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September 21 – Matthew

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.

Matthew, witness to Jesus

(the evangelist & martyr)
(Greek: Mattheus = given, a reward)

The calling of the tax (or toll) collector Matthew by Jesus is mentioned explicitly in the Gospel that bears his name (Mt 9:9), although Mark and Luke use the name Levi in their parallel stories (Mk 2:14; Lk 5:27). All three Gospels list the name Matthew among the twelve disciples (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk 6:15; see also Acts 1:13), and tradition attributes the first Gospel in our NT canon to him.

The Gospel of Matthew has been associated with Antioch (Syria) by many scholars, coming together in the form we know today during the 80s at a time of great division and tension within the Jewish community there. It is not surprising then that this Gospel is in many respects the most Jewish of all (Mt 5:17–20!), whilst also containing the most severe criticism of the Temple authorities and other Jewish leaders (Mt 23; 27:25). Amongst other themes, Matthew’s Gospel is noted for its profound respect for the ‘Law and the Prophets’, the ‘New and the Old’, for the Sermon on the Mount, and for its 12 fulfilment citations of the OT (“This happened in order to fulfil — or to ‘fill up” — what was said in the Prophet/s . . .”).

Traditions about Matthew’s life after the resurrection are not very clear or convincing. One account has him on mission in Ethiopia, and martyred there (by axe).

Traditionally, St Matthew is Patron Saint of tax collectors and accountants. It would be appropriate also to suggest that he be Patron Saint to Jews who continue to wrestle with the Jesus traditions, to the persecuted, and to preachers and orators. His Feast Day is 21st September (in the West, and 16th November in the East).

By Dr Keith Dyer

Illuminating Liturgy – The Passion according to St Matthew – A Service Order

For a number of years the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist has heard the passion narrative of the gospel for that lectionary year on Passion (Palm) Sunday as a preparation for Holy Week. A version of that order — for Matthew’s Gospel in Year A – is shared here in the hope that it might be useful to others .

The text of the passion narrative is punctuated with prayers, psalms and hymns, with a few suggestions for dramatic actions which might help to reduce the ‘wordiness’ of such a long reading in church. The order also includes the Eucharist. More explanation of the service and how to prepare it are given in the downloadable document. Used ‘as is’ – including Holy Communion – the service would run for 70-75 minutes, depending on your music choices.

Please feel free to download this resource (in MS Word .docx format) and adapt it as appropriate to your local context. We’d love to hear whether it has been useful to you!

3 October – Becoming like a Child

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Pentecost 19

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Psalm 26
Mark 10:2-16

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God, may my words be loving and true; and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.

Our reading today from the Gospel of Mark the Evangelist, like our Gospel reading from last week, comes from a section of Mark’s Gospel which gives us a sort of loose collection of Jesus’ teachings. It’s kind of like the story is about to get to the good bit — where Jesus actually goes to Jerusalem to be arrested, tried, and crucified — but there’s still a couple of teaching moments that need to be squeezed in at the last minute. So it feels like we get a bit of a mishmash: last week we heard something about a rogue exorcist, and the risk of being cast into hell. And today we have heard a teaching about marriage and divorce; and then a teaching about needing to receive God’s kingdom like a child.

However, rather than being simply a collection of last-minute teachings before Jesus’ passion, I want to suggest that this section of the Gospel aims to prepare us for the road ahead. Jesus has before him a road which leads to death, and as our teacher it seems this is a road we too must follow. To quote the German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.”

The Gospel of Mark, while it is the shortest Gospel, doesn’t actually tell the life of Jesus in the most straightforward way. Mark at times repeats stories or teachings which the other Gospels don’t. Often the stories which are retold from Mark in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are actually shorter in their retelling. And then on top of that Mark sometimes seems simply to repeat himself.

In this transitional section of Mark Jesus predicts more than once that he must go to Jerusalem, be handed over, and die. As often as Jesus repeats this prediction, the disciples fail to understand it. Instead of heeding the foreboding words of their teacher the disciples instead challenge and rebuke Jesus, becoming distracted by fighting amongst themselves over who is greatest among them. Rather than the disciples taking the stark warning from their teacher as a sign to pay closer attention, we see instead the disciples repeatedly getting in the way of Jesus’ work. Last week, the disciples tried to get in the way of someone sharing in Jesus’ work of freeing the world from demonic forces; and today they try to keep away the children Jesus wishes to embrace and bless.

