Tag Archives: Cross

25 August – God’s stillborn children

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Pentecost 11
25/8/2019

Hosea 13:4-8, 13:12-14:1
Psalm 32
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 13:31-35


In a sentence:
We are called to ‘step up’ to be the children of God

Does God really send the cruel Assyrians as punishment for Israel’s sin, so that the people’s ‘little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open’?

The warning that God would do this appears often enough in the prophets, those champions of justice who fire our political imaginations and yet whom we would like to edit here, and more than just a little.

We hesitate at this point because this ancient terrorism continues as modern terrorists maim and kill for God’s sake. We hesitate because Hosea’s reading of history as a sign of God’s judgement also continues: AIDS or earthquakes or bushfires have been declared by some to be the response of God to this or that moral failure. We hesitate for our own sake: if something goes wrong in my life, did I deserve it? The plaintive cry, ‘Why has this happened to me?’, makes the connection Hosea seems to make: perhaps it happened because of sin.

And not least, we hesitate because we cannot reconcile the God of love with such brutality. Does God do such things? Does God pose to us this kind of threat?

The short answer is, No: AIDS, the earthquake, the bushfire and the Assyrians were coming anyway. And yet Hosea connects historical events and judgement; we cannot simply dismiss him and the other prophets here.

It helps to pose another question: Does God send Jesus to die on the cross? At first glance, this is not quite the same question, even if the idea is equally grating to modern sensibility. Yet we have already noticed the similarity between what happened to Jesus and what happened to Israel (Hosea 3.2). On this understanding, Jesus becomes the ‘little one’ dashed, the expectant mother under cruel steel.

But if there are similarities between the fates of Israel and Jesus, there is also an important difference: in Hosea, the oncoming storm is the terrifying Assyrian army; in the case of Jesus, the oncoming storm is Israel itself – Jerusalem, the only place where a prophet should be killed (Luke 13). The question about God being a threat to us in the form of an army or some other plague becomes one of whether we are a threat to God. These two scriptural threads portray, respectively, God and the people of God approaching each other with murderous intent.

And yet, there is an asymmetry here, and it is not that God always wins. The difference between these two conflicts becomes clearer through Hosea’s evocative mockery of Israel – in the guise of ‘Ephraim’ – in the middle of our reading this morning:

13 The pangs of childbirth come for [Israel],
   but he is an unwise son;
for at the proper time he does not present himself
   at the mouth of the womb. 

Hosea describes Israel as having refused to be born, and so as not being really alive. This makes no sense literally, of course. Clearly they were alive as most of us are. And this, to allow ourselves to be drawn into their story, was their problem: in their identity as the children of God (Hosea 11), they are not quite born. Israel is ‘unborn’ in the sense of Nicodemus, whom Jesus told, You must be born again (John 3).

God does not ‘send’ the Assyrians, in the sense of set the historical wheels in motion. Rather, their coming is cast as judgement, echoes the judgement. A child which will not be born is death to itself, and to its mother. Hosea proclaims the devastating effect of the Assyrians as proof of what is already the case: Israel is stillborn. God is the context of the Assyrian conquest, not its cause, and as the context God brings a particular reading of that disaster. The Assyrians are just doing what Assyrians do: conquest and pillage; Hosea overlays the disaster with meaning in order to reveal what is at stake between God and Israel.

And now we come to the asymmetry of what I called the murderous the approaches of God and Israel to each other. If Israel is a son who refuses to born, there was another son waiting to be born in our readings this morning, described by Paul:

But when the [proper time] had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman… (Galatians 4.4-7).

Jesus approaches Israel as one born ‘at the proper time’ (literally, ‘in the fullness of time’) and here is the contrast with Israel in Hosea. In Jesus is one born, in the fullness of that expression: he is one really alive. And so his death becomes a real death and different from that which Israel suffered at the hands of the Assyrians, or from what anyone else suffers. For, being truly born and truly alive, only Jesus really moves in the gospel story. Jerusalem is static, waiting for him. The same might be said of Israel and the Assyrians. Both these really only do what usually happens here: the weak is subject to the strong, and nothing new is seen, nothing really moves. It is only when God claims the Assyrians that movement happens, that meaning enters, that a new word is said and heard – even if it is a deathly word:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, [we heard last week]
   I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
   and my judgement goes forth as the light (6.5).

The crushing army becomes the occasion for the revealing of God’s justice and of the expectation that God’s justice shape the lives of God’s people.

The Assyrians, or the leaders in Jerusalem, or the earthquake, or the Russians, or the Chinese, or the Americans, or the ecological apocalypse are always coming. The world ticks over as Ecclesiastes describes: ‘for everything, a season’ (Ecclesiastes 3). But this is not truly an unfolding of history, not really a movement, not really the entry of a new thing under the sun; it is just the world turning, around and around, and our lives upon it a vain chasing of the wind.

Only God really moves, and God’s true children. The proof of this is that Jesus moves even when he is supposed to be dead. The question which Hosea puts – with the rest of the Scripture – is, When the time of the sword comes, which kind of children will we be?

God’s call, to shift to the similar metaphor in Paul, is to enter into our inheritance, to cease being ‘slaves’ buffeted by the whim of a master and to become true children – and so heirs – of God’s promise. To be less than this is really only to wait in fear and without understanding for whatever horror might be about to rise on our horizon, and to set ourselves for defence against it.

For if we are true children of this God, we know that God comes with every dawn, looking to see in our response to the joys and terror of the new day: whose children are we?

The children of God know that nothing can separate them from God in Christ Jesus the Son, our brother by adoption (Romans 8; Galatians 4).

Let us seek, then, to be children of the light (1 Thessalonians 5.5), that we might, in all things, see clearly our way in the ways of God, and that others might see with us.

26 May – I believe in miracles

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Easter 6
26/5/2019

Revelation 21:10, 22; 22:1-5
Psalm 67
John 14:23-29


In a sentence:
Jesus, crucified and risen, is the one miracle in which the church believes

Our Prime Minister believes in miracles. More than that, he has apparently recently witnessed one.

At the same time, critical analysis has felt less need to invoke divinity and has pinpointed clever or even cynical political strategy as the cause of the election ‘upset’. If there were anything miraculous about the election result, it looks like God had at least a little help.

It doesn’t much matter how serious the PM was in his remark; my interest this morning is that doubtless many have sent thanks heavenward for the outcome of the election, even as the political strategy is acknowledged. In the interests of full disclosure, no such thanksgiving has been heard from me, but my point this morning is not narrowly political but broadly theological: what is a miracle? To turn the matter around, would it have been ‘miraculous’ had the opposition been successful? Probably not, as many thought this to be the most likely scenario and miracles are not usually what we expect to happen. Still, many would hold that a Shorten government implementing its proposed policies would at least have been ‘good’, even excellent. And surely ‘and it was good’ denotes the miraculous.

