Category Archives: Sermons

17 October – Being served, being seen

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Pentecost 21
17/10/2021

Psalm 91
Mark 10:35-45


In a sentence
Our serving others begins with God’s serving us

Most of you are probably familiar with the story of The Invisible Man – whether from the original book by H G Wells or one of the many film adaptions. As superpowers go, invisibility is pretty high on the many people’s most-desired list. In the stories, the invisible man can move, infiltrate and steal, can be spy, voyeur and even violator with almost absolute freedom. This freedom from detection is the attraction of the power. To be able to see but not to be seen is a power almost divine in its possibilities. It is so, of course, only for the one who is invisible. The most recent adaptation of the story (2020) is a gripping horror movie from the perspective of she who is stalked by an invisible man.

The reading we have heard this morning is a familiar one to most of us, as is its interpretation. Let’s, then, render it a little less familiar by proposing that what James and John seek here is the freedom of invisible men – now a freedom from God. They seek to see as God sees, undetected themselves, rather than be seen by God.

This will surely strike many as an odd proposal, for it is almost the reverse of the typical reading! Those who know this reading know that it’s about the contrast between a certain kind of glory and servanthood. The two disciples ask to sit at his left and right hand in the heavenly court – to be glorified with Jesus and to be seen to be glorified. And Jesus turns their attention from seeking elevation to kneeling in service. The story seems to have a simple moral message: don’t big-note yourself but rather be helpful to others. This is an important moral message, and one we might forget at least in this or that particular situation; it’s good to be reminded of it. Chances are there is more we could do for someone nearby who would really appreciate our help. Give that help.

Yet, there is nothing morally surprising about what Jesus says. We have talkback radio and social media to remind us of these obligations to each other, criticising those who are too full of themselves and lauding those who sacrifice for others’ benefit.

On this moral reading, Jesus’ (the Son of Man’s) servanthood seems to be revealed here as an example for us to emulate: ‘I, Jesus, have come to serve and not be glorified; you do the same’. But if this is all Jesus says, he becomes largely irrelevant for the point. If I have a particular respect for Jesus – as James and John certainly did – then it might motivate me to hear that Jesus is a servant and I should be one too. But if the story is a common moral requirement hung on Jesus, then the passage is really only important as ‘humility for Christians’, which is the same as ‘humility for atheists’ except that atheists don’t have to bother with Jesus to get the point.

Yet there is more than an important moral point to hear in this exchange. Jesus is more than a moral exemplar: the Son of Man…came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. Here we move past mere helpfulness. A ransom is paid not for those in need of help but for those in captivity, held hostage, imprisoned. The service Jesus brings doesn’t assist us but fundamentally liberates us. Jesus serves in that he – God, if you like – sees us and our need, and acts to change these. We are seen, and what is seen is that we are not free.

Let’s look back now to James and John. The moral reading of their request is that they aspire to be glorified and to be seen to be glorified, sitting left and right of Jesus in the heavenly court. But we can find deeper meaning in their request. The effect of their sitting left and right of Jesus is that they no longer look at him but out to whatever Jesus sees. They ask, then, to see as Jesus sees, rather than to be seen by Jesus. They seek to be – with some imagination! – undetected invisible men – unseen by the Jesus whose gaze is properly forward and not to the left or right.

This is not now mere self-importance; it is ignorance of self. The Son of Man comes to serve you, James and John, and to ransom you. Our gospel passage begins not with the moral imperative to serve which rings so loudly in our activist ears but with but a fundamental gift: the Son of Man serves by ransoming, by setting free: God has detected us. With God, being seen – and our knowing ourselves to be seen – is the meaning of salvation. Sitting at his right and left, James and John would not meet the gaze of Jesus, would not know that he sees them too. They would not know that they too are detected, judged and forgiven.

In the story, Jesus declares that he has no say over who sits left and right of his throne. But we need to push this further. Of course, there is no throne or heavenly court – we’re in the realm of metaphor here. But to retain the metaphor and refine it, we should now say not that we cannot know who will sit at Jesus’ left and right but that in fact there are no seats to Jesus’ left or right. We are all before the throne; no one is to the side or behind. For this is where we must be if we are to be seen, and to know that we are seen, and accepted.

For this is how we are served: in being seen by God, and knowing that God sees us, and knowing that God’s gaze sets us free.

And this is how we become servants ourselves – seeing those we did not see before, not as mere features in our lifescape but as people like us, whom God also sees, not least with our eyes.

And then we move to serve as Jesus serves, in order to ransom those who are captive.

10 October – Against dreams and visions

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Pentecost 20
10/10/2021

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90
Mark 10:17-31


In a sentence
Our future is not in what we can imagine but what God has already given us

Consider the following from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

‘God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who fashion a visionary ideal of community demand that it be realized by God, by others, and by themselves.

They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge the fellowship and God himself accordingly… They act as if they are the creators of the Christian community, as if their dream binds people together.

When their ideal picture is destroyed, they see the community going to smash. So they become, first accusers of the fellowship, then accusers of God, and finally the despairing accusers of themselves.’

There is violence in all this drive to make changes. Bonhoeffer again:

…Those who love their dream of a community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of the community, even though their intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and faithful. (Life Together, SCM 1954, 17f)

If I see the goal, if I know what must be done to achieve it, and if I have the means to pull it off, I will work to bring the vision to reality. And I may well do this ‘no matter what’. This is the logic of the suicide bomb, the engine of domestic violence, the rationale for nuclear warhead stockpiles. I will believe my vision to be the vision – God’s vision – and that will require my all, and yours.

