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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!

5 June – Caught in Traffic

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Pentecost
5/6/2022

Revelation 21:1-6a
Psalm 104
John 14:12-17, 25-27


In a sentence:
Heaven is no escape from the command to love

Whatever other benefits the lockdowns of 2020-21 might have delivered to us, one was the possibility of driving down the wrong side of the road entirely safely, if still illegally! The traffic disappeared, and getting to the few places we were allowed to go was a breeze.

Alas, the traffic has returned with a vengeance. Yet, though we say “alas”, the traffic jam is surprisingly important for understanding the nature of the promised future we hear about in the book of Revelation.

In Revelation, we have a seer’s vision of the consummation of all things: the end, the goal of God’s work in Christ. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. This is fairly straightforward so far as apocalyptic visions go, and something like it is to be expected at this point of the story. But then comes the strange thing: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

Why is this strange? The city is the human way of being. The city is the teeming human mass. It is extraordinary and tragic. The city is coffee shops and crazy people on public transport. The city is park benches and sirens in the night. It is soaring architecture and backstreet graffiti. It is movement and exchange. The city is the traffic jam.

The traffic jam is a sacrament of human interconnectedness, although we experience the sacrament in its fallen state as a clash and a choking. The traffic jam is a sign of the way and the degree to which we are all inextricably interconnected and interdependent. The traffic jam occurs because my being at work is made more effective by your being at work at the same time. This is, in turn, more effective if our kids are at all at school at the same time. As the city becomes more successful through this honing of mutual effectiveness, creating more opportunities for interconnection occur, making the traffic worse. The distance over which I can provide my services increases (meaning more time on the road), as does the possibility of being able to afford to send the kids somewhere other than the local school (meaning more time on the road). Each extra dimension of interrelatedness in the city makes it more successful as a city, and harder to be in the city.

The size of the city doesn’t really matter. Theologically, a “city” needs only two people for John’s vision of the new Jerusalem to be pertinent. How can two people have a traffic jam, you ask? Well, marriage, for instance, which also features in our passage today and to which we’ll return in a moment. (But also siblings, neighbours, business partners, etc.). The traffic jam is the sign and the burden of engaged, interactive human life. It is what happens when more than one person has to be in the same place at the same time, when we act upon the fact that we are “made for each other”. Every engaged, interactive life has its traffic jams. Only the sufficiently wealthy and the sufficiently poor are outside the requirement of the traffic jam.

If this is how cities work, John’s vision of a “new” city descending from heaven to earth gives rise to an unexpected question for faith: are there traffic jams in the new Jerusalem, in “heaven”?

The gospel suggests a surprising answer: Yes. And No.

Yes, there are traffic jams because this is a real city; heaven is not everyone getting green lights all the way, although that’s how we might imagine it. Perhaps even stranger than the fact that God sets forth a new city is that it is Jerusalem, the basket case of all cities:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus cried, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”(Matthew 23.37-39; Luke 13.34f)

This is to say nothing of what has happened there since then, and happens even now. But the point here is not to “pick on” Jerusalem but to understand why it appears here in the vision, and not some brand new, start-it-all-over Utopia. It must be Jerusalem here because God’s promises have to do with a people for whom Jerusalem is heart and soul. It must be Jerusalem because Jerusalem casts out the Christ, and so is the sign of both the failure of God’s people and of our need to be healed. What else are Jesus’ clashes with the religious authorities but gridlock – a dispute over who has the right to be here and now? What else is the crucifixion but road rage?

It is this history, identifiable by the name “Jerusalem,” which is taken up into God and descends again, cleansed. The new heaven and the new earth and the new city are a wiping away of tears, but not a wiping away of the eyes which cry them. The new Jerusalem is Jerusalem, as she should be – is us as we shall be. John expresses this by analogy with marriage: a bride and a groom, complementary and engaged, two parties necessarily in the same place at the same time in order to be their true selves, but now without competition or conflict.

Yes, there are traffic jams in heaven because our interconnectedness, our needing to be in the same place at the same time in order to be our true selves does not go away. This connectedness is the very point of heaven.

But No, this gridlock is different. In our usual daily traffic jams, the city’s purpose of making possible our being for each other becomes the city’s burden. Interrelatedness turns out to be more than we want to bear, even as it is the very thing we need to flourish. This is the communion of sinners, in which we experience the gift of the other person as a curse.

In the traffic jams in John’s heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, the perceived and experienced burden of our interrelatedness is made into a life-giving thing. This is the truly unbelievable and amazing thing, much more so than the mere proposal of a heaven, or even that there is a God who will bring it to pass. It is not “heaven” as a time or place which is to be believed in but what it is said will happen there. What happens in heaven is what connects that time and place to this one, is what allows heaven “then” an impact now: tomorrow, today.

