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29 January – Foolishness, wisdom, politics, God

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Epiphany 4
29/1/2023

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Psalm 15
Matthew 5:1-12


In a sentence:
God’s ways in the world call our ways and confidence into question, seeking from us humble action towards justice.

With his claims for a foolishness which is wisdom and weakness which is strength, Paul seems to be going all paradoxical and mystical, rendering these notions self-contradictory nonsense, with little offered to replace them.

At stake here, however, is not mystification but the question of the freedom of God. The Corinthian church was divided and confused, as most communities are! Paul’s concern is that God is taken to justify that confusion. The division arises from the exercise of a particular sense for wisdom and power – that which traces its source and legitimacy back to God. The way of the world – the order of the Corinthian Christian community – is justified by direct lines to God. Turned around the other way, the argument becomes not merely that our ordering of the world is like God but that God is like our ordering of the world.

Paul’s inversion of wisdom and power, then, is not about mystifying these notions but about God’s freedom: you can’t read God off the order of the world. God is not constrained by the way that we do things.

…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

The ‘boasting’ here is not about how handsome, smart or otherwise godly I might be, but a celebration of the gift of God. Boasting about myself is precisely a claim to godlikeness, and it is this which is the source of human division – the appeal to a righteousness outside of the present relationships in which I find myself, which sets me free from responsibility for you. It is this lack of responsibility for the other which divides the Corinthians, and us today.

Paul’s ‘boasting in the Lord’ sounds to modern ears like an unnecessary otherworldliness, but it stands as a challenge to all the concrete worldliness-es – the wisdoms and powers – we usually exercise. In particular, it stands against all claims that there is a system which will work things out for us, a set of necessary steps we need to take to set human being right. If there were such a system, we’d have to admit that we have yet to discover it after thousands of years of effort.

The current debates around the Parliamentary Voice are a case in point. Increasing recognition of our complicated and violent colonial history, continuing need in aboriginal communities and general goodwill on the part of the majority of Australians are not enough to show us a way forward. The reasonable desire for a clearer communication of what is intended, mixed with cynical political tactics from some opposition parties, mixed with division within the indigenous community, mixed with the possibility of compassion fatigue, risk aversion and self-interest in the voting populace, all amount to anything but clarity as to what is to be done to undo some of the injustice of the past and the present. The same could be said for the numerous other challenges in the social, political and economic spheres whirling around us. These spaces are filled with social and political slogans which are both right and wrong at the same time. They are right in that they name an injustice, and wrong in that they imagine that those injustices can properly be made just. The justification of this claim – that the injustice cannot be rectified – is the experience of history itself: we have not seen it happen in any final way. This recognition is not new. It is not for nothing that old Israel opted for apocalyptic thinking. This embodied the notion that if there is going to be any experience of final justice, it must come from outside the dynamics of normal history. Apocalyptic thinking is not an escape from life in the world but a recognition of the world’s unresolved problem: when will injustice be overcome?

The question then becomes, how are we to live under such circumstances? And this is a question of how to live together, because dropping out of circulation is easy, denying as it does that the other is part of me and I part of her.

Paul’s answer to the question of justice seems weak, given the scale of what confronts us in contemporary social and political division. This answer is crystallised later in his first letter to the Corinthians, in his famous ‘love chapter’ (chapter 13). The apparent weakness of this response springs not least from the context in which we normally hear Paul’s appeal to love: in weddings. There, Paul’s thoughts on love are heard as an account of what the marrying couple themselves already experience. In modern marriages (weddings), we commit because of our experience of love. This is the presence of a kind of justice, so that there is no call for what Paul is actually doing in that chapter – commanding an unloving couple to love each other. Such a command might make sense in an arranged marriage but not in our modern marriages, at least not to the beginning! Paul’s love chapter, then, is reduced to what we feel about people we already love, which has little to do with those from whom we are alienated, which was his own situation.

