Category Archives: Sermons

4 June – The human heart of God

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Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1:26-2.4a
Psalm 8
Matthew 28:16-20

In a sentence:
Trinitarian faith is the conviction that God is indelibly marked by, and so can heal, human experience

What catches our attention
When I checked the list of the ten “Most Viewed” news items on The Guardian’s website on Thursday, their themes were as follows:

  • War crimes allegations
  • Queensland vs NSW State of Origin
  • The Ben Roberts-Smith defamation case
  • Australia’s housing crisis
  • Ben Roberts-Smith (again)
  • Drone attacks in Moscow
  • The rental crisis
  • People pursued by debt collectors
  • Different drone attacks in Russia
  • State of Origin (again)

There is, of course, more than this in the daily papers, but this is the kind of thing that attracts our attention. On any given day, it’s pretty much the same: a predominance of bad things unfolding around us (drone attacks or straining economies), relieved by a few diversions or titillations (State of Origin or some celebrity’s latest peccadillo).

Most of it, of course, is a “long way” from us – someone else’s crisis. Yet, unless we simply stop engaging with the news, we feel around us the low, distant thrum of things falling down, the threat of things which might become our problem as well. It doesn’t go too far to say that we are ‘baptised’ – immersed, soaked – in this shared experience. Of course, there is love-light which shines through and is even to be found in the newspapers; it’s just that the love stories don’t feature in the “Most Viewed” item lists.

David Ford (the author of our current study group book) might characterise this troubled experience as one of the ‘overwhelmings’ which constitute the human being – one of our many immersions and baptisms. Christian faith denies none of these realities; it ‘simply’ locates these experiences within a broader horizon than tomorrow’s coming repetition of today’s news. And this brings us to the church’s trinitarian dogma. Perhaps this is unexpected, for what could such high falutin theology have to do with the deep anthropology of felt experience in the world, to which the daily news testifies?

The human heart of God
An answer can be found in the classic credal summation of this teaching, as we recite about every other week. Here we see the human being right in the heart of God. Indeed, we can see how human experience is the crisis which precipitated the Creed in the form we have it.

The Creed appears in three bits (‘articles’). All we have to notice about this today is given on the front page of the pew sheet this morning – the size of each of these bits. By far, the largest is the middle bit, and the second largest is the last. The middle bit is the largest because it’s the bad news about human existence. This is what appears in the ‘Most Viewed’ list, the thing which catches our attention, the thing which most threatens us. This is Jesus dead on the cross. It is Russia in Ukraine, the US in the Pacific and Israel in Palestine. It is war crimes and train crashes and murder-suicides. The third article of the Creed is more like the Most Viewed diversionary stories; it is the good news, the relief. Yet, it is not mere titillating distraction but a vision of the peaceful resolution of tangled and strangled life.

And notice how small the ‘main’ God bit is at the top – the creator-God article we might think makes the broadest religious sense. By contrast, and challenging a general notion or interest in ‘God’, the Creed places human experience and human longing at the very heart of God and gives these the most space. And this was seriously controversial. At the time of the laying out of the Creeds, the ‘Most Viewed’ items in ancient newsfeeds would have been ‘Church contaminates God with crucified prophet’ or ‘God died, proclaims Christian bishop’ and then, among the diversionary and titillating most-viewed items, ‘Bishop thrown to the lions’.

But the church persisted with its odd theology. The middle article of the Creed is the longest because it places our Most Viewed items at the heart of God, as if these mattered to God, even to the extent that they are part of God. And out of that dull background thrum, slowly, are heard strains of music: resurrection, community, unity, holiness and fullness of life. Discord resolves into harmony, the pavement-pounding of marching armies gives way to the delight of dancing feet, steel melts to flesh and hands which held at a distance now meet in reconciling embrace behind an enemy’s back.

Our story, in God
This is what the church’s trinitarian faith means. If we are baptised into a world of dark Most Viewed stories, Jesus’ command to his disciples that they go and baptise is a command to confer a new story: find yourself here, in the Creed. It is a dark place where we afflict each other, and also suffer with one another. But there is also a promise there. Be baptised into the promise, and start to read more of this story. And not only read the story but become it.

Christian faith is about finding ourselves unexpectedly hidden in the life of God, as the geometry of the Creed shows. To borrow again from David Ford, we might say that we are ‘secreted’ within God – hidden and enveloped within different story – Christ’s story as our own. Our lives are God’s secret, God’s, hidden precious thing.

The trinitarian confession of the church is a story of God-and-the-world. God’s own Most Viewed items are the lives of each one of us. Our lives are not given to be the next tragedy or diversion in the news. To confess God as three-and-one is to know the story of our lives read by God, whose reading of us is always towards wholeness, peace, and joy.

To confess God is in this way is to tell our stories to their glorious end: the life of the world to come, in God.

