Tag Archives: Law

30 December – Born of a woman, born under the law

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Christmas 1

Galatians 4:4-7
Psalm 8
Luke 2:41-52

Our Galatians reading this morning has been carefully cut by the lectionary to turn it into something which makes it look like a “Christmas” text. And so we hear Christmassy things for the last Sunday of the Christmas season: “…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman”.

Yet St Paul has no interest in Christmas as we know it. What he is interested in is Jesus’ relationship to us. And this ought to matter to us as well because unless there is something intrinsic connecting us to Jesus of Nazareth then there is no point in the church honouring him in the way that it does, commending him to the wider world, or celebrating Christmas.

Although Santa is now presenting as a serious rival, the dominant image of Christmas remains that of the baby. We like babies. We once were babies! Christmas reminds us that, as we once were helpless, and innocent, so also was Jesus, and so the sentimental song “When a child is born” has been added to the collection of what is likely to be featured at a Carols by Candlelight or be piped into the background to set the mood in supermarkets. As Jesus was once a tiny bundle of possibilities, and the focus of great hope for his parents, so were we and our babies. When Paul says of Jesus “born of a woman”, we can hear him saying that Jesus was as we are: he was one of us.

Paul goes further, however, in his statement of what Jesus shares with us. Not only is Jesus said to be “born of a woman”; he is also “born under the law”. Here Paul moves beyond basic biology and baby-induced sentimentality to stir us up a bit about our understandings of ourselves. “Born under the law” adds a dimension to human being which is less certain for many of us. It’s not that Jesus’ being born under the law makes him less human; it is rather that we mightn’t be so sure that being “under the law” is a necessary part of the description a human being.

‘Law’ here is not merely the divine instruction but what it becomes in our hands, and what other wisdoms and ways of being also become. To be “under the law” in Paul’s sense is not yet to be free; it is to be bound by something which limits us and not yet to have received the freedom still held in trust for us.

Yet while we know that we all begin ‘born of a woman’, for many in and out of the church it is scarcely believable that being ‘under the law’ in this way is also part of what it means to be human. Is not the freedom of the individual central to our modern self-understanding? And so Paul’s further suggestion that we are “slaves” – and that we move from being slaves to being children of God on account of Jesus redeeming us from being under the law – also doesn’t really fit our perception of ourselves. 

But by reading more broadly around the short section we have heard from Galatians today, we can bring Paul to bear on our own thinking about how we are constituted. The verses which follow on from what we’ve already heard are not so Christmassy, but matter at least as much:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods [that is, ‘enslaved by law’]. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly powers [literally: ‘elemental spirits’ (NRSV)]?

Paul’s particular issue with the Galatians is that they had found a peculiar freedom in Jesus – a kind of human maturity – which they were now giving up.

This freedom involves a shift from living under law: from knowing the rules, being subject to them and abiding by them (or not!), to living out of grace. Paul describes this shift in a little twist which passes almost without notice: “now…that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” The twist is very important.

For us the question is usually about who knows God, or does not know God – who knows the rules, who has measured where God fits in and how we fit into God. This manifests itself at this time of the year with concern in churches and in newspaper opinion pieces about such things as the “true meaning of Christmas” and who does or doesn’t know it and so does or doesn’t know God (or doesn’t need to know God). This is ‘under the law’ existence – human being as argy-bargy. But for Paul the critical point is God knowing us, or not knowing us.

God knows you, Paul declares; God has your measure, and this before you imagined that you measured and knew God. God knows those of us “born under the law”, enslaved to influences and powers even before we know ourselves as such. In this, God knows us better than we know ourselves.

The good news of the gospel is that God know us in this way, and yet loves us. On Christmas Day we sang of Jesus, ‘lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’. This is scarcely acceptable language today for a couple of reasons but that line sums up Paul’s point here, with the emphasis falling on ‘womb’ (Paul doesn’t seem to know or be interested in the story of the virginal conception). In the carol and in our reading today, ‘womb’ is a metonym – one aspect of our common humanity which stands for everything which we have in common: our biology and our broken, ‘under the law’ existence. The miracle of Christmas is that Jesus – True God of true God, light of light eternal – is born at all into our human messiness.