So how is it in heaven? To be in heaven is to be happy to sit in traffic. The communion of saints which occupies heaven is not the collective of those who are “holy” in the sense of somehow having abstracted themselves from the messiness of the world and the kinds of exchanges a world entails. The communion of saints – promised for then and perceptible occasionally even now – is the community which rejoices that its life is a life together, with all that costs and with all the benefits it brings.

The promise of a new Jerusalem is the promise that the bumper-to-bumper grinding of the communion of sinners will be made a communion of saints: our city, our life, but not as we yet know it. The communion of sinners is a life which considers being caught in traffic to be the sign of death. There, other people are hell. The communion of saints is life “in the thick of it”, made enriching and life-giving by the grace of the God who created us for each other and who makes such a life together possible, even if now only as through a glass, darkly. Here the challenge of the needs of others becomes the promise of unexpected joy: other people not as hell but as the possibility of heaven.

This is the vision upon which we wait and towards which we point in words and deeds. The life of the church is to discern and to become, as much in the slow lanes as in the fast, the possibility of heaven.

This is so that we and the world might see how, in the end, all things will be found in God, and God in all things.

Adapted from a sermon previously preached at MtE, Nov 2015

Related sermons

29 May – On being relevant

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Easter 7
29/5/2022

Revelation 2:8-11a
Psalm 71
Matthew 11:25-30


In a sentence:
Christian discipleship is purposed with being “relevant” – relieving – of the burdens which deny peace and justice

It’s something of an occupational hazard that, from time to time, someone feels that a Christian minister should know, “I’m not religious; I think that when you die, that’s the end, and there’s nothing more.” In this way, religion is reduced to an interest in life after death.

This is an understandable reduction, given how the church has often linked upright living with the reward of eternal life. If we quite can’t conceive of the possibility of what is dead being meaningfully alive again at some time in the future, then the rejection of eternal life leads predictably to the rejection of religion. This doesn’t mean rejecting the moral life but does see religion with its trappings to be an over-dressed moralism. It seems clear that we can be “good” without religion, so why bother? This is a sensible line of thought, so far as it goes (although, on close examination, it doesn’t “go” as far as many seem to think). In this way, religion seems to be shown to be quite “irrelevant” to modern, intentionally this‑worldly existence.

The question of “relevance” has become a touchstone for thinking about what makes for good modern religion among those still at least loosely interested in religious things. We assess our doctrines and liturgies, among other things, in terms of their perceived relevance. Yet we’re not often clear what we mean by “relevant”. Generally, it has to do with vague ideas about whether some belief or practice “makes a difference” – a positive difference. However, things become more precise when we look into the source of the word. Something is literally (etymologically) relevant when it relieves. Relevance is relieving. To say of something – including religion – that it is not relevant is to say that it brings no relief, that it does not “lighten” what burdens we think we carry (to “re‑lieve” is to “make light again”, to bring levity, lightness). A thought, a practice, a conviction is properly relevant when it fills a need, answers a question, relieves a burden.

To reject life after death, then, is to say that it brings no relief from whatever we think weighs us down. And by this, we mean that it brings no relief, here and now, except perhaps as a kind of distraction from where we are, a turning away from the reality and meaning of the present. Indeed, the promise of life after death can make things worse before death, if that promise is used to justify pain and difficulty here and so to justify a refusal to do anything to alleviate that suffering. This reading of promised life after death in nineteenth-century Christian society led to Karl Marx’s famous critique of religion:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Religion, that is, works to stupefy the people in the present with promises of being part of a bigger picture in a future which, for most, coincides with their death. In this way, life after death can be weaponised to suppress the possibility of any good in the suffering present. What we have heard from John this morning could certainly be read this way: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2.10).

With the mention of Marx here, we see the importance of clarity about how life after death might be relevant – how it might relieve us here and now. It won’t do to reduce heaven to personal pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die for those who had little pie during their lives. Having rejected how talk about eternal life was related to life here and now in the Christian society of his time, Marx developed a powerful alternative understanding of where we are now, where heaven is, and the path between the two.

The power of Marx’s alternative is still active in our very midst today. If we want to explain why Russia is in Ukraine, we could point to Marx; if we want to explain why China is in the Solomon Islands or why North Korea keeps plopping missiles into the Sea of Japan, we could point to Marx. It doesn’t matter whether he would be happy with these developments. The point is that these are the real-world consequences of getting wrong the relationship between life now and any life which might yet come. The dominant reading of heaven’s relationship to the world in Marx’s time didn’t work, and his response to that injustice writes the front pages of our newspapers today.

The fact that, in the end, Marx rejected altogether an interest in life after death – and that we are still in the midst of death – indicates that we aren’t guaranteed peace simply by rejecting life after death. The relationship between today and tomorrow – between the life we have now and the life to come – is no mere “religious” issue. What follows today is at the heart of our life together – whether we imagine ourselves religious or secular. Every politics, whether it imagines itself as religious or secular, has a vision of life at the end

None of this is “relevant” yet, in the sense of being itself “relieving”! The point of teasing out how these ideas have worked for us is to show that, wild though its method is, the book of Revelation’s interest in the life to come is much closer to our own social and political concerns than might first seem to be the case.

