon artists have obeyed. They have sneaked a hand poking in from the top to indicate that God the Father is causing the story in the picture to unfold. There have also been a few blatant acts of disobedience. We were visiting old churches in Mystras in the hills above Sparta and I caught a glimpse of a triangular halo. I looked closer and there was an old man with a triangular halo sitting beside a younger man with a halo traditionally associated with Christ and a white dove fluttering between them.

Other examples of this disobedience occurred in Russia despite an injunction of the Acts of the Great Council of Moscow of 1666-1667 that said, ‘To paint icons of the Lord Sabaoth (that is, the Father) with a white beard, holding the only-begotten Son in his lap with a dove between them is altogether absurd and improper…’ Sure enough, I saw an example of this indictment being ignored as late as the early years of the twentieth century when it appeared in an old photo atop an icon screen in a church built in St Petersburg to commemorate 300 years of the Romanov dynasty. The church was destroyed during the Soviet era and is now restored. The offending icon atop the screen has been replaced with one resembling the famous Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity?

How did Rublev get away with painting God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit when it is against church regulation to paint God the Father. He got away with it by painting the three messengers from God who visited Abraham and Sarah to announce they were going to have a baby who would be the father of a nation. He wasn’t the first to paint this bit of scripture. Early versions go back to the early fourth century. Some of us have been to Ravena and seen a mosaic of the story from before 547 CE. Over the centuries some artists put the same kind of halo over the central messenger as was usually given to Christ. In others, Christ’s halo surrounded the three heads – they were interchangeable. There were many other variations to the image according to the imaginations of the artists. In many, Abraham and Sarah were still present bringing food to the visitors.

Theologians, poets, musicians, ecumenical church councils have joined with artists to help the church say what there is to be said and sung and seen about who God is. We know that human minds and senses are way to puny to begin to grasp all that God is. God reveals God’s self to humankind and, by God’s grace, we can see and hear and feel God with us. But if we ever imagine we have perceived it all we are kidding ourselves and our god is much too small.

And yet, on Trinity Sunday, the church pauses to grapple again with this great mystery that the omniscient, omnipotent, invisible, and all other superlatives that might be associated with God and wonder that this God cares for us. It is a kind of genius that prompted the church to abbreviate what it can know about God into statements we call creeds that describes one God as three persons.

When Rublev painted his icon of the hospitality of Abraham, the Russian church decreed that icons of the Holy Trinity would henceforth be modelled on the one painted by Rublev. The church recognised that of all the attempts to paint or sing or describe God, Rublev had got some things right. I will mention only two. Firstly, the table the three are sitting at with a chalice looks remarkably like every communion table or high alter where the Eucharist is celebrated. There is also a space at this table, a place where the worshiper may join in fellowship with the three who are in eternal unity.

Of course all these attempts to understand God are too small. In his hymn, King of glory George Herbert concludes his praise with the line, ‘ev’n eternity’s too short to extol thee’.

In my student days, a visiting theologian from America told of his late-night conversations with a fellow theologian as they grappled together with the mystery of God. He explained that what they had to say on the subject was never complete but always came to a halt, whereupon the host put his recording of JS Bach’s B minor Mass on the turntable and played the Credo, Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God). No more words. No more argument to finds no winners or loser. Just time spent together enjoying a great artistic composition celebrating God.

On Trinity Sunday the church grapples again with the mystery of God. On every occasion when the liturgy of the church celebrates the Eucharist the worshiper is met again by the mystery of the Holy Trinity in the recitation of the creed and receiving the body and blood of Christ at his table.

5 June – Caught in Traffic

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Revelation 21:1-6a
Psalm 104
John 14:12-17, 25-27

In a sentence:
Heaven is no escape from the command to love

Whatever other benefits the lockdowns of 2020-21 might have delivered to us, one was the possibility of driving down the wrong side of the road entirely safely, if still illegally! The traffic disappeared, and getting to the few places we were allowed to go was a breeze.

Alas, the traffic has returned with a vengeance. Yet, though we say “alas”, the traffic jam is surprisingly important for understanding the nature of the promised future we hear about in the book of Revelation.

In Revelation, we have a seer’s vision of the consummation of all things: the end, the goal of God’s work in Christ. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. This is fairly straightforward so far as apocalyptic visions go, and something like it is to be expected at this point of the story. But then comes the strange thing: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

Why is this strange? The city is the human way of being. The city is the teeming human mass. It is extraordinary and tragic. The city is coffee shops and crazy people on public transport. The city is park benches and sirens in the night. It is soaring architecture and backstreet graffiti. It is movement and exchange. The city is the traffic jam.