And so, love becomes a weak political proposal. What does love look like now, in relation to Australia’s colonial history? This is precisely the question. But if, with Paul, there is to be no boasting save in the Lord, then there can be no all-encompassing answer – no proposal that love only looks like the Parliamentary Voice, or a treaty, or one of the less novel approaches to the problems of indigenous experience in Australia. Any one of these is as full of possibility and risk as the other because, for all the good which might still be done, the injustices we want to address here can only ever be partially addressed. And they can only be partially addressed because, at heart, human beings are fanatics for this or that wisdom or power which ultimately excludes and denies. The tone of modern politics is nothing if not fanatical.

This is not intended to be pessimistic but realistic. To commit to some political action (such as the Voice or a treaty) is not to have solved the problem. There is no righteous deed which does not need constant re-negotiation. Justice is a continual balancing act or perhaps, in our direct experience, an inbalancing act.

Paul’s ‘boasting in the Lord’ is not, then, the confidence that with God everything is clear and in good order, much less that the present order is God-ordained. This was the claim of the happier Corinthians, who were confident they had settled into God’s way. To ‘boast in the Lord’ is to delay claims about the achievement of righteousness while at the same time acting towards justice. It is to hear a call to justice and to turn towards that voice within the messy now of human life together, where it will always be the case that we can do better. It is to debate and to work for justice, but also to be ‘above’ arguments about any final solution. It is to be broken and whole in the same moment, in a way which denies neither the need for our action nor the unearned gift of God.

Faith in the God of the crucified Jesus is recognition that we are not, in history, ever finished – not ever righteous. The closest we come to completion is in the person of Jesus, who is himself defined by the ambiguity of the cross – that confusion of human and divine judgement which, Paul declares, turns our sense for power and wisdom upside down, and should shake our confidence that we see clearly.

Paul’s attempt to dislocate our confidence – that we see and comprehend truly – is an invitation to humility. In society and politics, humility is much lauded but rare. What looks successful and gains attention is the exercise of wisdoms and powers which lift you above me. What distinguishes humility from this is that it is not deluded: it claims no extraordinary and unambiguous power or value but acts according to justice, and looks to see what the next just action might have to be.

This is the life of faith to which Paul calls the Corinthians, and us: to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6.8). In the broadest of our politics and the most intimate of our relationships, let this be how we are there for each other: with a wisdom which is ever more open to deeper love, and a strength which comes from God’s own persistent faithfulness.

By the grace of God…

Sunday Worship at MtE – 29 January 2023

The worship service for Sunday 29 January 2023 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

22 January – The cross and the power of God

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Epiphany 3
22/1/2023

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Psalm 27
Matthew 4:12-23


In a sentence:
The power of the cross is that it “levels” us, given as our common situation before God

Paul’s account of the situation at Corinth is sadly familiar. With our Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, high church and low church, traditional and contemporary, exclusive and open communities, the problem Paul names remains today, if now on a much larger scale.

Yet it’s noteworthy that we don’t hear in Paul’s response such simple encouragements as “Love one another” or “Do try to get along”. He sees that the issue runs much deeper than simple moral failure. What is at stake is not a social, moral, psychological or motivational deficiency but is specifically theological; it is a failure to identify correctly what is at the heart of Christian life and so of human life more generally. Christian division, then, is a crisis in doxology: a crisis in the correct praise of God.

Because of this, Paul casts these divisions in the light of the cross:

“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. … For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” [NRSV]

The “power of the cross” to which Paul refers is its function as the great leveller of humankind. Power and wisdom are how we distinguish and rank ourselves in relation to one another: stronger, smarter, richer, older, prettier, or whatever. But such divisive power and wisdom dissolve away if the crucified Christ is the reference point for all the meaning, power and wisdom the world needs. If the thing which matters most – the “thing” we call “God and Father” – identifies itself with the rejected and outcast human being Jesus of Nazareth, then no rankings in human knowledge and ability will impress God. God is “happy” with the nothingness of the cross. The saving power of the cross, then, is not that it adds something to us to make us better, wiser or stronger. The power of the cross is that it takes something away.