Revelation was written to people who were suffering, doubtless often much more profoundly than many of us are at the moment. We might look more closely at Revelation’s martyrs in a week or two, but it is important that what is said to those sufferers is not what Marx heard and saw. Opium is for those we are not able or interested in helping but whom we want to keep quiet, resting in peace. Religion, with its promise of a coming relieving heaven, is here a justification of the wrongful present: it’s OK that you suffer, because there’s a heaven to come.

The book of Revelation, however, speaks a word to suffering people which doesn’t dismiss their suffering but names it as right suffering. It was profoundly wrong that they suffered, and they were right to experience it as such. When John writes, “Be faithful unto death”, he marks his readers’ tribulation as true suffering and deeply unjust. There is no justification of pain and loss in Revelation; those who suffer are to be avenged for the injustice of what has happened (another troubling aspect of Revelation for modern sensibilities!). The One who promises this future in Revelation has no interest in the status quo which makes life so hard. It is an offence to God that God’s people suffer, as much as it is an offence to those who suffer. This is to say that Christian visions of heaven aren’t given to distract us from hell on earth but are to mark it as hell – as wrong. The declaration of suffering as wrong from the point of view of heaven’s future is a judgement on the present and, as such, calls for a response. This means that the difference between any hell now and any heaven to come is not merely black against white but is heaven’s pull against hell. Talk of heaven becomes now not simply the expounding of a comforting beatific vision. Talk of heaven is the beginning of a struggle. Talk of heaven is resistance.

Yet this is not the resistance of the revolutionary. While the Marxists knew that a mere promise of heaven was not answer enough to death, they saw death as its own solution. The communist revolutions which flowed from Marx’ reading of history saw death not only as what we suffer but as the means – the method – for ending that suffering. This dynamic, too, contributes to the front pages of our newspapers: the imagination that the death we are experiencing can be alleviated (note: re‑lief and al‑leve…) by more death. This is doubtless part of what causes a young man to take automatic weapons into a schoolyard, for whatever “relief” it seemed such violence might bring at least to him (Uvalde, May 24 2022).

Against this, and despite the violence of the book of Revelation itself, talk of heaven is an act of peace in the midst of war. We say this because Jesus was an act of peace in the midst of unpeace. Acts of peace in the midst of war are not about life after death but life before death: life in the face of death.

This is relief which names unjustice and unpeace, by demonstrating something entirely different. It is not an easy way, but it is the way of Jesus and his disciples: enduring unto death, so that death itself will not endure. Life in the face of death – what could be more “relevant” than that?

”Come to me”, Jesus says, “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 relevant, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11.28-30 alt!).

Related sermons

·         27 September 2020 – The Resurrection of the living

·         19 April 2020 – A living hope

·         1 April 2018 – Resurrection as forgiveness

15 May – Voting for God

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Easter 5
15/5/2022

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 148
Matthew 6:1-6


In a sentence:
Regardless of what we believe and hope for, it is all oriented towards God’s promised peaceful kingdom

While flicking through the Australian Electoral Commission’s “official guide” pamphlet to next week’s election, I was struck by a representation of one of those cardboard polling booth set-ups we all know: little enclosed shelters in which we are able to vote without those next to us knowing how we have voted.

In what was perhaps a moment of inspiration, or just as an instance of the odd way brains work – or mine at least! – I thought of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, which we’ve heard today: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6.6). It seemed to me that those people pictured in the pamphlet’s polling booths could have been monks praying in their cells, which led me to wonder about the relationship between praying and voting.

Doubtless, some pray while voting. This is the attempt to “supercharge” our vote. In a close electoral race like this one, those who pray this way probably include prime ministers, opposition leaders, and candidates in marginal seats.

Whatever might be said about supercharging our vote in this way, I’m more interested today in thinking about voting as praying – voting as a prayer in itself. For what else are both votes and prayers but the expression of a desire for a particular world not yet realised? Prayer springs from recognising our condition between yesterday and tomorrow. Today is received from yesterday in thanksgiving or lament – in prayer – and tomorrow is sought as an extension or overcoming of today – in prayer as petition and intercession. Voting is entirely the same, the electorate standing between yesterday and tomorrow, embracing or rejecting yesterday for some envisaged tomorrow. To vote or to pray is to express our feeling for the best future.

The campaign slogans of the major parties are revealing in this respect. In the blue corner, we have “Strong economy. Stronger future”. In the red corner, we have “A better future”. In the green corner, there is no central slogan but the first assertion you meet on their website is “The time is now to vote for a better future” (May 13). This is just what we will enact later in today’s service: the time is now to pray for a better future.