Yet, it is not the exercise of our power to influence which brings the kingdom of God, but God himself and, whatever God does among us, it is not violent.

To bring this home, let’s recall that we as a congregation are seeking a vision for the future. Some of us dream of what we have, or have had. Some of us dream of what new thing might yet be. In either case, we are visionaries looking to the left or the right, forward or backward, up or down.

Yet, what if Bonhoeffer is right: what if God does hate visionary dreaming? Is this the kind of visioning we’re presently encouraging? What does this mean for our planning, given that we must plan, that we must have some vision of our future?

In our gospel reading this morning, a man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. To this well-lived life Jesus adds just one more requirement: give away all that you have, and come and follow me. This is more than the rich man can bear, and he leaves, ‘grieving’.

This is one of those ‘squirmy’ readings which makes uncomfortable those of us who also have many things, but we won’t focus on that discomfort today. With Bonhoeffer in our ears, we will rather consider the rich man’s vision: the vision of ‘eternal life’. By itself, the desire for eternal life is not yet a problem. But the man links his desire to the question, ‘What must I do?’ In this, he assumes responsibility for achieving his most profound need, so that when Jesus ups the ante and names the thing which ‘can’t’ be done, the man’s vision and hopes are shredded. Even the disciples are horrified.

The problem here is the vision of being rewarded by God for the good work we have done: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ While we earn wages, we do not earn an inheritance: inheritance comes by virtue of being a son or daughter. Not what you do, but what you are, is the grounds for inheriting. With this man’s particular vision and his presumption that its fulfilment is about the choices he makes, what he needs most is lost, and he himself is also lost.

We can’t avoid asking and answering the question ‘What shall we do?’ And when we ask this, we kind of mean what is the right thing to do? What shall we do ‘in order to inherit eternal life’? This is the question of the rich man standing before Jesus – and it is not yet a bad question. But it turns bad when we attach to it a concern for being rewarded; with talk of reward (or punishment) we enter into the realm of anxiety and fear. To do the right thing is to win and find peace; to do the wrong thing is to lose – ourselves and the things we value – and here resides the anxiety and fear.

Yet Christian faith is not about being at peace in the knowledge that we have done the right thing. Of course, as human beings, we must decide: we must do something. But the heart of the matter is not in this.

While life might require that changes are made and that we make decisions about those changes, there is nothing we can do to change what we most basically are. The question which matters, then, is not what we will do, but what are we? By what spirit do we live? Where is the true source of our life? Is there any fixed thing in our lives which cannot be assailed, whatever might besiege us, whatever decisions we make?

The answer of the gospel is Yes. We are children of God, and so all that matters is already ours as inheritance. It is not ours to earn or achieve, not ours by virtue of being ‘right’ in our vision. We must indeed yet make decisions about our future, but we also hear that God has already given us adoption as his children. This is ‘eternal life’, and its concrete outworking for us is freedom to live as part of a community which is never destined to be a particular shape according to a specific vision. There is nothing to be done to inherit the fullness of life; it is already ours through Jesus the Son and it has less a specific shape than a particular relationship: unity around Jesus, under God. Christian discipleship – in all the things we do and say, in the visions we form and the choices we make – is simply a matter of orbiting together more closely to Jesus.

It is, then, by the grace of God that our dreams and visions of this or that grand community will fail and be cast aside by God, for our dreams are limited by our poor imagination. God breaks such futures on the sharp rocks of his grace so that ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ – the things God has prepared for those who know themselves to be his – so that these things might become ours.

What happens next for us can only be good if, at its heart, it is the expectation that God will be there with us.

Let us, then, be prepared to allow that, whatever the future holds for us as a congregation – or in our individual lives – we need not fear it and so need not seek to control it, for the future belongs to the God in whose Son our lives are hidden and held safe. If we desire that future, we will find that else we need has been added to us.

3 October – Becoming like a Child

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Pentecost 19
3/10/2021

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

Sermon preached by Matt Julius


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 September – Who Speaks for the Church

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Pentecost 18
26/9/2021

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

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 September – Of principalities and powers

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Pentecost 17
19/9/2021

Ephesians 6:10-20
Psalm 1
Mark 9:30-37


In a sentence
God meets us in the midst of life and in the midst of life God takes shape

It’s not news to many of us that life is something of a struggle. The present pandemic context would be proof enough of that, on top of the ins and outs of daily life: working and learning and loving and dying.

Such things are the form of our struggles, but what makes them struggles?

In our reading from Ephesians this morning, Paul offers an explanation verging on incomprehensible to us today. We struggle, not against enemies of blood and flesh – not against what we can see and touch – but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the forces of evil in the heavenly places. Even if it is still alive in modern fantasy books and films, this is strange language in our modern world. The ‘cosmic powers of this present darkness’ and the ‘spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ have little traction in what we consider to be our ‘real’ world lives. We have put these things to one side – even in the churches – except for when we want to play.

Yet, this is more problematic than it first seems. What embarrassment we might feel about Paul’s language of evil cosmic forces is in strange tension with what doesn’t embarrass us – the belief in God. For surely God is a spiritual power – albeit a much ‘bigger’ one, and a good one. We find ourselves, then, in a strange situation. We believe in what we might call a spiritual goodie – God – but not in spiritual baddies – the Devil and [his] cohort. And so it is commonly held in the churches these days that God is a personal spiritual reality but the Devil is not.