What is taken away are the additions we are tempted to make to Christ himself, marked by one of the most potent and problematic of theological concepts. This concept is the little word “and”. The “and” appears as a supplement to the crucified Christ. Fellowship at Corinth revolved around Christ “and” – Christ “and” Paul, Christ “and” Peter. If you did not have the same “and” as your neighbour, it becomes less clear that you are truly one with each other. At the Corinthian communion table, it was Christ “and” having food to eat – having no food to bring to the meal meant no real participation in the fellowship of the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11). In civil society, it was Christ “and” the law courts (1 Corinthians 6); common Christian conviction was not thought to cover how to deal with disputes between believers. Again at the table, it was Christ “and” maturity – the “mature” in faith feeling free to eat meat which had been offered to idols, the apparently “immature” being greatly troubled by this, perhaps even to the point of losing faith (1 Corinthians 8, 10). A similar confusion arose around speaking in tongues in that community (1 Corinthians 14).

So it went in that church, each issue a manifestation of the same problem: community built on the kind of power and wisdom which is “added” and so which some have and some do not. What more I have raises me above you: Christ “and”…

Paul’s correction is that each of the “ands” we append to Christ has to be subject to the levelling effect of the cross. The cross unites by levelling. It marks the lowest common denominator among us – godlessness – and, from there, opens up the power of grace which builds upon nothing. Our calling is not to be clever, not to be wise or powerful. It is not, that is, to accumulate as many “ands” as possible. Our calling is to be faithful and to trust the one who has determined that the cross, and no other “helpful” addition we can imagine, will be the way by which God is effective in us and in the world.

What does this mean for us? It means that we are free before God. If the word of God in the Crucified is an assault on all things by which we would supplement ourselves or Christ, so also is it a liberation from the need to supplement ourselves before God. If I don’t have to be right in order to have the fullness of God in Christ, I need not be anxious about whether or not I’m always doing the smartest thing. And if anxiety is stripped out of our work, then our work approaches something more like play – be it our work as individual persons or our work as a Christian community. We can try this or that – not because it’s the cleverest thing, but because we are free to do so in Christ, the wisdom and power of God.

In our personal lives, we are free to do it differently – start a business, retire early, get a divorce, give away a lot of money, buy a puppy, or whatever. In our common life as a congregation, we are free to experiment – playing with worship styles, or times, or locations, or mission investments, or whatever. In the next couple of weeks, this is just what we’ll be doing as we begin conversations with the theological college about what relocating into a partnership with them might look like. In all that, we need to keep in mind that the college is a mere “and” to us, and is not the gospel promise itself – is not any kind of salvation for us. And we have to ensure that the college sees us in just the same way. If it doesn’t work, whatever we might lose we don’t lose that which is most basic. We don’t lose what binds us to God and is the possibility of our being truly bound to each other: the Christ who died by our wise and powerful hand and yet who graciously returns to us to speak of a different wisdom and a different power.

The crisis with which Paul begins at Corinth is human division, but the response is the grace-full heart of the gospel. The church is called to unity not because unity and love are “good things”. We are called to unity because what we have in common in Christ exceeds all things that distinguish us from each other. Our human wellbeing is not secured by our own efforts and allegiances, but by the God who names us as his own, giving us himself and a common humanity by seeing us in the Christ we rejected. God sees us through Jesus. If we are in the Christ who is rejected, we are in the Christ whom God raised to life. This is grace.

There is, then, no place in the reign of God for division through merely worldly and selfish preferences and concerns. We are called out of ourselves to discover our lives hidden together with Christ in God.