The book of Revelation, of course, concerns itself with tomorrow. Yet in Revelation on the one hand, and in a modern political context on the other, the relationship between the present and the future is entirely different. Today, we are highly conscious that the future is something laid upon us to create. In the New Testament – and not least in the book of Revelation – the future is a gift.

This is perhaps – unconsciously – one of the deeper reasons we have an aversion to the book of Revelation. While the apocalyptic genre with its fantastic imagery is difficult enough for modern minds to fathom, more offensive is that God is the only real protagonist in all the action of Revelation. If we have a role in what the book portrays, it is as witnesses – either in the role of John the Seer himself or as one in the multitudes gathered around the throne, praying: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7.10). This is precisely not “Salvation belongs to Scott” or “to Anthony” or the “to the voting public”. The book of Revelation has no place for the political activist which most of us are, except perhaps in the figure of the martyrs around the throne. But their time is also over. Only God truly “acts” in this vision, in the sense of action we understand ourselves to be undertaking in voting or agitating for change.

Or perhaps better: the book of Revelation describes the state of affairs when every vote has been cast. It describes the culmination of all things. Everything has now happened – all monarchy and democracy, all despotism and anarchy. History – all our efforts at creating our own future – has taken place, and is red with blood.

Perhaps this seems hopelessly pessimistic, even if the historical evidence to date is on-side. But pessimism is not the point; the point is seeing more clearly what faithful action looks like. What it looks like is – voting‑as‑praying. We imagine voting to be a technique – something we do to make a political thing happen. We think this way because this is what we thought prayer was: a “religious” technique to make some personal or political thing happen. As we have become more secular as a society, we have simply switched voting in for prayer.

There is no pessimism in the book of Revelation unless we imagine that only our actions matter for our future. We are free to hold to this, but it is not the vision of Revelation. Revelation holds that all votes are finally counted as a vote for the future this God promises.

For, regardless of our political position, what do any of us vote for but John’s vision of

7.15 […one] seated on the throne [who] will shelter them.
16 [That they] will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

What does even the rabidly radical right-wing atheist want but an end to hunger and thirst and the wiping away of all tears? The only shock for modern political sensibilities in all this is “the Lamb” – who stands for nothing our political thinking can comprehend. The Lamb, of course, is Jesus, and the reference to this Lamb as “slaughtered” (Revelation 5.6,12) is a reference to the crucifixion. Interpreted through the mechanisms of sacrifice, this is enough to make the whole scenario unpalatable to modern minds.

But, to press the election theme further, the New Testament can be read to present the crucifixion as history’s “vote” on Jesus. It is a vote against him, of course, but we must also see that the vote is offered to God as a prayer. In condemning Jesus to death, the people of God pray, “Let such as him not be our future”. The crucifixion reveals that only history is bloody; prayer is too.

And this brings us to a final strange thing we might have missed in today’s reading but which interprets everything we are and do. The great multitude gathered around the divine throne “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v.14). The crimson bloodiness of history culminates in the blood of the Lamb, which now washes history white. In this vision blood, which stains all things, which cannot be washed out and which always reveals the culprit, Now. Washes. Clean.

The real problem Revelation presents to the modern mind – and to ancient ones – is not the religiosity of its wild imagery and language. It is the proposal that, in the end, all things – all good and evil, all generosity and greed, all love and hatred – are resolved in the triumph of the one who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb.

This is to say that every prayer, every vote, desires the same thing and – by the grace of God – finally finds its desire fulfilled: life in the presence of

7.15 …the one…seated on the throne [who] will shelter them.
16 [And they] will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

So then, let us vote, let us pray, let us live, for this.

Related sermons

15 April – Holy, Holy, Holy!

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Good Friday
15/4/2022

Numbers 5:1-10
Matthew 27:24-26,32-54

Sermon preached by Matt Julius


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

We have learnt over the past two years that the world is filled with fragile bodies.

The pandemic and war; fires and floods; famine and drought.

Set against this is the chronic call of justice for marginalised people, whose bodies continue to be bound, imprisoned, and disposed of.

And the call too on behalf of the Earth’s own fragile body: the natural order stands on the precipice of catastrophe; all the world’s experts unable to tame the insatiable drive of death pushing us over the edge of a cliff.

We have learnt that our bodies do not end at the boundary of our skin.
My body extends out to what I aspirate, and to what I discharge.
Bodies have become news items, with regular reports of case numbers, death rates, and sewage detections of viral particles.

Our common humanity has been revealed as a common fragility in the face of an ambivalent natural order, and forces of death which hold our common life in their grip: ambivalence, greed, hatred, prejudice, self-entitlement, trauma.

Fragile bodies captive to the forces of death become corpses.

Into this contemporary experience we are in this place to hear again the story of the corpse of God. We hear this story in a year where we have had to navigate the risk of disease; where we have lost loved ones – some without the grace of a final touch. Even today we may be in aching bodies; aware that as we gather for worship to hear the sounds of scripture and song, around the world others hear the sounds of gunshots and bombs.

