Search Results for: john of the cross

October 15 – John of the Cross

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John of the Cross, person of prayer

John de Yepes, known as John of the Cross was poet, mystic and reformer, born in 1542 near Avila in Spain. His writing makes clear the spiritual significance of ‘the dark night of the soul’. John became a Carmelite Friar and got to know Teresa of Avila and supported her work for reform within the Carmelite community, introducing the movement to the men. He was imprisoned at Toledo by opponents of the reform in 1577, and treated with great cruelty. He wrote his first poems in this period. After nine months, he escaped and held leadership roles in the reformed group in the 1580s. However, as the reformed group also split, John supported the moderates, was removed from office, and sent to a remote community in Andalusia in 1591. He died there after a severe, three-month illness. It was only after his death that the significance of his thought and work for the community was recognised.

John’s writings flowed from his own experience, and are recognised for their literary beauty as well as their spiritual significance. There are three poems, all with related commentaries by him: The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love, as well as the famous second commentary on Dark Night known as The Ascent of Mount Carmel. An emphasis on trust is God’s grace not worldly success is typical of his thought.

If only people would understand how impossible it is to reach God’s riches and wisdom except by passing through the thicket of toil and suffering! The soul must first put aside every comfort and desire of its own. A soul that truly yearns for divine wisdom begins by yearning to enter the thicket of the Cross.

Saint Paul therefore urges the Ephesians ‘not to be disheartened by tribulations’ but to be courageous, ‘rooted and grounded in love so that you may grasp, with the saints, the breadth and length and height and depth and the all-surpassing love of the knowledge of Christ, so as to attain the fullness of God himself.’  For the gate to these riches of God’s wisdom is the Cross; many desire the consoling joy to which the Cross leads, but few desire the Cross itself. (The Spiritual Canticle,  37)

With Teresa of Avila, John’s writing on the experience of prayer and growth in the spiritual life are regarded as having a unique authority.

By Dr Katharine Massam

November 20 – John Williams & Thomas Baker

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John Williams & Thomas Baker, Christian pioneers

Rev. John Williams

Older members of the Uniting Church who attended a Congregational Sunday School remember collecting money for the missionary ship of the London Missionary Society called the John Williams. There was a whole series of ships over the years bearing the name of John Williams. The Rev. John Williams was not only one of the great missionaries of the Pacific but he also made a significant contribution to the development of the Christian faith in Australia.

John Williams was born in Tottenham High Cross in London 27 June 1796.  His father John was one of the many generations who had been Baptists. His mother had been influenced by Calvinistic Methodism and John Williams became a Congregationalist. He was apprenticed to an ironmonger at age 14 and soon after was entrusted with the management of the business. It was an indication of his ability, managerial skills and boundless energy. These were characteristics he displayed during his highly significant missionary work in the South Pacific.

In 1814 he underwent an evangelical conversion and became a member of the Tabernacle Church (Calvinistic Methodist) and in 1816 he volunteered for missionary service with the London Missionary Society. He was accepted and was ordained a Congregational Minister at Surrey Chapel on 3 September 1816. On 29 October that same year he married Mary Chauner of Deraton Hall, near Choadley in Staffordshire. Williams was accompanied to Tahiti by other mission staff. The Rev. Lancelot Threlkold whose work later in the central coast of NSW with aboriginal people was significant, joined the party at Rio de Janeiro. The group arrived in Hobart Town in March 1817 and John Williams conducted the first Evangelical service in Van Diemans Land. Williams defied the Anglican Chaplain and preached in the open air. The group moved on to Sydney where already there was an itinerant Evangelistic ministry. Governor Lachlan Macquarie was impressed by the group and their enthusiasm.

While not unique to the London Missionary Society there were certain principles that their missionaries were meant to follow. They were encouraged to relate to the administering authority. Not only was Governor Macquarie impressed with the calibre of these missionaries to the South Pacific but Samuel Marsden was very impressed with John William’s ability. There was a bond between John Williams and the Rev. Samuel Leigh, the pioneer Methodist minister in Australia.