To some extent we’re just playing with words here but it’s in an effort to give substance to the question of miracles, or to what is sometimes characterised as ‘divine intervention’. More put helpfully, Where and how is God active in the world? For talk of miracles is talk of the activity of God.

The Bible, of course, is full of miracle stories: an axe head floats, the sun stands still in the sky, and a little boy’s lunch feeds a great crowd. But the Bible is not a collection of historical ‘facts’ from which we deduce a few definitions or patterns in which to believe. What holds the Bible together is not similarities between the stories it contains or even common themes which might be discovered between the covers. What hold the Bible together is very covers themselves. Those covers have been put there by the church – that community which springs from the pre-biblical confession that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. It is the experience of continuing to engage with this Lord which causes the Bible and our ongoing engagement with it.

This is to say that, so far as miracles are concerned, the one determining miracle of the Bible is the resurrection of Jesus. Yet this needs to be qualified immediately because the resurrection looks too much like miracles looked ‘before’ the resurrection of Jesus(!). The resurrection looks to be ‘miraculous’ in itself, as might a dead-in-the-water government being returned to office.

But the resurrection is not like this, is not the most impressive of all the impressive miracles in the Scriptures. The qualification of the miraculous nature of the resurrection needed here is the totally un-miraculous-looking crucifixion, such that we must also say that the one determining miracle of the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus.

There is, of course, apparently nothing miraculous about the crucifixion. It’s the ‘natural’ thing which happens when matters get a little too ‘out there’ for comfort, rather like what might be expected to happen to an opposition with too many new ideas for a loss-averse community.

Separated into mere history on the one hand and divine intervention on the other, the crucifixion and the resurrection become mere ‘seasons’, of the type we saw Ecclesiastes – a time for dying, a time for rising, a time for the Right, a time for the Left (Ecclesiastes 3.1-14; see the sermon for April 19). Elections are mere seasons. There are no miracles here – at least, nothing which endures – for history allows a time for everything. History buries all political messiahs without hope of (political) resurrection.

When the church as church gives thanks for God’s miraculous gifts, it is not for anything which comes and goes in the manner of the seasons. The quintessential thanksgiving of the church – found in the Great Prayer of the Eucharist – names the miracles of God as creation, redemption in cross and resurrection, and consummation of all things.

These defining miracles endure through the vagaries of history. And so, in seasons rich and poor, they are named as sources of peace, and this brings us finally to the Scripture text for this sermon!

The risen crucified Lord stands before his seasonally troubled disciples, and declares, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.’ ‘The world’ gives now peace, now division; now hope, now despair; now sunshine, now storms; a time for every politics under heaven.

Jesus does not give this way; what he offers here is not ‘with’ the times but through them – for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. The ‘my’ peace is crucial here, for the peace of Jesus is not the peace of the risen Jesus only but also the peace of the Jesus with a crucifixion looming in the near future. The miracle in which we are to believe is the peace which was Jesus’ own way in the world. His way was as a presence of the kingdom of God in a time and place in which that kingdom was apparently quite absent. The miracle of God is the possibility of peace in the midst a world which is apparently hopelessly divided.

This is not an easy miracle in which to believe, because it touches us here and now, in our own sense of the absence of God’s kingdom. To believe in such a miracle requires that we rise to the command we most desperately want to hear and obey, and yet find most difficult to hear and obey: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid’. This is not a word of ‘comfort’; it is no less a command than any other ‘do’ or ‘do not’ we read in the Scriptures.

As a command it is hard to hear because to let go of trouble and fear would be to rise to our responsibility to love and serve without reading the seasons as if they were signs of God’s power, without despair because of what has or has not happened, and without elation praising God for an accident of history.

Dis‑appointment ends when we recognise that our true appointment is to know who is God. To know who is God is to know what the miracle is which is being wrought: that, in life or in death, our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues loosed with a joy which will not end with a change of season, or an election, or even death itself. Any laughter or joy which might be ended by such passing things has known no true miracle, no deep good.

The miracle of this God is that, as much despite our efforts as because of them, God works our works to God’s own end. This end – in life and death, in wins and losses, in all things ‘under the sun’ – is a peace which passes understanding but under which we are to stand: to live and love and serve, testifying that even here the Father and the Son come to make their home with us.

May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus his Christ, now and always, Amen.

24 March – On not dying too soon

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Lent 3
24/3/2019

Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7
Psalm 63
Luke 13:1-9


In a sentence:
Death can kill us before we die; this is the ‘unrepentant’ life

I have wondered for some time whether there might be something to be said for an occasional sermon which reflected on ‘the art of dying’.

As morbid as that might seem as a theme, reflections on death – properly Christian reflections, at least – are not about dying in itself, but about life and its relationship to those deaths in our lives we can’t avoid, regardless of how hard we try to forget that they are already with us, or are coming.

Knowing what death is, and where it is, are important skills in the art of dying, and something of this knowledge is treated in this morning’s readings.

From Qohelet, we’ve heard a fairly straightforward exhortation: Make the most of it, because you’re going to die in the end.

If nothing else, Qohelet is starkly realistic about the fact of death. The offence of death, its ungraspability (‘vanity’) and its unpredictability (more vanity) are close to the centre of his thinking. Life is vanity, and then you die.

In this, Qohelet relentlessly strips away any illusions we might allow ourselves about death as we go about our seemingly lively lives. But this is not in order to glory in death. As we have heard, he still holds that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.

Qohelet would simply have us know what death is and where it is. So far as he can see, death has the last word. This being the case, he is concerned to know, What is that word – what is spoken – and when, precisely, is it uttered?

There is also a lesson about death in the gospel reading we have heard today, although it is less straightforward than it might first seem.

Jesus reminds the crowds of two recent news bulletins which must have horrified them in the same way we’ve been horrified by the recent outrage in Christchurch. The question is put: do you imagine that those people died in that way because they were worse sinners than anyone else? No, he says.

At this point, Jesus is in close accord with Qohelet, such as in what we heard from him last week:

‘There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous (8.14).’

Contradicting one stream of conventional wisdom thinking, Jesus and Qohelet say that we cannot conclude from when and how someone dies whether they were righteous, or not. Death is neither a sign of life nor a sign even of deathliness.

But then Jesus seems to contradict this: ‘but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’ On the one hand, ‘perishing as they did’ is not a matter of repentance; on the other hand, it seems that Jesus then declares that it will be. This latter seems also to be the point of the parable of the unfruitful fig tree.