Fragile bodies captive to the forces of death become corpses.
And corpses defile.

Hear these words from the law:

“… put out of the camp everyone who is leprous, or has a discharge, and everyone who is unclean through contact with a corpse; … put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp; they must not defile their camp, where [the Lord] dwells among them…” (Num. 5:2-3)

In the framework of the ancient Jewish law, the Torah, the holiness of God must be set apart from the defiling forces of uncleanness. These sites of uncleanness remind us of the constant spectre of death which looms over humanity. Leprous skin that evokes the paleness of corpses, discharges which mark our life force leaving our bodies, and above all corpses themselves. The power and holiness of the living God cannot stand the presence of these spectres of death. The source of life can have only umbrage with death.

So it is that the Rabbi Jesus, who is called the Holy One of God, is led out of the camp, towards the cross … to the place they call the skull … to become a corpse.

“This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

This is the defiled one, whose corpse will surely become a defiling presence —
unable to stand in the presence of the living and holy God.

As he is becoming a corpse Jesus calls out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Set outside the camp alone, Jesus gives up his Spirit – breathes his last: his life force discharged from his body.

The Holiness of God must be set apart from the defiling forces of uncleanness: the spectres of death. The source of life can have only umbrage with death, seemingly even with the corpse of God’s own beloved child.

Holiness stands against death.

And yet … At that very moment … At the point of death itself … As the Holy one of God has his very life snuffed out, his fragile body crushed and beaten, pierced and bloody …

Time collapses in on itself.

Is this not the Holy One who healed those with leprous skin?
Is this not the Holy One who cast out the presence of evil spirits?
Is this not the Holy One who healed the woman with the discharge of blood, the One who raised even the dead?

At the point of death the holiness of God explodes out from the cross itself
The curtain in the temple that kept uncleanness out tears, no longer able to keep the holiness in
The world captive to the forces of death has its foundations shaken
The corpses of saints in their tombs are imbued with new life

The world is cracked open by the wooden stake of the cross driven into its heart
The sources of defilement are met face to face on the cross and there defeated
Holiness turns and goes on the attack, and uncleanness and its death-like pall must go on the retreat

All are released from the bondage of sin

Fear not the captive forces who keep us bound in death
Fear not the un-making powers which erode the earth
Fear not the fragility of bodies caught in the bonds of oppression
Fear not the spectre of death

For everything is being made holy
Death cannot hold the holy in its grip, but holiness and life and love and the divine breath of God are exploding out into the world

Everything is being made holy,
everything is being made holy,
everything is being made holy.

God will never, ever leave us.
God can never, ever leave us.
There is a new creation: and the Holy One of God in the midst of death is re-making this world as holy

And those in Ukraine whose corpses litter streets are holy
And the queer ones who pray to be different or be dead, they are holy
And the trans kids whose bodies have become objects of political rancour are holy
And black lives bound and imprisoned unjustly are holy
And refugees are holy as the years of their life eek out in indefinite detention
And the disabled bodies who are disregarded as invalid are holy

Until we see the corpses rise to life we must see the presence of the Holy working in those who beckon us to a more just world.
Holiness draws all things into the loving life of God: everything is set apart for God’s purposes of love and mercy, peace and joy, justice and truth.

Hear these words from Anglican Trans* Poet Jay Hulme:

Holy! Holy! Holy!

If God is everywhere, then everywhere is holy,
everything is holy, everyone is holy.
The blaspheming tongue – holy.
The maze of streets – holy.
The broken street light that flickers at 2am
to welcome home the dying – it too, is holy.

The homeless are prophets and saints
as much as these bones and fragments.
Treat them with reverence and love them
for they are as holy as any other.
I am holy. You are holy.
The spit that flecks your lips as you curse out a stranger
is disgusting, but holy.

We are disgusting, but holy.

When we leave strangers to die
we are leaving the holy.
When we abandon the lost
we abandon the holy.

Take your neighbour in hand,
lead them to a crowded [ED],
see the doctors pull on their gloves;
the gloves are holy.
The hospital is holy.
The cracked linoleum and buzzing vending machine;
Holy! Holy! Holy!

To save a life, is holy.
All life is holy.

Lord, even death can be holy,
when a person is ready to go.

… today we tell the story of the corpse of God, which does not defile, but is re-making the world to be holy, holy, holy. We tell the story of the fragile body of God whose holiness emanates out for the sake of the world, and against the forces of death.

Truly this is God’s son
Truly this is God’s law
Truly this is God’s life for the world.

3 April – Jesus is the life, and the death

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Lent 5
3/4/2022

Psalm 126
John 12:1-8


In a sentence:
Jesus is given as our “whole” – our life and death, lived within God. And so we are free.

