Tag Archives: Freedom

25 December – Gift-ed

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Christmas Day

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

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

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

Hark the Herald Tribune sings,
Advertising wondrous things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Considerably adapted from AUC and KUC, December 25, 2008

4 February – God is not a god

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Epiphany 5

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Let us consider the following proposition: if God is God, then God is not a god.

Chances are that makes no sense to almost anyone – yet – but it matters. It matters because we need constantly to work on how we speak about God, and it matters because we how speak about God affects how we speak about ourselves, and how we act towards each other. A sense for God is implied in how we relate to each other.

Last week we noted that polytheism – the belief that there is more than one god – is the natural environment of the Scriptures. In such an environment religious conviction is not about whether you believe “that” there is a god (our contemporary question), but about which of the many candidates for divinity in your life you’ve committed to. In such an environment, the Scriptural imperative is: believe in this god – the Lord, Yahweh – for this is the one which matters.

Of course, things which concern us deeply are never that simple. At the same time, parts of the Scriptures do insist that there is only one god and that the other candidates are not gods.

This, however, has very a strange effect. If the others are not gods, then God – the one god – is not a god either. In order for there to be “a” god, there has to be more than one.

To justify this assertion, let’s consider the less controversial matter of the plurality of “Davids.” Davids are useful for our purposes because they are everywhere. On account of this, we might say “Oh, we have a David in our congregation” (or, in our case, four or five Davids). A David is a kind of thing, of which there are many instances.

By contrast, we don’t say that we live in an Australia. There is only one Australia (at least, as a geographical entity); it is not a kind of thing which Australias are, and so the name and the thing coincide.

As it is with Davids and Australias, so it is also with gods. If there are many gods, each is god; if there is but one God, God is not “a” god, but a name of a unique “thing”.

This brings us to Isaiah’s vision of God this morning. The second half of the book of Isaiah is characterised by an extraordinary sense of the uniqueness of the God of Israel, summed up in verse 25 today: “To whom shall you compare me?”

But an enormous theological problem is now beginning to open up. If there is nothing with which to compare God – if God is not a god – then from where do we get our ideas about God’s godness? We might think we know what “a” god is, but if God is not a god, then… what? With Davids, it’s easy. There are many Davids because Davidness is comparable and transferrable; this is why they were named David in the first place. We bestow something when we name a child: perhaps we honour an ancestor and hope for something of the same in our son, or perhaps we simply resonate with a cultural vibe which mysteriously communicates that now is the time for more Davids (which is why Davids tend to come in generational clusters).

But Isaiah’s vision pulls this rug out from under us. If the one which Israel and the Church designates as “God” is not a god, then what we think a god is, or whether we think we need a god, tells us nothing useful about this One: “To whom shall you compare me?” To no one, and to nothing.

The biblical answer to the whence of a proper sense for God is God’s words and actions: God is what God says and does. But I don’t want to develop this much further today. Rather, I want to move to how the incomparability of God affects the way we relate to each other, for there is political or social effect of such a sense for God.

Last week we noted the relationship between the plurality of the gods and the plurality of our fears. The gods divide us along the lines of our fears. This has always been recognised. A single religious conviction is a useful political concept for stability within national borders (cf. the post-Reformation notion, Cuius regio, eius religio, which stabilised nations by allowing monarchs to specify which of the warring religious factions would be “the” religion of that country).

But unity of conviction for political or philosophical convenience simply shifts the problem of divided hearts and minds, or just ignores it. The political solution of a single religion with a single god moves the problem of division from communities within the national borders to the borders themselves. The philosophical solution of a single god or the naïve proposal that there is no god are both abstractions which simply don’t take seriously how we actually are.

For how we are is that we are divided. But it’s important that we are not divided simply because we have gods; we also have gods because we are divided. The gods are extensions of us. They are ourselves with our contrary fears and aspirations, writ large. It is because I can compare myself with you that I can invoke a contrary god against you; the gods are many things to many people. This comparability and contrariness runs very, very deep. The political and philosophical solutions don’t work because the divisions are not overcome; they are either pushed into the background or ignored.