The traffic jam is a sacrament of human interconnectedness, although we experience the sacrament in its fallen state as a clash and a choking. The traffic jam is a sign of the way and the degree to which we are all inextricably interconnected and interdependent. The traffic jam occurs because my being at work is made more effective by your being at work at the same time. This is, in turn, more effective if our kids are at all at school at the same time. As the city becomes more successful through this honing of mutual effectiveness, creating more opportunities for interconnection occur, making the traffic worse. The distance over which I can provide my services increases (meaning more time on the road), as does the possibility of being able to afford to send the kids somewhere other than the local school (meaning more time on the road). Each extra dimension of interrelatedness in the city makes it more successful as a city, and harder to be in the city.

The size of the city doesn’t really matter. Theologically, a “city” needs only two people for John’s vision of the new Jerusalem to be pertinent. How can two people have a traffic jam, you ask? Well, marriage, for instance, which also features in our passage today and to which we’ll return in a moment. (But also siblings, neighbours, business partners, etc.). The traffic jam is the sign and the burden of engaged, interactive human life. It is what happens when more than one person has to be in the same place at the same time, when we act upon the fact that we are “made for each other”. Every engaged, interactive life has its traffic jams. Only the sufficiently wealthy and the sufficiently poor are outside the requirement of the traffic jam.

If this is how cities work, John’s vision of a “new” city descending from heaven to earth gives rise to an unexpected question for faith: are there traffic jams in the new Jerusalem, in “heaven”?

The gospel suggests a surprising answer: Yes. And No.

Yes, there are traffic jams because this is a real city; heaven is not everyone getting green lights all the way, although that’s how we might imagine it. Perhaps even stranger than the fact that God sets forth a new city is that it is Jerusalem, the basket case of all cities:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus cried, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”(Matthew 23.37-39; Luke 13.34f)

This is to say nothing of what has happened there since then, and happens even now. But the point here is not to “pick on” Jerusalem but to understand why it appears here in the vision, and not some brand new, start-it-all-over Utopia. It must be Jerusalem here because God’s promises have to do with a people for whom Jerusalem is heart and soul. It must be Jerusalem because Jerusalem casts out the Christ, and so is the sign of both the failure of God’s people and of our need to be healed. What else are Jesus’ clashes with the religious authorities but gridlock – a dispute over who has the right to be here and now? What else is the crucifixion but road rage?

It is this history, identifiable by the name “Jerusalem,” which is taken up into God and descends again, cleansed. The new heaven and the new earth and the new city are a wiping away of tears, but not a wiping away of the eyes which cry them. The new Jerusalem is Jerusalem, as she should be – is us as we shall be. John expresses this by analogy with marriage: a bride and a groom, complementary and engaged, two parties necessarily in the same place at the same time in order to be their true selves, but now without competition or conflict.

Yes, there are traffic jams in heaven because our interconnectedness, our needing to be in the same place at the same time in order to be our true selves does not go away. This connectedness is the very point of heaven.

But No, this gridlock is different. In our usual daily traffic jams, the city’s purpose of making possible our being for each other becomes the city’s burden. Interrelatedness turns out to be more than we want to bear, even as it is the very thing we need to flourish. This is the communion of sinners, in which we experience the gift of the other person as a curse.

In the traffic jams in John’s heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, the perceived and experienced burden of our interrelatedness is made into a life-giving thing. This is the truly unbelievable and amazing thing, much more so than the mere proposal of a heaven, or even that there is a God who will bring it to pass. It is not “heaven” as a time or place which is to be believed in but what it is said will happen there. What happens in heaven is what connects that time and place to this one, is what allows heaven “then” an impact now: tomorrow, today.

So how is it in heaven? To be in heaven is to be happy to sit in traffic. The communion of saints which occupies heaven is not the collective of those who are “holy” in the sense of somehow having abstracted themselves from the messiness of the world and the kinds of exchanges a world entails. The communion of saints – promised for then and perceptible occasionally even now – is the community which rejoices that its life is a life together, with all that costs and with all the benefits it brings.

The promise of a new Jerusalem is the promise that the bumper-to-bumper grinding of the communion of sinners will be made a communion of saints: our city, our life, but not as we yet know it. The communion of sinners is a life which considers being caught in traffic to be the sign of death. There, other people are hell. The communion of saints is life “in the thick of it”, made enriching and life-giving by the grace of the God who created us for each other and who makes such a life together possible, even if now only as through a glass, darkly. Here the challenge of the needs of others becomes the promise of unexpected joy: other people not as hell but as the possibility of heaven.