28 May – Conceived by the Holy Spirit

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Numbers 11:24-30
Acts 2:1-21
John 7:37-39

Sermon preached by Rev. Rob Gotch

If we were to consider what we cannot live without, I imagine we’d identify a variety of relational and experiential possibilities:  people to love, nurture and care for us, accepting us without question, and sharing with us our mortal journey;  careers, hobbies, passions and lifestyles that offer purpose and meaning;  communities, places and practices in which we are safe, and in which we find encouragement and belonging;  something or someone in which to invest trust, giving us hope in the midst of the pain of illness or injury, disappointment or grief;  experiences that delight our senses or emotions – that first coffee in the morning or that bit of chocolate after dinner, the physical exercise that releases endorphins to provide a natural high, a piece of music that makes us smile or weep for reasons we can’t explain, the grandeur of outback wilderness, mountaintop panorama, or ocean vista.  And there are more fundamental human needs – food, water and the air we breathe.  Apparently, these needs can be quantified using a fairly simple formula – we can live for about 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, and 3 minutes without air.

The primary narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures places these basic human needs within the context of faith in the God who calls people into the life of covenant relationship.  Led by Moses out of slavery into freedom, the Israelites begin to regret leaving Egypt, lamenting that they’ve journeyed into the wilderness only to die of starvation.  In response to this, the Lord provides quail for dinner and manna for breakfast.  Then they complain that they’re dying of thirst.  In response to this, Moses is instructed by the Lord to strike the rock at Horeb, and water flows for them to drink.  Moses names that place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarrelling and testing of his people when they ask – ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’

Centuries later, the apostle Paul recalls these events in a remarkable way.  Writing to the church at Corinth, he interprets the Exodus narrative through the gospel of Jesus, when he says: ‘I do not want you to be unaware that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.’  Paul recognises that the Corinthians and the Israelites share the same struggle.  This is the struggle to recognise that the Lord is indeed among them as the giver of life, not merely in the provision of food and water, but in every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord, calling people into the life of devotion, justice and peace, as creatures of God.

The writer of Psalm 104 reflects on what it means to be creatures of God: ‘All things look to you Lord to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.  When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.  When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.’  In this psalm, as in the creation story in Genesis chapter 1, the Hebrew word for spirit is ruach – the life-giving breath or wind of God.

In the Pentecost story in Acts chapter 2, the Greek word for spirit is pneumatos – the breath or wind of God that manifests as tongues of fire resting on each of the disciples.  This is the hope of Moses and the promise of Jesus fulfilled – the Spirit of God breathed into God’s people that they may dwell in praise.  When the mighty acts of God are proclaimed in every language in Jerusalem, those listening are amazed, thinking that the disciples must be drunk.  But the apostle Peter declares that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy – that God’s Spirit will one day be poured out on all flesh.

It’s interesting to consider Pentecost in relation to the Creedal affirmation that Jesus was ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.’  This phrase seems to cause such controversy, with some wondering how virgins can be mothers.  Often overlooked are the theological implications of the phrase, perhaps especially the reference to the Holy Spirit’s role in conception.  We can learn from medieval artists who recognise that Mary conceives by receiving the Word, not just through the angel’s message but through the voice of the Spirit.  And just as Jesus is ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit’, so too is his church.  Note the irony in Moses’ words to his agitated apprentice, Joshua:  ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them.’  This is the meaning and purpose of Pentecost – the Lord has put his Spirit on us to make us prophets of Jesus Christ.

Consider the brokenness that afflicts this planet and its peoples:  the loss of purpose, meaning and identity that leads to despair, the struggles for power that promote the manufacture of terrible weapons, the disappearance of fertile land for subsistence farming, the deepening threat of global warming, the insatiable appetite for unsustainable consumption, the false hope in unbridled economic growth, the widening and self-justifying gap between rich and poor, the various self-serving media that sacrifice truth on the altar of greed, the hopelessness of addictions of increasing variety and misery.

Into this brokenness, the Holy Spirit breathes and speaks God’s Word of hope.  This is the Spirit:  who hovers over the waters of creation, bringing forth life out of darkness, who speaks through law and prophets to create a holy people, who settles on Jesus at his baptism to confirm God’s love and call, who empowers the ministry of God’s anointed in acts of healing, justice and peace, who is promised by Jesus to those who love him and obey his commandments, who is crushed by the death of the Son and the grief of the Father, who is sent upon all chaos to breathe once again life into darkness, who rejoices in the re-union of Father and Son, and invites the whole creation into God’s renewing embrace.

This is good news for a hurting world; indeed, good news that God’s creation cannot live without.  This is good news for the congregation of Mark the Evangelist, as it discerns its life and witness, and journeys into a future grounded only in God’s call.

May God breathe the Spirit of Christ crucified into you, that you may be rivers of living water – as creatures of his life, as stewards of his peace, and as prophets of his glory.