This has the effect that God is left ‘hanging there’ in the spiritual realm. And so is revealed something of the modern pathos of faith: we have largely dismissed the spiritual realm but still cling to a ‘spiritual’ God. The God of the Old and New Testaments inhabited a heaven filled with the forces of good and evil; the God of the modern mind is alone in heaven, with little to do. This emptying of the heavens has facilitated the recent resurgence of popular atheism: there is now only one spirit left to deal with, and now we outnumber it. Evangelism can feel like the call to leave the world to keep God company.

Maybe all of this sounds quite sceptical about the things of faith, but scepticism is not the point. The point is clarity about what our language means – to ourselves and to others, for our language is not innocent. Our words cast a world, cast God, cast our very selves. And we are able to hide in those words, or between them. Our language can hide from us who we are, who God is, or what the world is. The question is then whether our words capture us as we truly are.

If it is the case that our words about the heavens (and ourselves) have so shifted that God is now alone in heaven and distant from us in the world, then those words won’t do any more to speak of the struggle of life. To persist in talking that way is to become increasingly infantile in our speech. We place words next to each other in the way of a pidgin language which lacks an organising grammar: us here, God there. To what struggles we already have is added the struggle to link what we believe about a spiritual realm to what we live from day to day.

Yet one way of characterising what the Bible does is to see it as unravelling the world our words have made in favour of the world God’s word makes. God’s word does not separate but binds together.

At the heart of our confession is the presence of God in the person of the very real and worldly Jesus: the Incarnation. What happens in the very worldly struggles of Jesus, culminating in the cross, is the cosmic spiritual struggle. This much Paul has already declared in the first part of Ephesians.

The thing about the Incarnation, however, is that we tend to see it as a ‘one-off’ which comes to an end: Jesus is born, lives, dies, and returns to heaven. To be fair about this confusion, Luke does give us a graphic Ascension – which is pretty unhelpful – and the Creeds use this to amplify the suggestion. And so it seems that the powers are dealt with, and God is again alone in heaven, although now we see a Trinity rather than a monotheos – a kind of divine isolation ‘bubble’ of ‘intimate partners’ and perhaps a little less lonely. Most importantly, the Incarnation looks to have ended, and the world and God are again separated as they were before – into historical and spiritual realms.

But, the point of the Incarnation is that if God comes to the world, it is to stay.

And so, the world becomes the means of God’s work with us. If, as our modern society has come to understand, evil is not in some spiritual realm but can only be believed to exist in the ins and outs of history, then this is also the place where we meet God. And real-world actions are the form of so-called spiritual struggles.

This is to say that when Paul calls us to arm ourselves with the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of faith, these are not ‘spiritual’ things. These are disciplines – practices – which will necessarily be part of the life of every believer who is seriously engaged in the struggle for an authentic human life. The shield of faith, the breastplate of righteousness and the helmet of salvation are things we do. The sword of the Spirit is so specific a way of acting that it could cut off the hands of a fool who tries to wield it without sufficient training and familiarity.

God’s place is not a lonely throne in heaven but is properly in the world. We find a firm footing in life by attention to God’s calling, through practice and discipline, through study, prayer, fellowship and service in accordance with patterns which bring live and love, meaning and order into the loveless and disordered worlds our words so quickly create.

One Christian commentator has remarked that one reason our Christian faith often doesn’t make sense to us is that we don’t have practices which reflect it and make it real. If God is only a head and heart thing – and in this sense a ‘spiritual’ thing – then the things of God will make little sense in a world less about heart and head and spirit than it is about what we actually do, touch and manipulate. Christian life is habit and action which will strengthen us in lives of love and righteousness.

It is a struggle to be a Christian. There is much to unlearn. We are already armed, if often against the wrong thing – even God.

Yet God is faithful. God meets us with grace even when we fail in our discipleship – even if we arm ourselves against God. How much more, then, will God meet and strengthen us if we seek earnestly to be shaped according to his will by preparing ourselves, putting on the armour of God, growing in knowledge of the Scriptures, growing more confident in prayer, more accomplished in service, and more at peace in the world which God is healing.

Stand firm, Paul says to us, echoing the call of God. Act firm. Work firm. Pray firm.

In this way is Christ’s Body risen among us, here and now, we its members, for our life and for the life of the world.

12 September – While the days are evil

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Pentecost 16
12/9/2021

Ephesians 5:21-6:9
Psalm 116
Mark 8:27-38


In a sentence
Make the most of your time, while the days are evil (5.16)

Some Bible texts are too dangerous to read in church, or so it would seem. And so our reading from Ephesians this morning never appears in our standard lectionary readings for Sunday services, and neither do similar readings from other letters in the New Testament. This is to say that, if you’re only going to hear from the Bible on Sundays, this is not a text you need to hear. This means that this text may not have been heard in this congregation in living memory (One of those parallel texts has been heard and considered at MtE at least once!)

Why is this a text we need not hear? The problem will seem obvious to most listening in just now: she subordinate to him in a hierarchy within marriage. And the teaching on masters and slaves is scarcely more palatable today, although we’re probably less troubled by the direction that children should honour their parents!