This is the vision upon which we wait and towards which we point in words and deeds. The life of the church is to discern and to become, as much in the slow lanes as in the fast, the possibility of heaven.

This is so that we and the world might see how, in the end, all things will be found in God, and God in all things.

Adapted from a sermon previously preached at MtE, Nov 2015

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29 May – On being relevant

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Easter 7

Revelation 2:8-11a
Psalm 71
Matthew 11:25-30

In a sentence:
Christian discipleship is purposed with being “relevant” – relieving – of the burdens which deny peace and justice

It’s something of an occupational hazard that, from time to time, someone feels that a Christian minister should know, “I’m not religious; I think that when you die, that’s the end, and there’s nothing more.” In this way, religion is reduced to an interest in life after death.

This is an understandable reduction, given how the church has often linked upright living with the reward of eternal life. If we quite can’t conceive of the possibility of what is dead being meaningfully alive again at some time in the future, then the rejection of eternal life leads predictably to the rejection of religion. This doesn’t mean rejecting the moral life but does see religion with its trappings to be an over-dressed moralism. It seems clear that we can be “good” without religion, so why bother? This is a sensible line of thought, so far as it goes (although, on close examination, it doesn’t “go” as far as many seem to think). In this way, religion seems to be shown to be quite “irrelevant” to modern, intentionally this‑worldly existence.

The question of “relevance” has become a touchstone for thinking about what makes for good modern religion among those still at least loosely interested in religious things. We assess our doctrines and liturgies, among other things, in terms of their perceived relevance. Yet we’re not often clear what we mean by “relevant”. Generally, it has to do with vague ideas about whether some belief or practice “makes a difference” – a positive difference. However, things become more precise when we look into the source of the word. Something is literally (etymologically) relevant when it relieves. Relevance is relieving. To say of something – including religion – that it is not relevant is to say that it brings no relief, that it does not “lighten” what burdens we think we carry (to “re‑lieve” is to “make light again”, to bring levity, lightness). A thought, a practice, a conviction is properly relevant when it fills a need, answers a question, relieves a burden.

To reject life after death, then, is to say that it brings no relief from whatever we think weighs us down. And by this, we mean that it brings no relief, here and now, except perhaps as a kind of distraction from where we are, a turning away from the reality and meaning of the present. Indeed, the promise of life after death can make things worse before death, if that promise is used to justify pain and difficulty here and so to justify a refusal to do anything to alleviate that suffering. This reading of promised life after death in nineteenth-century Christian society led to Karl Marx’s famous critique of religion:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Religion, that is, works to stupefy the people in the present with promises of being part of a bigger picture in a future which, for most, coincides with their death. In this way, life after death can be weaponised to suppress the possibility of any good in the suffering present. What we have heard from John this morning could certainly be read this way: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2.10).

With the mention of Marx here, we see the importance of clarity about how life after death might be relevant – how it might relieve us here and now. It won’t do to reduce heaven to personal pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die for those who had little pie during their lives. Having rejected how talk about eternal life was related to life here and now in the Christian society of his time, Marx developed a powerful alternative understanding of where we are now, where heaven is, and the path between the two.

The power of Marx’s alternative is still active in our very midst today. If we want to explain why Russia is in Ukraine, we could point to Marx; if we want to explain why China is in the Solomon Islands or why North Korea keeps plopping missiles into the Sea of Japan, we could point to Marx. It doesn’t matter whether he would be happy with these developments. The point is that these are the real-world consequences of getting wrong the relationship between life now and any life which might yet come. The dominant reading of heaven’s relationship to the world in Marx’s time didn’t work, and his response to that injustice writes the front pages of our newspapers today.

The fact that, in the end, Marx rejected altogether an interest in life after death – and that we are still in the midst of death – indicates that we aren’t guaranteed peace simply by rejecting life after death. The relationship between today and tomorrow – between the life we have now and the life to come – is no mere “religious” issue. What follows today is at the heart of our life together – whether we imagine ourselves religious or secular. Every politics, whether it imagines itself as religious or secular, has a vision of life at the end

None of this is “relevant” yet, in the sense of being itself “relieving”! The point of teasing out how these ideas have worked for us is to show that, wild though its method is, the book of Revelation’s interest in the life to come is much closer to our own social and political concerns than might first seem to be the case.