Praise to the Father, Christ his Word, and to the Spirit:  God the Lord.  Amen.

21 May – The one thing fearful

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Easter 7

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5.6-11
Psalm 111
John 17:1-11

In a sentence:
Fear is always finally that God will not be there ‘tomorrow’, but this we do not need to fear

Being human
Most of us have had the experience of not being able to keep watching the news or reading the newspapers, simply because it has become overwhelming: too much controversy, too much complicated debate, too many shot dead, burned in a hotel fire, dragged out of mangled cars or drowned when overloaded boats succumb to the waves.

The news is distressingly un-new; it simply replays over and over with different actors and, not surprisingly, can be overwhelming. We feel threatened by the dangers which leap out of the television screen, knowing that each person caught in the lens might well have been us, or perhaps we are overwhelmed because we feel we should be able to do something about it but can’t, or don’t know what. When we switch off the screen or radio, or close the paper, we prove the somewhat cynical wisdom: ignorance is bliss.

Over the last couple of weeks, our discussion groups have begun a new book in which theologian David Ford proposes that experiences like being overwhelmed are defining for human beings. We are overwhelmed from birth by family, language and culture. We are overwhelmed by love or grief or by the kinds of things which confront us in the news. Positively or negatively, the human being is inherently susceptible to being overwhelmed, or perhaps even needs to be overwhelmed.

In the same way, Ford then goes on to consider desire. Like the various overwhelmings which define us, these desires can also be positive or negative and can be quite comprehensive. Desire, then, can also be used to describe the human being: the human is a being which desires, and perhaps which desires most deeply to be desired.

Ford’s method in the book seems to be to identify certain aspects of human existence which might be said to be universal, and then to ask how such things are means by which God connects to us. That is, his point is not least that good theology requires good anthropology, and good anthropology points to what good theology needs to address.

The fear of God
I suspect that our experience of fear might be another of those universal human experiences which can be a basis for thinking about God. ‘Cast all your anxiety on God’, writes St Peter in our reading this morning. Anxiety, or fear, pops up several times in this letter. Peter’s community is under persecution, apparently having been marked out as sufficiently different from the mainstream to present some threat to the wider community. But at this point, Peter doesn’t suggest that fear is inherently bad. He allows for it but tweaks it: ‘Fear God’ (2.17), he writes, ‘Do not fear what they fear’ (3.14).

The idea of fearing God seems strange to us these days. We’re more likely to want to speak about ‘loving’ God, drawing a polemical contrast between love and fear: love (good) versus fear (bad). But the Scriptures know us a little better than this. Not fearing would be like not being overwhelmed or not desiring. That is, we can’t do it. The question is not ‘to fear or not to fear’ but what we fear, on the assumption that we will fear something. Peter’s ‘do not fear what they fear’ invites a discrimination between fears, just as we might discriminate between types of love – that ‘love’ which destroys us or others, versus those that build up.

For Peter, it is only Godly fear which properly makes a claim on us; all other fears diminish us. And in this contrast, we see how fear begins to change meaning when borrowed and applied to our relationship with God. The fears which Peter’s community has, and those which most of us have, are social, economic and political. We fear that there will not be enough – not enough money, not enough time, not enough ‘me’. And so we act, out of fear, to assure ourselves of ‘enough’. We can read wars in this light – not least the current war in Ukraine. Political struggles are about ‘enough’: consider the debate around the proposed Parliamentary Voice in these terms. We fear that nothing will change, so that we will still not have enough, or that too much will change and we will lose what enough we have. We fear that we will still not be, or will no longer be, free. Even as we oppose each other, we fear the same thing – that we will be lost, or remain lost. To tweak Peter’s language here and borrow what he says about the devil, this is the fear which devours, the fear that consumes until nothing is left.

‘Do not fear what they fear’, Peter writes. Do not fear in the way they fear – do not fear that there will not be enough. For the fear of God is not a fear that God is a powerful judge, such that we have to do the right thing in case we won’t be enough – in order not to be punished for not being enough. This would be merely to replace a clear and present danger of everyday fears with one which is less clear and in the future. We do not fear God because God is scarier than the other things we fear.

The one thing fearful
Rather, to speak of fearing God is to let go of fear about all other things, although this is a negative way of putting it. To put it positively, to fear God is to be free of the fears which press in on us. Do not fear those things which might diminish you; ‘fear’ rather the God in whose eyes you cannot be diminished.

The psalmist’s ‘beginning of wisdom’ (Psalm 111.10) is, then, also the beginning of freedom. This wisdom is that the fear of the Lord is not fear at all. It is more like a kind of mindfulness – although not quite in the modern therapeutic sense. It is to be mindful – to be mind-filled – not of the unavoidable difficulties and challenges and oppositions which fill our lives, but to be mindful that God accepts you. In all things, we are God’s precious children. We must respond to the challenges and threats, but God’s acceptance of us is not dependent on that response. And so mindfulness of God’s acceptance of us is liberating. If God already embraces us before we do anything, then our actions from within that embrace cannot break it – we cannot fall out of God’s love because that embrace is never not enough.