The problem is that this sounds like divine law, and we are all biblical literalists at heart – believer and unbeliever alike. What else could this be but a moral claim made on us? Or, if we imagine ourselves not to be biblical literalists, we expect that the next person might be a literalist and that she will either seek to impose this understanding on us or be willing – and dangerously so – submit to it herself. We have no desire to return to a social order like this, and so it’s best not to read these texts in church.

Let it be clear that we’ll make no defence of the notion that Paul’s directions here should order our lives today. But we will consider, in a roundabout way, whether it might still have been good that this was written to those who first heard it, perhaps 1900 years ago.

This possibility is difficult to comprehend from the point of view of a strict sense of moral justice. Justice tends to be set, such that if something is wrong once (now), it is always wrong (then). The moral campaigner, or the campaigner for justice, struggles for all people in all times, not least those who have suffered and endured in the past.

As far as it goes, this is a sound argument if we overlook the possibility that a historical snobbery might be lurking within it – us, now, looking down on them, back then.

On this moral understanding, justice and righteousness can only occur when justice (the communal dimension) and righteousness (the personal dimension) are both in place.

Yet, the world is not a just place. Here and there, we strike a workable balance between justice and injustice which is workable for some of us, at least. Perhaps – at least in modern western society – we have moved past the worst of patriarchy and the suffering of slave economies. And yet, our lives are not just, from the perspectives of others. Is the world, then, a place without true righteousness?

Consider…

Whatever else might have happened in the process of colonization of Australia, we know what did happen, and we cannot change that. The language of justice surrounds indigenous issues today; can any of us be righteous in the midst of it all?

We strongly suspect that the future of life on earth might hang in the balance and that the ‘smart’ – the just – thing to do would be to wind down fossil fuel use dramatically. The solutions are obvious: stop mining coal and pumping oil; perhaps tax large cars highly and transfer those funds to low emission transport. We cannot, of course, do this, even though it would contribute greatly to heading off the threatened disaster. Injustice will abound here. Where will righteousness be found?

The seas are choking with micro-plastics. How hard would it be to wind back plastic production or to skew production towards biodegradable materials? Have we fulfilled all righteousness by taking our soft plastics back to the supermarket?

We know that it is unjust that millions of lives are wasting away in refugee camps and detention centres. Can we do nothing about this? Perhaps, we cannot, even if we started some of those fires in the first place. Can, then, true righteousness be found on either side of those fences, if the fences may never be torn down?

We might quibble about any such injustice and the degree to which we can or can’t change things in any particular case. Yet, the point is that there remains much that is unjust which we cannot change, whether because it is too entrenched or we are too complicit in the structures which oppress.

Is the world, then, as irredeemably unjust, a place where righteousness can occur?

The writer to the Ephesians could not change patriarchy or slavery, if it ever even occurred to him that he might try. What then? What does a righteous life look like in the midst of injustice? More pointedly, because we will come to this in a few minutes’ time: what does the word of divine forgiveness mean when sought by and granted to those whose lives are caught up in variously suffering from and contributing to the injustices of the world?

The moralist in us is tempted to a kind of ethical mathematics, balancing demands, striking compromises or, at the full extent of frustration, flinging accusations about the place.

For all the felt need for such moral calculus, a central faith-question at stake: can the good God ‘appear’ in the broken world? Can righteousness coincide with injustice? More pointedly, can injustice be a source of righteousness, or can injustice be a blessing?

Each of these questions escalates the problem, in turn.

Can the good God ‘appear’ in the broken world? This is what we speak about at Christmas, in particular: God takes on flesh – our flesh. God and the world are seen to sit within each other. This might be an interesting thought but it has little moral traction, which is why most talk about the Incarnation at Christmas doesn’t come close to convincing us that Jesus is better than Santa.

Can righteousness coincide with injustice? The Incarnation can be read in this way, but more moral traction is found here when we observe that, while Jesus was righteous, his rejection and crucifixion was unjust. Righteousness and injustice here coincide in that the injustice is in the wrong reading of righteousness. The moral lesson is, Don’t get righteousness wrong, but the possibility is also raised that we can’t be confident about what is and is not righteous or just. Good people, after all, crucified Jesus.

Can injustice be a source of righteousness? This is surely a horrifying suggestion and raises the moral tension to a fever pitch. Yet, something very like this is affirmed at the heart of Christian faith: the unjust crucifixion of Jesus saves the world, brings righteousness. No moral theory can account for this, despite all the valiant efforts of atonement theorists through the centuries. The true moral outrage of the call to deep forgiveness is revealed here. Jesus cannot be un‑crucified, history cannot be changed, and yet not death but life is granted to the guilty: righteousness under the condition of injustice. The injustice which cannot be changed becomes the source of a strange righteousness: a righteousness which changes the meaning – and so the possibilities – of injustice.

Our passage from Ephesians today – on a charitable reading – does not require mere acquiescence to injustice but a transformation of its possibilities. And so the writer addresses both those who might be oppressed and the ones who might be oppressing them.

If we, today, are beginning to put behind us the legacies of the patriarchy and slavery of biblical times, good for us! But we still have injustice enough to which we are subject or of which we are guilty, and about which there is very little we can do to change how things are or work.

And so we still need to hear that gospel word which responds to what we have done or what has been done to us – the word which, in the guilt and the suffering, miraculously liberates us for whatever righteous thing we must do next in the midst of injustice.

‘You are forgiven’ breaks all moral expectations and possibilities, and sets us free to live toward a deeper justice, making the most of our time, Paul says, even though the days are evil (5.16).