Revelation was written to people who were suffering, doubtless often much more profoundly than many of us are at the moment. We might look more closely at Revelation’s martyrs in a week or two, but it is important that what is said to those sufferers is not what Marx heard and saw. Opium is for those we are not able or interested in helping but whom we want to keep quiet, resting in peace. Religion, with its promise of a coming relieving heaven, is here a justification of the wrongful present: it’s OK that you suffer, because there’s a heaven to come.

The book of Revelation, however, speaks a word to suffering people which doesn’t dismiss their suffering but names it as right suffering. It was profoundly wrong that they suffered, and they were right to experience it as such. When John writes, “Be faithful unto death”, he marks his readers’ tribulation as true suffering and deeply unjust. There is no justification of pain and loss in Revelation; those who suffer are to be avenged for the injustice of what has happened (another troubling aspect of Revelation for modern sensibilities!). The One who promises this future in Revelation has no interest in the status quo which makes life so hard. It is an offence to God that God’s people suffer, as much as it is an offence to those who suffer. This is to say that Christian visions of heaven aren’t given to distract us from hell on earth but are to mark it as hell – as wrong. The declaration of suffering as wrong from the point of view of heaven’s future is a judgement on the present and, as such, calls for a response. This means that the difference between any hell now and any heaven to come is not merely black against white but is heaven’s pull against hell. Talk of heaven becomes now not simply the expounding of a comforting beatific vision. Talk of heaven is the beginning of a struggle. Talk of heaven is resistance.

Yet this is not the resistance of the revolutionary. While the Marxists knew that a mere promise of heaven was not answer enough to death, they saw death as its own solution. The communist revolutions which flowed from Marx’ reading of history saw death not only as what we suffer but as the means – the method – for ending that suffering. This dynamic, too, contributes to the front pages of our newspapers: the imagination that the death we are experiencing can be alleviated (note: re‑lief and al‑leve…) by more death. This is doubtless part of what causes a young man to take automatic weapons into a schoolyard, for whatever “relief” it seemed such violence might bring at least to him (Uvalde, May 24 2022).

Against this, and despite the violence of the book of Revelation itself, talk of heaven is an act of peace in the midst of war. We say this because Jesus was an act of peace in the midst of unpeace. Acts of peace in the midst of war are not about life after death but life before death: life in the face of death.

This is relief which names unjustice and unpeace, by demonstrating something entirely different. It is not an easy way, but it is the way of Jesus and his disciples: enduring unto death, so that death itself will not endure. Life in the face of death – what could be more “relevant” than that?

”Come to me”, Jesus says, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am relevant, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11.28-30 alt!).

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·         27 September 2020 – The Resurrection of the living

·         19 April 2020 – A living hope

·         1 April 2018 – Resurrection as forgiveness

22 May – God’s city and ours

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Easter 6

Revelation 21:10, 22, 22-22:5
Psalm 67
John 14:23-29

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

‘And in the Spirit, he showed me the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God’.

Revelation 21:10

It is a happy coincidence that this text should be before us the day after an election. Our triennial excursion to the ballot box was surely yet again a triumph of hope over experience as we voted not so much for a holy city, but for a better earthly city. In this respect, Christians joined their hopes to those of their secular neighbours.

We did so in these grim advancing years of the third millennium conscious of the present Ukraine horror, not to speak of an alarming future for the planet. But equally, day by day, we increasingly experience what feels like the fraying of a once confident Western culture – politically directionless, morally decadent and intellectually shallow.

As a matter of historical record, equally grim days called forth the text before us today. For it was written at the end of the first century when Domitian was the Roman Emperor. He was successful in erasing the hopes of a sizeable proportion of his empire through persecution, death and destruction. For this reason, this subversive but encouraging text had to be written in code – precisely to prevent a culture hostile to Christian faith from knowing what it means. To which we might add – nothing has changed!

Especially is this the case as we reflect on why it is that this text is given to us in the period between Easter and Pentecost, where we have been confronted by the divine drama that is Good Friday and Easter Day. But most of all, we must not gloss over that profound silence of Easter Saturday marking the end for God’s Son and therefore the end for God. Intellectually, ours too is an Easter Saturday culture. It is unequivocally theological in nature – a culture bereft of divine presence, and indifferent to divine absence.

But be of good cheer – our text everywhere breathes life!