Let us, then, open ourselves to this grace and, little by little, ever become something of this grace to those around us.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 22 January 2023

The worship service for Sunday 22 January 2023 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

15 January – John the baptizer and the Lamb of God

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Epiphany 2
15/1/2023

Isaiah 53:1-7
Psalm 40
John 1:19-51

Sermon preached by Rev. Em. Prof. Robert Gribben


He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.  Isa. 53:7. NRSV

The next day, [John the baptizer] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’             Jn 1:29 NRSV

Our two readings this morning are linked by a single vivid image, a lamb waiting at an abattoir. It is John the Baptist who makes the link and today’s Gospel follows on from last week’s.[1]

You may remember Matt Julius’ arresting title, ‘The wrong baptism’ where he rightly drew our attention away from Jesus’ baptism (which St John does not actually describe) to the baptism of Jesus on the cross. [Since we will talk about two Johns this morning, the gospel writer will be ‘St’ and the other, mostly ‘the Baptist’]

John the Baptist, named for his profession not the denomination, is such a strange figure. He has already opted out of normal society, an ascetic, perhaps connected with some of the communities we know lived in the desert beyond Jerusalem. He also stands between the biblical Testaments, the last prophet – and, as St John makes him – the harbinger of a new chapter in God’s dealing with humankind, the Forerunner (as Orthodox Christians call him).  He reached back into the Jewish tradition to quote the prophet Isaiah and his moving four poems or songs about another strange figure called ‘the suffering servant’. He too was cast out, and as the fourth song (today’s reading) says,

cut off from the world of the living, stricken to death for my people’s transgression’ (Is. 53:8)

You can see why the first Christians, all raised in Judaism, saw a close portrait of their crucified Lord. The figure of the ‘Lamb of God’ is its focus.

St John began his Gospel with the image of the ‘Word’, the ‘Logos’, but he now takes up the Baptist’s ikon and repeats it no fewer than three times – but what does it represent?

If you read all of chapters 42 to 53, you will find no single answer. The Servant of God, of which the Lamb is one image, is seen as a representative man, a leader perhaps, a messiah, perhaps, or a remnant of the faithful Israel, guided by God’s promises, or a kind of ambassador to other nations on God’s behalf (which, by the way, is a common task of a biblical servant, as it is of a deacon). Modern Judaism, I learned from reading commentaries by modern rabbis, choose the communal image, God’s chosen people, Israel. In Isaiah’s time, they were an exiled nation with its temple in ruins and its culture cut off from its sources. The Servant is not one man, he is Israel.

We heard from St John this morning about the interrogation by some pharisees from Jerusalem, to whom the Baptist denied that he was the Messiah, nor Jeremiah who would return to announce the messiah, nor a prophet – like Isaiah. The John verses are the Baptist’s attempt to distinguish himself and his ministry from that of Jesus.

There is a subplot here which need not detain us. Both Johns are addressing two communities – the followers of the Baptist and the disciples of Jesus. The Christians were wary that the baptism story looks as if their Lord Jesus submitted to John and was thus somehow less than him. But John was executed and in time his disciples chose to follow Jesus or withered away.

And there were two baptisms, John’s in water, Jesus’ with fire and the Holy Spirit.  St John is careful to add the Baptist’s testimony that he saw the Holy Spirit ‘remain’ over Jesus at his baptism (1:32).

The next day he sees Jesus in the street and proclaims to the crowd, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ quoting Isaiah – and we will sing it again before this service is over.

Now, Christians believe that it was the mission of Jesus to ‘take away the sins of the world’. But Isaiah’s servant was to take away the sins of Israel. The revolution announced in the Second (or New) Testament is that God’s promises are open to all humankind, to the ‘Gentiles’ as well as to God’s beloved first people.

But what happens when we name Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God’?

St John believed that Jesus’ death on the cross took place on the day when the lambs were being killed for Passover. No other gospel makes that connection. St Paul calls Jesus ‘our Passover Lamb’ (1 Cor 5:7). I asked myself what the Jewish tradition thinks of the lamb of isa. 53. They insist that the Passover Lamb was not a sacrifice. It is the story of origins for Jews. On the eve of Exodus, the whole nation prepared itself for a hard and dangerous journey from slavery to freedom. The lambs were for a meal to sustain them, to be eaten in a hurry.  Blood was sprinkled on their doorposts as a sign to protect them. None of this is ‘sacrifice’ in its normal meaning.