By contrast, consider Paul’s declaration in our epistle this morning: I have become all things to all people. He speaks here of his particular vocation as evangelist but, adapted for each particular vocation, this is how each Christian disciple is called – and enabled to be – if the God of the church is truly “incomparable”.

Paul’s being “all things” is not in any sense about him being “flexible”. It is about seeing the barriers between himself and all others as broken down. He sees others not in terms of their difference from him – the comparability of their fears and gods – but in terms of their commonality with him, in Christ.

This would be socially and religiously arrogant were it not that Paul himself has been subject to precisely the same redefinition. What he once thought was a matter of comparative wisdom and strength in himself – his God over against the gods of others – has been stripped away. What he has met in the crucified and risen Jesus is the sovereign freedom of the One who does not fear the cross, who is not bound by death. The incomparability of the God Isaiah proclaims is the freedom of the God of encountered in Jesus, and this is the God in whom Paul now lives and moves. It is God’s divine freedom which frees Paul, on the one hand, and binds him to his neighbours, on the other.

God does not divide because he is free to be against all who would wrongly claim him as an ally, and free to be for all who can do nothing other than simply wait on him. This for-ness and against-ness – of the same people – is the incomparability of the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ. All other putative gods are for us and against our enemies, such that we can only be some things for some people.

This God enables and calls us to more.

With Paul, then, let us allow ourselves to be found within the incomparable God, that we and those we meet might know something of the blessing of the God who keeps his distance from any one of us, that he might be the God of love for all of us.


BasisBits – Paragraph 16: Particular Functions


BasisBits Logo - 2 WITHOUT S

The Uniting Church recognises the responsibility and freedom which belong to councils to acknowledge gifts among members for the fulfilment of particular functions. The Uniting Church sees in pastoral care exercised personally on behalf of the Church an expression of the fact that God always deals personally with people, would have God’s loving care known among people, and would have individual members take upon themselves the form of a servant.

From Paragraph 16 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 10: Reformation Witnesses


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The Uniting Church continues to learn of the teaching of the Holy Scriptures in the obedience and freedom of faith, and in the power of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, from the witness of the Reformers as expressed in various ways in the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), and the Savoy Declaration (1658). In like manner the Uniting Church will listen to the preaching of John Wesley in his Forty-Four Sermons (1793). It will commit its ministers and instructors to study these statements, so that the congregation of Christ’s people may again and again be reminded of the grace which justifies them through faith, of the centrality of the person and work of Christ the justifier, and of the need for a constant appeal to Holy Scripture.

From Paragraph 10 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 6: Sacraments


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The Uniting Church acknowledges that Christ has commanded his Church to proclaim the Gospel both in words and in the two visible acts of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Christ himself acts in and through everything that the Church does in obedience to his commandment: it is Christ who by the gift of the Spirit confers the forgiveness, the fellowship, the new life and the freedom which the proclamation and actions promise; and it is Christ who awakens, purifies and advances in people the faith and hope in which alone such benefits can be accepted.

From Paragraph 6 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

3 April – The cross as throne

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Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-53:6
Psalm 40
John 12:20-33

Many of you will know the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus. It has come down to us in a number of versions, but generally runs something like this: Oedipus is born to the king and queen of Thebes. A prophecy is spoken over Oedipus, that he will kill his father and marry his mother. To thwart this, the child is left out to die but is found and is adopted by the king and queen of Corinth. Once grown up, Oedipus accidentally finds his way back to Thebes were he kills his birth-father in what was perhaps the world’s first road rage incident. Oedipus does not know that it is the king or his father, and no one else knows who killed the king. Oedipus then rids the city of an ongoing burden and threat, and receives as reward the hand of the widowed queen – his birth-mother – in marriage, who bears him a number of children. Eventually, however, everyone discovers the unwitting patricide and incest. Oedipus’ mother hangs herself, and Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and is exiled with the children (half-siblings) he had by his mother-wife.