Now our political gaze is directed not to what is, but to the vision in the Spirit of a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. First, we must remember that Jerusalem is the literal compound of two Hebrew words ‘Jeru/shalom’. It means ‘vision of peace’. In our day, as did Jesus himself, we may well weep over this failed vision: no peace, no vision. But there must be no permanent lament. Deathly cities will not have the last word, will not have conquered, will not be the future. Rather, the Spirit’s gift of transformed life promises nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth coming in the form of a good city – not some sort of divine fog, a formless cloud, but a solid place where the whole creation is recreated.

To this end, this city offers no cancellation of human works, but rather their elevation. Twice we hear that:

 ‘the kings of the earth bring the glory and honour of the nations into it’.

It is indeed good news to hear that despite the three-day Easter drama of the horror inflicted on God, and despite all the horrors that nations inflict on one another, it will be the secular kings and nations who will be destined to know themselves players in this reconstituted Jerusalem. Having been at the Good Friday and Easter Day centre of judgement, and there ultimately destroyed as final authorities in the world, now they are to be dispensers of glory and honour – all that has been, and still is the work of the kings and nations – all the produce of nature, all the various human cultural achievements – music and sculpture, poetry and mathematics, philosophy, politics and economics – all enter into this holy Jerusalem to become ingredient in building up this final perfect work. And they do so, not as in some museum, but as an integration into a living whole, a dynamic re-creation. Because everything here is living, and is not closed or ossified, what human beings wished to be our creation with all its problematic outcomes is now promised to be recreated for all time.

‘Everything’ is here? Not quite. Those rejoicing in the decline in our day of what they call religion might be encouraged to hear explicitly that there is no temple here – no church buildings, no ordained ministers, no Church councils, no Synod property officers. But the tension increases even more. It is not simply that with no temple there is no longer any need of a particular place to express or enclose a sacred presence – it is even that the distinction between sacred and profane itself collapses; here each of our contrived divisions become immediate to the other. And this because the triune God is finally revealed to be immediate to all.

But there is yet more. In the vision the sun too disappears, though light nevertheless remains – a reversal of the images in the Genesis creation story, where we are told that the sun appears on the third day whereas light appears on the first.  But now it is the light of God which replaces the light of the sun – that light which ultimately must pass away because it is not eternal, but rather comes from a created source.

We are, in truth, with this city – this New Jerusalem, this new vision of peace – in another dimension; in an ‘other’ universe, which has another structure which no longer fits human religious categories. Utopian? Surely not! For the gospel tells us that this city has in fact already been accomplished. We read this text in the Easter season because in a crucified human being the perfect union between God and the world has already been achieved. A new creation is already a present perfect reality awaiting the world’s performance.

In the faithful re-enactment of the worship of the Church, not least in the divinely appointed sacramental symbols of water, bread and wine we confirm the protest at the world’s present disunity which refuses to accept the truth of its own healing – a disunity in which the church also shares. For in this liturgical reality, we are given a union of things visible and invisible, a union of body and spirit, of heaven and earth – present faith raised to the vision of the new Creation.

So it is that already just here, in Christian churches destined to disappear, we not only see, but more to the point, by grace already enter the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. In other words, the joy and promise of our text is simply the assurance that endings are in sight for a humanity which surely sooner or later will find that the interminable is much harder to bear than termination.

All that remains for us now therefore is the boldness to confess: to this God, whom the vision of Revelation proposes as the One “who is, who was, and who is to come” – note the sequence of tenses, not who was, who is and who will be, but “who is, who was and who is to come” – to this God be all praise and thanksgiving, now and forever.

15 May – Voting for God

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Easter 5

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 148
Matthew 6:1-6

In a sentence:
Regardless of what we believe and hope for, it is all oriented towards God’s promised peaceful kingdom

While flicking through the Australian Electoral Commission’s “official guide” pamphlet to next week’s election, I was struck by a representation of one of those cardboard polling booth set-ups we all know: little enclosed shelters in which we are able to vote without those next to us knowing how we have voted.

In what was perhaps a moment of inspiration, or just as an instance of the odd way brains work – or mine at least! – I thought of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, which we’ve heard today: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6.6). It seemed to me that those people pictured in the pamphlet’s polling booths could have been monks praying in their cells, which led me to wonder about the relationship between praying and voting.

Doubtless, some pray while voting. This is the attempt to “supercharge” our vote. In a close electoral race like this one, those who pray this way probably include prime ministers, opposition leaders, and candidates in marginal seats.