What all humankind has in common is not merely our biology but lives lived imperfectly under the law, and so lives enslaved, under the curse of death through sin. For Paul, then, Jesus-born-of-woman has in common with all humankind that he too came to stand under the curse of sin – “born under the law”.

There is, of course, a danger here that the whole sin-thing can be over-emphasised, as it has been too often in the church’s history. The bad news here – that we might be enslaved in this way – is not the starting point but a kind of end point: it is because a light has already shone for us that we are able to look “back”, as it were, and see clearly now how things were before the light was there, how law enslaved us, how we misuse it to try to save ourselves, how we were unfree.

The good news is that this light shines and reveals not to condemn but to liberate. God has already loved us in our very worst moments, and even in what we think are our very best moments but in which we are sometimes the most tragically deluded. Being Christian is a matter of learning to know ourselves as God knows us – less than we ought to be but loved nonetheless. It is only when we know ourselves so loved that we can know that “freedom of the children of God” which begins with being set free. It is only those who have been set free in this way who can become forces for liberation themselves.

The freedom of the children of God is that they know that God knew them before they knew God, that God’s knowledge of them created no barrier to loving them, and that this means they need not be trapped by their own poor assessments or grand assessments of themselves.

Instead, they may move into the future open to all possibilities, great and small, confident in God’s naming them and owning them as his children.

May this freedom reign in the hearts of minds of all God’s people this Christmas season, and always!

26 August – The Ten Commandments: Old Prescriptions in a Culture without purpose

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Pentecost 14

Deuteronomy 5:1-6
Psalm 19
Matthew 5:17-20

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

Confusing one’s own state of mind with the state of the world is one of the professional hazards of a certain sort of preacher. However, one is not alone today in asserting that, together with other Western cultures, we inhabit a world dedicated to a flight from truth. Some characteristic marks of cultures in decline are these: an ideology of relativism with regard to all claims for truth; inward self-protection from a questioning of the socially approved status quo; a secular religion which worships choice above everything; the cultivation of detachment from ultimate claims.

Why then bother with commandments from a world long gone?


Deuteronomy 5:6:  “Then God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…..’


More than one hundred years ago, the British novelist and poet, Rudyard Kipling wrote these lines:

“Ship me somewhere east of Suez where the best is like the worst, where there ain’t no ten commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst”.

Kipling’s implication is that west of Suez, that is, in what we then called Christendom, there was no getting away from the Ten Commandments. Culturally, if not geographically, Australians, too, have been very much “west of Suez”. Then, if not now, nearly everyone throughout the Empire knew about the Ten Commandments, and a great many people could recite them by heart. They were included and explained in Church catechisms taught to children; they were read at the beginning of every communion service. And not only were they impressed on the ear, but also the eye as well. Many were the Churches in which the Ten Commandments looked everyone in the face as they sat in the pews. So it is that until about seventy years ago it was impossible for churchgoers to be ignorant of them, and even non-churchgoers who rejected Christian doctrine would largely not have dreamt of rejecting their moral claims, at least in theory if not always in practice.

Not so today. Even influential clerics pour scorn on them. Their purported irrelevance, and their virtual eclipse, is undoubtedly due to the increasing secularisation of our society, whereby everything to do with “religion” has been banished to the domain of a private experience. Another reason, perhaps more alive in intentional Christian circles, is the idea that “the law of Moses” has been superseded by “the law of Christ”. And there is truth in this claim. A well-known saying of Martin Luther that “each Christian must write one’s own ten commandments” has been understood to mean that Christians are free to substitute for those long received more or less what they like, whereas Luther actually meant that Christians are free to hear the commandments as gospel rather than cold, external law. In other words, Christians are free to obey the commandments rather than knowing themselves required to obey them.