Let us, then, work and pray to discover the shape of righteousness in our own situation, however just or unjust it may be.

In this, we live towards the hope at the heart of our confession: the day when righteousness and justice will finally be the same thing.

5 September – Bodies, souls and morals

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Pentecost 15
5/9/2021

Ephesians 5:8-16
Psalm 146
Mark 7:24-37


In a sentence
What we do reflects what we think we are

‘Live as children of the light’, Paul says, ‘…Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness.’

Plucked out of context like this, this scripture passage says everything, and nothing. It says everything, in that all the bases are covered: what else is there but ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ as options, the yin and yang of life choices? It says nothing, in that it does not tell us what ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ actually look like when it comes to making those choices. And so, in the end, the little section we have heard from Ephesians this morning is, by itself, not very interesting. There is nothing here to engage us. We might say that it is so right that it’s really not worth saying.

But when we look at what comes before and after these verses, we see that two of the things Paul addresses more specifically are sex and heavy drinking. And these things are of great interest to us – or some of us, at least. Because they are more interesting, we’ll think together a bit about them this morning to illuminate a little more what is at stake in what we do being ‘light’ or ‘darkness’.

We get nowhere if we reduce Paul’s direction to mere moral decision, in the sense of our moral decisions over against Paul’s. Morality is more than the choices we make. Paul does not simply say ‘Do this, don’t do that’ for us to agree with him or not. Rather he says, Understand what you are, and be reconciled to that.

The question is, then, What is a human being such that casual sex and getting drunk might violate not simply the moral code of some god but our very being?

Concerning sex, and contrary to the dominant understanding today, what is important for faith is not that we have bodies with which we might do this or that, but that we are bodies. The difference is subtle but very important. To have a body is to be somehow separated from it, somehow for the ‘real’ me to dwell within my body so that whatever happens to my body doesn’t quite happen to ‘me’. Consequently, if I give my body or take yours in sexual exchange, neither of us need really, wholly, be there.

This is not the understanding behind Paul’s exhortations here. Our bodies are not merely fleshy appendages to our true selves but are so tightly intertwined with our inner being that what happens to the one happens to the other. Contrary to the modern split of mind from body, it is indeed our whole selves which the Scripture understands to be caught up in sex and not ‘just’ our bodies. The joining of bodies is also a joining of souls, just as the loss of our body is the loss of our soul.

The question then becomes: Can what is joined this way be casually separated again? Scripturally the answer is no, not without radical damage, if there was a true joining.

Yet, for perhaps most of us, this doesn’t feel like a radical and damaging rupture in what we are – a ‘work of darkness’, as Paul puts it – because the lights have already gone out long before we get to this point. The base problem is not the sex but the division of spirit and body, which runs right through us as individuals and as communities. The manifestation of this division in the way modern society encourages us to treat sex is just one of many ways it affects us. If you imagine that when you die, your body stops but some other part of you keeps going, you are caught in the same misconception about what it means to be human. Whatever the scriptural talk of death and resurrection means, it is not that when our bodies die our spirits gives up their tenancy and continue on. When the body dies, so does the spirit. And you stay dead until God says otherwise.

At another level, any political or ethical strategy in which it is implied that the end justifies the means similarly divides bodies from souls, suggesting that only the souls really matter and the bodies can be done with as we like. The frustrations of COVID lockdowns are the effect of limiting the movement of bodies on minds and souls; what must be happening to the spirits of bodies locked in refugee detention centres or behind similar walls? The concern for justice is the recognition that bodies break souls.

In moving from sex to death to politics and justice we’re not losing our topic. Rather, debates about the so-called ‘morals’ of sex are not merely a matter of who says what about what I can do with ‘my’ body. The point is, What am I? What makes a human person human? And when do my decisions and actions draw me away from what I have been created to be? The same principles are at play in the righteousness of personal conduct as in the justice of conduct in community.

Whatever sense of intimacy and closeness it might seem to promise, the mere feels‑good approach to sex is – at the deeper level of the being and needs of each of us – as much a matter of denying myself and the one I am with, as it is affirming some felt need. This is the case whether in or out of marriage. From the point of view of Scripture, we are simply confused here: the contemporary ‘celebration’ of our ‘embodiment’ through sexual liberation also denies that our bodies are really us.

For the sake of not going on much longer we’ll not spend too much time on what Paul says about drunkenness, but the same kind of issue is operating. As bad as the health and broader social impacts of drunkenness might be, Paul’s focus here is how the one who drinks herself to excess is expressing her humanity. Working a pun, he draws a contrast between filling ourselves with strong spirits and being filled with the Spirit of God. Here the problem he addresses is not so much the body as our desire to displace the Spirit which gives life with some other spirit, denying again what we are given to be by replacing it with something else.

The moral guidelines Paul puts here are not anti-sex or anti-alcohol. More deeply, the question is, In what does our humanity reside and what kinds of behaviour accord with that? Paul’s interests in his moral teaching are not merely what we do but what we are intended to be, and how we are more fully to become that kind of creature.

Of course, on both the simple moral reading, and the deeper theological one I’ve suggested, the teaching looks the same – don’t sleep around and don’t get drunk. In both cases it sounds like a ‘No’ to things some might prefer at least to be free to do, should we want to.