It’s a story with something for all the family! For the Greeks it was about the unavoidability of fate, and modern depth psychology has made much of it in relation to family dynamics, but the important part of the myth for our purposes this morning is, first, that Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother not knowing who they were and, second, when these things are discovered to have taken place, the whole story is revealed as a tragedy: death and destruction and exile are all that can follow.

Of course, the death we gather to recall today is the death of Jesus. Yet I suspect that this death is heard by many to be a tragedy along the lines of Oedipus: the irony that Jesus was king of Israel, and yet Israel unknowingly crucified its king. Certainly the church often “sells” the story in this way. I want this morning to unpack a different sense of what happens in the death of Jesus, and why we gather for no mere tragic or ironic memorial but for “Good” Friday.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus speaks of his approaching crucifixion as a “lifting up”: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v.32; cf. John 3.14f; 8.28). It’s easy to hear this as a euphemism – a way of referring to the impending disaster of the crucifixion without actually naming it for what it is, a way of softening the blow for Jesus’ hearers.

Yet there is much more going on here than mere euphemism. The evangelist John loves double meanings and the ironies which come with them. The Greek word behind “lifted up” can certainly apply to being lifted up on a cross. At the same time, it can just as naturally be used for that kind of elevation which is an enthronement. A king’s coronation could be said to be his “lifting up”. This double meaning is suggested again later in the gospel when Pilate nails to the cross the charge against Jesus: “the king of the Jews” (19.19-22). Here is another of John’s ironies – and he intends us to note and to understand them. Pilate seeks to mock Jesus, or mock the Jews, yet in the evangelist’s mind Pilate unknowingly declares to all the world Jesus’ true identity.

We miss the point, however, if we read this as simply telling us that Israel unknowingly crucified its king in the same kind of way that Oedipus unwittingly killed his dad and married his mum. In the crucifixion it is not so much that a king is killed in tragic and ironic circumstances but rather that a king is created, or a particular kingdom comes into being. The ambiguity of “lifted up” allows John to present Jesus to us as both being crucified and enthroned, being crucified and being made king, in this “lifting up” in the crucifixion. Not a king mistakenly or unknowingly crucified, Jesus is the king because he is crucified, he becomes king in his very being crucified. His kingship takes its character not from what he should have been recognized to be before the crucifixion but from the fact that he has been crucified. It is as if the Son of God is not the Son of God for us, not our king, until he is crucified. Why? Because we are those who would crucify our king (cf. John 19.5), such that only a crucified king – a crucified God – could be our king, our God.

So it is that, for John’s gospel, the crucifixion is much less of a catastrophe than it is for the other gospels. For the crucifixion is the point at which the nature of God as faithfulness is laid forth for all to see: here the full extent of God’s reign – God’s kingship – is revealed. This is a kingship not abstractly over “all”, but specifically over those who crucify Jesus. Jesus is only king to those who would crucify him. (We approach again themes visited a few weeks ago [March 15]).

Just to reinforce this point, we should note one other way Jesus refers to the crucifixion in this morning’s first reading: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (v.23). The language of “glorification” here applies also to the cross, as it does elsewhere in John (cf. 12.16; 13.31f; 17.7). The glory of Christ is seen in the crucifixion. The glory is not the resurrection if that is understood as an event separate from the cross. In the crucifixion we see something about the nature of God which the resurrection by itself cannot show: a vision of God in which God’s very being – God’s very glory – is tied up with his relationship to a people which falls short of his covenant call. God’s tying of himself to his broken world goes to the very heart of what God can be, and must become; this God, this king, bears the marks of crucifixion, because we – the crucifiers – are his “subjects”.

[ASIDE: John would say to us, then, not merely that “God is love” or that “God so loved the world”, if by that is meant that God could otherwise stand aloof but in fact condescends to forgive. Rather, God is as God loves. God is the way in which he loves. This forces our language and our thinking to a strange place because a “thing”, God, becomes an action, love. It is as if a singer were to become the song. We have to say, then, not that God is “love”, as if these were two separate things we simply join together, but that the love of God is God – how God loves is itself God. Jesus upon the cross is truly Word-become-flesh, God meeting us at our lowest yet – and this is the critical point – remaining, even “becoming” God in that meeting.]