The other major penitential event in the Jewish Year is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. In its background story (Levit. 16:7-22), two goats were selected; one was sacrificed, and its blood poured on the altar; the other, over which the priests listed the sins of Israel, was driven out without further ceremony into the desert where it died, hence our ‘scapegoat’.  But the goat associated with Israel’s sin was not the goat which was sacrificed.

Sacrifice is a word in the Christian vocabulary, but it needs to be very carefully used. Jewish sacrifice, for ordinary people like Joseph and Mary, was concerned with such things as doves and pigeons; the more serious, national rituals took place in the Temple, and with its destruction in AD 70, all animal sacrifice ceased, and since then Jewish understanding of sacrifice has been spiritual and ethical. They are horrified at the thought that the death of a human being could achieve these purposes.

From the earliest centuries, philosophers have offered ’theories of Atonement’ – to make sense of death of the innocent Jesus. The most popular for Protestants – though there are Catholic equivalents – is called ‘the Penal Substitutionary’ theory, which holds that the primary purpose of Jesus’ death was to satisfy God’s justice. It was a brutal payment to God for others’ wrongdoing. Many modern Christians reject this theory because it is morally offensive. And something of it remains in other theories and is kept alive in conservative Christianity. (This was the doctrinal dividing point between the Student Christian Movement and the evangelical Union in the 1960s.)

I should now solve all these mysteries for you, but I cannot. This sermon is an unfinished symphony.

Certainly, our present era has a major challenge in articulating our faith in categories both true to the biblical tradition, and meaningful in our contemporary contexts. We cannot follow our mediaeval ancestors in wholesale but uncritical borrowings from either Testament. It is a task we preachers attempt every time we speak, and in the end, we stand dumb before the ‘Mystery of faith’.

Let me add some comments which need to be explored if I were to complete my sermon (some of these have been added post-preaching!).

The image of the lamb of God appears elsewhere in the scriptures. Some (e.g. Calvin) have seen Jesus’ silence before Pilate and Herod as a parallel to the Lamb/servant‘s innocence. In Revelation, the lamb is also a lion overcoming God’s enemies; the martyrs are dressed in white garments ‘washed in the blood (!) of the lamb’ (7:14). In eucharistic and liturgical history, the bread is called ‘the lamb’, and the Agnus Dei is sung while the bread is broken after the Great Prayer and before Communion.

Are any of these uses tied to a sacrificial understanding of Jesus? Well, yes, but not in a penal substitutionally way! Christ died for us, yes, but is its meaning to be found in the blood of his execution, or from the whole of his incarnation, teaching, healing and in his constant communion with and obedience to the Father? The hours in Gethsemane seem to be a critical point here. The Lamb of God image has anchored our attention on the death of Jesus. In Isa. 53:7, after the lamb is mentioned, the parallel analogy is of a sheep before its shearer, i.e. not faced with death. I do not wish to remove death and suffering from Jesus or his work of salvation, but I want to release it from a narrow interpretation.

The graphic on today’s order of Service is of a mosaic of the 6th C AD in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It is situated at the top of the vault in the dome, supported by four angels and the background is of stars and flowers of paradise – but there are no wounds or blood.  That is the main way Christian artists have portrayed it. There is another strand where the lamb is pierced in the breast and blood spurts out in an arc, sometimes into a chalice; obviously that comes of a catholic piety and goes beyond the meanings I believe are justified.

We believe that Jesus/the Lamb rescued us from the debt we owe God. I want to take ‘on the cross’ as a summary of his whole ministry. His ‘work’ is done, but ours is not, and we live and work through the hope based in Jesus’ unique victory: as a human being in communion with his Father, he broke through the barriers which prevent us from being who God wants us to be. That was the otherwise impossible task the Lamb was prepared to take on.

We need to live within the paradox set for us by John the Baptist, who baptised Jesus but knew there was another baptism.  That baptism, which we share, makes us members of the body of Christ and heirs of his promises, ‘through the water of rebirth and the renewal by the holy Spirit’ to life eternal in Christ.