It can only be a ‘No’ on the merely moral reading There is here really only darkness. But, on the deeper theological reading, the No is preceded by a Yes. The Yes is an affirmation of both our spirits and our bodies as fundamental to what we are. It is the ‘Yes’ which affirms the ‘resurrection of the body’ – our bodies in the Body of Christ – whatever that might ultimately look like. This ‘Yes’ declares that even what seems to threaten us most – the loss of our bodies and spirits in death – does not have ultimate sway. The ‘Yes’ of the gospel is a light by which we see God’s faithfulness to the world as he has created it. We are created as truly spirited bodies which have their fullest life when my connection to others – my reconciliation to others – matches my reconciliation to the connection of my own body and heart.

The ‘Yes’ God speaks is the gift of God’s own Spirit in the risen Body of Christ, given that our minds and bodies might be reconciled – within us and between us.

It is simply for us to pray and act towards the enlivening of our bodies and spirits through what God has promised, and to look for that new life in relationships and actions which reflect God’s own faithfulness to body and to spirit.

Let us, then, so pray and act: as children of light.

29 August – Without forgiveness, there is nothing

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Pentecost 14
29/8/2021

Ephesians 4:17-18, 25-5:2
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


In a sentence
Forgiveness is the creative ground of all things

A passing amusement in the schoolyard when I was a kid was to sidle up to someone else – usually a friend – to give him a good punch in the arm and then step back in feigned horror to declare, ‘the Devil made me do it’. The principal purpose of the game, of course, was not to demonstrate some profound truth about the motivations of human action but the chase which ensued, in which the puncher tried to avoid what the Devil would cause the punchee to do in retribution!

Of course, modern sophisticates are beyond believing that there even exists a devil, let alone that such an entity could motivate us to act. This is the part of the joke in the schoolyard.

But this unbelief has rather far-reaching consequences. If what I do wrong cannot be attributed to a higher power, then I become solely responsible for the evil I do. This is also part of the schoolyard joke and why my friend chases me rather than rails against the devices of the Devil.

This is may not yet seem to a problem. Yet, without the Devil, not only what wrong but also what right we do comes to be centred on us as individuals. I and I alone am responsible for what good I do and for what evil I do.

This is assumed by the simple moral systems operating in, through and around us most of the time: we are free moral agents and what good or bad we do is our own work. And it mostly works in day-to-day life. So far, so good.

However, how do I know in the first place what is good and what is wrong? There are two basic options here. The first is the simplest but also the most terrifying and so the less palatable and stable: something is good because I do it, or bad because I do it. That is, I am myself the definition of goodness and badness. This is the argument of those whose actions can only be described as sociopathic – whether those actions are bad or good by other measures. It is not only the diagnosed sociopath who thinks and act this way.

The second source for goodness and badness is most generally characterised as being ‘outside’ of me. Moral measure is located in society or culture, the family or the tribe. This is our usual operating assumption when it comes to sourcing moral truth. It is on the basis of morality-as-communal that most people more or less adhere to the current lockdown directives, and are horrified that a few loud and angry voices are heard in the streets in protest against this corporate definition of the good. Yet this moral reference point is also unstable, for we also know that truth is sometimes on the lips of the contrary voice in the streets and not in the churches or halls of power. Of this, the old prophets are the proof, with Jesus himself.

The tension between individualised and communalised moral authority cuts right through us. And it is impossible to relax the tension, other than temporarily. History is driven by the struggle between the one and many, the familiar and the novel, the choice of the individual and need of the many.

We’ve not yet come to our focus text for today, which we do now! There is much moral direction in and around today’s reading: do this, don’t do that. And, for the most part, it’s correct: do what Paul says and don’t do what he criticises. It’s not exactly rocket science.

But it is boring. Morality is boring. This is not to say that it is not necessary. It is necessary and, once more, do what Paul says, and don’t do what he criticises (read it again for yourselves).  Morality is essential but it is also dull. It’s not dull in the sense that it is uneventful; history is the struggle over moral vision, over what human beings should do and become, and it often becomes a matter of life and death. Morality is boring in the sense that it is always there. There is always a decision to make, a balance to strike, a wager to make with respect to the next crisis – literally, the next ‘judgement’, ours and God’s. Morality is boring because it is mundane – it’s what comes with living in the world together.

Yet Paul is not boring here, if we are paying close attention. He makes his moral declarations and then, strangely, undermines them all: forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (4.32). The strangeness here is that forgiveness is not a moral action in the way that other exhortations are, to do this or not do that. Properly, forgiveness sets aside all rule-making for the sake of something other than the rules. A kind of amorality, even immorality, is implied. There is something to be forgiven – but forgiveness sets the mundane aside, devaluing the moral expectation which has not been met.

Struggles over morality typically – boringly – end in alienation or annihilation; bombs in Kabul airport this week are an instance of this, but so too is this or that lesser and more local moral outrage in the newsfeeds which caught our attention for a few minutes, or perhaps which happened at home. But forgiveness neither alienates nor annihilates. Instead, forgiveness creates where otherwise would have been only the nothingness of moral failure. And the appearance of something where there was nothing is never boring.

The problem with morality is not that this or that thing we might or mightn’t like is encouraged or forbidden. The problem with morality is that it is usually equated with Godliness. This is why ministers preparing funerals will sometimes have to endure the declaration that, while the deceased was a committed agnostic, she was nevertheless a good Christian woman.

It’s not much better in the church, of course, where we are strongly tempted to turn forgiveness into another moral action: one more good thing we do, by which we distinguish ourselves further from those who don’t do the right thing.