Setting today’s reading into the context of discipleship — and context is everything — allows us to see in Jesus’ teaching not only wise counsel, but a deeper lesson about what the path of following Christ is in fact about.

The question about the lawfulness of divorce is, in reality, a non-question. While there was some debate in Jesus’ day among the Pharisees — the forerunners of later Rabbinical Judaism, who like Jesus sought to teach their students how to interpret and apply the tradition they had received– While there was some debate among the Pharisees about how liberally or restrictive the law relating to divorce should be interpreted. What exactly should the threshold for divorce be? The question of whether men had the right, under Jewish law, to divorce women was not really at issue. Men had the right to divorce their wives; and there was little women could do about it.

While it can seem strange to modern ears, shaped by the ongoing struggle of feminism for women’s autonomy, what Jesus offers in seeming to rule out divorce is actually a subversion of the presumed rights of men. In heightening the seriousness and responsibility of marriage, Jesus makes clear that women cannot be discarded as though they simply do not matter. Men must hold onto the responsibility to provide for women who would otherwise struggle to sustain themselves in a society dominated by men.

Against the received tradition in which men had rights and little responsibilities, and women had little to no rights at all, Jesus seeks to assert the status, dignity, and equality of women. And Jesus makes this assertion not by a technical reading of the law, but by reclaiming the world that creation ought to be: the world that is in fact more true than the one in which we live, because of our hardened hearts.

So while we might take some clues from the subversive teaching Jesus offers here, when we think about the rights of women in our quite different context. We should also be attentive that what is at issue in Jesus’ teaching is the concern for the empowerment of women who have no rights, and the reclaiming of a world in which those without status are restored to full dignity and respect.

This is the theme which ties together the teaching about divorce and Jesus’ teaching about children. While children today are celebrated as joyous gifts, as signs of hope, protected by child labour laws, and a UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the context of the first century children had no legal rights of their own: excluded from participation in public life, or that of the synagogue, until they became “children of the commandment” at their “bar Mitzvah.” Much like women, the example of children represents those who were deemed to have no status in Jesus’ day. They were under the rule of their father. With no rights to freedom, only obligation.

In these two teachings Jesus is pointing to the focus on those without status in his broader redemptive work. This is what ties together Jesus’ movement from claiming that the world is one in which women without rights must be treated as equal, to the claim that we must welcome God’s Kingdom as though we were like children. God’s work is among the lowly, whom Christ embraces, empowers, and restores. And so we must see the disciple’s jostling for greatness as a cautionary tale, and allow ourselves to be led down the path Jesus must tread: the path that leads to Jerusalem, and ultimately the cross.

When, in our reading last week, Jesus talks about being cast into “hell,” using the word Gehenna: which refers to the Valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. Jesus is talking about a place you can visit, a place which was associated with ancient child sacrifice, and which in Jesus’ day was likely a rubbish dump — perhaps a smouldering cesspit. In other words, Jesus was talking about the place where the trash goes when it is taken out of Jerusalem. Jesus is talking about the place that it is cursed because it was believed to have been the site where children were sacrificed and discarded.

And so, when Jesus offers a vision of the world which upsets the presumed rights of men over women, when Jesus embraces the child, and offers harsh teachings which come with the threat of being cast onto the cursed rubbish heap, Jesus is trying to get his disciples to understand the path he is on. The seriousness of his call. Jesus is trying to get his disciples to see, to get us to see, that his way towards Jerusalem is for those who find themselves without status, those who are at risk of becoming refuse. Jesus goes to become one among the many who are discarded, who find themselves in hellish places, who go where the trash goes when it is taken out of Jerusalem.

Jesus is concerned with the discarded many of his day, and those of every day: in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Yemen, Tigray; refugee camps dotted throughout the world; the poor in slums waiting for the pandemic to come; and so many more. While we should certainly hear in this passage a lesson and guide about marriage, and how we should treat vulnerable children. We should, at the same time, hear here the faint echo of Jesus asserting a claim about the world his own saving work will bring. For Jesus the way to the trash heap, for us a path to a renewed order of righteousness and love: that goes through death and beyond it.

And so let us hear as Jesus’ disciples the challenge he gave to his first disciples:

If we are concerned with greatness in God’s Kingdom, let us not be concerned with ourselves. Let us have the same mind that was in Christ, who emptied himself, and took on the form of a servant.