[1] I also chose the Fourth Song from Isa. 53, which is where the image appears.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 15 January 2023

The worship service for Sunday 15 January 2023 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

8 January – The Wrong Baptism

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Epiphany: The Baptism of Jesus
8/1/2023

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Matthew 3:13-17

Sermon preached by Matt Julius


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

My Dad had a cousin named Dawn Mount — she has now passed away. Dawn was so named because she was found abandoned at dawn at the base of a mountain. In lieu of family, or birth certificate, she was named by a police officer: Dawn Mount.

Dawn entered our family through my Great Aunt Biddy, one of the living saints of this world. Aunt Biddy has fostered dozens of young people — their photos cover the walls in the living room. Often her home provided respite for young people facing quite significant challenges. Young people the social service system in Aotearoa, New Zealand, has not always known how to cope with.

Dawn entered the house, I imagine, as everyone does: through the front gate, down the path to the door, to be greeted by Biddy’s unending kindness.

On occasion young people were accompanied inside by a social worker, who conveyed to Biddy the backstory, conducting the handover. On these occasions as soon as the social worker left it was back to the front gate, bags under arm, to come in again: through the gate, down the path, to be greeted, properly by Aunt Biddy and her unending kindness.

Biddy met no “cases” at the door, she took on no “problem children,” Biddy met children, young people: those who they were.

And they were all embraced as her own: expected to attend Church on Sundays, sent off to the same school adjacent the Church, and welcomed into a chaotic, and wonderful, and complicated, and generous home.

Dawn entered this home as a teenager. Years later she asked my Aunt, “how many people do you know who were born as teenagers?”
“None,” Biddy replied.
“Yes, you do … Me.”

What my Great Aunt Biddy knows in her bones, shaped by her Christian faith I’m sure, are the lessons of baptism.

Not baptism merely as a ritual avowal of our beliefs. Nor baptism as a routine rite of passage into one among many of the cultural and religious communities of the world. Nor baptism as the commitment of parents to induct and instruct their children in the ways of the tradition.

Aunt Biddy knows that new life must always begin at the beginning. Aunt Biddy knows that baptism is always the welcome home. Always meeting people as themselves, as those who they are.

It is the beginning of new life.
It is the welcome home.
Baptism is for the sake of the quiet, secret work in which love restores the world.

One of the things that’s interesting in the emphasis on baptism on this day of the Christian calendar, is that the text from the Gospel is actually the wrong baptism. Christians take our understanding of baptism not from Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan, but from the baptism Jesus undergoes in his crucifixion.

So it is that The Basis of Union — the founding theological statement of this church — talks of, “[Christ’s] baptism, which was accomplished once on behalf of all in his death and burial…” (Basis, §7)

Of all the Gospels Matthew seems to recognise this awkwardness in the way Jesus comes to John at the Jordan to be baptised. Matthew — unlike Mark and Luke (the two other Gospels that seem to tell the story in similar ways) — makes a point of including the awkward conversation between Jesus and John. John refuses to baptise Jesus until Jesus argues him into it.

As a historic point, the commissioning at the end of Matthew’s Gospel — for the disciples to go and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit — likely reflects, and in turn reinforce some of the earliest baptismal liturgy and practice of the Church. For this reason one can understand why Matthew makes a point of telling the story of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan slightly awkward. To make clear that this baptism is not the primary source from which later baptismal liturgy and practice should take its lead.

Nevertheless, although today we have heard the story of the wrong baptism, Jesus’ baptism by John does teach us fundamental lessons about what baptism continues to mean for us.

John, perhaps taking the lead of my Aunt Biddy (although she’d probably resent the suggestion that she was quite that old), understood that baptism is for the healing of the world: turning from captivity to sin, and towards the restoration and freedom offered by God. If this is what baptism means, then what need does the Messiah have for baptism?

Jesus’ decision to be baptised reinforces that he too was on the journey towards the restoration and freedom offered by God. The journey begun at baptism is always a journey with others: the restoration of ourselves is always a restoration in relation with others. It is not first and foremost about what we do, but about the unending kindness we receive ultimately from God.