But Godliness in the gospel is not a doing of good things but a making good of things. Doing good puts things in order. It is the grammar of day-to-day life together, by which we make sense to each other. Morals are standing orders, permission granted.

Making good, in contrast, asks no permission. It simply creates new things where there was no hope of anything. It raises the dead, breathes spirit into dust.

This creativity is what it is to forgive.

This is why forgiveness is the hardest thing we can do, but also the one thing needful.

Maybe the Devil makes us do stuff, maybe not. But God makes us – ‘for‑gives’ us into being in order that we might do what God does.

We are, that others might be.

Hear St Paul, then, once more:

4.31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5.1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children…

Forgive. Create.

22 August – Fettered peace

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Pentecost 13
22/8/2021

Ephesians 4:1-7, 10-17
Psalm 34
John 6:56-69


In a sentence
Peace is not freedom from each other but freedom for each other

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

‘The bond of peace’ is a lovely-sounding phrase and yet one which also becomes a little problematic when we press it for meaning.

There is much which embodies or creates ‘unpeace’ among us. The most obvious right now is the long tail of COVID-19 and the ongoing havoc in our lives and economies. Looming on the horizon is the possibility of a climatic instability which threatens much wider and longer suffering. The news tells us of the return to power in far away places of people whose idea of peace is very different from ours. Colonial arrogance and the impact of war mean that many labour under the continuing impact of colonisation or have their lives limited by the wire or guns which contain refugee camps. These are ‘bonds’ not of peace but which bring anxiety, pain and death.  We are bound in these ways by physics and chemistry, by history and politics.

Our sense for what peace might be in relation to all this is perhaps best summarised in the broad notion of ‘freedom’: peace is freedom from what fetters us.

When Paul speaks of peace here, however, it is of ‘the bond of peace’ or – a possible translation – the ‘fetter’ of peace. Being bound or fettered seems a strange way to speak of peace. Paul’s precise meaning here is not clear but what is clear is that ‘freedom’ as we usually it conceive doesn’t sit comfortably with the ‘peace’ he implies. For Paul, either we are bound up for peace – perhaps restrained so that peace might be realised – or peace itself binds us. In either case, we are not ‘free’ in the way we normally think of freedom.

This is surely offensive to the sensibilities of the modern heart. The struggle for freedom is one of the driving engines of modern western society. What place has a ‘binding’ – even a peaceful one – in the free lives for which we long?

The tension between peace and freedom arises when we imagine that our familiar notion of freedom is itself the fundamental expression of peace. We hold freedom to be good, and peace to be good, and so peace and freedom to be the same thing. Yet it is likely that here we hold two loosely-thought things together as if they were one, but in fact they remain two. And so we can’t work out why all the freedoms we now enjoy – at least in our part of the world and in the social stratum most of us here occupy – why these freedoms have not led to peace.

The problem is that the idea of being absolutely free is finally incoherent, and so also is the notion of peace we associate with it. We are always bound by something. Aspiring to absolute freedom is ultimately a rage against that fact that we are embodied. For, if we were able to liberate ourselves from all external constraint we will surely still grow old and die. Death only ceases to be our enemy – ceases to be our limitation – if our mortal bodies don’t finally matter. If our freedom were absolute, peace would mean that our bodies and their needs only seem to be important, that neither they nor the wider world we see around us are finally real. There is no radical freedom from all things, all persons, all constraints, which does not relegate those things to nothingness.

But Paul does not deny the reality of the world or us within it. The peace he envisages is not an escape from all bonds, but being subject to the right bonds. The ‘fetter of peace’ is not a binding in place of freedom, it is one kind of binding in place of other bindings. Paul will come later to our own particular bodies as ‘bound’ in certain ways within peace. Here, however, the body which is in view is the body politic of the church as a whole – and so by extension what is held out to the wider human family.

The metaphor of a body for a human community is powerful here because no part of a body is free from any other part; everything is bound together – we are ‘joined and knit together by every ligament’, as Paul puts it. In this way the body grows – and every part within it. In this way, the body and its parts are at peace with each other – bound to each other – and yet wholly free to be themselves. It is this binding which frees us to be ourselves.

Peace is not isolation but connection. And not connection as mere juxtaposition but interconnection: each part bound to the other for its own sake and for the sake of the other: for the sake of peace. Peace, then, is not a freedom of one from the other, but a freedom of one for the other.

The peace Paul commands will not be realised in separating ourselves from each other – rich from poor, young from old, Jew from Arab, Muslim from Christian, or whatever. Such separation is just cold war, and a cold war is still a war. Peace is the peace we need when justice takes shape among us: when my well-being is dependent upon yours, and yours upon mine. The ‘bond of peace’ is this fundamental interconnectedness.

And because we are ever living and moving and changing, the peaceful life is one of ‘humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love’. Peace does not stand still, there is no resting in peace.

In this way we share in the work of God in Christ, growing into the promised humanity of Jesus himself, whose own gentleness and patience and bearing of us builds us – here and now – into the peace of God.

Let us, then, set each other free by building each other up in love – from, in and for the bond of peace.

15 August – What’s in a Name?

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Pentecost 12
15/8/2021

Ephesians 3:7-21
John 6:51-58


In a sentence
God gives us a new name by making us part of God’s own family

Every one of us has been given a name. Some of us have had the responsibility of giving names to others, and some of have changed their name at some time. Clearly, we need names. Yet recent changes in how we name ourselves indicate that the seemingly innocuous necessity of having a name is rather more charged than it first appears.