Let us recall that we are the students, and our teacher is found willingly with the little ones, the disregarded, the broken, the maimed, the blind: those who have no rights. Let us seek out ways we can help those who are struggling — having slipped through the net of love which ought to bind us together.

Let us welcome all who work against the hellish places, where those who are refuse and rejected are sent. May we offer prayers and actions for displaced peoples in refugee camps, in warzones, in the midst of oppression.

And may we do this, not because we are good … but in contrition, knowing that we are still students of Christ’s way, still seeking to find our teacher who goes ahead of us to be with the afflicted. We do this because we have become children: lowly ourselves, obliged to others.

‘Everyone,’ — Holy Scripture says — ‘will be salted with fire.’

May we find in our own afflictions the teacher who embraces us like a child

May we find in the afflictions of others the willing one who lifts us out of our stumbling

May we find, and see, and hear the Good News:

In Jesus God reaches out in love, going before us, to bear the struggles we can no longer bear — binds the broken-hearted, gathers us in mercy, stands with us for justice: enacts a new order of righteousness and love. And though the fiery, hellish places seem never to be quenched, the risen ones resists, and resists and overcomes even death.

26 September – Who Speaks for the Church

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Pentecost 18

Numbers 11:24-29
Psalm 124
Mark 9:38-50

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

Who speaks for the Church? Our texts tell us this has been a problem from the beginning. We have just heard John the jealous disciple: “We tried to stop him because he was not following us”. To which Jesus replies: “Don’t stop him!” Or much earlier, Joshua, a dedicated “law and order” administrator, blurts out attempting to silence “unregistered” prophets: “My Lord, Moses: Stop them!” To which Moses responds: “Are you jealous…?”

According to our text, then, the word of Jesus is unequivocal: “Those who are not against us are for us”’ Recall, however, that we are told elsewhere that Jesus can also say: “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12.30). Only a blinkered flat earth rationalist will shout: “Another contradiction. The Bible is riddled with them”. To which the rejoinder must be: Context is everything!

So, what do we make of the Gospel today?  Who speaks for the Church? Who is truly a disciple? and What can disciples expect?

Teacher, we saw a man who was driving out demons in your name, and we told him to stop, because he doesn’t belong to our group’.

So, there we have it. The disciple censures the stranger because he was ‘not following us’. Note that: not following you, but not following US! So, it’s clear what the real problem is: the disciples don’t want to be followers, they want to be the ones followed. When this happens, party spirit becomes inevitable. The history of the Church might well stand as testimony to the exercise of such self-appointed guardians.

A mentor of mine used to say that church union became a problem the moment Jesus called his second disciple. This is not an exaggeration. Before the ink is dry we hear: I am of Paul. I am of Apollos. I am of Cephas. I am of Christ (1 Cor 1:12f). So the Pastoral Epistles try to solve the problem. Let’s have bishops, presbyters and deacons! But this is hardly more successful. Which Bishop? Alexandra or Antioch? Rome or Constantinople? Rome or Canterbury? Geneva or Canterbury? Canterbury or Wesley? Wesley or Booth? Stop them! Or closer to home, for its first 20 years the Uniting Church had a Doctrine Commission. No longer. Now it is Consensus. So, who speaks for the Church?

Today, as we know, it is not so much institutional denominations that stand over against one another, but factions within denominations: self-styled conservatives, progressives, liberals, fundamentalists, charismatics, social justice exponents – we know the list. Stop them!

No wonder Luther’s dying words are reputed to have been: “We’re beggars that’s for certain!”

So, “Who speaks for the Church?” is always a real question. And the answer? If we want to think properly about the Church, we will have to think first of all about Jesus himself. That means the requirement to resist party spirit. Against ‘exclusive brethren’, whether understood literally or figuratively, the definitions of belonging must ultimately be fluid. This is the first burden of today’s text.

And the second is this: the breaking of solidarity may well occur from outside pressure. It’s clear as the text unfolds that apostasy – rejection of the faith – has a long history from the very beginning. Here it is apparent that external persecution was causing some members of the church, not only to defect from the faith, but also to betray other members. For Mark’s community then the question understandably was: ‘How is this fracturing of the Christian community to be handled?

In graphic images, he tackles it by offering four parallel penalties undoubtedly repugnant to the squeamish: first drowning – literally adopted, recalling the same Luther’s remedy for re-baptizing Anabaptists – then selectively, the removal of eye, hand, and foot to prevent a prospective casting into “hell”.