So it is that The Basis of Union speaks of baptism as being, “united in one fellowship of love, service, suffering and joy.” (Basis §7)

And above all, what Jesus’ baptism signifies is the declaration that Jesus is the beloved child of God. And this is the meaning that baptism must carry with it.

That each of us have become children of God. Not by virtue of the water, but by virtue of the work of love which is renewing the world. By virtue of the Spirit of love which emanates from the true site of baptism: the place where Jesus’ journey with others ends, and where only Christ can go. We have become children of God because of the true baptism of the cross.

In the river we see the glimpse, and at the cross we see in fullness, that God meets us at the front gate on our worst day, and walks us down the path to the doorway home. There we are met with unending kindness.

Baptism is the beginning of new life.
It is the welcome home.

Baptism is not our entryway into an exclusive club, but our witness to the whole world that each of us are embraced as divine children. For all the wrong baptisms, false starts, and fractured beginnings of our lives. Baptism is the renewal, the beginning again, always from the beginning. Baptism is the invitation to be the person who we are: who we truly are, in the love and restoration and freedom of God.

Baptism is good news.
This is good news:

You are a beloved child of the divine
You have a place in the chaotic, and wonderful, and complicated, and generous home of God

No matter the abandonment of your dawn, you are born again on this day
No matter how partial, fragile, or fleeting the love which formed you, you are met with the unending kindness of God

And friends, hear this the Good News:

Christ journeys with us, and before us, going to the cross.
God meets us at the front gate, walks us down the path, and welcomes us with unending kindness again, and again, and again, and again.

Through those we have met in this room, in our lives, as if by chance — and through the baptismal wisdom of the living saints of this world.

May the Spirit who hovered over the waters:
At creation, at your birth, at your baptism
Grant you the gift of the freedom of Christ:
in the name of God,
who created you,
who formed you,
who loves you.
Amen.

 

Sunday Worship at MtE – 8 January 2023

The worship service for Sunday 8 January 2023 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

1 January – God who enters history

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Christmas 1
1/1/2023

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-12
Luke 2:15-21

Sermon preached by Matt Julius


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

What does it mean for God to enter history?

What does it mean for God? And what does it mean for history?

We are perhaps comfortable with the two touch points of God in history set out in two of our readings for today. Perhaps in part because they speak of something that is not quite history: something long ago, to be sure, but not the history of documentaries, newspapers, and academic texts.

God enters history in the act of creation. Ordering the world, and human beings within it, in a grand act of grace and freedom. Many can sit easy with a God who enters history through the whisper of the wind, the ancient forming of galaxies, the mysterious something which makes the world tick.

And we can well enough get our heads around the touch point of God’s presence in the holy of holies. In the tabernacle, and temples dedicated to the Lord. In God’s bearing with the Jewish people, through their long history. Perhaps there is a sense of God’s people as an ancient, almost mythic past, that no longer impinges on the present. … Of course, that cannot be true, when the people of the unspeakable divine name were subject to unspeakable evil.

Nevertheless, God entering history in quite abstract ways can be enough. Through the long ago creative act — the wind breathed into those first embers of creation. The long ago sacred site, where God was present as if only as a rumour.

But when God enters history in flesh and blood, as a person. When the haziness of more ancient texts gives way to a frightfully recent picture of a person. Albeit not a direct, unvarnished window, but something more … tactile.

When God enters history not simply as an unspeakable name, an ancient whispered wind, a sacred presence … When the holy unspeakable name takes on a face, and flesh, and a familiarity: Yeshua, Iesus, Jesus. This anointed One. The holy name now wholly speakable.

What does it mean for God to enter history in this way?

What does it mean for God? And what does it mean for history?

There is in our two New Testament readings two accounts of this history. The rather mundane story of a Jewish child undergoing their rites of passage. And the grand history, as if from God’s own view, in one of the earliest confessions of faith for which we have a record.