It is indeed unfortunate that the Ten Commandments have come to be associated with the English word “law”, with its many meanings. If we use the word “law” in Christian language we should understand law as the Bible does, not as our judicial systems do. The word “law” has traditionally been the English word employed to translate the Hebrew word Torah, but Torah means the first five books of the Old Testament, not simply these ten commandments. The original meaning of “Torah” then is not so much “law” as it is “instruction”.  Torah really stands for the whole revelation of God – all that has made known the nature, character and purpose of God as the basis for what as a consequence we must be and do.

This is clear from the introduction to the Ten Commandments as we encounter them in this fifth chapter in the Book of Deuteronomy: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb….” (Chapter 5: 2). We then go on to hear how this covenant, although made with a significantly earlier generation of the Hebrews, is still being made effective “with us who are all of us here alive this day” (v.3). The substance of this covenantal promise is then given in the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and of the House of Bondage” (v.6). It is to this covenantal reality that the law is then unfolded in the shape of the Ten Commandments.

Although not present in the Hebrew text, the consequential sense for all the ten that follow this introduction is an implied: ‘Therefore…’.  For this reason, on each occasion in the future that we make our way attempting to mine the import of these ten injunctions, we must as a reminder insert this crucial word therefore between the promise and the command. The point is that everything that can go wrong will go wrong when this introduction is passed over as if it has no interpretive force. To detach the commandments from their grounding in this event of deliverance, which is how they are inevitably heard today, is guaranteed to lead to a devastating misunderstanding.  They are then required to stand without any context in all their forbidding starkness.

Of course, it is only common sense to grasp that for the protection of common life any society must abide by a set of agreed rules. In this respect there is nothing novel about the latter half of the table of the commandments, which can be found in similar form in the law code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, at least six centuries before Israel’s founding. But there they stand without this liberating introduction before us today. Everything, then, hinges on its force: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out ….”

The fact is that the commandments exist to make clear to the people of Israel exactly what is involved in the covenant, and to maintain that relationship of God with his people. Through the commandments, a practice is appointed for a way of life for Israel different from that of any other people on earth. In other words, Israel’s God does not intend to leave this people to follow its own devices, nor to work out its own destiny.

This foundation to the giving of “the Law” has not been readily understood by us, and it certainly wasn’t understood by the people of Israel. Time and again, we hear how they gave themselves to ever new and more grievous forms of slavery than that which they had left in Egypt, that living symbol of the despots by which people then, as now, are enslaved. The commandments, therefore, are ingredient in the promise of the Covenant for Israel, and in turn for us:  that the God, who calls a representative people into being, has left neither nations nor individuals in a state of bondage, or of hopeless moral confusion.

Indeed we can go further and embrace these commandments as our best protection against all the unjust commandments that might be foisted upon us by unscrupulous manipulators, by despotic governments, by insidious media pressure groups of all persuasions who seek to control the lives of others for their own purposes. On the strength of these commandments we can say “No” both to the unruly passions and desires that seek to tyrannise over us from within, and to all dictators who seek to tyrannise us from without.

If this understanding of the commandments is news to some people, then it must surely be “good news”. To say again: to wrench the Ten Commandments out of their context, leaving them standing only in their cold authoritarian isolation, is completely to miss the point. It means that they will inevitably become graceless, and therefore destructive, because they will lead either to pride or despair. And then, probably at the same time, they will serve as instruments of silent judgement over others.

The truth is this. At no time does God ever intend that law without grace be a means of salvation for people. This must be one of the hardest conclusions for serious and sensitive human beings to accept. We have so often been told, and thereby assumed, that by trying harder, by erecting more and more safeguards against the infringement of the law, there is still hope for us. But this is the ancient heresy of Pharisaism, though it is not at all peculiar to the Pharisees.

Pharisees are simply the representatives of all forms of religious and moral legalism. Not until it sinks in how extraordinarily good the Pharisees were – and they are usually made out to be unpleasant – will we appreciate the difference between the hopeless justification that they represent on the one hand, and, on the other, a hopeful justification for all.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).  How revolutionary is that judgement. “Exceed” here means not “more of the same”, but the need to run on quite different tracks. Only by such a fundamental diversion will the promise of the Sermon be realised: “I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come to fulfil them”. And what a fulfilment! For here is the old commandment made flesh. Here in dramatic concreteness is the law rightly lived, Here we find each commandment – inevitably in every generation either rejected or fired as a constrictive weapon – now beautifully and graciously embodied and lived.  Here is One whose being from beginning to end is marked by the law. Born under the law, he lived and taught under the law, and was crucified under the law ostensibly for the sake of obedience to the covenant between God and Israel. And it is by this perfect obedience that he shows the meaning of the fulfilment of the law, and therefore the meaning of life.  As the apostle Paul confirms: in Christ all the commandments of God are fulfilled as a resounding “Yes”.