In the life we each go home to after worship today, in the life the congregation must negotiate in the months and years to come, in the lives we are given to live with each other, we are have enough to do the next thing which will point away from fear to freedom. We have enough to point away from the possibility that we might be loved to the actuality that we are. We have enough to point away from death to life.

In the normal course of things, the ever-present danger is that fear itself might overwhelm us, so that our fear-filled desire for life might in fact lead us to a living death.

But the ‘fear’ of this God is the gift of freedom from fear because, whatever the future holds, in God we have enough. When a God like this is the one thing fearful, there is none to accuse or fear, only the freedom to do the next good thing which must be done, leaving the rest to God.

Let us, then, not be anxious or fearful about the next thing which comes, because this would be to fear that God will not be there, in that next step. And this we do not fear, for God is faithful, and so not only must we step out into tomorrow, but we can.

14 May – Being by remembering

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Easter 6

1 Peter 3:13-16
John 14:15-21

In a sentence:
God gifts us with memory, that we might know we can be different

Faith and politics, yesterday and today
It is a widely-held ‘truism’ within Australian society that ‘religion has no place in politics’.

This assertion seeks to exclude those faith convictions – notably Christian and Muslim – which might make some claim on society as a whole. (More private and internally ‘spiritual’ religion has already absorbed the ‘no faith in public’ requirement of modern liberal societies. This kind of spirituality is already committed to residing just in heads and hearts and not in the broader political sphere).

The rejection of faith convictions in the public sphere looks like the assertion of the public-private distinction which colours our thinking around religion. Our shared idea that politics is public and religion is private is part of the prohibition. But alongside this distinction between public and private realms is our sense of the distance between the present and the past. Faiths like Judaism, Christianity and Islam have deep historical roots. Indeed, they are rooted so far in the past that the question of their continuing relevance is greatly heightened. Are we today not ‘modern’? Are we not people of the present rather than stuck in the past? And so there is no small sense in which the purported irrelevance of faith for modern politics is linked to the distance of faith’s founding events from the present. The further back in time those foundational events are, the less relevant they seem to be for those today who have forgotten them. The historical distance of the crucifixion and resurrection seems to signify Jesus’ modern irrelevance. The past is a private – privy, hidden – thing, and not for present, public exposure.

Put differently, the ejection of faith from politics presumes a politics which does not remember.

Forgetting and remembering
Our gospel text today addresses the question of the impending departure of Jesus and this as a crisis for the disciples. It’s not immediately clear from the text how the crisis is experienced. Clearly, the disciples’ lives have been tightly bound up with Jesus, and his looming departure would create the typical experience of loss and grief at an emotional level.

Yet Jesus speaks not of coping with grief but of ‘reminding’: ‘Though I go’, Jesus says, ‘the Spirit, which the Father will send, will remind you of me’. This answer to the disciples’ worry indicates that what’s at stake here is not the grief around Jesus’ departure but the possibility that everything will be forgotten – first Jesus and then the disciples themselves. I’ve said before, and it needs constantly to be recalled, that when Jesus identifies himself as ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’, the word for truth has the curiously negative sense of ‘not-forgotten’: Jesus is ‘the Way, the Not-Forgotten, the Life’.

The promised gift of the Spirit, then, is no mere ‘There, there, it’ll all be OK’. The Spirit is given because forgetting is bad; remembering matters for true human being – for the continued presence of the humanity of Jesus. It is this remembering which creates the church.

And yet, the point here is not that only the church is a remembering community. This would be to leave us with the modern problem that the church seems – even to itself – to be a people trapped in thoughts about yesterday, and so politically irrelevant. The gift of the Spirit at the departure of Jesus marks the claim that human communities in general (and not merely religious communities) must remember in order to become their true selves. This centrality of memory to identity is the engine of countless ‘amnesia’ plots in films and TV series, with their driving ‘Who am I?’ question resounding in the head of the protagonist. Remembering creates our identity by telling us what we have done and what has been done to us.

Perhaps this is not overly controversial. Yet, even when we remember, we are prone to want to remember only the best and none of the worst. In contrast to this, remembering Jesus involves recalling not only the good stuff but the bad, not only the resurrection but the cross, not only what Jesus said that we liked but also when we suddenly found ourselves the target of his polemic. It is not for nothing that tokens of a broken body and spilt blood are at the centre of what we do at Jesus’ behest, ‘for the remembrance of me’. These gory elements are there lest we forget that the light casts shadows.

So, too, with remembering in any community: the memory is usually pretty selective because it is painful to be reminded of things we have managed to forget.