Today’s story of the anointing of Jesus by Mary is one of the most disorienting passages in the New Testament. The story confuses us because we easily identify with what Judas says, however sincere he may have been. And, in this, we stand against Jesus. Yet, we stand against Jesus because of the very things we’ve heard from him about love, self-sacrifice and “being there” for the needy. And so we find ourselves at a point of crisis: what do we owe to the poor, and what to Jesus?

One way of addressing the undecidable “Jesus or the poor?” question is to turn what we do for the poor into what we do for Jesus: “Inasmuch as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me” (Matthew 25). This is an important part of Christian theology and ethics, but it doesn’t seem to be what is said to us through the story we’ve heard this morning. Jesus delineates starkly between himself and the poor as beneficiaries: you always have them; you do not always have me. There is here an impossible “either/or”.

The fact that this feels like a moral conflict should signal a warning. Morality anxiety is about justification, and moral resolutions present us with the attractive possibility of self-justification. If we can resolve how Jesus can justify Mary’s extravagance, we have guidance for determining the limits of our own acts of devotion and mercy. Our questions here seek to understand whether we can or must do the same as Mary did. We are anxious for the secret of making the right decision and knowing it to be right.

But we will not find such a secret in Mary’s anointing of Jesus, for there is no anxiety here (or perhaps only Judas or, in another version of the story [Luke 10.38-42], Martha, is anxious). Indeed, we know very little of Mary’s motivations, although we imagine that she is the one with whom we are to identify in the story. Yet, whatever is going on for her, it is only as Jesus himself interprets the anointing that what she does finds unexpected justification: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

With this comes a shift from our moral dilemma with its contrast of what the poor need and what Jesus needs, to a comparison of what the poor do not have and what the disciples will soon not have. And now we come to the scandal of the text itself, which is not the one that usually bothers us: “You do not always have me” – the disciples’ impending loss of Jesus – is more important than the other “not haves” in the world. Or, more specifically: the death of Jesus is more important than all other deaths.

This will bring us to something John’s gospel does not say but might have said. The Jesus of John’s gospel is full of “life”. The gospel begins with, “In him was life…” (1.4). Just prior to this morning’s episode, Jesus declares, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11.25). Before that, “I have come that they might have life, in all its fullness” (10.10). Later in the gospel, we hear, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (14.6). Life is presented in this gospel as being at the heart of what Jesus is or brings.

And yet, in the anointing at Bethany we have something else assigned to Jesus: death itself. The gospel declares, “You imagine you know life”, but then invites, “Look at Jesus”. In the same way, today’s story says: “You imagine you know death, but look at Jesus”. The true scandal of this text is not the wilful extravagance that sees a year’s wages spent in a matter of moments, which we are not sure we could justify. The scandal is instead that the death (“burial”) of Jesus warrants such extravagance. What justifies Mary’s prodigal act is that it points to Jesus’ death. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it is that this testimony takes precedence over our actions and concerns for the world. Pointing to the death of Jesus matters more than pointing to all other deaths we experience and might respond to.

This is, undoubtedly, one of the most shocking things in the New Testament – perhaps the most shocking. Imagine, for example, how our expectations of a funeral might change if not the death of the deceased, but the death of Jesus, were the most important thing to consider there. Imagine, indeed, what our lives might then look like.

To say that Jesus’ death is the most important of all deaths is to say that his death is not representative of some “class” of death we experience. It is not the death of the innocent, or the death of the zealot or agitator. It is not death by accident or misunderstanding, or the death of the infirm or elderly. It is not the death of a scapegoat or a sacrifice. His is not a death like ours.

Jesus’ death is not “a” death but death itself.

A lot of people – including in the church – have a problem with the language of the resurrection, and this is understandable. To understand the first proclamation of the resurrection you really need to be a reforming first century Jewish apocalpyticist, which most of us are not. And so resurrection language quickly muddies the waters hereabouts.

But the gospel point can also be proclaimed with reference to Jesus’ death, which we think we can better understand. We can demote resurrection language somewhat by focussing on Jesus’ death as the defining death of us all. He defines death, not because his death was particularly ghastly, but because of what death on a cross represents. Crucifixion was an intentional casting-out of the victim by his executioners, and an invitation to God also to cast the crucified one out. Crucifixion has the social, religious and political intention of being the mother of all deaths.

And this is precisely what Jesus says his death is when he contrasts his death with the living deaths of others: those deaths are always with you, but I am not. My death is different.

To take up the resurrection from this perspective, we can now say that to believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to believe in his death. We don’t believe in his death by forcing ourselves to accept some sacrificial economy by which Jesus is “payment” securing our relationship to God. To believe in the death of Jesus is to identify with it – to see it as my own death. There, I am crucified, I who fret over what is mine versus what is yours, over what God wants versus what I want; I who fret over worship versus mission, over when I’ve done enough and when I am justified in stopping. Or, we might say, I who am lost in the struggle between life and death. The effect of this struggle is that of being lost, of having no firm foundation, no sure reference point.