To put it differently, we might say that the gospel is the impossible proclamation that the greater the distance we place between ourselves and God, the more strained our relationship is with God, the more clearly we see God’s freedom to be God for us through all obstacles, even such a death as the cross. It is as if God becomes more “God” as we become less godly, as God overcomes the distance – overcomes the cross – that he might again be life and love for us.

Here we move within the theme of the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness takes its meaning from God’s response to the unfaithfulness of God’s people. That God is faithful, and that this faithfulness concerns keeping a promise of good things for God’s people, is at the heart of the biblical witness. That Jesus can be both crucified and enthroned in a single act is the meeting of our unfaithfulness with God’s faithfulness.

The God with whom the church deals is always the crucified God, because the church is composed of those who crucify, even God. And yet because God still wills to be our God, the crucifixion becomes an enthronement: the kingdom of the crucified God is a kingdom over crucifiers.

This is good news. We are those who lift Jesus up upon the cross, but not with the tragic consequences of Oedipus: exile in horror unto death. For the death of Jesus is as much God’s act as ours: the enthronement of Jesus as king over those who crucified him, that we might not be lost; even with that as part of our history, we remain his.

We cannot fall outside of God’s desire to be God for us, to heal and to restore even us. In the crucifixion we are named and judged, and forgiven and owned. And so we remember not the tragic fate of a good man, but a goodness which subverts and overcomes the ironies and tragedies of human existence: the very faithfulness of God who will not let us go.

And so, we call this not Tragic Friday, as if it were the symbol of human weakness and the dark necessities of fate. It is Good Friday because, unlike what was tragically inevitable for Oedipus and his family, here the tragic is swallowed up. Any choice we might make for death in our lives or in others’ is put behind us in the one death which really matters: the death in which death ceases to be only our end and becomes a new beginning in a relationship to a new kind of king, a new kind of God.

For this surprising, life-giving end to the tragic human story, all thanks and praise be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always, Amen.

8 February – All things to all people

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Epiphany 5

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Our rights – as citizens, as individuals, as human beings – have been much in view over the last few years. Against governments responsible for limiting the behaviour of a few, the many wonder whether their own rights are also being unnecessarily limited. Against the forces of globalisation, big business and the greed of the developed world there is a growing concern for the rights of the “two-thirds” world which lags behind us in so many ways. Against the memory of a time when we were defined by our past, our gender, our race, our age, our religion or any other thing inflicted on us by fate, today we strongly assert our “rights”, our freedoms from all which might make a claim somehow to limit us.

At the same time, with increasing regularity, there is also talk heard about responsibilities although, over against the urgency of the talk about rights, talk about responsibilities seems to have a weariness or an irony about it. Once it was the other way around, but today responsibility is on the back foot and has to defend itself against right. Rights tend to win over responsibilities because it is part of our lot that my “right” to exist or prosper or be secure will eventually come into conflict with yours. When it does there enters another principle, “might is right”, and the conflict is intensified. Even so, if in practice one seems to have precedence over another, in our better moments we still seek to balance the two: rights imply responsibilities, and vice-versa.

The fundamental nature of talk about rights and responsibilities is legal. The attempt to balance my rights with yours – my rights with my responsibilities – takes on the character of a transaction, a social “contract” in which certain things are required of me, and certain other things guaranteed to me. Contracts reflect an economy of exchange. My responsibilities serve your rights; your rights imply corresponding responsibilities: balance without excess.

And this brings us to Paul, the apostle of excess.

Paul says of his preaching: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!!” (9.16). That is, there is no freedom here. There is an obligation or responsibility laid on him by God for the benefit of others. This responsibility, however, is to be met by the responsibility of his hearers to provide him a living. We might say that the congregation has the “right” (in a qualified sense) to hear the gospel, and it’s Paul’s responsibility to meet that right. Conversely, Paul has a right to eat, and it is his hearers’ responsibility to meet that right.