If it all sounds pretty awful, cheer up: context is everything!  First, this confronting word “hell” is not what we might imagine. Here it is a regrettable translation in the text of the Greek word “Gehenna”. Gehenna is the name of a ravine in South Jerusalem. In the 1st century, the purpose of Gehenna was understood metaphorically. Although it was permanently ablaze as a place of fiery judgement for defaulting individuals, the crucial factor to grasp is that this destination was only temporary. Presumably it serves as forerunner to the later concept of purgatory. In any case, it was certainly only later in the Graeco-Roman period, and under Persian dualistic influence, that the bizarre permanent terminal imagery we associate with the word “hell” emerges – hell as a fiery alternative permanent destination to “heaven”.

The next penalties – the amputation of limbs, or the removal of an eye, obviously sound extreme. But the truth is that, in the first century, and still today in some Muslim communities, amputation of the offending member is in fact a liberalizing of punishment for capital offenses. Instead of losing an entire life, much better to lose only a part of the body. In any case, we can be confident that these vivid images were best understood metaphorically, the real point being that, in seeking the health of the whole community, expulsion, not execution, may well be the antidote to betrayal.

To this end, we are offered two remedial images – those of salt and fire. In the then practice of medicine, salt and fire were used to close amputation wounds. Drastic severance of eye, hand and foot obviously required prompt and decisive healing agents, otherwise death would be immediate. Knowing this, the whole passage surely looks quite different. ‘Everyone will be salted with fire’ we’re told. That’s the remedy for amputated limbs. That’s the remedy for apostasy: radical healing.

The point is that whatever we make of today’s text, one thing is clear: then, certain safeguards were required. Faith matters. It comes at a cost. There is a destiny at stake. Amputations, fire, and salt are a permanent scenario.

But salt has another function too. It is a healing remedy in a deeper sense. The injunction: ‘have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another’, is a recalling of the fact that in the Old Testament, salt is a symbol of the covenant. To share salt with others means really to share fellowship with them.

Today’s gospel reminds us, then, that being church is to experience both internal as well as external pressure. For this reason, to live as Church is like riding a bicycle. When you come to obstacles you have to dodge them – or you’ll fall off. This means that there is healing for all who metaphorically might consider themselves to have lost hand or foot or eye.

Today we can take comfort in the promise that the salt rubbed into wounds, though painful, is actually redemptive – not only in the reminder that Jesus said it would be like this, but that he himself lost not simply limbs but the whole of his being. The potential culling of limbs in our case is merely the start of what for him meant a final radical deprivation of life.

Yet the gospel is that we do not have the last word at all. For this dead one is sovereign Lord over all murderous, vindictive hearts: Where we fracture, he heals; whom we are against, he is for; in place of death he offers life.

So – despite the scary graphics – the Gospel today leaves us with real encouragement for a problematic future:

“Be salted with fire … and be at peace with one another”.

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 34A; Proper 29A (November 20 -November 26)

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Series I: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 100 see also By the Well podcast on this text 

Series II:

Matthew 25:31-46 see also By the Well podcast on this text 

Ephesians 1:15-23

25 July – The house of peace

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Pentecost 9

Ephesians 2:11-3:6
Psalm 91

In a sentence
God creates a peace in the midst of an unpeace bigger than we can comprehend

Those who watched the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics yesterday might have noticed the theme of peace in the speech of Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee. Yet it seems to me that, however well-intended were his words and other peace-themed elements of the opening ceremony and commentary, talk about peace deserves more.

We considered peace a few weeks back, and it appears again in today’s passage from Ephesians, and so we’ll press more deeply into what peace is in Paul’s account of the gospel. Paul addresses here a peace which has been found between the Jews and the Gentiles through the work of Jesus, who ‘came and proclaimed peace to you were far off [the Gentiles] and to those who were near [the Jews]’ (Ephesians 2.17).

It’s easy to be distracted from what Paul says here by things we think we know about Jews and Gentiles from reading the Scriptures and hearing that relationship preached for many years, perhaps intensified by contemporary Jew-Arab struggles in Palestine. So far as the Scriptures go, most influential for our hearing of the Jew-Gentile distinction is probably, first, our sense that Jesus was a radical inclusivist and, second, the resistance of the first Jewish Christians to Gentile inclusion.

The notion of Jesus the inclusivist owes most to the Gospels. We might take from texts like these that the Jews were exclusivist and that Jesus challenged this. Yet this reading forgets other things Jesus says and does – that John’s Jesus declares, ‘Salvation comes from the Jews’ or that Mark (and Matthew’s) Jesus characterises Gentiles as ‘dogs’ unworthy of the ‘the children’s bread’.