The only resolution here revolves around what might be meant by ‘perishing as they did’. The point would seem to be not that they died, but that they died unrepentant. Sin is not the cause of their death but colours it.

The warning, then, is not that buildings will fall on – or bullets will rain down upon – the unrepentant, but how tragic it is when death comes to the unrepentant. To ‘perish as they did’ would be too perish not knowing that there is something of which to repent, that there is something to lay aside, that there is a deathliness already in us, diminishing us.

One way of hearing such an account of an unrepentant death is as a call to ‘ticket to heaven’ repentance: ‘Repent now, lest you step out from this place and fall under a bus’. This is not what Jesus speaks of here, as large as the idea has been in the history of evangelism, as if sin has relevance only to what happens when we die and not to what is happening while we are still alive.

Qohelet helps again here. Unrepentance in Qohelet’s terms is not to understand our lot. It is to live vainly, emptily, oriented towards things which, in the end, do not really matter, which cannot be relied on and so which turn our lives into a chasing after wind. It is, in effect, to have died before death comes (cf. Ecclesiastes 7.17). It is for death’s last word to have been uttered too soon. The unrepentant life carries death with it, is death’s grip on us before we have died.

There is a poignancy in the illustrations Jesus uses here. A building is going to fall on him. Even more suggestively, his blood will also be mixed with that of the sacrifices.

If we imagined it were possible to be open minded about the moral meaning of the crucifixion, we’d have to say with Qohelet that there is nothing in the manner of Jesus’ death to tell us whether he was righteous or unrighteous, any more that Jesus allowed such a reading of those who died under the tower and under Pilate. To the dispassionate observer, Jesus just dies.

But the church is not open-minded here, for we consider the cross in the peculiar light of the resurrection. This is a peculiar light because it shines only on the cross. If that light makes us reconsider Jesus’ death, it makes us reconsider also his life: that he continued to do and to say and to be in the same way regardless of how much larger the possibility of a crucifixion loomed.

This was not a matter of ‘necessity’, in the sense that he ‘must’ die according to our traditional atonement theories. Jesus continues along the path on which he began because to turn aside from the likely outcome of a crucifixion would be to die before the building actually falls. This is the unrepentant life he calls us to turn from.

What then does repentance look like? It depends on what deaths we are already dying. But we get a general notion from Qohelet. His counsel this week – to enjoy the days of youth – may seem to some here to come a little late, but his point is what we emphasised on Ash Wednesday: it is vanity not to see that death comes, the ultimately vain, ungraspable thing: ‘all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again’ (3.20), vanity of vanities.

But it is vanity also to try to calculate death, and so let it darken the day before the night comes. To live in death’s shadow is not to live. It is to die too soon. This we heard in a different way last week:

for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8.15)

The vanities of life – the misty vapours of chance and possibility, of work and reward, of life and death, the gamble on righteousness, the contradictions of justice – must not diminish the best that a human life could be, in a time and place.

In this sense, we might dare to say that Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is a life enjoyed.

Part of the art of dying is to set death in its proper place. When we do this, as Jesus did, everything else which happens – even our perishing – is life.

The lively kingdom of God draws near to displace the kingdoms of death; repent, then, and believe the good news.

17 March – Chasing the wind

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Lent 2
17/3/2019

Ecclesiastes 8:14-17
Psalm 27
Luke 13:11-35


In a sentence:
We are not called to chase the wind but to become the wind

Human history – the sphere of decision and action – is the sum of our responses to the world as we see it to be, or imagine it to be, or as it has been described to us. The world works – or is supposed to work – in particular ways, and history is what happens as we anticipate and respond to that perceived order of things.

The problem is – as Qohelet and we know well enough – that things don’t always go as expected. And so, as an example from today’s text: there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. We don’t have to look far to confirm this. As a righteous response to what we have heard from God, we might go to prayer in the mosque, or the church, and find ourselves not in heaven but in hell.

This violation of what would seem to be the appropriate order is part of what Qohelet means when he names as ‘vanity’ our attempts to manage life. Such vanity is not a matter of stupidity or foolishness but has to do with the nature of things: ‘no one knows what is happening under the sun’, we have also heard from him today.

‘No one knows’ because the true order of things – which we never quite grasp – manifests itself among us with the character of ‘wind,’ which cannot be held still to be measured or calculated. And so history – our effort to discern the order of things and to secure ourselves – becomes a matter of ‘chasing after wind’, one of Qohelet’s favourite phrases.

Through Lent we’re reading Qohelet in dialogue with the set gospel for each Sunday to see how Qohelet illuminates the ministry of Jesus, and vice-versa. At first sight, the relationship between the two readings today might seem pretty obscure, but let’s see…

Jesus receives visitors from the Pharisees who carry a warning: King Herod seeks to kill you. In response, Jesus names Herod ‘that fox’ – the cunning one, the calculator, the strategist. As a ‘fox’ Herod suddenly looms large as Qohelet’s vain schemer – the one who thinks he or she knows the order of things and plots a future according to that knowledge. Herod’s calculation has measured Jesus and plotted a future without him. Again we might think of angry men with guns in a mosque.

What Jesus doesn’t do in response to Herod is enter into a reactive scheme of his own. Jesus has no plan. We heard last week of his temptation in the desert, in which he is offered a number of strategies for making his case as Messiah to the people – feed them with bread; impress them with miraculous demonstration; let the end justify the means. Each one of these would be in its own way the kind of vanity which Qohelet decries: an attempt to catch the wind.

To all of that Jesus answered no, and the same answer is implicit in his response to Herod. Rather than a counter-strategy, Jesus sends the messengers back to Herod: ‘Go tell that fox, I am the wind. I must be on my way, and he will not catch me until he can say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”’.

The true order of the world which Qohelet names the wind is Jesus himself. Everything we chase after – everything which matters – looks like Jesus. Here is what we strive after and what we cannot catch. This is what we seek in our churches and our mosques and our synagogues, our universities and our stadiums and our shopping centres, in our sea changes and tree changes and mid-life crises. Whether we go to these places in order to ‘pray’ according to the pattern of that particular place, or go there to kill, in all this we are chasing the wind, trying to catch up with God, and so with ourselves.

What hope is there for us? Only the hope which is Jesus himself, one of us and yet the wind, tangible yet ungraspable, what we work so hard for and yet an unearned gift.

Qohelet’s answer to those who exhaust themselves chasing after wind is sometimes criticised as defeatist, a mere resignation in the face of life’s difficulties, even self-indulgent. We heard this morning:

I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

Read most positively, Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ is a letting go of our ever-frustrated attempts to catch the wind. It is a coming-to-terms with life as it just incomprehensibly is. In a world which runs in the way that Qohelet describes – from pillar to post, from prayer to cold-blooded murder – in such a world Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ amounts to becoming something like the wind itself – an incomprehensible contradiction of what seems to so many to be to be natural purpose of life: chasing what cannot be caught because we cannot grasp what is happening under the sun.