A nation called to remember
Australian society is presently in the grip of a call to memory: Remember that the Australia we now know was founded as a colony. Remember that colonisation was very often a violent process and, even where it wasn’t, recognise that it was and continues to be radically disruptive of whole peoples. Remember, Australia, and know how we have come to be what we think we are.

The ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and the corresponding proposal of a First Nations Voice to Parliament are two forms the call to memory has taken among us. Without recognition of the importance of memory for identity, these can make no convincing social or political sense. And so, we must understand the place of memory, and the importance of institutions like the Voice which have precisely the purpose of reminding and bringing a fuller identity.

Remembering can be painful. If the promised Spirit reminds those first disciples and even us today of ‘Jesus’, it reminds not only of the words of peace on the lips of the risen one but also of the desolation of the cross. If the resurrection reveals something about the powers at play in the heart of God, the cross reveals something about the powers in the heart of humanity. Heaven is not the memory only of the good things. The church remembers the crucifixion and the synagogue remembers the exile, and both remember the divine judgement read into these experiences. But to forget such things would not simply be to cease being Christian or Jewish; it would be to cease to be human.

The remembering which could be enabled by the Uluru Statement’s proposal of the Parliamentary Voice, with other history-telling processes, will similarly not be easy or comfortable. It will not be easy because we don’t know what has been forgotten and so what might be recovered. It won’t be comfortable because we cannot see the cost of remembering before we begin. It won’t be simple because, sometimes, we will get the memory or the consequences we draw from it wrong. Memory can be wrong or deceived, but this makes it no less important. Errors should be named, but still we must seek to remember rightly, to know ourselves: to know our inherited way of being human. We are what we have done and what has been done to us. These experiences are voices which speak to us and by which we speak, even if we don’t remember them. To remember is to know why we are like we are, and so to see that we could have been different. To see that we might have been different is to realise that we could still be different. Memory like this makes change possible. And we could do with a few changes.

Jesus’ promised gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples is a promised gift of memory. What is remembered through this Spirit is the human experience of Jesus as a revelation of the rich possibilities of human life. To remember this is to see such richness as a possibility, even for us forgetful people of today.

The call to memory in the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ is no less a gift: reconciliation requires truth, and truth is Not-Forgetting. And so we must heed the call in the Statement and commit to the Voice and to similar institutions for remembering.

This is how we are to become what God creates us to be. It is the one Christ toward whom the Father draws all peoples. And so the humble spirit which calls through the Statement is the Holy, Creating Spirit of God, drawing us down one path which will bring the whole groaning world a little closer to God’s coming reconciliation of all things.

30 April – Shipwrecking Ritual Worlds

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Easter 4

1 Peter 2:17-25
Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God may my words be loving and true. And May those who are listening discern what is unloving and untrue in my words, that you may be glorifying. Amen

St. Francis is credited with saying, “preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” As good Protestants we know it is necessary to use words and gestures and symbols and rituals and candles and textiles and visual images and song and acts of kindness and mercy. It is necessary to use all things in the world to tell the story of God in Christ.

The task of preaching, the task of living a life of witness is to give some shape, some articulation to the story of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ: to turn parts of creation to tell that story, to build a sort of symbolic world of new creation that we can inhabit. To this end, we weave together stories, images, practices. We take bits of creation, and we twist them.

The Christian tradition is famed for its use of irony. The core word we use for our central story of Jesus Christ killed by the Roman Empire is this word “Gospel”: good news; which originally meant the triumph of military power. And it becomes for us the story of military death. We name Jesus Christ as “Lord,” to spit in the face of all other lords of this world.

But there is a risk in doing this work of building a symbolic world that tries to give shape to our vision of new creation — that world just behind the veil of this world, the world which Christ, the risen crucified One has established. The risk, of course, of trying to articulate this world beyond us — that has yet arrived — To articulate this world, in language, in metaphor and symbol, in practices and ritual, runs the risk that what we build is not, in fact, this new creation, which is in the hands of God. But instead, we build our own creation. We create a symbolic world that we control, where we set the limit, set the limits of what is true, and what is real.

At the same time, by building these symbolic worlds of faith and religion, we can trick ourselves and delude ourselves and turn our gaze away from a sober reckoning with the reality that is still before us. And so we construct schedules of readings for each week in the Christian calendar, and we omit the difficult parts of the text. In our reading from First Peter the lectionary does not include the lines, “honour the Emperor.” It does not include the verse that begins and says, “slaves obey your masters.” And it has been my experience that not many people preach from First Peter at all.

So when we come to a text like First Peter with all of its challenging words, that seems to shipwreck the symbols we have associated with our tradition, Jesus who is Lord against Caesar, who is Lord. And yet here, we hear the call of Scripture itself to honour the Emperor. The apostle Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul says, “there is no longer slave nor free.” And here scripture says, “slaves obey your masters, even when they hurt you unjustly for your suffering is a sign of Christ.”