Jesus’ death is not so much the cessation of his heart’s beating. It is more the death of the lost: the death which is rejection, separation, loneliness, desolation and invisibility – and all this finally, even before God. This is the death that springs from Judas-like arrogance and hubris, fear and loathing, self-delusion and ignorance. Jesus’ death, then, is what we all experience in ourselves and cause in others. Densely put, Jesus’ death comprehends us.

This means that what we do – our life and death – is now caught up in what God does – the life and death of Jesus. We are not one story but two: our own and, with that, the story of Jesus. Growing in grace is the process of the life and death and life of Christ coming to take shape in our lives and deaths.

To make this a little more tangible, we can say that growing in grace is learning to let go of our breath. In anxiety, we hold our breath – literally and metaphorically – waiting to see what will happen next. Judas gasps at what Mary does, her pouring out her life’s work for no apparent benefit. To grow in grace is to release our breath, to release our spirit. This is, literally, to ex‑spire to “out spirit” (Latin: ex‑spiritus, “out-spirit”). We can only breathe out, or ex‑pire, with confidence if we expect then to breathe in again – literally if we expect to to in‑spire, “in‑spirit” again (Latin: in-spiritus, “in-spirit”).

What else could resurrection be but this? Now, in our daily ex‑pirings and in‑spirings, and in the last day, when all creaturely ex‑piry is met with God’s in‑spiry? When we see no longer through a glass, darkly, but face to face: the life and death of Jesus made ours, con‑spiriters with him?

None of this solves our dilemma about “what to do”, when that question presents itself to us. But if what we have considered together this morning is true, then what we do matters less than we imagine.

Leave her alone, Jesus says to the torn, anxious, gasping Judas in us all, for she has seen my death and my life, and she can breathe out so because she sees that, whatever happens next, all will be well – all manner of things will be well.

A much-improved version of a sermon
preached at MtE, March 13, 2016!

20 March – Revisiting the Lord’s Prayer

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Lent 3
20/3/2022

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63
Matthew 6:7-18

Sermon preached by Rev. Em. Prof. Robert Gribben


I don’t need to convince such a congregation of the importance of the Lord’s Prayer. It is the only prayer Jesus gave us – whether he meant it as a text (which it became) or as a general guide, does not matter much, for the embrace of its concerns is wide.[1] We could pray it more deliberately in church, but that applies to hymns too – we may pass by some familiar words, but suddenly one word will claim our attention afresh. So, the best thing is to take the prayer down from time to time and look at it, as today.

Most of us have also passed through a period when the wording has changed.  I was a member of the international panel which worked on those ecumenical texts[2] and took part in a discussion of the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father in heaven

The Greek opening simply says, ‘Our Father, the One in the heavens’, so not any earthly father, nor modelled on one.  This has been one of the great debates of our time. But it is not our experience of a father (or mother) that defines God; it is the other way around. A God who loves us, but – as we shall see – also tests us, covenants with us, recalls us to our path.

It sits alongside St Paul’s great affirmation, ‘I know … nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:38f). Because of that mutual love, we have the nerve to address God. Martin Luther used to challenge God: ‘You taught us to pray, to ask for what we truly need. So: listen up! I’m praying!’ Not arrogantly, not insolently, but with the boldness of an intelligent child. To pray ‘Our Father’ and to hallow his name, is to be given a share in Jesus’ relationship with God.

Your kingdom come/ your will be done on earth as in heaven.

It ought to be no surprise that a prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom and the fulfilment of God’s will was part of Jesus’ prayer as it was of his ministry from its first word (Mk 1:15). It is to ask ‘let the world be transparent to God, let God’s will and purpose for us all, and God’s own nature show through in every state of affairs.’

I cannot think of a more important prayer for our times. We who have heard Jesus of Nazareth speak about, and embody in himself, a world which exhibits the character of the love of God will want to work for, to live in that spirit, by that ethic. And we can see signs of it, but the hard fact is that, it is also yet to come. This prayer is aligned to the future. These days, I find myself praying these two lines with passion, urgency and hope.

The prayer of Jesus now suggests some petitions to follow.

Give us today our daily bread

But what kind of bread? The version used by the Narinyeri people of the mouth of the Murray River translates back into English as ‘Give us tucker till this sun goes down’, and I think that’s very clever. When will this sun go down? Well, none of can be in any doubt about the importance – to God – that the human race have what they need to sustain life. Think of the thousands whose meals are in doubt or not there in Ukraine, in Afghanistan, in Yemen – and in the flooded or burned north-eastern states of our own land. Daily bread is essential. But there is a tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, beyond today’s sunset. Perhaps, in our times, it means ‘give to us the ability to continue to feed the world’, or even, open up our markets in such a way that the marginalised are fed. Climate change factored in. And of course, it carries the meaning of ‘the bread for God’s tomorrow’, for the great feast when people come from every corner of the earth to sit at a banquet in that kingdom.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

My Scottish mother never quite understood why in her new country they did not pray ‘Forgive us our debts’ – but she did not know the Greek word was the same in both Mathew’s and Luke’s version.[3] Certainly ‘trespasses’ will no longer do.