For the gospel it is the same, although we have a different way of saying it. The gospel draws links between the body of Christ which was Jesus’ own body before Herod and on the cross, and the body of Christ on the communion table, and the body of Christ which we are made to be as we receive him in the bread and the wine. To become entangled with Jesus, then, in the way that we are called to be, is not a matter of making sense of the order of the world, not a matter of chasing after wind. It is a matter of becoming, in him, the wind.

This is not a solution to the problems of life under the sun; ‘solutions’ (so-called) are a chasing after wind, as will be almost everything which is said in response to last Friday’s horror. Jesus is not a solution to the shocks which life sometimes presents but it is an answer to them.

Jesus must haste to Jerusalem because that is – vanity of vanities – where the prophets die. His mode of being does not solve the problem. The catastrophe of the cross, of the just being treated according to the conduct of the wicked, is not averted. But is catastrophe and not tragedy. Jesus has already died to Herod and Caiaphas and Pilate in his commitment to continuation on the path that God set before him, wherever it might lead. The cross is the sign that Jesus is no chaser after wind; he is the wind, the free one, despite everything which happens to him.

Jesus’ commitment is Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ – not hedonistic indifference but the embracing of a way of being which will strengthen us ‘in our toil through the days of life that God gives us under the sun’.

Do we not need such strength, to toil, to resist, properly to enjoy and to grieve, according to the season?

In our baptism, we entered into the death of Jesus himself – not simply the death he died on the cross but that death to chasing the wind which was the mark of the whole of his life.

Let us, then, look to Jesus not as yet another a chasing of the wind,
but that we might further grow into our baptism by learning the wisdom he is,
and begin to become for the world what he is becoming for us.

9 December – God’s crooked way

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Advent 2
9/12/2018

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Luke 3:1-6


‘The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.’

And what was that word? In fact, today’s reading cuts out before we hear from the Baptist himself (next week!) but his preaching is characterised with a few lines borrowed from Isaiah: first,

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.

And then,

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

What we might miss here is that these two parts are in different verbal ‘moods’: ‘Prepare’ is in the imperative (‘Do this’) but ‘every valley shall be filled’ is in the indicative (what is or will be happening). This matters because Isaiah is not saying that God’s approach is dependent upon our preparing the way. The valleys shall be filled, the mountains and hills shall be made low. Whatever efforts we might make in this regard, only God can guarantee that it happens: God will prepare the way for God.

This is the kind of thing theological types – your preacher included – are likely consider to be a lovely little twist in the text. Yet, having shifted our hearing of Isaiah from an actionable imperative (which would at least keep us busy) to a promised indicative (which we might only need to wait for), we then have to deal with a troubling fact. For we have to say that, on the face of it, there is no way in which this filling, levelling, straightening or smoothing can be said actually to have taken place. Even if we allow what we must – that Isaiah speaks here metaphorically and not about Grand Canyons or Rocky Mountains high – there is little in the way of Jesus which is smooth and straight – metaphorically or otherwise. After an enthusiastic initial reception he quickly meets with opposition, and we know very well where he ends: precisely not a levelling or a smoothing but a raising up on what is crooked and rough, and a laying-down in a valley as deep as the grave of a God.

And so we are shifted suddenly to the thought that Isaiah’s valley, mountain, crookedness and roughness are metaphors of the cross of Jesus. It is the cross with which God must deal in his approach to us – even before Jesus’ cross has even appeared on the horizon. It is this which God guarantees will be overcome.

How can this be?

On a simpler metaphorical hearing of Isaiah, the valleys and mountains and challenging paths represent obstacles in us to be put aside so that God might draw near (or, slightly better, that God might put aside in order to draw near). Yet this is to imply that the human being is not one but two things – an inner self which is accessible apart from an outer self with its better and worse commitments and enthralments, its history of things done and suffered – all that might have been different, and better.

But God knows us better than this. The valleys and the mountains and the crookedness and roughness which get between us and God have not been swept away in any simple sense because they are us. They are not between God and the true us; they are not obstacles around which we could navigate (or God has to navigate) in order that the real God can meet face to face with our real selves.

These things are us: we are what we do. What the Gentile does to the Jew (and vice-versa!), what the free does to the slave, the male to the female; what the border patrol does to the asylum seeker, the coloniser does to indigenes, the rich to the poor; what the faithful do to their God – these are not ‘the devil made me do it’ moments, as if I and my actions were two separate realities. This is us and the powers to which we are subject bound in a symbiosis of such intimacy that the life and death of the one would the life and death of the other. To lay the mountain low and straighten the crooked way – in the simple metaphorical sense of setting aside the obstacles between us and God – this would be to end us, for there would be no ‘us’ left.

And so the obstacles stay in place and become manifest in the cross. The cross, then, is not an accident – something which just ‘happened’ to happen when God came. It is unavoidable without being either intended or desired or needed by God for salvation’s sake. The cross is God staying his hand, allowing the depth of the valleys and the height of the mountains to continue because they are what make us us.

And now we come to the sense in which Isaiah speaks the gospel of God’s way in the world. The valleys and mountains and byways are shown in fact not to be obstacles to God’s passage but simply features in a landscape in which God chooses to dwell. The salvation which ‘all flesh’ will see (Isaiah) is that we are saved as we are, here and now, valleys and mountains and crooked and rough ways that we are.

We hear more from John next week about what that salvation looks like, what life with such a crooked God looks like. But for now two final things, first a liturgical illustration of the point and, second, a poetic summation.

All we have been thinking this morning is why each week we take a sign of death as a sign of life – nourishment in bread and wine said to be body broken and blood poured out. It is ghastly imagery but we persist with it because the valleys and the mountains are not wiped away, the cross is not removed or forgotten. For these are part of us. The only question is whether such things divide us from God. The sacrament uses these things as signs of the gospel to say that they do not separate us, that they are no barrier. This is the way in which the valleys and mountains between us and God are overcome – they become signs of the power of God. And so this is what we mean when we declare that the kingdom and the power and the glory are of this God: nothing separates us from the love of God in Jesus Christ the Son.

And finally, the poetic summation: as I reflected on Isaiah’s word in our reading this morning, the word ‘crooked’ reminded me of a poem which, I realised, slightly modified would serve well to summarise what I’ve been trying to say about the God who deals somewhat crookedly with us, reckoning as righteous what clearly is not, calling straight and smooth what clearly is not. For those of you who would like to check the poem without my changes, the original poet is Mother Goose.