Jewish Christian resistance to Gentile inclusion began when Gentiles responded to the gospel about Jesus. The early church was composed of Jewish Christians, and the surprising conversion of Gentiles to the gospel caused much confusion and not a little resistance from Jewish believers.

Under the influence of these readings and perceived attitudes, the inclusion of the Gentiles looks like God overcoming human racism and bigotry through Jesus. The problem is cast as a lack of love on the part of ‘the Jews’, ‘finally’ overcome by God. Yet this is not what Paul says here. We presume ‘exclusivism’ because the outcome of what God does looks like political ‘inclusivism’. What God does here looks similar to what we aspire to do with our modern liberal notion of a broad common humanity and its corresponding commitment to a list of universal human rights. Because God looks inclusive in the way we seek to be, we easily conclude that it is exclusivist attitudes God overcomes, just as we seek to overcome them.

Yet Paul doesn’t speak of cultural or racial bigotry overcome in the newfound peace between Jews and Gentiles. He speaks instead of a divine intention previously hidden – and so unknowable – but now revealed. The absence of peace – the location of the Gentiles outside God’s house (2.12) – is not the result of a bad attitude on the part of the Jews. It is – or was – God’s ordering of things. Until it was revealed, there was nothing anticipated (or rejected) like the newly proclaimed relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jew-Gentile antagonism began not with the Jews (or the Gentiles, for that matter) but with God. We might say, then, that this unpeace was a God-sized problem.

To reinforce the point, we should also note that here it is not that the problem was a mistaken ‘idea’ about God and what God intended, God’s intention then being corrupted by religious bigotry. Paul doesn’t criticise the concept of divine election, the priority of the Jews or their distinctiveness among the nations. It was, for Paul, right that the Jews were separate in the way they had been. This distinction was God’s ordering of things. What happens now then, with the incorporation of the Gentiles into God’s house, is a total surprise or, in Paul’s language, a ‘mystery’.

The ‘mystery’ here is the co-existence in God of Jewish priority and Gentile equality. We don’t know how it is possible – apart from it having to do with the life and death of Jesus – but only that it is the case. And so Paul does not call us to peace here but declares peace – a peace which is already established, and established apart from the efforts of Jew or Gentile.

This has a strange consequence. For Paul the fundamental division in humanity is that between Jew and Gentile. Yet sin does not account for this division; the division arises – extraordinarily – from the grace of God towards the Hebrews. The strange thing is, then, that it is not sin which is overcome in the incorporation of the Gentiles into one body with the Jews, as God’s house.

It is because of this that Paul parts company with such talk of peace as we heard in the opening ceremony, including the unfortunate singing of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. When we say ‘peace’, we accuse each other because, in the secular world, there is no else to say it to, no one else from whom to seek or to expect peace, apart from each other – the implied sources of unpeace, now required to be different. When Paul says peace, it is not an imperative but an indicative: Paul says not ‘become peace’ but ‘here peace is’.

And so there is one other strange thing hidden in our passage today, related to what we’ve just said. The reconciliation Paul describes here is not quite a reconciliation of Jew and Gentile to each other. It is a reconciliation of each group to God (2.16). If there is a reconciliation between these communities, it springs from their respective reconciliations to God. This is to say that peace occurs between mutually antagonistic communities when God comes between them. As the Jews turn towards the Gentiles they see, as it were, through the God who is looking at them. And as the Gentiles look at the Jews, they too see through the God who is looking at them. There was a wall between them, now there is Jesus: to the Jews a blasphemer, to the Gentiles just a dead Jew. This is a peace out of nowhere.

Of course, despite what we’ve said about the divine source of the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, we know ourselves to be quite capable of bigotry and racism. And so, despite what we’ve said about God being the final source of peace, we can also ‘imagine’ ourselves capable of less bigotry and racism, and we can begin to act towards reconciliation. To proclaim peace as a gift already given is not to say we have no work to do. But it is to say that our work has the fundamental character of prayer. To build bridges is to give shape and body to God’s promise, the basis of all Christian prayer. Let us, then, pray for peace by working for peace, and call others this life-giving work.

And if this work were to be expressed as prayer, what might the words of that prayer be? Perhaps they would run something like this:

Our Father in heaven, may your name be profoundly honoured.