This is all well and good. Even if we think that hearing the gospel is no desirable thing, we know the logic of exchange and can follow Paul’s argument to this point. Yet Paul is not really interested in spelling out how the rights and responsibilities of preachers and their audience should be balanced. Rights and responsibilities are natural components of human existence, and not the content of the Christian ethic Paul goes on to describe. Christian existence does involve rights and responsibilities, but you don’t need to be a Christian to assent to them. If this were all Paul has to say to us, then the gospel is simply a particular flavour of law. It’s Jesus-flavoured law, but merely law nonetheless.

Paul is under obligation to God and to the world to preach, and he does. The crucial point, though, is that although he has this responsibility and the corresponding right to claim an income, he does not claim money for his work. While he speaks of rights and related responsibilities, he points beyond these merely legal, contractual requirements to the possibility of good news: news which is not legally necessary but surprising and liberating. For the good news is concerned not with what is due, but with over-payment, with what is in excess of what is due, with the delivery of more than is legally required.

In the first instance, this means for Paul the exercise of ministry without claiming the payment it is his right to claim. But he opens the issue right up with the language of freedom and slavery which is so much a part of his way of thinking about the gospel.

Although free in the gospel to claim his rights from others, instead he denies himself these rights and so makes himself subject to those to whom he ministers: to the Jews he is as a Jew; to the Gentiles, he is as a Gentile; to those under or outside the law, he becomes as one under or outside the law. God has embraced Paul as he is and sent him with a commission to preach as he is, and so Paul can rightly expect of others that they accept him as he is. Yet, for the sake of the gospel Paul becomes as they are, that there may be as few obstacles as possible preventing them from receiving the gospel.

Yet, we have to push still further than this. He is not simply being helpful or accommodating here. Paul turns his way of relating to others into the gospel itself. In another place he exhorts his readers: be as Jesus was, who, although he possessed all the rights of God, did not think them things to cling to but set them aside, taking on the form of a servant, humbling himself to the point of losing himself – even through the cross (Philippians 2).

This Paul does himself. He does not merely speak of what God has done in Christ, as if it were some piece of historical information to be delivered to the ignorant. God’s work shapes the way Paul himself works. Becoming all things to all people is not a missionary strategy, although we quickly turn it into that. The point is not that evangelism works best if we become like those we seek to evangelise. The point is that evangelism is excessive service, responsibility which does not claim its right. Evangelism then becomes not the presentation of information, but the very expression and embodiment of the gospel itself – a giving of self in excess of what might justly be required. The message becomes the medium.

In his closing remark in our passage this morning, there is one final point Paul lets us in on: “I do all this on account of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings…” (v.23). “I do this, so that I may share in the blessings of the gospel…” Not only does Paul embody, or realize, the gospel in the way in which he relates to those who have a “right” to hear the gospel. Paul also experiences the gospel himself through his excessive and unbalanced service to them.

There are clues here for churches like ours. Our Synod’s Major Strategic Review springs from a concern for sustainability, realised through strategy. Yet sustainability is an ecological concept, ecology being a profoundly “legal” (here: natural law) space of predetermined cause and effect. Strategy is a military concept, again the realm of cause and effect: bigger guns, cleverer plans and sneakier commandos win the day. Strategy unto sustainability is a commitment to balance and not to the excess of the gospel. It assumes that we already “have” the gospel, and that the question at hand is one of delivery; for Paul, the delivery itself is the possibility of further experience of the gospel.

But this is not just “their” problem: we too, as a congregation, have to resolve how to move into the future: what to do with the enormous resources at our disposal. None of what I have said pre-determines what we decide because gospel excess is not a natural, legal – determined – category: it is an historical one, a question of decision, a casting of ourselves in trust in the one who looks and waits to see what we will choose, and promises to work with that. While we might – perhaps even must – be as clever and careful as we can as we make these plans, we need to be aware that in fact we are more “forcing” God’s hand, so to speak, than reading it. This would be an appalling thing to say were it not that this God can take our worst excesses – even crucifying the Lord of life – and make of them something life-giving.