There was a crooked God, who walked a crooked mile,
Who found a crooked people and spent a crooked while;
They found a crooked staff and the crooked God unfurled
The crooked way a crooked God would save a crooked world.

23 September – Dying to live

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Pentecost 18
23/9/2018

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Mark 8:31-38


In a sentence:
That the life of Jesus, even the cross, is true life

Our gospel reading for today – the second part of what was set for last week – is often identified as a turning point in the telling of the story of Jesus.

Up to this point in Mark’s narrative, the question of Jesus’ identity has been constantly in play; now Jesus hears the word ‘Messiah’ on Peter’s lips and seems happy to allow it to go unchallenged – the identity of Jesus is established.

The narrative now turns from establishing Who Jesus is to the Whither and Why of Jesus. The confession of Peter, then – (heard last week) – together with the new orientation toward Jerusalem and the cross, are a turning point in the story.

But there is another sense in which this passage is pivotal. This is in that the story is not merely a story – an account of what Jesus did, and then did next. What Jesus did and what happens to him is now extended to what will happen to those who would count themselves his disciples: ‘those who would follow me must deny themselves, take up their own cross and follow.’ This amounts to those disciples ‘losing’ their life also.

As confronting as it is, we must see that this is not a simple recognition by Jesus of the familiar way of things – that, if he gets whacked, so also will his followers. Suffering by association happens often enough but how the politics might unfold is not a central interest of the gospel; it is only the background.

The link between the cross of Jesus and the cross of his followers speaks to the nature of the work which Jesus does in the first place, and where he does it. The work of Jesus is perhaps not best characterised, in the first instance, as ‘saving’ us. His first work is to live the life of a free human person, open to God and open to those among whom he is placed. We’ve noted before (e.g., Sunday July 29 2018) that the cross of Jesus is not the point of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ life is the point of his life; this is what an open human life looks like.

The call to follow Jesus, then, is not a primarily a call to hard work or to suffering, as if such things in themselves were redemptive and even if it will involve suffering. The call is primarily a call to life – eyes and heart wide open to the dangers and the possibilities of a human life, and taking up the richest of those possibilities despite the dangers. Taking up one’s cross is living – truly, freely, openly, lovingly – in the time and place in which we find ourselves. Anything less than this is what Jesus calls losing our life, even if our hearts are still beating. It is to be a shadow, a hollow casing for an experience which should have been there but has been eroded away by ignorance or fear.

And so today’s reading from Mark is a turning point not only because the story changes direction here, but because Jesus’ own calling is revealed also to be our call. Peter’s objection last week – that the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus could not possibly happen – was an objection not only that the Messiah was above all this. Peter rejected any notion that such might also be the fate of Peter himself.

For there is something ‘distant’ about the Messiah in Peter’s unbaptised understanding. For him – and for us whom he represents – the saviour is a ‘thing’, a prized possession which we hold, a charm which protects us from whatever threatens, an airbag against colliding with life. Such a charm changes the world but it does not change us. This is what merely valuable things do; at best they confirm us but they do not change us.

In a poem fragment from John Donne he speaks of the difference between this and the twist the gospel requires of Peter’s understanding; (writing of Christ:)

He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.
(‘Resurrection, Imperfect’)

‘He was all gold when He lay down’ – that is, as gold, he was a valuable thing, a purchase on the world, a security: ‘you are the Messiah, and such things can never happen to you’.

‘…but he rose / All tincture’. A tincture is a substance used to colour a metal – to change its appearance. Donne’s point is that Jesus is not simply precious – which is what Peter holds. Rather, Jesus makes us like him, although not merely in appearance: for Christ does

…not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.

The call of Jesus is not that we believe in him, in the sense of believing a thing about him. We do not believe merely that he is ‘gold’. The call is to become before God as Jesus himself is before God: to become flesh like his flesh.

If this is the call of God, then it is also the gift of God.

This is why we speak of the church as the body of Christ. The church is not merely ‘a’ body – a body politic. It is this body: the body of Jesus. (From the weekly liturgy:) ‘Let us receive what we are, let us become what we receive – the body of Christ’: the emphasis – and this is your part to emphasise! – falls on those last two words.

Acknowledging that this is not always a comfortable gift, St Paul puts it this way:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8.28; cf. also 2 Corinthians 3.18)

This is not different from what Jesus describes in his talk about taking up our cross. To follow Jesus – even in costly ways – is to begin to look like him, to be free as he is, to be open to God as he is.

To follow Jesus is to have the things we might normally fear – which is death in all its lived forms – behind us.

To be growing into such a life, then, is to begin to look like someone who has been raised from the dead.

And when that kind of thing happens, not merely the gospel narrative but the world itself comes to its own turning point, and changes forever.

Let us, then, take up the call to follow wherever Jesus might lead, and watch God transform the world.

19 August – Conquering the world

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Pentecost 13
19/8/2018

1 John 5:1-12
Psalm 34
John 6:51-58


In a sentence:
Love conquers the world by
winning it over

We sometimes get the sense that theological specialists get a little het up from time to time on matters of precision and correctness in faith. I’m probably not immune to such a charge myself. Why bother with the language of the Creeds, with doctrinal precision, with correct liturgical structure?

As a way towards answering this, let’s consider the theological intensity in the middle of our reading this morning from 1 John: ‘[Jesus Christ] is the one who came by water and blood…not with the water only but with the water and the blood.’

If nothing else, this is dense theology. It is neither immediately clear what it means nor why it matters. At the same time, John insists on it, rabidly, foaming at the mouth: this really does matter. There was obviously some controversy in John’s community about ‘the blood’, and whether or not belief in ‘the blood’ had to be added to belief in the ‘the water’. Perhaps the most likely scenario is something like this: there was an argument about whether or not the redeemer – the Son of God – was present in the baptism of Jesus only (the water, or the waters of birth [cf. John 3]), or whether he has also present in the death of Jesus (the blood).[1] What seems to be at stake is the relationship between ‘Jesus’ and ‘the Son of God’.

That is, John defends here what we now call the doctrine of the Incarnation – the meeting of God and the world in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, if this makes sense of the statement, we must then wonder about the next thing: why does the Incarnation matter?

As far as John is concerned, the doctrine matters not for its own sake but for its crucial pastoral implication: it is those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God (that is, who believe Jesus came ‘in the water and the blood’) who ‘conquer the world’.