Another principle was to encourage economic enterprise both to help the people and to assist the mission to become self-supporting. When John Williams and his wife came to Sydney in 1821, he recruited Thomas Scott to teach the people of Raiatea (the island where the mission was established) how to grow sugarcane and tobacco. Williams also bought a ship to ply between Raiatea and Sydney knowing that if any economic development was to happen it would need a bigger market. The Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane was so impressed by Williams that he gave him a gift of animals and gave him magisterial authority for the islands.

The London Missionary Society encouraged churches that had been established and people who had come to faith to evangelise other communities. So Tahitians went to the Cook Islands, Cook Islanders went to New Caledonia and its outlying islands and to Papua. John Williams was active in encouraging this missionary enterprise and was involved in it himself. In 1839 he landed on a beach in Eromanga in what is today Vanuatu, hoping to bring the Gospel to those people, but he was clubbed to death. It was a sad ending to a brilliant missionary career.

We think of John Williams as an Apostle to the Pacific but he also had an important contribution in Australian Christian faith. He was deeply concerned about the plight of the Aboriginal people, appearing before a House of Commons Committee in London looking into the matter. He was influential in the formation in Australia of the Aborigines Protection Society. He was at heart a missionary.

Much of this material has been drawn for the article on John Williams by Neil Gunsen in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Rev John Mavor

28 April – The Pointy End of John’s Gospel

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Easter 2

Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 118
John 20:19-31

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

How was Thomas to know that the end of the story could change? Everyone knows that when a person is dead and buried, that is the end of the story. Friends and loved-ones will go on with their lives changed but it will not include the living presence of the deceased. How was Thomas to know that the Jesus story would not end like all other human stories?

Thomas is the archetypal sceptic. John’s gospel sets Thomas up as the sceptic on behalf of all the sceptics in the church through the whole life of the church.

It is a dramatic device that helps to draw us into the story. Sue and I recently saw an opera that had a changed ending. A character in the drama expressed the emotions of the audience on our behalf. Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg traditionally finishes with the girl standing looking adoringly beside her man as he succumbs to the sickeningly nationalistic arguments of the chorus and accepts the invitation to join the Singers in order to strengthen the domination of their culture. In a recent production of the opera the girl, without a word said (or sung) indicates her distain for what is being argued and her man’s compliance with the invitation. Instead of joining the cast in their adulations, she storms off stage. As the arguments to join the singers unfolds the audience grows in its understanding of why this opera was so loved by Hitler. The heroine’s reaction expresses the horror of a modern post World War II audience and makes it known on our behalf.

Thomas is the dramatic sceptic on behalf of us all. He will not believe that Jesus is alive until he sees him and touches the wounds by which he was killed. Time for a trivia question. How do we know that Jesus was nailed to the cross? Answer: because Thomas mentioned the marks of the nails in his hands. This is the only time in any of the gospels that nails are mentioned in connection with Jesus’ crucifixion. It was usual for the crucified to be with attached by rope. The Life of Brian is the best evidence for this.

So, Thomas stands as the representative sceptic to the resurrection. He does not explore any of the common conspiracy theories as to why the disciples thought they were seeing the Lord. They make intriguing reading – they include the idea that there was a quick substitute made at Golgotha, or that he only seemed to die. My favourite suggests that he was resuscitated and moved to the south of France with Mary Magdalene. No, Dan Brown did not invent that conspiracy.

So, how does John’s dramatic device work in his story of Thomas? Mary Magdalene told disciples that the stone had been rolled away. Peter and the Beloved Disciple inspected the empty tomb and then went home. Mary stayed in the garden and met who she thought was a gardener. Some art work I have seen recently explains her mistake. Jesus is depicted carrying a spade – very helpful. At the sound of her name she recognised the Lord. Mary is the first witness to the resurrection, and she tells the disciples. The same day Jesus appeared to the disciples and showed them his hands and side and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them.

So far belief has been dependant on seeing the risen Lord. It is not enough for Thomas to be told by the disciples. Belief for Thomas will require the same evidence as the others had. Seeing Jesus and the marks of crucifixion – the signs that the one who was dead is alive.