As we approach each of these Ten Commandments in turn, it is in this graceful grounding that their meaning and fulfilment is to be found. To this end, we note how the Gospel of Matthew announces that Jesus teaches the Sermon on the Mount only to his disciples. Just as Yahweh of old calls his people out of the bondage of Egypt to the life of promise and destiny of which the commandments are sign, so the new “Israel” here is called on another mountain by a new Moses – called out of the bondage of the religious law to a life where the law becomes grace, active, fruitful, life giving.

But let us not overlook this. The sermon is uttered in the presence of the crowd. The point of this scenario is to make clear that literally any apparent outsider is free at any time to become a disciple. This should not be a surprise. Even before Moses and this covenantal pledge introducing the commandments, Abraham was promised a similar outcome: that through his obedience “all the nations of the earth will bless themselves”. The point is that the covenants, old and new, with their accompanying commandments, are for the sake of a world blessed. God and the world, here as everywhere, always belong together.

May it be so for our day too. Embraced by this promise, we will then find ourselves properly prepared to embark on this tenfold journey of freedom to a promised land.

10 December – God is coming. And it is the end of you.

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Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85
Mark 1:1-8

To those looking for peace comes the cry,

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”

God is coming! Make the way straight! “Cry out!”

And what shall we cry?

“All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass…”

You’ve gotta love the Old Testament prophets for their capacity to punch, square in the face, any easy forgiveness or cheap attempts to leap out of the world as it is into sentimental notions of paradise on earth or of eternal life! Isaiah declares: God is coming. And No One. Gets Out. Alive. Comfort, O comfort my people…

How do we respond to this? Horror, revulsion or terror would make sense to any normal person who took it seriously. But what about the people gathered here today? Does this horrify, terrify us as well? Are we “normal”?

The abnormality to which we are called as conspirators with Isaiah and disciples of Jesus is that we not be horrified here. Rather, we are to find ourselves set free with the realisation that we are not divine. That we are grass, that we are mortal, is the mark of our creatureliness.

We need, of course, to speak carefully. There is here no exultation in our mortality. It is not a thing to celebrate; it is just “a thing.” “No one gets out alive” is the law. It is, simply, the case. The function of law is to limit: only drive this fast, only drink this much, keep your hands to yourself; that far and no further. The law constrains, which is precisely what Isaiah declares here: you are constrained. You are flowers and grass, and will wither and fade.

We all know this, of course. What matters is the impact we allow the fact of our mortality to have. If our mortality is fundamentally offensive to us, then we labour to keep it at bay, to preserve ourselves as long as possible, to hold death at a distance by whatever power or influence we have. Life understood in these finds Isaiah’s mortal realism horrifying, terrifying, or repulsive. Who needs – or wants – to be reminded of the enemy when the work of our lives is to keep us hidden from that enemy for as long as possible? We see this in ourselves and in others, and we might characterise it as a deathly mortality. It knows only the law and its limits.

But Isaiah’s proclamation does not call us to this but, rather, to a lively mortality. This is a mortality – a creatureliness – which knows the limit and exults not in it but in the freedom which comes with it. This is the freedom not to have to survive, the freedom of not being necessary. The gospel in Isaiah’s proclamation is not simply that Israel’s “sins are taken away”. The content of those sins was the drive to make ourselves necessary, the denial of death’s final claim on us and of the possibility that we might cease to be. Isaiah’s gospel is that when God comes that kind of striving and anxiety is no longer required.