And so, may your kingdom come, and earth become heaven.



Lead us.

Deliver us.

For the coming of the peaceable kingdom begins and ends with you.

Illuminating Faith – Introduction to the New Testament


This is a ‘value-added’ study series based on an excellent online resource on the New Testament from Professor Dale Martin at Yale University, and complements a similar Yale course on the Old Testament also adapted for IF.

This undergraduate course outlines many important considerations scholars bring to reading the New Testament, as well as covering providing an introduction to the content of the New Testament. The course should be particularly useful for introducing lay people to modern historical critical methods developed over the last two centuries for interpreting these texts.

The whole series and its associated resources can be found in its original form on the Yale site. The ‘Sessions’ tab on that page brings up the full list of lectures, and clicking on each brings up the video, an audio-only version, transcription text, and any other resources (occasional handouts, etc.) relating to that session.

This IF version uses the Yale videos and a version of the Yale transcript reformatted into an easily printable PDF with paragraph numbering for easy reference in conversation groups. The main supplementary material is gathered together on one web page for each part, and a few other resources are also provided to build on the Yale material.

For an introduction to the series and presenting it in your local context, download our introductory document:

The studies can be done in one continuous series. It is, however, quite long, and so a break-up of the material into four parts is suggested below (the break-up is not part of the original series)

Preparing for the discussions

Prior to each session, watch the lecture via the links below, or read the transcript. There is also an audio-only version of the lectures available on the course homepage under the ‘sessions’ tab — click on the session you want and the audio can be downloaded at the bottom of the session page.

The collection of lecture transcripts can be downloaded individually from the session details below, or as a zipped file here:

There is often a section of biblical text which it would be helpful to read in conjunction with Martin’s lectures. This is indicated in the session details below, along with other reading or video resources which might complement the material.

The Yale material is reproduced here according to the associated terms of use.

Other resources

  • Prof Martin suggests the New Revised Standard Bible (NRSV) as the version of the Bible for the course. There is no need to purchase this version; the text of the NRSV is available online at, for example, the Oremus Bible Broswer, should you need it.
  • The edition of the NRSV Martin refers to in the first lecture is the latest (5th) edition of the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocryhpa, which is probably most accessible to Australians via Angus and Robertson (Ebay) – about $AU61 (April 2021). This has extensive interpretative footnotes to the biblical text and a number of essays on themes of NT interpretation. It is a similar price on Book Depository, and bit cheaper there for the paperback version. (Take care not to purchase the much cheaper Apocrypha-only version!). The Kindle version of the full Bible is about $22.
  • Prof Martin has turned his lectures into a book, available here in paperback and Kindle versions. The text, however, does not extend greatly beyond the online lectures/transcripts. 
  • If you would like more reading to complement what we hear in the lectures, perhaps better (at least, with a different voice) might be Pheme Perkin’s Reading the New Testament (Kindle, paperback, $15-35 plus postage); probably cheaper at Book Depository.
  • For the intrepid, Tom Wright’s New Testament in its World is a massive book covering similar ground in much greater than a single lecture series could. This is available on Amazon (international stock) here but the best source for Australians might be Koorong (about $70 posted). Take care not to order the much cheaper ‘Workbook’ companion volume by mistake!

The Study Materials

[Part 1 – Introduction to the Study of the NT]

  • Session 1 – Introduction: Why Study the New Testament? Video 1; lecture transcript
  • Session 2 – From Stories to Canon Video 2; lecture transcript
    • Some might be interested in some extensive YouTube/video material from Robert Jenson on the theme of the canon and its relationship to the creeds: Illuminating Faith – Scripture, Canon, Creed
    • Prof Martin makes passing reference to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in this lecture. The Septuagint (meaning ‘70’ and abbreviated with the Roman numerals LXX), is important for the interpretation of the New Testament because it is the text (rather than the Hebrew) which NT authors cite. A quick (2.5 min) video overview can be found in the Museum of the Bible introduction; Andrew Perrin’s longer (15min) intro is here. A brief text overview of the LXX can be found in this Encyclopedia Britannica article; the Wikipedia page is more extensive. And you can read the LXX (in English!) here.
  • Session 3  – The Greco-Roman World Video 3; lecture transcript
  • Session 4  – Judaism in the First Century Video 4; lecture transcript
    • Bible: Book of Daniel (Old Testament)
    • See this supplementary page for more short introductory videos on Jewish history from the beginning of Hellenisation through to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. (There are quite a few videos here — an optional extra!)
  • Session 5  – The New Testament as History Video 5 ; lecture transcript
    • Bible: Acts 9-15; Galatians 1-2