One of the great gifts of scripture is of course, that it shipwrecks our assumptions and claims about God; it forces us to dig deeper to understand where God is acting now.

What first Peter teaches us, I think, is that in our attempts to be faithful to God, we cannot do this by looking away from the real concrete reality that stands before us. I don’t think — I don’t want to think that the writer of First Peter tells slaves to obey their masters because the author thinks that slavery is in itself, an inherently good thing and suffering at the hands of cruel masters is an inherently good thing. And yet, in an early religious renewal movement, a small community spread across Asia Minor, a group with no political power, with no credibility, struck by prejudice, it is difficult to find a way forward that negotiates the experience of suffering and persecution.

What First Peter offers then, is not a guide that says for all time, we must accept inequalities, discrimination, domination, violence and abuse and suffering as if all these things are what God wills for the world. Rather, I think first, Peter points us to this idea that whatever we want to say about new creation, it must be something that we are saying about this creation. New Creation is something that emerges in this creation. It is not the resurrected Christ who was never put on the cross, but always the Resurrected Crucified One. The One who brings new life to a broken world, the one who brings healing to a sick world, the one who brings freedom to a bound world. And so, to be faithful to that message, to be faithful to the declaration of liberation for someone who is literally not metaphorically enslaved means to do the hard work of negotiating with sober and tragic honesty how to be Christian in a world where we suffer.

And for those of us who enjoy the privileges of 2000 years of water under the bridge, of a world that has been radically changed, of a world where we are the beneficiaries of forms of freedom, dispossession of others, and wealth creation. Our faithfulness to these early teachings is not simply to replicate them but to look again, with honesty and sobriety, at our situation in the world. Because there are some churches in the privileged, rich white West, who are talking about how the church is now on the margins as if we don’t hold billions of dollars of property. There are those who say that the criticism that is levied against the church that has hurt and abused people, and continues to, is an act of persecution rather than a prophetic voice of justice calling us back to the good ways of God.

And so we should allow First Peter to disrupt the assumptions we make about what Christianity has to say about following the shepherd who is God in our world today. We should not allow ourselves to say well, we know what Christianity is about.

“Christianity is obviously about caring for those on the margins as we were on the margins.”

“Christianity is obviously about speaking truth to power as if we are not connected to the axes of power.”

The Call of the gospel today is to face up with the complexity of our place in life. To face up to what it means to have a legacy of Christendom that the church still holds on to, but must renegotiate in a new way. The point here is to say that there are no easy answers in scripture or in life or in preaching or in the life of faith.

There is only the hard work of discernment, of placing our stories about ourselves and the world and our place within it. Placing those stories into conversation with our own tradition and history, with the lives of those who are suffering and calling for justice, and acknowledging where we stand in relationship to the guilt and shame of the world.

The point might be to say that we actually do need to construct the symbolic world we inhabit. We need to gather as communities of faith, that worship, that tell the big story of God’s reconciliation. We need to come to the table and be fed. But we should always do this not because we seek to encounter something that comforts us, something that we understand, a story that we are telling. We do this to listen to stories of others, stories in which we are engrafted, stories that shape us and that are not shaped by us.

The story of God’s transformation is always the story of God’s transforming work. We must tell the story over and over and over again. And in doing so, we must discern that God is calling us. We must be willing to confess.

16 April – Resurrection as Recovery of the Cross

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Easter 2

Acts 2:14a, 22-23
Psalm 16
John 20:19-31

In a sentence:
Whatever resurrection life looks like, it does not leave our history – us – behind

Identifying the dead
The fan of the TV murder mystery knows that an essential part of many of those stories is identifying the dead body. By this we confirm that the deceased is the person we think she is.

When we identify a living person, it is by recognising her face or voice. If we know her very well, we might even recognise her by smell or the feel of her skin. That is, we identify the living by sensory means, by what we naturally are, as perceived by sight, sound and touch.

When we identify a person who has just died, sight is the only sensory means left. The detective pulls back the pall, and the face is recognised. Often in the murder mystery, however, the story is more complicated than this. The trauma to the body or years in a shallow grave means that seeing doesn’t tell us much. Our senses fail us here or, perhaps better, the natural, sensory being of the person who died fails us because what remains can’t tell us who this is.

And so, where the person’s natural appearance is no use, the investigator turns to ‘history’ – to what the person did or was done to him. Now it’s about tattoos and scars, dental records and prostheses, or the remnant of a train ticket found nearby. These are historical ‘additions’ to the natural person, the unique marks our particular experience of life adds to our natural embodiment.

Thomas and the marks of crucifixion
Each year on this Sunday we hear John’s account of the appearance of Jesus to the disciples, in the absence of Thomas. Thomas, who begins in doubt, soon makes one of the strongest declarations about Jesus in the Bible: ‘My Lord and my God.’