A deathly mortality is reflected in the corresponding deathly life: a life lived at heart in fear of – or revulsion at – the God who defines us as creatures, as grass. This is a life which finds it insufficient to be in the form or image of God and grasps at more (Genesis 3; Philippians 2).

A lively mortality is one which would live life to its fullest. A lively mortality celebrates the approach of God because it is when God comes as Creator above, and beyond, and yet for, us that we come to ourselves.

Here the law finds its end – its purpose: God being God, creature being creature, in the same moment. (This is, of course, what we say is the meaning of Christmas: the coincidence of God and the world, Christ as the end of the law, not only in his death but in his birth.)

In neither the lively nor the deathly experience of our death is that death any less real. All that matters is which way death’s shadow falls.

If it falls towards us, on this side of our inevitable definition in death, then our life is lived in a valley of death’s shadow. We live and die in a twilight; aware of the hint of more but not able to do much more than light candles and fires against the encroaching gloom.

But if death’s shadow falls away from us, on the other side of death, this means that death is obscure, that we cannot see what is beyond it, what it holds for us. This is to say that death is incomprehensible. And this is to say that we – who are mortal – do not yet now what we are. What it finally means to be a creature is still hidden from us, even if we walk now in the light. But we need no longer be jumping at the shadows.

This is the death – and the life – to which we are called, in all its incomprehensibility. And the word about all this is given in Isaiah for our comfort: when God comes, we become as we are created to be.

In the church, of course, we also hear rumours of resurrection, of death overcome and of life without end. At heart, this way of speaking is to say the same thing with a different emphasis or accent. Resurrection does not deny our death but only changes it; the “only”, however, is momentous: freedom from fear, life along straight and level pathways.

The gospel is that God is coming. And this will be the end of you. And a new beginning.

God comes that we might know that we are not God, that we are not necessary and do not need to try to be. More than merely necessary, we are loved, desired, by the God who created us in order that he might come to us, and we to him.

And God will come, and come, and come, and come… until we are his.

Now and always, all praise and glory be to the God who creates, sustains and sets us free. Amen.

17 May – Against the law

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Easter 7

1 John 5:9-13
Psalm 1
John 17:6-19

At a first glance there is a beautiful simplicity in this, the first of the psalms: Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord … they are like trees planted by streams of water, [whose] leaves do not wither. Who would not want to be such a “tree” – nourished and strong?

But, with closer attention to the whole of the psalm, objections leap up. Is not the poet just a little naïve when he declares that, the wicked are not so [blessed], but are like chaff that the wind drives away? Certainly the psalmist speaks of the failure of the wicked “in the judgement”, but experience is that “sinners” often stand “in the congregation of the righteous”, and it often seems that the way of the wicked does not perish – or not quickly enough for our liking.

One way of dealing with this contradiction is to cast it all to some end-time judgement when all things are sorted out, but this seems to strain the language of the psalm rather a lot. More than that, an end-time resolution isn’t particularly comforting for those who do delight in God’s instruction and yet suffer greatly at the hands of others, and such comfort would seem to be the point of the psalm in the first place. The apparent simplicity of the thought of the psalm is in fact not simple at all, and our objections on the basis of our experience or that of others can make it say almost nothing helpful. We might well wonder: what is the blessedness or happiness of those who delight in the law of God? A satisfactory answer hinges on our understanding of “law” held in God’s creative tension with “gospel”.

We know of “law” in two main senses. The first is law as it is written down for us as a moral code. This includes such things as the Ten Commandments, as well as the laws which our parliaments continue to create and modify so as to maintain some kind of moral order in the complexity of our day-to-day dealings with each other. These are laws which, we know, can be “broken”. To “break the law” is to fail to observe a requirement which God or society has laid upon us.

The other kind of law we know about is that implied by the expression “the laws of nature”. An important characteristic of these laws, at least at the level of our usual engagement with the world (“classical physics”), is that they are entirely predictable. The offence we might take at the miracle stories in the Scriptures arises from our sense that nature is orderly, and things necessarily happen only according to predictable patterns: people can’t walk on water and waves cannot be stilled with a command. Natural laws cannot be broken. If we really suspected that they could, we could not trust the seat we go to sit in, or the brakes we apply to slow our car, or the aeroplane we climb onto. Planes crash not because the laws of nature have failed but because they are relentless: gravity always sucks, and everything on a flying machine has to work according to natural laws which are just as dependable in order to balance gravity’s unforgiving character.