It was not so long ago that a child would almost certainly be named to honour a grandparent or an aunt or a king, so that names like John or George or Mary or Elizabeth have had a very long history and been quite common (at least, in Western English-speaking society). This is not because they necessarily sound nice or mean much in themselves, but because they placed us within a certain family, tradition and culture. The same kind of thing happens when women change their family name on being married.

Today, however, a kid can be called anything from Apple to Tiger Lily to Zeppelin, or once common names will be assigned with a spelling no one could possibly guess. This probably reflects a shift from the desire to be associated with another named person – a name as giving communal identity – to a desire to stand out from all other names: naming as individuation. In a similar way, an increasing number of women retain their family-of-origin name when marrying. Retaining a family name after marriage claims an identity which is not to be reduced who your husband is.

These shifts in naming reflect changes in what we think we are, how we stand in relation to each other, and where our value comes from. How I name myself reflects what (and who) I think I am: our names place us, locate us.

The implication of this is that the ‘same’ thing can be quite a different thing if its name is changed. Naming is a process of association – a process of linking one thing with another – and these associations matter for the reality of a thing – for our reality.

Paul touches upon a naming in the prayer at the heart of today’s reading, where he identifies God as ‘the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’. A more literal translation would run like this: ‘… I bow my knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name’. This language is ingloriously patriarchal but is important for understanding what Paul means. His intention is not to be patriarchal, despite all the possible abuses which might be built upon the language of ‘Father’ for God in the New Testament. What Paul is doing is challenging the way in which we name ourselves, and undermining patriarchy along the way.

Paul wrote in a time when who we were, what was expected of us and what we might ourselves expect out of life was starkly determined by what might broadly be called our ‘family’. That these families – whether clans or religions or nationalities – were very often patriarchal was just how it happened to be. But precisely because it was that way, Paul takes the ‘fatherhood’ of our race, culture, clan, religion and nation – our assumed way of naming ourselves – and contrasts this with what it means to live under the ‘fatherhood’ of the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ. Paul does then what he always does: he calls us to consider whether our lives are built upon what God sees in us and calls us to be, or whether they are built upon what we call ourselves and see in ourselves. Which name and corresponding set of relationships is most fundamentally ours?

We believe, of course, that we already know who we are, and that the real question is only what we do. This is why, when it comes to matters of belief, we are more interested in action than in talk, more interested in doing than in ‘merely’ being. In the three chapters up to this point in the letter Paul has been giving an extended and rich account of what God has done for Jew and Gentile alike. This tells us who we are – we for whom God has done this – and what we have become through God’s work.

With today’s passage we come to the turning point in the epistle, and from here Paul moves to the question of ‘how then should we live?’ Yet the ‘then’ matters: how therefore, should we live? To understand what we are to do, we have to understand what has gone before – Paul’s account of who we are – else the ‘therefore’ makes no sense. Paul means that to ‘do’ properly, we must ‘be’ properly – we must know our true name.

But this is not easy, and so Paul is moved to prayer:

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. [NRSV]

Paul prays here that we might learn the name by which God would call us. To name ourselves is both necessary, and only a guess at what we are from the vantage point at which we stand. Paul prays therefore that we might yet comprehend – might yet see – with breadth and length and height and depth, that we might know what surpasses knowledge, coming to know more than can be known.

To know more than can be known is to be. Knowing how God renames us is to become something different: children. For God’s naming of us does not just re-label us, it makes us what we are called – children. We hear what Jesus hears: ‘You are my children; today I have ‘begotten’ you’ (cf. Ps 2, Mark 1).

The manner of love God has shown us is one which does not simply ‘forgive’ or ‘heal’ or ‘promise’ – does not merely re-label us – but claims us as children, as those who have in common nothing other than God’s love, and Jesus as Brother, and the Holy Spirit who makes this so.

In our lives many things make us who we are: what my father did to me, what I experienced in school, what my children haven’t done for me, or that I don’t have children, or where I work. Even if they are not the heart of what I am, these things are important because they mark me off as someone unique, for no one else has experienced what I’ve experienced, felt what I’ve felt. These things are part of my name, and give colour to the history which my name brings to mind.

But these details are not yet me, and neither can they be the final ground of my relationship to you, for you are different in the same ways.

Yet our difference from each other is not the most basic thing we have in common; this is the argument of the radical but unreflective inclusivism which abounds at the moment. Rather, as we are children of our parents, children of our age, children of what has happened to us, so now, by God’s grace, all our families are brought together under the one name as sons, daughters, children and siblings.

The miracle at the heart of Christian belief is not this or that wonder or spectacle – whether the healing of a blind person or the raising of a dead one. Rather, the heart is what these ‘lesser’ miracles refer to: that the secret of what we really are in all our living and dying is that God would make us his children, that our naming of our many and varied lives might be coloured by God’s name for us, a naming which declares that we are God’s, and God is ours.

This is the gospel: that, whatever has been the quality of the ‘fatherhood’ or ‘motherhood’ we have known, this God embraces, surpasses and perfects. We have a new name.

This is indeed something far more than we could ask or imagine – being filled with all the fullness of God – and yet the power of God is present to make it happen.

This fullness is the meaning and goal of all that we are and do.

Let us then, be and do as the children of this God, sisters and brothers in this family, that all human families might become one.

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