John the evangelist is starting to come to the pointy end of his gospel. If there is one purpose for his telling the story of Jesus that stands out above all others it is that the world should believe. The other gospel writers have a similar purpose, but John mentions the purpose at every opportunity. The word ‘believe’ arises nearly 100 times. That is why this part of the story is a pointy end. The circle of believers is opening out.

John courageously raises the possibility of doubt. In the late 1970s John Westerhoff, an American Christian Educationalist, visited Melbourne. One of the things he advocated was that the church tends to be in too much of a hurry to confirm and or baptise its members too young. He advocated that there should a be rite of passage for adolescents in which they are enrolled as catechumens and given permission to doubt, and that this rite should be celebrated on the feast of St Thomas.

In John’s story he grapples with the issue of doubt. But, more importantly, he deals with the issue of belief, of coming to faith. The intention of Thomas is that he will be the man of action. He will see Jesus. He will put his finger in the nail prints. He will put his hand in the spear wound. But faith is a gift of God not a human accomplishment. It is a gift to the first disciples who saw and touched and to those who follow who say they cannot see and touch Jesus.  In the event all the action is initiated by Jesus. Thomas looks and does not touch. Artists have led us astray on this point too. In some he conducts a gruesome forensic inspection. That is not how John tells it.

Thomas encounters the risen Christ and makes his monumental proclamation. No one has seen the situation in quite the same way as Thomas does at this moment. Yes, in Mark and Matthew the centurion acknowledges Jesus as God’s son, but in John it is Thomas who makes the credal statement, ‘My Lord and my God’. This is the pointy end because it ties right back to where John started – ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Thomas is given the insight the one they all called ‘Lord’ is God.

Faith is Christ as Lord and God is not my accomplishment. It is given me in the church. It is in the church among other believing and doubting Christians that I discover Jesus alive. It is in the church with all its complicated structures, its petty disputes, its incompetence, its scandals, with all its signs of antichrist, nevertheless the Spirit of Jesus who taught love and forgiveness in the face of hate and vengeance, who touched the contaminated with compassion, who gave sight and insight and life, and who did this on a backdrop of complicated structures, petty disputes, incompetence and scandal.

The living light of Christ blazes precisely because he is set on a dark canvass. The resurrected life of Christ is set right up against the crucified death of Jesus. For me it works like art. In order for the artist to depict a bright image there must be dark shadow. Take a look at how artists depict light particularly in art depicting sunlight, just how much and how dark the shadow is. Without shadow, the eye cannot perceive that the sun is shining.

We await a day when the light of Christ will be perfectly perceived in a place where our perceptions will not need shadow or death.

June 3 – Pope John XXIII

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Pope John XXIII, reformer of the Church

Pope St John XXIII (born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, 1881-1963) came from humble beginnings, through a diplomatic ministry in the Roman Catholic Church, to become Pope at the age of 77, from 1958-1963. He was canonized in 2014. Far from being the caretaker in that role which others imagined, less than three months from his election, he called the Second Vatican Council together and presided over its first sessions (1962), Pope Paul VI bringing it to a conclusion after three more sessions, in 1965. Unusually, his saint’s day is not the date of his death, but the day the Council began (September 11). The Uniting Church remembers on his ‘heavenly birthday, June 3, and we grant him the title ‘Reformer of the Church’. His own favourite papal title was ‘Servant of the servants of God’. Many called him ‘Good Pope John’. He charmed people with his gentle sense of humour.