We have all wondered with Thomas and then wondered at Thomas and his credulity. Our problem is that he apparently has Jesus standing in front of him, but we have the story of Jesus standing in front of him – natural Jesus, perceived by the senses of sight and hearing and touch. And the story doesn’t seem to be enough for us. Thomas and the other disciples seem to have it easier than we do.

But let’s look at the details of the account and, in particular, at how Thomas comes to his extraordinary confession. We all know that Thomas insists on seeing Jesus’ wounded hands, feet and side. This seems to be a gross materialism – ‘Let me hold him, and I’ll believe he’s here’.

Yet, we don’t usually note that this is also how the other disciples identified Jesus:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (20.19f)

When Thomas says, ‘Show me the marks’, he asks for nothing more than what the other disciples have already had. Thomas doesn’t want to see ‘Jesus’ in some ‘There you are, old chap’ kind of way; he wants to see the marks of crucifixion. It could only be the risen Jesus if those marks were there.

This is very odd. Thomas and the others knew what Jesus looked like and sounded like and so could identify him by his natural features in the normal, sensory way. Yet it is by the marks of crucifixion that they identify him. This is to say that what Jesus ‘looks like’ – his natural person – doesn’t matter here. What matters is nothing natural – nothing sensory – but only the traces of Jesus’ story – his hi-story – summed up in the wounds in his hands, feet and side. Jesus is what he did and what was done to him. It is the (hi-)story which matters, the human and social dynamics which Jesus embodies and is.

Resurrection as the recovery of the cross
If this is true, something very strange happens to resurrection-talk. If Jesus is what was done to him, the rising of Jesus is the rising of just that – the rising of what Jesus did and of what was done to him. The rising of Jesus, then, is not merely the breathing-again of a dead man but the rising of the cross: the recovery of the cross as the heart of the matter. The resurrection is not ‘once-dead friend Jesus’ who comes back to life as some proof of life after death; the resurrection is the return of the crucified – the return of the cross. We are not, then, to believe in the resurrection but in the cross. It is the cross which is the scope and completion of Jesus’ work (‘it is finished’, John 19.30); the cross is the ‘load-bearer’ here, as we said last week.

This is not just neat theology; it makes a difference in real and specific human experiences and contemporary challenges. Some of you have read the op-ed piece I wrote last week, linking this interpretation of Thomas’ experience with the proposed indigenous Voice to Parliament. I won’t say anything more about that this morning.

But we can also connect Thomas with the fact that we (as a congregation) are here today in this particular place because we are about to move away from 170 years of one way of being, into something very different.

The raising of the wounded church
It might be (just a little) overdramatic to speak of our congregation’s present and immediate future as being a matter of death and resurrection. (It’s probably more like an amputation, which is bad enough!). But we do symbolise something of the wounds of the whole church in its current condition in broader society. It is not only the state of the property at Curzon Street which sees us having to move; if we were still the community which built those buildings, we would also be able to take care of them. But we’re not that community anymore, and maintenance and insurance and other overheads have pushed us into deficit budgets. The crisis of UMC aside, we were (are) in serious trouble. We should use it carefully, but dying is a useful metaphor for understanding many – perhaps even most – Christian communities in Australia today. The possible exception here might be recent, more successful migrant-based churches and a few Pentecostal megachurches. However, even many of these might yet be found just to be running late for their own funerals.

Whatever we think has caused this, the wounds in the Body of Christ are deep. And the question is, what would a resurrection look like? All we can say about this is that a resurrected Body of Christ – tomorrow’s church – will bear the marks of its suffering and rejection, and yet, those marks and wounds will not debilitate. The risen body of Jesus – marked as it is – is no longer on the cross and no longer wrapped in tight linen bindings. So also it will be for the Body of Christ which is the church, and this is the hope with which we contemplate our future.

We are everything which has brought us to this point. And our future can only be one that catches us up and carries us forward, history and all. The promise of this place, then, is not a sudden burst of new people coming in, filling this space in no time and out-shining all that has gone before. The church does not believe in flash-in-the-pan, won-the-lottery, dropped-out-of nowhere miracles. This is what we think Thomas and his friends got – a sight and sound spectacular. And yet, such a spectacle would prove nothing. So what if one dead person once rose from the dead? Quite seriously – so what? ‘Do you believe because you have seen?, asks Jesus, as if to imply, ‘What kind of belief is that?’

The church does not believe in miracles like this. It believes, rather, in the story of a history of a transformation of death: a scarred but living and strong body of Jesus, which then become the scarred but living and strong Body of Christ – even the church.

If we were to come here – and this has not yet been decided – it would be so that we might be both the congregation we have known and the congregation God might raise us into. Any future of the church is not simply a cutting itself free of its history of success and failure. The church’s future is a carrying-forth and transformation of all that. If we come here, and if this is in the hope of anything in any sense like resurrection, then we must both remember everything and also look to see it all transformed.