So we know of the breakable moral law, and the unbreakable natural law. But the important thing is this: we tend to assume, or even to desire, that moral law works like natural law. We desire that, should I do the moral thing – the right thing – it shall have the right result. We seek predictability in the results of our actions. And so also vice-versa: when the moral law is broken, we desire a natural law consequence: that “the wicked” be blown away “like chaff”, as our poet puts it. This is the kind of thinking we hear in our psalm today: to delight in the law of God and to meditate upon it day and night is to create the necessary and sufficient conditions for blessed and happy life, implicitly free of the ravages of those who delight in other laws. Whether it is moral law or natural law, law is, it would seem for us, about cause and effect.

And this is where the problems begin: because too often it seems that the “effect” we see is one of “bad” people doing well. The cause of this effect is not that God’s law is obeyed, but that it is not. It seems, in fact, more the case that some of “the wicked” (to keep using that slightly archaic term from the psalm!) understand the way of things better than the good, and have discovered just which law it is which needs to be observed in order to get ahead. They know how to manipulate the moral and the natural laws in order to maximise the desired outcome.

But perhaps it is too easy here to focus on the “bad” people. It’s always more interesting to consider the “good” people that we are (of course!), and how we are ourselves caught up in just these problems. What are we to do when with heart and mind we do delight in the command of God, and yet in the living of our lives we see that we do not observe it? Are we really any better off than the “chaff” the psalmist waves off into the wind? If we do fall short of what God calls us to be, and if even the moral law is really about cause and effect, are we not already lost? Who could rightly imagine themselves to be among the blessed the psalmist speaks of, if we are honest with ourselves?

In fact it is only those who know a deeper “law” which does not have to do with cause and effect who find themselves beside a flowing stream which provides the living water they need. This deeper law is what we might characterise as the law of love, but not our love for each other or even our love for God. It is the waxing and waning of our which love creates our anxiety in the first place. The law of love begins with God’s love for us, a love which precedes anything we might do, and so which is not dependent upon our actions but upon God’s simple decision to love. St Paul declares that those who seek to stand only by the things they have done are under a curse (Galatians 3), implying that it is in fact impossible to live a life of such righteousness. Surprisingly, then, and in contrast to the natural sense of our psalm, the “wicked” for Paul become those who are sure that they have done the right thing.

No doubt there is much we have yet to learn about how it is that we should live in relation to each other, and so much benefit to be had from looking to the specifics of what God demands. But if it is possible to “believe in vain”, as we heard St Paul suggest on Easter Day, we can also “act” or “obey in vain”, and this must always colour what we make of our own actions. If wanting to obey God’s commands is itself not enough to set us right before God, then the blessed one and the wicked one of our Psalm are the same person, both oriented around the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

The love, or the justifying action, of God, however, sets the law in its right place, and a simple reversal takes place: our obedience to God’s command is not the context within which God loves and blesses us; rather, God’s love and blessing is the context within which we might tend to God’s commands.

In our gospel reading this morning Jesus prays, Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me (John 17.11f). This “name” is “Father”, which is important here because it makes those “protected” by it “children” in the same way that Jesus is “Son”. The streams of water the psalmist speaks of is the freedom of the children of God, who know themselves to be safe and secure because they are God’s children, and so who have no need to transgress, to live selfishly and without concern for the needs of others. It is when we believe ourselves already to have all we really need before God (cf. Ps 23.1) that God’s law becomes the best way to live.

Faith is knowing ourselves as the children of God. Freedom begins with faith – not faith that God “exists”, but faith that faith is enough to stand justified before God and those around us.

May we pray then, that God’s people discover anew the life which is already theirs in the Christ who is both the psalmist’s tree and stream – the Christ who is the sign of a life lived in God and the nourishment of such a life. In this, may Christ’s blessedness may be ours, that we might find our rest in him. Amen.