The empty economy of right and responsibility cannot bring us life, but only a precarious balance and, with it, anxiety. The good news about Jesus tells instead of an excess of love which is undeserved, but nevertheless is pressed down and flows over through his disciples into a cascade of hope.

Paul finds himself caught up in the whirlpool of the gospel. Having been drawn into the current, he uses its force and power as the means of reaching others, and yet that same force again swirls him around, shifting, buffeting, cleansing and empowering for more such work. This is our calling, and the promise which carries it to us.

May God’s people ever continue to hear the call and trust the promise, for their own sake and for the sake of those who do not yet know themselves to be daughters and sons of this God and Father, sisters and brothers of this Christ, women and men sustained by this Spirit. Amen.

1 February – Demons

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Epiphany 4

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

1973, The Exorcist: an archaeological dig in Iraq, a young girl, shaking beds, pea soup vomit, a 360 degree head turn – demon possession! Central to the action are a couple of priests, indicating the roots of this kind of story in the church and its Scriptures. While New Testament references to demons or evil spirits are something of an embarrassment to many modern Christians, they seem be the source of an endless fascination for movie makers.

The demonic in the movies is all pretty laughable, although the chances are we laugh at the wrong thing. What seems so funny is that there are no such things as demons, but it is fun to have the b’Jesus scared out of us occasionally. But what is “funny” from a New Testament point of view is that demons are treated these days as something like diseases. In popular imagination there is no difference in substance between the battle the exorcist has with the demon and the battle immunology scientists have with a new rampant virus threatening to destroy the whole human race – another familiar storyline for films and TV series. The movies are straightforward and moralistic: human person = good guy, possessing demon/lethal virus = bad guy; human person = free agent, demon/virus = enslaving agent. The drama is resolved when the bad guy is finally dealt with, with the implication that the exorcised victim will now returned to her fundamental, free self. When it comes to looking at the New Testament, then, the stories of demon possession seem little more than quaint interpretations of illness. Jesus appears now as a gifted therapist, able to put a finger on the problem and relieve these sufferers of their illness; off they then go, happy ever after.

But we do little justice to the stories, and rob ourselves of a great deal, if we simply reduce New Testament demonology to primitive medicine. The exorcisms in the New Testament are stories of the liberation of people who find themselves inextricably entangled within things greater and more powerful than themselves. And the emphasis must fall on inextricably, for while we typically draw clear distinctions between the demon and the demon-possessed, the stories themselves show how the spirit and the person become confused, to the extent that it is not really clear where the person actually is and where the demon is, other than that they are wrapped up in each other.

Listen again to the first part of today’s reading
1.23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us…”
While it probably sounds straightforward, in fact it’s not at all clear who is speaking here. If it is the man who cries out, “what have you to do with us”, why the “us” which seems to include the man himself with the demon? This confusion is even more dramatic a little later, in chapter 5 (vv6ff). When a possessed man sees Jesus, he shouts “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For we are told that Jesus had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” That is, Jesus has addressed the spirit, but it is the man who speaks; or is it? Has Jesus been “tormenting” the man, or the spirit? The account then goes on: Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” While it might seem that Jesus has addressed the man and asked his name, “the man” replies, “My name is Legion; for we are many”. Presumably here the demon speaks, though it is the man’s reply. Finally we hear, “He” earnestly begged Jesus not to send “them” out of the country. Who is the “he” here? If it is the man, why does he refer to “them” as a group distinct from himself? Does the man not want to be exorcised?

The important thing here is the slippage between the identity of the man and the identity of that which possesses him, such that the one is addressed, but the other answers, but the one answering seems to speak also for the one possessed, and so on. In these stories we encounter something much more subtle than what features in popular representations of the demonic. If all a demon can do is throw you into convulsions and twist your head 360 degrees on your shoulders then, by comparison with what the gospels describe, you’ve really nothing to worry about(!). The demons of the New Testament are far more dangerous than this, for they suppress their victims in such a way that the victim seems almost to embrace his oppressor. By contrast, the neat separation of the powers which possess and those possessed by them does not speak the truth about our condition. It imagines that I exist independently of the things which have formed me, or that I am clearly distinguishable from the things which bear down on me from without. This portrayal of the demonic imagines that, fundamentally, I am free but occasionally limited by some external and unfriendly force: just deal with that and I’m free again.