[Part 2 – Jesus and the Gospels]

  • Session 7  – The Gospel of Matthew Video 7; lecture transcript
    • Bible: Gospel according to Matthew
    • The Bible Project’s summary of Matthew’s Gospel: Part 1 and Part 2
    • Gospel Parallels: A useful resource for the study of the four Gospels is a gospel parallel. This sets corresponding passages from the various canonical Gospels next to each other for comparison of the passages in each. A gospel parallel is probably best presented as a printed hardcopy document. An online version that does some of the work can be found here. This particular resource lists the parallel passages by chapter and verse in the columns. The actual text(s) for these references are found by clicking/tapping on the numbered link in the leftmost column, which jumps to the parallel texts at the Bible Gateway site. These passages can be read not next to each other (which printed book versions enable) but above/below each other, which is less satisfactory than a book version but saves trying to hold 3 or 4 bookmarks in place in your home Bible and then flipping back and forth between them! You will also see that it is possible to change the Bible version for the passages via the drop-down menu at the top of the passage; changing one changes them all for that parallel selection.

[Part 3 – Paul and Friends]

[Part 4 – Apocalypse and Interpretation]

Session 26 – The “Afterlife” of the New Testament and Postmodern Interpretation Video 26; lecture transcript

10 January – Baptised as the Foundation of the World

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Baptism of Jesus

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God may my words be loving and true; and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? … When the morning stars sang together, and all the children of God shouted for joy?”

Book of Job. Chapter 38. Verses 4 and 7.

‘The Tree of Life’, an experimental film by director Terrence Malick, begins with this quotation from scripture. The film itself centres on the death of a child and the reverberating effects of this death on the child’s parents and older brother. To tell this story Malick weaves together images from across all of creation: from the formation of galaxies, surprising acts of mercy from prehistoric creatures, the human anxieties of modern life, and extending to the inevitable destruction of the Earth from the explosion of our sun.

‘The Tree of Life’ suggests that the tragic death of this child can only be understood when it is seen as a tear within the tapestry of reality itself. The singular tragedy at the centre of Malick’s film cannot be treated as an isolated event, but must be allowed to raise fundamental questions about the nature of the world itself.

The film, in the end, poses the question to the characters – and I suspect the viewer as well: is the world fundamentally a world of forgiveness, grace and healing or is everything, in the end, simply the ambivalent march of nature and its forces? More pointedly: by which reality will you respond and live? Will you live out forgiveness and grace in the midst of tragedy, or be consumed by the ever apparent ambivalence of the world?

Something like Malick’s experimental film is what we find in the four readings from Scripture offered to us by the lectionary for today. The central event is the baptism of Jesus. And yet, in order to tell this story the lectionary suggests that this story be set within an ever widening horizon of God’s activity in the world.

The story itself, taken from Mark’s Gospel, already alludes to the Jewish tradition into which Jesus himself was born and raised. The figure of John the Baptiser is cast as a tether between the prophetic hopes of Israel’s history, and the pending arrival of the Messiah, who is said to bring with him the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. To tell the story of Jesus’ baptism requires reaching back into Israel’s history, recalling the hope kindled in the midst of the tragedy of exile. The prophetic hope the figure of John embodies is the hope that God would vindicate God’s people and restore the good order of the world. This hope is echoed in today’s Psalm, as it gives voice to an acclamation of praise and hope.

At the same time we have also heard in the book of Acts a short story from the emerging Christian community in the city of Ephesus. There the community, seeking to be faithful to Jesus, had been baptised as Jesus was baptised: as an act of repentance, in the manner taught by John. Paul encourages these early Christians to see in Jesus not simply an example, but the beginning of a new way which grows out of and continues beyond the history which came before it.

In these references back towards the prophetic history of Israel, and forward to the small community of believers huddled in someone’s house for prayer, we begin to understand how it is that this singular event of Jesus’ baptism is set within the broad tapestry of the world. The full weight of this baptism’s impact can only be felt when we begin to appreciate how it reaches out beyond itself, and stakes a claim about the nature and reality of the world itself.