‘Conquering the world’ is perhaps not the best way of putting it for modern ears anxious about histories of colonisation and so on, but we get the point if we invert John’s way of putting it: it is those who believe in the meeting of Jesus and the Son – in the ‘water and the blood’ – who are not conquered by the world. ‘The world’ is here anything which might constitute a threat to us – the fears in our love, as we considered them last week. To believe that Jesus was the Son is to get a grip on the world, rather than be gripped by it.

This is so because the world ceases to be a place which comes between us and God – and so between us and our true selves; the world becomes the place where God is met and embraces us. In the person of Jesus God meets with the real world, as lived by a real person in time and space, with all its joys and sorrows.

We declare this each week in our recitation of the Creeds: Jesus is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’… residing in, coinciding with, ‘was born…suffered…was buried.’ This is not mere doctrine; it is a way of saying that true God and true world can meet. The Creed declares that such a meeting has happened, and it is the hope of all who say the Creed that this will happen again.

And so the Jesus of the gospel is not a solitary individual, a tool in the hand of God, a means to some divine end. He is a real person engaged with other persons. His death is not mere mortality or tragedy, and it is – again (see July 29 sermon!) – not something God demands. The cross is a failure of the world to bear God – a rejection of such a presence of God to the world.

A sad philosopher once observed that ‘hell is other people’. It would have to be said that this was the experience of the crucified Jesus, because it was only by other people that he found himself on the cross; the physical suffering of the cross represented the suffering of the conflict endured throughout his ministry.

But the point of his ministry, and the point of John’s preaching through this dense and circular little letter, was to declare just the opposite: that heaven, also, is other people. This is why – as we saw last week – the love of whatever in the world it is appropriate to love can be the love of God – our love of God and God’s love of us. Our presence to God and God’s presence to us ‘looks like’ loving one another.

We do not believe ‘in the Incarnation’ as a thing which happened. The thing which happened, we believe, is the defining instance of God’s en‑fleshing of himself in our very lives, and this matters for the continuing shape of our lives. To believe that Jesus was the divine Son is not so much to ‘conquer’ the world with right doctrine as it is to declare what the world truly is: a vessel – even ourselves – which God has created to fill with himself.

To believe that Jesus – even ‘in the blood’ of the cross – is ‘true God of true God’ in the world is to believe that there is nowhere in the world which is alien to God, nothing which cannot be raised from the dead.

This is why we are to love not only the lovely but also those who it seems even love would do little good. Such love always seems wasteful, always appears as a throwing of good after bad. But this is not to say that such love is then an expression of kindness or compassion. As a throwing of good after bad, in the manner of God’s own work, our love of the unlovely is an experiment in resurrection. Is there really a passion stronger than death, as Solomon puts it in the Song of Songs (Songs 8.6)? A ‘Yes’ to this question is what marks the Christian.

The world, then, in its constant turn towards deathly things, is not conquered for the sake of the conqueror – whether us or God. It is conquered for its own sake. For the weapon in this struggle is love, and love conquers as much for the beloved as for the lover. God, then, does not conquer the world so much as reach out to gather it to himself; for the closer the world is to God, the more it is what God intended it to be.

This is the promise of the gospel.

And we ‘prove’ the promise – in the double proving of testing and demonstrating – in the love we show to those in need of it.

Once again, then, let us love one another. For nothing else will help.

[1] This occurs elsewhere in John; cf. John 3, where a contrast is drawn between being born of ‘water and the (s)Spirit’. There is also the reference in John 19.34f: ‘one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.)’ That is it necessary to emphasise the truth of this indicates that the matter was very important in the understanding (and debates) in Johannine community.

29 July – God’s unnecessary love

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Pentecost 10
29/7/2018

1 John 4:7-12
Psalm 145
John 6:1-13


In a sentence:
God does not ‘have’ to love us but does, unnecessarily

‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God’ (4.7).

I want to unpack today why the church holds that the love which is from God – of which the gospel speaks – and the love to which we are called to demonstrate, is unnecessary love.

To the unbaptised mind this is clearly wrong. Surely, What the world needs now, is love sweet love, because Love makes the world go around, and so All you need is love: the Love which lifts us up where we belong. Even the church’s foundational texts – from which we have heard this morning – seem to contradict this: God is love, God loves us, let us love one another.

How, then, could love be unnecessary?

For the church to say that love is unnecessary is to say that the love which is our particular concern here – ‘gospel’ love – is unnatural love. Natural things are necessary things. We can rely on what is natural, because it unfolds predictably: apples fall from trees, very cold water freezes, nobody gets out alive. The love about which the gospel speaks is not predictable in the way of nature. It is in this sense it is not necessary love.

What this means is that the love of which John writes is not familiar love – the love which comes and flows naturally. And so, when he lays love out for reflection, he doesn’t point to mothers or to lovers or to the best of friends. Rather, John points to the cross: ‘…In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (4.10).

This is, again, incomprehensible to the unbaptised mind, for where is the natural love in this? Is it not a ghastly, bloody God who requires atoning sacrifices in the first place? How is it that God cannot simply forgive? Would that not be true love?

All of this would be ‘necessary’ love: sensible and understandable love. But when it comes to joining the cross and the love of God, we cannot say that even the cross itself was necessary. All theories of the atonement which suggest that God was too righteous to forgive the unrighteous, so that there was some deep law which required blood, make the cross necessary and either tie God’s hands to a law outside of God or split God into two parts, one part demanding a price which the other pays.

But the cross is not magical in this way. It is not an incantation or formula which brings salvation; it is not the necessary key which unlocks God’s heart. If the cross is not necessary in this way, then neither can any love associated with it be a natural, necessary love.

In fact, the cross is not, in the first instance, God’s work at all. It is ours. And it is ours – we imagine – as a necessary work: ‘is it not better that the one should die than that we should lose everything?’ Do the gods not require the expulsion of the blasphemer? Must he not die at our hands?

The cross is – in the first act of the drama – a work of ‘un-love’ if Jesus is not a blasphemer but the messenger of God. The cross is necessary for us because in Jesus we meet a God we cannot bear: ‘What the world needs now,, is not love, sweet love, but less Jesus. But, while necessary for us, the cross was not necessary for God. The ministry of Jesus and his call to follow was open to the possibility that people might actually follow – that the cross would not be necessary. (If not, it was all just play-acting).

In what sense, then, does God ‘send’ the Son and the cross, given that that is where it all ended up? God sends the cross in the resurrection. Our word to God – the cross – becomes God’s word to us in the resurrection: God’s Yes to our No.

And this is the unnecessary, unnatural thing. It is not the case merely that God ‘loves’ us but needs the cross to get past what is unlovely about us. The cross is the unloveliness of the human creature. This is our godlessness – and so our lack of humanity – that we employ such things as crosses and that we sometimes find ourselves on them. God does not so much use the cross to save as overcome the cross and our shame in crucifying the Lord of glory.