Whatever might be said about supercharging our vote in this way, I’m more interested today in thinking about voting as praying – voting as a prayer in itself. For what else are both votes and prayers but the expression of a desire for a particular world not yet realised? Prayer springs from recognising our condition between yesterday and tomorrow. Today is received from yesterday in thanksgiving or lament – in prayer – and tomorrow is sought as an extension or overcoming of today – in prayer as petition and intercession. Voting is entirely the same, the electorate standing between yesterday and tomorrow, embracing or rejecting yesterday for some envisaged tomorrow. To vote or to pray is to express our feeling for the best future.

The campaign slogans of the major parties are revealing in this respect. In the blue corner, we have “Strong economy. Stronger future”. In the red corner, we have “A better future”. In the green corner, there is no central slogan but the first assertion you meet on their website is “The time is now to vote for a better future” (May 13). This is just what we will enact later in today’s service: the time is now to pray for a better future.

The book of Revelation, of course, concerns itself with tomorrow. Yet in Revelation on the one hand, and in a modern political context on the other, the relationship between the present and the future is entirely different. Today, we are highly conscious that the future is something laid upon us to create. In the New Testament – and not least in the book of Revelation – the future is a gift.

This is perhaps – unconsciously – one of the deeper reasons we have an aversion to the book of Revelation. While the apocalyptic genre with its fantastic imagery is difficult enough for modern minds to fathom, more offensive is that God is the only real protagonist in all the action of Revelation. If we have a role in what the book portrays, it is as witnesses – either in the role of John the Seer himself or as one in the multitudes gathered around the throne, praying: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7.10). This is precisely not “Salvation belongs to Scott” or “to Anthony” or the “to the voting public”. The book of Revelation has no place for the political activist which most of us are, except perhaps in the figure of the martyrs around the throne. But their time is also over. Only God truly “acts” in this vision, in the sense of action we understand ourselves to be undertaking in voting or agitating for change.

Or perhaps better: the book of Revelation describes the state of affairs when every vote has been cast. It describes the culmination of all things. Everything has now happened – all monarchy and democracy, all despotism and anarchy. History – all our efforts at creating our own future – has taken place, and is red with blood.

Perhaps this seems hopelessly pessimistic, even if the historical evidence to date is on-side. But pessimism is not the point; the point is seeing more clearly what faithful action looks like. What it looks like is – voting‑as‑praying. We imagine voting to be a technique – something we do to make a political thing happen. We think this way because this is what we thought prayer was: a “religious” technique to make some personal or political thing happen. As we have become more secular as a society, we have simply switched voting in for prayer.

There is no pessimism in the book of Revelation unless we imagine that only our actions matter for our future. We are free to hold to this, but it is not the vision of Revelation. Revelation holds that all votes are finally counted as a vote for the future this God promises.

For, regardless of our political position, what do any of us vote for but John’s vision of

7.15 […one] seated on the throne [who] will shelter them.
16 [That they] will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

What does even the rabidly radical right-wing atheist want but an end to hunger and thirst and the wiping away of all tears? The only shock for modern political sensibilities in all this is “the Lamb” – who stands for nothing our political thinking can comprehend. The Lamb, of course, is Jesus, and the reference to this Lamb as “slaughtered” (Revelation 5.6,12) is a reference to the crucifixion. Interpreted through the mechanisms of sacrifice, this is enough to make the whole scenario unpalatable to modern minds.

But, to press the election theme further, the New Testament can be read to present the crucifixion as history’s “vote” on Jesus. It is a vote against him, of course, but we must also see that the vote is offered to God as a prayer. In condemning Jesus to death, the people of God pray, “Let such as him not be our future”. The crucifixion reveals that only history is bloody; prayer is too.

And this brings us to a final strange thing we might have missed in today’s reading but which interprets everything we are and do. The great multitude gathered around the divine throne “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v.14). The crimson bloodiness of history culminates in the blood of the Lamb, which now washes history white. In this vision blood, which stains all things, which cannot be washed out and which always reveals the culprit, Now. Washes. Clean.

The real problem Revelation presents to the modern mind – and to ancient ones – is not the religiosity of its wild imagery and language. It is the proposal that, in the end, all things – all good and evil, all generosity and greed, all love and hatred – are resolved in the triumph of the one who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb.

This is to say that every prayer, every vote, desires the same thing and – by the grace of God – finally finds its desire fulfilled: life in the presence of

7.15 …the one…seated on the throne [who] will shelter them.
16 [And they] will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

So then, let us vote, let us pray, let us live, for this.

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