The Vatican Council was indeed a reforming council, well beyond expectation. It benefitted from a century of serious scholarship and pastoral thought across Europe and the Catholic world. He invited representatives of other churches as non-voting observers. There was lively debate on the floor of St Peter’s, and in the coffee shops around Rome. His stated intention was to ‘open the windows [of the Church] and let in some fresh air.’ The unimagined result was change in the whole of the western church. Key documents were composed and promulgated, the first being on ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), which propelled the Roman church into relationship with others, defining non-Catholics as ‘separated brethren’.  From dialogue, we have all learned to state more clearly what we believe, what unites and what still divides us as Christians. The Church’s primary purposes and its structures were redefined in Lumen Gentium, including its evangelical mission in the world. The liturgy was radically challenged, vernacular forms of language replacing Latin, word and sacrament given a new balance, and new rites composed. The centrality of Scripture was emphasized and a new three-year lectionary created. On all of this scholarship and wisdom, other churches have drawn on in their own ongoing reforms.

Pope John was a Christian visionary. His passionate sense of humanity was summed up in his remark, We were all made in God’s image, and thus, we are all Godly alike.’ Many of the gains of the Council must be attributed to the gifts of Pope Paul VI, but it was Good Pope John who summoned his Church, and all of us, to reform and renewal in the humble spirit of Christ.

Robert Gribben

May 7 – John Flynn

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


John Flynn, Christian pioneer


John Flynn (1880-1951) was a Presbyterian minister, missionary, and founder of the Australian Inland Mission. He was born in Moliagul in Victoria, Australia. In 1902, after four years with the Education Department of Victoria, Flynn joined the home mission staff of the Presbyterian Church, working amongst remote communities.

First, through his successful publication, Bushman’s Companion (1910), and then through the Oodnadatta Nursing Hospital, Flynn began a long career of developing services and ministry to bush dwellers. He was ordained in 1911 when he was assigned for two years to what was known as the Smith of Dunesk Mission based at Beltana, South Australia. In 1912 he reported on the needs of remote Aboriginal and white communities in the Northern Territory, presenting a vision of the church’s mission to the sparsely populated areas of inland Australia.

For the next 39 years, as superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission, Flynn was guided by the motto “For Christ and the Continent” and by putting need before creed. In 1928 he founded the mission’s Aerial Medical Service at Cloncurry, Queensland, later known as the Royal Flying Doctor Service.  This fulfilled his dream of a “mantle of safety” for outback Australians. From 1939 until 1942 Flynn was moderator general of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. His image is on the Australian $20 note and there are many memorials to Flynn around Australia.  At Moliagul there is a memorial with the inscription, “Across the lonely places of the land he planted kindness and gathered love.”  The John Flynn Memorial Church in Alice Springs is his official memorial.

William Emilse

Holy Saturday: The Lamenation or Desposition from the Cross

The story which follows the crucifixion of Jesus appears in several Gospels.

Matthew (27: 55-61) tells of the many women who were there. They had followed Jesus from Galilee, and had provided for him. Among these were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. (Mark adds Salome.)


When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimethea, named Joseph. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus, and Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there. Luke adds: It was the day of preparation and the Sabbath was beginning. The women prepared spices and ointments.

John adds: Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about one hundred pounds.

The Lamentation of Christ is a very common subject in Christian art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque.

The model for this icon comes from Ethiopia. Several parts of the story are included in the one icon – the women looking on at the empty crosses (left corner), – The wrapping of Jesus by Joseph of Arimethea while the head of Jesus rested in the lap of Mary, and Mary Magdalene looks on, – and finally the wrapped body is placed in the tomb (right top). The tree which is central may depict the new life which will come with the Resurrection.



Almighty God, whose precious Son, Jesus Christ, ministered to the spiritual needs of Nicodemus under cover of darkness, and was himself, in turn, cared for quietly on the dark night of his death; we thank you that the reverberation of such actions continues until the present time, and offers impetus and encouragement to all who seek to meet the “night” needs of people everywhere.          (From John Carden: A Procession of Prayers)

Merciful God, whose servant, Joseph Arimethea, with reverence and godly fear, prepared the body of our Lord and Saviour for burial, and laid it in his own tomb; Grant us, your faithful people, grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our lives.                                       (USA. Feast of Joseph of Arimethea, 31 July)


December 14 – John Geddie & John Paton

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John Geddie & John Paton, Christian pioneers

John Geddie

John and Charlotte Geddie laid the foundations of Presbyterian mission work in the New Hebrides. From 1848 to 1872 they pioneered Christian missions on the small island of Aneityum where they set the patterns for evangelism, church planting and growth, education, and health. John was born in Banff, Scotland 9 April 1815. In 1816 the family moved to Pictou, Nova Scotia, Canada. The Presbyterian Church licensed him as a minister in May 1837 and ordained him in 1838.