When we look to see what Jesus the liberator encounters in this broken world, it is rather a confusion of identities, such that it is not clear whether I am myself, or the things which have happened to me. Am I as free as I and others imagine, and so responsible for what I have done; or is my hand forced by things beyond my control, such that I don’t know how I could have done differently? Although we speak of “I” here, perhaps we should learn also to say “we” – not to be inclusive of each other but to be inclusive of all the powers which seem to direct our lives – those things the New Testament calls the demonic: “What is your name?” My name is Legion, for we are many.

For most of us, identity- and freedom-blurring “possession” is much less dramatic than that of the man in the synagogue in Capernaum. But it is there, and it is powerful. Consider our love of democracy – that “worst form of government except for all [the] other forms”. This is the only political system for us and yet the source of endless political and social frustration as senators are elected on a fraction of the vote and outgoing governments can knowingly expose a community to enormous compensation payments, without any accountability.

Or we might consider our situation as a congregation, enjoying both the benefit and suffering the burden of buildings like these. We know that the church is not its buildings, and yet also that a gathered community needs a place to gather. Our buildings have generally served us well and, yet, they also constitute an enormous burden, particularly at a time when most congregations’ fortunes are declining. What does freedom look like in the tension between the call to be the church, and the call to maintain structures (of all kinds – buildings, committees, reporting regimes) which are not of the essence of being the church? If we were to make a simple statement, what most has us as a congregation in its possession? Clues might be found in what we spend most of our time talking about when we get together, or what we spend most of our money on.

The “demonic” is symbolic of what is external to us and yet also within us in such a way that we are both distinguishable from it, and not. To understand what Mark has to say about powers is to able be to see more, and less, clearly than the simplistic demonologies of the movies and of contemporary politics and moral discourse. That is, we are learning to see how hard it is to see clearly here; we and our demons are not easily prised apart. While the political “right” pins everything on the free individual, and the “left” on the binding structures of society, the New Testament is less optimistic about our capacity to know which is which.

This is the realism of the gospel, although, perhaps it also seems to be the pessimism of gospel: what can save us from this body of death, this ever being enthralled by things which are not us, this never being fully ourselves? Yet this realism is a necessary preamble to the good news, and what causes the response of the people to Jesus in the synagogue: here is a teaching with authority, and not what we have been used to. The authority has nothing to do with whether Jesus has a deep voice or penetrating eyes as he speaks, but with his being “author” of those he addresses. A truth is expressed which is not merely true but which resonates, which moves. Here is a surgeon who understands what we are, who can separate flesh and bone, preserving what matters and excising what is wrong. In a modest and derivative way this is also the ministry of the people of God, but it is derivative from Jesus, and it is modest. For it is Jesus who expels and heals, and not us. The heart of New Testament demonology is seen in a place where no demons are actually manifest: in the crucifixion of Jesus. Here, for all the right reasons, the wrong thing takes place. When most clear-sighted, the people of God take a wholly wrong course. Here is the same kind of confusion the possessed man has with his demon. As it is unclear what is good and bad in us, where we end and the powers begin, so also a broken thing is made a sign of healing: “This is my body broken by you” becomes “This is my body broken for you”.

To be called to into the kingdom of this God is to be called to a discovery of the true nature of the kingdoms within which we already live, the powers to which we are already subject, our incapacity to extract a pure “me”. To be called into the kingdom of this God is to hear a promise that, despite all which seems to envelope us, we belong to God: You are mine and I am yours (to recall our Advent reflections last year). God discerns and claims us even in the midst of all the world’s confusion.

For such healing and liberation, and such a share in the life and work of God, all thanks and praise be to him, now and always. Amen.