In the grand theological history of Philippians there God is emptied out, God empties God’s own self out. As one theologian puts it, it is the story of God’s journey to the far country, and then the journey home. As if, could it be, God ceases for a moment to be God. Letting go of eternal equality with God the Second Person of the Trinity becomes human, takes on the form of a slave.

The theological question, with which early Christians wrestled is:

Whether God must cease to be God in order to enter history? In order to take on human flesh, human face, and human name?

The early Christian wrestling with this question responds with a resounding, “No!”

At one of the early councils of the church at Chalcedon the formulation was offered:

One divine person, with two natures: human and divine, neither confused nor separated.

Jesus never ceasing to be divine, never ceasing to be human.

But perhaps we can go further than this. It is not simply that the divine person takes on a human nature, as if there were a question of whether there ever would be an incarnation. Rather, God so entwines God’s being with our human life, through the human life of Jesus, that we cannot think of God apart from this one.

Hear these words of Scripture: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God, in love.” (Ephesians 1:4)

In just the same way we cannot think of God as other than the one whose being flows through creation. That ancient wind which flared the embers of creation to a guiding and abiding flame.

In just the same way we cannot think of God as other than the one who brought liberation to a people born of grace and freedom — God who speaks through Psalms and prophets.

In just this same way: we cannot think of God as any other than this one who is emptied, this one who takes the journey into the far country, our home. We cannot think of God apart from the entry into human history. In freedom and grace God chooses that divine destiny would be bound up with our human being: our history, your history, my history. In Jesus we see coming to fruition the God of all creation who seeks to make a home in the far country, to make a home in our home.

There is only God in this fragile child among humanity. Heralded by shepherds and strange sights in night skies — as if entering the layers of sacred stories which hold the precious memory of his own people’s history. There are no accidents here.

When Jesus comes to be circumcised we are led to see this as a new child taking their place among God’s people. Tying the child’s fate and future to God.

And yet, it is not a child who is taking their place within the people of God. Rather, here is God taking his place among the people. God freely and willingly binds divine destiny in this moment to human care. So fully does God give of herself in this Child that God becomes vulnerable to these figures of history, subject to their care.

Here the history of God’s people is inverted. It is no longer that God’s people can not exist apart from God’s sustaining power; here God can not exist apart from the people. Into their hands, into our hands, God offers God’s very self and child.

This is the ultimate demonstration of God’s self-giving love. Not simply that God would love us, but that God in an act of freedom and grace, chooses to be no other God than the one who embraces our humanity. God in freedom and grace chooses to be no other God than the one who is present with us, even in our frailty and vulnerability. God is no other God than the one who makes the journey to the far country, our home.

Ecce Deus. Behold God!

Let us then go all the way with our proclamation today of the Good News. The unspeakable holy one of old has now placed the name of Jesus on our lips.

So let us go all the way with our proclamation of the journey home. The God who binds divine destiny to our humanity gives Godself to us, but does not give herself away.

Gathered around this child in history is the tender love of parents. And this tender love responds to the self-giving love of God heralded by shepherds. And this tender love has echoed throughout history, it has touched the lives of each of us.

We, then, are the sign of renewal. However partial, fleeting, or fragile we have received this same divine love which has reverberated through the millennia. We have been grafted into the history which begins with this child and has been carried to today. We are gathered in this place to proclaim God’s presence with us.

So friends here is the Good News:

God has arrived and placed a name on our lips: Jesus, the Messiah — anointed One that we may all be anointed.

And we are anointed with the love that kindled the stars
The love that led the march of liberation, that sounds the call for justice

And we are anointed with the mercy that binds the broken
The peace that lies ready to be discovered in the heart of the world
The joy that breaks free everyday

This is the Good News:

God is with us, the divine destiny bound to our human history.
That every one of us may bow in wonder, and every tongue confess that love reverberates through the world.

And even at the end of our own fragile, fleeting moment.
God is with us in the sunset and the dawn of the new life.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 1 January 2023

The worship service for Sunday 1 January 2023 can be viewed by clicking on the image below. 

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

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