He married Charlotte Leonora McDonald in September 1839. During his seven years of ministry on Prince Edward Island, Geddie promoted overseas missions and pressed the Church Assembly to establish an overseas missions committee. The Church chose the New Hebrides as its mission field, and in 1846 it appointed John Geddie as its first missionary.

After six months orientation in Samoa, the Geddies arrived at Anelgauhat, Aneityum on 29 July 1848 aboard the LMS mission ship John Williams. They joined several Samoan and Raratongan teachers who had worked there since 1841. They befriended the local people and learnt the language. The women warmly received Charlotte and her growing number of children. Two of their eight children later married New Hebrides missionaries. Women encouraged their men to attend worship, and to participate in literacy, numeracy, Bible, health, hygiene, agriculture and other courses. Gradually attendance at worship increased. Village schools were established and staffed by Polynesian and Aneityumese teachers. Geddie and colleague John Inglis established a teacher-catechist training institution. The teachers taught literacy and numeracy and conducted daily village prayer, worship and Bible study. Charlotte used her medical knowledge to help the sick. She and John visited the schools and prepared readers and other literature printed on their Mission Press. John encouraged the processing of copra and arrowroot to enable the local Church to become self-supporting. He worked with local Christians to translate the New Testament into Aneityumese. After John’s departure in 1872, Inglis completed the translation of the Old Testament.

For over two decades, Geddie had helped new missionaries from the Pacific Islands, Scotland, Nova Scotia and Victoria to settle in the islands and to develop their own mission programmes. After twenty-four years, on 4 June 1872, Geddie and his missionary colleagues met on Aneityum to constitute the New Hebrides Presbyterian Mission Synod. The next day Geddie suffered a stroke. He returned to Geelong where he died on 14 December 1872 aged 57. He was buried in the Eastern Cemetery. Charlotte established mission support groups in churches in Geelong and Melbourne, and later was a foundation member of the Victorian Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union. She died in Malvern, Victoria, on New Year’s Day 1916, aged 94.

During Geddie’s pioneering ministry, many communities accepted the Christian faith. Solid foundations were laid for locally led Church planting and growth, support, and leadership. John Geddie’s epitaph on the pulpit at Aneityum stated, “When he landed in 1848 there were no Christians here and when he left in 1872 there were no heathens”.


John Paton

John Gibson Paton was a passionate evangelist, Presbyterian Church leader and advocate for justice. A compelling speaker, he raised the profile of mission work in Australasia and the British Isles. Born on 24 May 1824 in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, he worked at various trades before studying theology at the Free Church Normal Seminary. For ten years he was an evangelist in the Glasgow City Mission. In spare time he studied at the University of Glasgow, the Andersonian (Medical) College and the Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall. He was licensed to preach on 1 December 1857 and on 23 March 1858 ordained as a minister and missionary to the southern New Hebrides.

His stay at Port Resolution on Tanna from November 1858 was brief and tragic. In March 1859 his wife Mary Ann (Robson), their infant son and a missionary colleague died of malaria and he was very ill. Tannese opposition to Christianity increased when a measles epidemic caused the deaths of a third of the population and three devastating hurricanes left many starving. In 1861 intertribal fighting broke out and the sickly Paton and colleague Matheson hastily withdrew to Aneityum.

These sad and painful experiences had positive results. An excellent propagandist and story-teller, Paton toured the Australian colonial Churches with graphic descriptions of his experiences in mission work, Over the next forty years he raised thousands of pounds and obtained the permanent support of Sabbath schools and congregations for the mission and its ship Dayspring. When he went to Scotland in 1864 to recruit more missionaries, he was inducted as moderator of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland. There he married Margaret Whitecross. In 1865 he stirred up missionary enthusiasm in the newly united Presbyterian Church of Victoria and was appointed as its first missionary to the very small island of Aniwa. Between 1865 and 1872 Aniwa became almost entirely Christian. Margaret’s illness caused their withdrawal in 1872 but John continued regular visits for another thirty years and in 1899 presented them with the complete New Testament in Aniwan.