But it is not obvious that God will do this. John declares ‘God is love’ as an answer to the question of Easter Saturday: What Will God Do? The unnecessary, unnatural, unlawful thing God does is raise Jesus and return him to the disciples (in person) and to Israel (in preaching) with the words, Peace be with you. Not a sword of divine wrath but an offer of peace.

This is love: God’s devotional persistence, despite the cross: unnecessary, unearned love – a breaking of the law rather than an observance of it.

The resurrection becomes a revelation of God’s power in relation to the cross. Here we see God’s willingness to embrace and use the least lovely of all things – even the murder of God himself on a cross – in pursuit of those God loves. This is not necessary love. It is so much more than that. It is gloriously unnecessary, because it springs from the very heart of God. The only question which matters is whether God will set right what is not right among us. If the answer is no, then surely we are all lost. If it is yes, then it is the God’s identification with the cross by overcoming the cross which proves it. We hope in this God because this God has overcome the cross.

And the love commanded of us? ‘If we love one another,’ John says, ‘God lives in us and his love is perfected in us’ – God’s love is perfected in us. This perfected love is not the easy love which – if we are lucky – comes naturally, although that too is of God. The love which is not natural but which is commanded is that which loves as God does. This is our calling, because it is a calling to become like the one who calls. Love where and how God does. Love where love is not sought. Love where love is not expected. Love where it is not deserved. Love where it would seem love will be wasted and so is unnecessary, not required.

Such love is difficult because we cannot see where it goes, whether even it will go anywhere. It was not different for God in Jesus and yet God loved, and here we are 2000 years later.

‘Beloved,’ John writes, ‘since God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’.

Let us, then, become lovers after the love of God. That is all that is necessary.

 

By way of response, a prayer of confession..

We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.

And yet, we confess that in thought, word and deed
we have not loved you or our neighbours
as ourselves.

Forgive us when we allow only that love
extends only to the familiar and easy,
when the charity which begins in the home
also ends there.

Forgive us when we imagine that your love is like ours,
that you love us because we are deserving of love,
that there is nothing in us which needs to be overcome,
nothing which will be revealed as shadow
by the light of your love.

Forgive us the lovelessness which says No when a Yes was possible,
which withholds what is excess to our need,
which is unnecessarily jealous,
destructively envious.

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that,
with you as our ruler and guide,
we may so pass through things temporal,
that we lose not the things eternal; [Proper 17]

just so, gracious God, have mercy on us…

6 May – The blood of Jesus and the joy of God

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Easter 6
6/5/2018

1 John 1:5-9
Psalm 98
John 15:9-17


Prelude: Reading a biblical text

It might be helpful to begin this morning by saying something about the way in which we are engaging with the first letter of John. We are not doing is taking a blow by blow, verse by verse account of what John says and why that might matter to us to. This is because a lot of what John says quite simply does not make immediate sense. He often seems to go in circles, makes logical leaps which are not obvious to us, seems even to contradict himself on quite important things. A ‘straight reading’ – a ‘literal’ reading, if you like – can simply lead to confusion or uninformed rejection of what John has to say. This problem with the letter springs in part from the fact that it is a letter (or similar) – that it addresses a known community and known circumstances which we don’t know and in cultural and linguistic ways quite different from our own. We have to infer from what John says why he says it – a process a little like trying to lift yourself off the ground by pulling on your own bootstraps: never straightforward.

But there is another challenge, more important than the historical one. This is the gospel itself. John is not just a cultural or historical ‘other’ to us; his words come to us as ‘scripture’ – as ‘the word of God.’ We listen, then, for where John contravenes what we might have in common with those to whom he wrote: where does he say it ‘wrong’? These are the most interesting, engaging points. Where we find ourselves in agreement with the text (if we can be sure that we are), we simply affirm something we already know. But it’s the apparent cracks in the logic of the Scriptures which let in new light.

– – – –

One such crack appears in our reading from 1 John today, which we’ve heard now for the third time (there’s a lot going on here!):

‘…if we walk in the light as he himself walks in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus washes us from all sin.’

‘If we walk in the light…we have fellowship with one another.’ This is the reverse of how we typically understand fellowship or communion to work. For us – as a political theory, and in our common experience – it is communion which brings light. Dialogue brings understanding and illumination. Get the warring parties around the table, have them share of themselves, encourage understanding and empathy, and peace will follow: fellowship, communion. This is peace conceived in terms of strategy. And we know that it works. Seeking to live in communion can bring light.

But John says it the other way around: light brings communion – if we walk in the light, we have communion with one another. This is not accidental, a passing slip; the logic pops up right through the letter (see, e.g. 1.2; 2.11; the ‘externalising’ of love in the work of God, rather than our own work [3.6, 4.10]).

Communion is possible because of the light. This is not to diminish the importance of whatever light might spring from what relationships we might dare to enter into. We are only ourselves by virtue of our relationships to others; we can expect to grow and be illuminated by those relationships we already enjoy.

But John’s vision is larger than what we know and are comfortable with. This is implicit in what he adds to his remarks about communion and walking in the light:

‘…if we walk in the light as he himself walks in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus washes us from all sin.’

There are two things we note here. The first is the reference to the blood which washes sin away. Here the strangeness of sacrificial logic is invoked, upon which we touched a couple of weeks ago. But we notice this logic first of all to bracket it to one side. Sacrifice is one way of interpreting the cross and not a final explanation for what God does with the cross.

Nevertheless John is saying – and we can’t simply bracket this out – that the cross of Jesus is the light which brings fellowship. The cross overcomes un-fellowship, un-communion – the darkness of sin.

And yet, behind this and at the same time, the cross is precisely the opposite. A crucifixion is a radical excommunication, a rupturing of communion with the executed criminal. So the cross both the sign of un-communion and makes communion possible.

This apparent contradiction is only resolved by the identity of the one on the cross – that Jesus is the Son of the Father who sent him. At the beginning of John’s gospel we hear, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1.11). If Jesus is the Word, the Son of the Father, then in the crucifixion of Jesus is the relationship of all relationships broken: that of God to God’s people and so of God to God’s world.

This, of course, would be catastrophic on any account except that of the gospel. For the gospel may be put this way: the people of God do not cease to be the people of God for having crucified the Son of God. We do not define our relationship to God; God defines that relationship. That definition is that we are God’s people; this is the ‘essence’ or substance of this relationship.

But, while we do not determine the substance of this relationship, but we do give the relationship its form, its shape. That form is most fundamentally the form of a cross. The substance of our relationship with God – that we belong to God, regardless – takes the form of the cross. And so the love which is the substance of the relationship is now not ‘mere’ love – formless affection or attraction – but a love which has overcome, a love which is forgiveness, a love with a history.