But some have thought that the straightforward naming of sin is a problem. It has become a favourite put-down of the churches that ‘they are always on about sin’. And the churches have made their own sin plain to see, to our shame. We have said ‘Sorry’ in a world which finds that hard to believe.

But the prayer’s accent is not on the ‘sins’ or the many debts we owe – but on the ‘forgive’. That is what e boldly ask. Someone has offered, ‘You, God, have forgiven me, and my thankfulness makes it possible to forgive someone else who has hurt me!’ I believe that is how it works, and why the petition is mutual: God is always ready to forgive, but we have, as mature people in Christ, a responsibility for what we ask.

Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.

What to do about ‘temptation?’! We had an argument in the panel. The English suggested ‘Bring us not to the test’, which the Americans thought sounded like cricket – or exams. The Americans proposed ‘trial’ and the English said that sounded like a courtroom.  The American ace was that that the courtroom is a common metaphor in which the New Testament speaks of our salvation.[4] There was argument about ‘do not bring’ and ‘save us in’, and so we finished agreeing on ‘Save us from the time of trial’.[5]

The trial of faith for early Christians was quite graphic: they could die for it. They could deny Christ and save their skin[6]. That’s not our trial. Given the changed standing of religion in western culture, the acceptability of atheism whether you know what it means or not, the journalistic glee for the faults of the institutional church (which we have acknowledged) have made it much more difficult to claim Christian faith publicly. And given the direct attack by Covid restrictions on how Christians celebrate our faith – in communal worship – there are many who will be tempted to give it all up.  We need to pray it will not be so, and that we will be delivered from darker, evil times.

The late great Russian Orthodox archbishop in London, Anthony Bloom, wrote much on prayer, and in his exposition to the Lord’s Prayer, for he said that we need to remind ourselves of to Whom all this prayer is offered: God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for the coming of that kingdom.  But even the first compilers of prayer books felt it needed a note of affirmation to end on, so added the doxology, ‘For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever’. Amen!

[1] It was rightly pointed out to me that in John 17 there is Jesus’ ‘High Priestly Prayer’; but this is clearly a theological composition by the evangelist. The Lord’s Prayer is full of Jewish references.

[2] The English Language Liturgical Consultation consisted of representatives of national ecumenical bodies, in my case the Australian Consultation on Liturgy. The texts and commentary are in Praying Together, Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 1988.

[3] The churches of Scotland pray, ‘Forgive us our debts’ following the Luke translation.

[4] e.g., the word ‘redemption’ is a juridical term.

[5] I spoke to my notes rather than read them, and I left this paragraph out. But it’s a good story.

[6] I mentioned other examples of persecution of Christians to our own day.

MtE Update – March 17 2022

News

  1. The planned March 20 conversation about worship is postponed, to return again soon!
  2. Contributions for the Autumn edition of Mark the Word are now invited. A particular focus of this issue will be reflections on our recent futures workshop. Please get your contriubutions to Rosemary by next Monday, March 21!
  3. Lent and Easter at MtE
  4. A three-week Lenten Studies series will commence face-to-face from Wednesday March 16 and online from Friday March 18. Details are here! Please register if you’re interested in attending — helps with communicating last-minute COVID-effected changes!!
  5. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster (Mar 10)
  6. The most recent news from the UCA Assembly (March 16)
  7. This Sunday March 20, our worship service will be led by Robert Gribben. Backround for the set texts for Sunday can be found here, althought the gospel for the day will be changed to Matthew 6.7-18.

Worship

  1. Our COVID policy for worship continues to be as follows, to be reviewed again by the church council in April:
  2. Attendance at gathered services is presently limited to those who demonstrate that they have had two COVID-19 vaccination shots, or that they are exempt from being vaccinated. It will be necessary to provide proof of your vaccination, either prior to the service or on the day at the door, but this only needs to be shown once for recording; please see here for more information. If you presently are unable to attend under these conditions the live-stream is still available from the home page, or please contact Craig or your elder.
  3. Mindful of the health-vulnerability of some members of our congregation and the uncertain state of play with respect to the pandemic, the church council has decided that we will continue to wear masks in worship throughout March, except for those who need to remove them when leading the worship, and for morning tea, or who have an exemption from wearing a mask. We have now returned to reception of Holy Communion in both kinds – small communion glasses only.

Advance Notice

  1. April 3: Hymn-learning session following morning tea
  2. April 10: The Passion of the Christ according to St Luke
  3. Lent and Easter at MtE
  4. May 1: Congregational AGM
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