Paton rapidly became an international figure. From 1881 as Presbyterian Mission Agent, and as Moderator of the Victorian Church in 1886, he continued mission promotion and toured extensively in the Colonies and Britain. He was a political activist, making vigorous representations to Colonial premiers, British Prime Ministers and American Presidents. He opposed the “Melanesian slave trade”, and its recruiting irregularities; He opposed the expansion of French colonial interests and begged Britain to annex the New Hebrides, the Solomons and New Guinea and to ban arms and liquor for “the native races”. In 1891 Edinburgh University conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Divinity.

In 1891 the interdenominational ‘John G. Paton Fund’ was founded in Britain to support some New Hebrides missionaries including John’s son Frank H L Paton at Lenakel. John’s wife Margaret Whitecross Paton was also involved mission support and the PWMU. She died in May 1905. John died in Melbourne on 28 January 1907. Both rest in Boroondara cemetery after lifetimes of dedicated service.

Malcolm Campbell

9 July – Resting on the cross

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Pentecost 5

Zechariah 9:1-12a
Psalm 145
Matthew 11:1-6, 16-19, 25-30

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

These are surely words we all hear gladly – the promise of an easy yoke and a light burden: rest for our souls. And yet the yoke which Jesus carries, the burden he bears – the yoke and burden he offers us – is the cross. How is it that this is an easy (or better translates, “kind”, or “good”) yoke and a light burden?

Our passage began with Jesus characterising “this generation”. Here he means not merely the people to whom he was speaking at the time, but all who share in a similar outlook. That outlook, whichever local form it might take, has its substance in a rejection of the kingdom of God as he preached it.

Jesus cites as evidence for this the rejection of both John the Baptist and himself. “John came, neither eating nor drinking, and you said he had a demon; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you called him a glutton and a drunkard”. It is claimed by their critics that John and Jesus don’t “fit”, don’t connect in with what it “obviously” a more appropriate way to do and to be.

But Jesus’ own critique reveals that this is more than a matter of John and himself not simply fitting some particular sense for appropriate behaviour and outlook. John and Jesus represent polar opposites, but neither fit. It is not a matter of the conservatives finding comfort in John but rejecting Jesus, or the liberals rejecting John but finding a kindred spirit in Jesus. There is nothing in the judgement of either John or Jesus which shows us therefore how we ought to be, except perhaps the grey, murky and dull option of “moderation”.

The not-fitting of Jesus and John is more fundamental than their not toeing this or that party line.

Jesus clarifies thus: God has hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.

When we think about our children, the temptation to sentimentality is strong. We love them, they love us; it is not for nothing that the image of God as embracing us as children is so strong in our religious desires and traditions.

But it is not sentimentality to which Jesus appeals here. The characteristic of little children important here is their inability to judge. Children simply receive. An infant does not know whether she is learning the right or wrong way to be, whether her parents are good or bad, whether she is born into privilege or deprivation. She simply is. And receives. And gives.

If I go much further we’ll end up in sentimentality again, because it is also important to grow and learn and mature and discern. What is “wrong” or incomplete about children can certainly be addressed in maturity; Jesus’ point here, however, is that what is wrong or distorted in maturity is present in infancy.

Again: the characteristic of little children important here is their inability to judge.

The inability to judge in little children reflects a kind of absence of knowledge – not knowing what is good or what is evil, but simply acting and being acted upon. It is for this reason that, even when they are being naughty, little kids are so gloriously free of guile, free of calculating shrewdness.