The cross saves because it is the shape we have given to our relationship with God, which God has honoured without changing the essence of God’s own intentions with us: to be our God.

Here we come close to the meaning of another text we’ll meet later in John’s letter: we love because God first loved us (4.19). The ‘first’ here is not so much a chronological priority, that God ‘got in’ first, and our love follows. It more a matter of God ‘out-loving’ us. We give the God-relationship the shape of the cross, and God reveals in response just how seriously he takes us: the cross as a sign of excommunication is made the sign of God’s communing love for the world (John 3.16f).

We noted in our first reflection on this letter another ‘crack’ in his logic which let in gospel light: the surprising rationale John gave for writing the letter: ‘We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.’ John desires the joy of fellowship. But this unexpected thing – that he evangelises as much for himself as for those he addresses – is also not accidental. It has its basis in the gospel itself. For the gospel is that God insists on being the God of these people, even if that relationship takes the shape of a cross. For we are God’s joy, and God refuses to have his own joy denied. The crucified Jesus becomes the love and light of the world, in order that God’s own joy may be complete.

This is to say that, with this God, nothing is insurmountable.

It is also to say that, for a people so loved, nothing is insurmountable. If we walk in this light, then communion comes because nothing can finally keep us from each other; the blood of Jesus washes un-communion away from us (1.7).

Let us then, walk in the light by which God’s own joy is complete, that ours – and everyone’s – might yet be.

22 April – No anaemic God

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Easter 4
22/4/2018

1 John 1:5-2:2
Psalm 23
John 10:11-18


Next week, of course, we mark once more the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli and, by extension, the war service of hundreds of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders, and others. Familiar stories are retold and new ones are uncovered, expounding the courage and feats of people in extreme circumstances.

Not far from the heart of these accounts is the language of sacrifice as a way of characterising what soldiers and others do in giving up their lives or wellbeing for comrades or for the community on whose behalf they fought – for us. Such extraordinary self-sacrifice is rightly marked with gratitude by those who have benefitted from it – even us today, after so long, whatever we make of the wars which have gone before, however much we agree or not with the fact that they were fought.

Now, the reason for raising all of this is not quite that ANZAC Day is coming, but that the theme of sacrifice appears twice in the passage we have heard (again) today:

‘…he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins’ (2.2); ‘the blood of Jesus [the] Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1.7)

This is uncomfortable language for many in our modern and enlightened times, not least in the church. This discomfort arises because Scriptural sacrifice is foreign to us, despite its familiarity after so long and despite our willingness to borrow the language for something like war service. John – whether he was a Jew or a Gentile (allowing that he may not have been the apostle John, as many scholars hold) – would have imbibed with mother’s milk an understanding of ritual sacrifice which held great sense and conviction for him. He wrote of such sacrifice because he knew about it, saw it, had participated in it. We, however, really only speak of such sacrifice because the likes of John wrote about it. We no longer do or see done what they did and saw. We echo what they say when we speak of sacrifice and, because it is only an echo, it can sound hollow or simply come out wrong. Sacrifice is, simply, not how we understand the world to work and so we struggle to use such language with conviction.

But we cannot leave the matter there. At dawn services around the country on Wednesday the words of Jesus will be quoted: ‘No greater love has anyone than to lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13). I suspect that it appeals to us that Jesus gives up his life for his friends, even us. Or, at least it makes sense to us that Jesus might do this, as we imagine our soldiers do.

Yet, if Jesus’ self-sacrifice is for his friends, from what does he save them? The intention of the self-sacrifice of the soldier is clear; her death saves the comrade-in-arms, or weakens the enemy. In the case of Jesus, however, what is the threat from which his friends are to be saved? The horrifying thing – especially for the likes of us – is that the threat can only be God; Jesus dies to protect the disciples from God.

And here we strike the fundamental objection to sacrificial language: that God is said to have stipulated sacrifice for such protection – the blood of lambs, bulls and doves, and ultimately the blood of Jesus himself. The problem is whether God might just be a bloody God. This does not sell well.

Our hesitation here ought not to surprise us, because it is not only a theological hesitation; it is not a problem for only the church with its cross. We – society and church together – hesitate in the same way when it comes to speaking of the sacrifice of those wounded or killed in war. It seems obvious that we could borrow the words of Jesus to characterise the casualties of war, yet we are mistaken if we do so. Scriptural notions of sacrifice have nothing to do with self-sacrifice. The sacrificial victim is a third party in an exchange between the principle actors – the priest who sacrifices and the God who is appeased. If we were to speak properly (and honestly) of sacrifice in relation to war we would have to say that is not the soldiers who make the sacrifice but the community or nation which offers them up. This is surely the meaning of conscription, on the one hand, and white feathers on the other. Nations and kings go to war, not their soldiers. The lives of combatants are the sacrifice we are prepared to make – we, who cannot qualify as the sacrifice by virtue of being too young, too old, too rich or too important.

But we do not speak this way when we commemorate war service. It is very hard to admit that it is better for us that one die for the people than that the whole nation should be lost. And so we generally can’t admit it. And because we can’t, it is difficult to admit that God’s purported stipulation of sacrifice might be just. Surely God is not like us, only open where we are covert?

In fact, even if we are bloody, God is not. Sacrificial blood does not buy forgiveness; God cannot be bought. But if God is not bloody – does not demand blood – neither is God anaemic. John’s insistence on the cross goes with his insistence that Jesus is the Son, is at the heart of God (cf. John 1.18). This death – this blood – is squarely in the middle of the God-humankind relationship.

But, unlike all other human sacrifice – whether the soldier on the field, the neglected spouse, the molested child or the ignored refugee – this death is not finally mere tragedy. God is light (1.5), we considered last week, and the cross of the Risen One is that light. This is the truly difficult thing at the heart of Christian confession: that a tragic failure might become a healing word, that the justice of God (1.9) might meet this failure with forgiveness.

John, with most of the New Testament, borrows the language and logic of sacrifice but it is only passingly useful if we insist on being biblical literalists, speaking Scriptural language with too thick an accent. If God is free – unbound by anything outside of God – then God is not bound by a sacrificial economy of exchange, such that Jesus ‘had’ to die on the cross. Ritual sacrifice in the Old Testament only ever served as a kind of cloak covering the truly important thing, a Tabernacle housing the incomprehensible glory which cannot be gazed upon directly. That glory is God’s freedom to love and heal those who imagine that death is the way to life, even God’s own death.

The miracle of Easter is not that a blood debt is paid. It is that the blood we spill does not stain but washes clean.

And we are those who are washed.

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