It is worth being clear about what we are talking about when we talk about Jesus’ baptism at this point. The Basis of Union, the founding theological statement of our church, offers the following:

“[Christ’s] own baptism, [which] was accomplished once on behalf of all in his death and burial, and [which] was made available to all when, risen and ascended, he poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.” (BoU # 7)

In truth these words from the Basis of Union are not so much about Jesus’ baptism – at least not the baptism we are commemorating today. Rather, these words from the Basis help us to distinguish between our own baptism and that of Jesus in the waters of the Jordan. For us, in our baptism we enter the harsher waters of cross and resurrection, where the Spirit of Fire leads us through death and into the new vistas of God’s resurrection. The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan is set quite apart from our own baptism; it is not the primary example from which our own sacred bath is drawn.

Although many were invited into the waters of the Jordan by John the Baptiser, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river stands alone, even among these. John, who offered a baptism of repentance, invited people to turn back towards God. For Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, this scarcely makes sense: even John anticipates that Jesus will go far beyond what he has to offer. (For a bit of homework, you might compare this story in Mark to how it is retold in Matthew, where we are told John initially resists baptising Jesus.) There is no need for Jesus, the sinless one, to turn back to the God who is his true Father. Indeed this is precisely what Jesus’ baptism reveals: in rising out of the waters the Spirit descends like a dove, the voice of the God proclaims like a tender Mother who Jesus truly, uniquely is: the Beloved Son, in whom the pleasure of God dwells most fully.

The baptism of Jesus is a free act of obedience: Jesus is not compelled into the waters of baptism because he needs to repent. Jesus’ willingness to enter the waters of John’s baptism is the sure sign that Jesus is already compelled by full obedience to the loving God. Jesus freely demonstrates his willingness to go where God wills to go: deep into the condition of our humanity, sharing with us in the journey back to God – even while he can never be apart from God. It is for this reason that only Jesus could enter the waters of the Jordan as he does. Jesus, the beloved Son, could never be apart from the Father whose pleasure dwells upon him, and because of this his baptism by John can be nothing other than a free act of love, a free act of self-giving, a free act of coming towards us to journey with us back to God.

This is the singular event we commemorate today, the unique act that only God in Jesus Christ could do. And because of this act, because of this free movement towards us to bring us back to God, we see more fully the nature of God. Here we cannot be content with a narrow focus on a Rabbi’s ministry beginning in a river. We must also head the words from the full sweep of scripture, the full sweep of history: the prophetic hope of Israel beginning to be realised, the story of those early communities gathered in prayer, the story of us here and wherever we are. All of this must be told in order to understand what the baptism of Jesus means: that God has come in Jesus the Christ to enter into our human state, not only to call us, but to journey with us back towards the beloved Father.

It is only right that the full reach of this act of divine love and solidarity invokes the deep story of creation from the very beginning. Here our reading from Genesis 1 must finally come into view – at the end, and yet also at a beginning. The God who brings the world into being by speaking light has come into the world to journey with us back to the light. I say here deliberately the God who “brings,” the God who everyday renews the light and life, hope and love of the world comes into this world to re-establish again and again this light and love. This is what the baptism of Jesus is about: it is the anchor of God’s free movement towards us, to call us back to light and life, hope and love. God once and for all came into the world to repair the tear in the tapestry of love which good creation ought to be. This is what is made visible when we recall Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the Jordan: the heavens open and the pleasure of God is proclaimed to dwell in the Beloved Son, so that this good pleasure might again be recalled as God’s good gift to the whole world. This is a story that cannot be told without reference back to the very beginning, to the very foundations of the world: not as a statement of history, but as a proclamation of the ongoing, ever new pulsating creative life of God for the world. God who speaks light into an unlit world, hope into the midst of despair, love into the midst of hate, enters into our humanity through baptismal waters.

We must again ask the question which Job offered as we began:

“Where were you when God laid the foundations of the Earth? … When the morning stars sang together, and all the children of God shouted for joy?”

By the rivers of the Jordan, when God’s free love was offered in solidarity with our humanity. In exile when God’s people yearned for justice. In small houses gathered for prayer. In North Melbourne, and in our homes, gathering to worship.

Where were we when God laid the foundations of the Earth?

We are here. We are in this world which is renewed daily with light and love, even against all chaos and resistance. Even as the light seems to fade and evening seems to come we proclaim the new beginning of morning. We proclaim the shining light and self-giving love of God, which relentlessly comes to us: journeying with us back to life and hope. This is what the singular event of Jesus’ baptism shows to us: that God is for us, loves, yearns to weave us into the tapestry of love which the world ought to be.

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