Important for understanding what is going on here is the Genesis apple-munching episode: the desire of Adam and Eve to know what is good and what is evil. And what is the first thing which happens when this knowledge is received? Self-awareness and fear:

…the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked;

Adam then relates to God:

I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

What is going on here? God has already seen them – us – naked. This is doubtless an occasion of great mirth for God, but is also how we are created and is not a ground for judgement.

The knowledge of good and evil delivers the capacity to judge. But it becomes in our hands a loose cannon, firing wildly in all directions. It first victims are Adam and Eve themselves. They judge themselves as incomplete in their nakedness, and they judge God: that God will also be offended by them in their nakedness. This kind of knowledge brings only judgement and the fear of judgement. It is a knowledge which divides, distances, crucifies.

This is the whole of our human predicament: our judgement of each other, our judgement of God. The whole of the gospel is the converse: judgement itself judged.

If you were to look at John the Baptist and Jesus you would find them irreconcilable: on the one hand, the mad-eyed fanatic beyond the city wall, eating grasshoppers and shouting prophecies; on the other hand, the gentle healing touch brought bear among the city’s best and worst. Who could see the reign of God between these two extremes?

But this is precisely the labour and heavy burden from which Jesus offers us freedom in our reading today: the labour of having to see, to know – the labour of anxious knowledge and the burden of judgement which comes with it. The yoke and the burden which Jesus brings is a death to the hold these things have on us, an end to the ceaseless cycles of judgement and recrimination.

The sign, and the means, of this death is the cross of Jesus.

The cross is the sign because it reminds us that there is nowhere we can go where God’s love does not follow. Our judgement of Jesus – to the point of naming him God-forsaken on the cross – is not God’s judgement on him. The resurrection of Jesus is a vindication which points us back to the cross as a sign of the depth of God’s commitment to us.

And the cross of Jesus is the means of our death to the cycles of judgement because God allows that Christ’s cross also be our cross. Jesus’ refusal to know, to judge, to divide, to distance – even to the point of being “known”, judged, divided and distanced himself – is offered to us.

To come to Jesus is to come to the cross.

Here rest is found because here our propensity for judgement and our fear of judgement are themselves judged and put to death.

Here God takes from the wise and the intelligent who imagine that they know and see, and gives to us who are reborn as children in God’s own kingdom.

Such children know and see only that they belong to God, and God belongs to them.

In Jesus God offers us the light yoke and kind burden of having nothing to fear. In this is rest for our souls.

Thanks be to God.

12 April – The Resurrection Appearance in John 20: 19-31

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Easter 2

Acts 4:32-5:11
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

Ressurection IconThe Anastasis or Resurrection icon depicts Christ clothed in white, surrounded by a radiating blue capsule or mandorla (Italian for almond). To this point the icon resembles traditional icons of the Transfiguration. In the Resurrection icon Christ straddles the black abys of death standing on two sarcophagus lids. He is drawing Adam and Eve out of their tombs. With Christ, Adam and Eve are alive, they are resurrected.

Orthodox theology is very clear that this icon does not represent any historical moment. It does not depict that which no one saw happen, which no gospel writer describes. They all describe the death and the post resurrection appearances of Jesus. Luke describes the ascension. They tell of the empty tomb but not of the emptying moment.

Neither does the Resurrection icon depict any moment in history.

Leonid Ouspensky has written of the theology of icons. He writes of the Asastasis icon, “The unfathomable character of this event for the human mind, and the consequent impossibility of depicting it, is the reason for the absence, in traditional Orthodox iconography, of the actual moment of the Resurrection.”

Orthodox theologians describe this as a dogma icon. It is not about an event. Rather it is about a truth that interprets an event. Jesus Christ was crucified and on the third day rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. In baptism Christians enter into Christ’s death and rise into his resurrected life. “The Resurrection of Christ is simultaneously also the Resurrection of humanity; the Resurrection is not only the Resurrection of Christ, but a majestic universal event, a ‘cosmic event’”. (Branos. Θεωρία Ἁγιογραφίας. pp.216,217.,, April 2015)

Just as Orthodox iconographers set out to paint the image of truth about Christ, so the gospel writer, John, set out to tell in story form, truth about the resurrected Christ. We can set aside the historical veracity of the story he tells. It differs remarkably from other accounts.

We have been conditioned by Luke’s gospel to understand the transition of Christ from a man inhabiting our human existence through death, burial, resurrection, post resurrection appearances to the disciples, the ascension to heaven, and then the sending of the Holy Spirit. All very lineal. Suits our time bound existence.

Rudolf Bultmann suggests that the resurrected Christ in John’s gospel who appears to the disciples behind closed doors does so as the crucified, risen and ascended One. John has told the little story of Mary in the garden mistaking the risen Jesus for the gardener. 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father… ‘” (John 20:17). The crucified, risen and ascended Christ appears to the disciples, greets them with peace, breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, and sends them. Christ’s sending of the disciples is the same type of sending by which the Father sent the Son. The mission of God’s sending of Jesus is the mission of Jesus sending the disciples. The Church is the heir of Christ’s mission in the world.

Well, the gospel writers admit that this kind of stuff is a bit difficult to swallow. How are we supposed to believe such things? It is not difficult to imagine that there were members of the early Church that struggled with faith and doubt. The gospels suggest that it was ever thus from the beginning of the Church – from the beginning some took more time than others for the truth to click. Luke tells of two disciples who couldn’t get it at first even though they were in the presence of the risen Lord as they walked to Emmaus. Mark tells of those who are first told of Christ’s resurrection running away in fear and didn’t tell anyone. The gospels are up front. Paul nailed the issue when he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,…’ (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

John puts the disbelieving problem on the shoulders of Thomas. He is the one who, for so many of us down the ages, has responded to the doctrine of the resurrection, “Prove it! – show me the evidence that the Jesus who was killed by crucifixion is the living and ascended Lord.”

A week later, John tells his church, Jesus appeared again and Thomas was there and the crucified, risen and ascended Christ invited a close inspection – a come and touch the evidence invitation. Thomas makes his declaration of faith, “My Lord and my God.” John doesn’t say if Thomas accepted the invitation to touch. Western artists such as Caravaggio depict him making an inspection with autopsy-like thoroughness.

Stylistically the inclusion of this bit of the story is a bit clunky. But it was important to tell the story because there was a body of opinion that suggested that either Jesus was not truly incarnate – he was a heavenly being who seemed to be human, or, he did not really die but seemed to die and was resuscitated. Dan Brown favours the second theory, hence the Da Vinci Code. He managed to keep the heresy alive in his block buster.

Some years ago I was at a cross cultural event in which church leaders from different ethnic origins shared something of their cultural and spiritual backgrounds. The Chinese presentation was impressive. Our colleague showed us video of the parts of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games and he helped us to understand the richness of the history of Chinese spirituality told to the world in that display.

What we were hearing was so beautiful, so aligned with our Christian hopes for peace and harmony. One Anglo minister dared to ask the speaker, “So, why do you need to be a Christian?” His answer was quick and simple – “Because the Word became flesh”, he said. A murmur of ascent ran through the room – an ‘Amen’ to this profound expression of Christian faith.

John tells the story of Thomas and his struggle to believe because from the beginning John has said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) And John asserts at the end of his gospel account that God’s word is with us in Jesus, that God is still with us in the crucified, risen and ascended Christ who breathed on his disciples and bestowed the Holy Spirit so that, in the Church, the Word still abides in flesh.

All the action is God’s. The disciples are given the encounter with the risen Christ. Thomas is given what he needs to cast doubt aside. Faith is never a work of human endeavour. Faith is God’s gift. New life in the crucified, risen and ascended Christ is a gift.

In like manner, those who paint an icon of the Anastasis, the Resurrection must take care that Christ’s hands clasp Adam and Eve in such a way that it is clear they are not holding onto him – he is holding onto them.

Adam and Eve in the Anastasis represent all humanity, all of us. The dogma captured in this image speaks of Christ reaching to us to draw us into his new life. This is not our doing. Like it or not Christ reaches out and holds us. His new life is his gift. Ours is the choice – to live his new life – or not.

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.

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