‘Do you believe because you see?’, Jesus asks us. No, we believe because we hear that history’s tragedies are just the nothingness out of which God creates a future with the world, a future with us.

The risen Jesus bears the marks of sin and death, and yet lives. His risen life, and ours, is one of memory and hope.

Our life is memory and hope.


9 April – On looking in the wrong place

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Easter Day

Colossians 3:1-4
Matthew 28:1-10

In a sentence:
We do not know where we are or what we are until God turns our understanding upside down.

Resurrection and magic
The delight in watching a performing magician is seeing something which doesn’t ‘compute’: the white rabbit pulled out of the empty hat or the pretty assistant who, apparently having been sawn in two, can still wriggle her toes.

The conjurer knows the art of surprise by distraction. Crucial for her act is that we are tricked into focussing on something other than the crucial move. This is particularly the case with sleight of hand, by which the magician draws our attention to one hand while the other does the real work. If we have only our eyes to trust, we have to testify that the card ‘magically’ appeared where it could not have been, or the coin we have just seen has disappeared. Of course, we don’t think this is ‘real’ magic, so we immediately wonder, ‘How did she do that?’

Most of us experience the Resurrection stories of the Gospels like this. We ‘see’ the Resurrection by hearing the stories: this is the rabbit out of the hat. And as with the magician’s trick, so with a purported resurrection, we might wonder, ‘How did he do that?’ Is it possible that the dead can be raised?

Asking ‘How?’ at least allows that something special might have happened after Jesus died. But, as far as most of us are concerned, we don’t think too seriously about this: there is really no trick to see here. It’s perhaps a nice story, but it’s ‘only’ a story, somewhere between straight deception or a sincere account from deluded witnesses.

Miracles and distraction
The story of Jesus’ resurrection of Jesus, like the other miracle stories in the Bible, looks to us to be just a magic trick, which is to say that it seems to be nothing at all. We know there is no ‘real’ magic, no control of the world by will. Magic is only skilful manipulation, visible or hidden.

But the miracle stories are not intended to be accepted as magic. A few weeks ago, we considered an account in John’s Gospel of the bringing of sight to a man born blind. We saw that a problem with ‘nature miracles’ is how distracting they are. As that account unfolds, it becomes clear that the story is not about the good luck of one person who happened to have his eyes magically opened. It is about that man coming to see who Jesus was and, at the same time, the failure of others to see the same thing, despite the overwhelming evidence. The miracle story reveals not that there is a God who does magic but the possibilities of the human heart: from the seedling faith of the healed man to the barren ground of those who opposed Jesus despite the evidence.

To see only the miracle is not to see very much at all. This applies even to resurrections, which brings us back to our reflection on Good Friday. There we considered the significance of Easter for Good Friday. Good Friday needs Easter to tell us who Jesus is, making possible language like ‘messiah’, ‘son of God’, and ‘lord of glory’ for the one who dies on the cross. Good Friday matters because this one, revealed by Easter to be Lord and Messiah, dies. This is not any old crucifixion.

Not any old resurrection
But now we might turn things around to consider the importance of Good Friday for Easter. Easter needs the crucified man Jesus for us to see the sleight of hand under the distracting miracle.

In saying, ‘Jesus is risen,’ we naturally let the emphasis fall on the ‘risen’, for this is surely where the magic is: dead people don’t usually stop being dead.

But Easter is not any old resurrection; it is not the resurrection of ‘someone’ in general. In affirming ‘Jesus is risen,’ the emphasis falls most of all on the ‘Jesus’: not ‘Jesus is risen’ but ‘Jesus is risen’. This is because the real surprise is who is raised: as a despised, rejected and crucified man, Jesus is the last person we should expect God to raise.

To get the emphasis wrong is to mishear the gospel’s declaration. At the first hearing – and for many us, at second, fifth and twentieth hearings – the Easter story sounds like Jesus dies as a man but rises as a god. But taking Easter and Good Friday together reveals the gospel’s sleight of hand: the God dies, and the man rises. Easter Day reveals that it was God hanging on that cross, while Good Friday reminds us that it is a despised and rejected human being who is raised from the dead.

There are a lot of footnotes which scream to be inserted at this point, but there’s more devil than God in the details.

The central ‘takeaway’ is that Easter is not concerned with the question of life after death, and so not with the ‘idea’ of our continuation after our hearts stop beating. Easter is concerned with the switch: a god is crucified, and a broken person is raised. This movement is a radical shaking up of expectations, revealing that most thinking about the Cross and Resurrection is like watching the wrong hand and being deceived.

The magic hand in which we are held
God does not seek to deceive us here, of course. It is a self-deception because we hear the story according to our own sense of what matters and is possible, and not God’s.

On Friday we reflected on why, of all the endings of all the lives lived in all of history, we might concern ourselves primarily with the end of Jesus’ life. We might ask the same question now of the resurrection: of all the risings which might perhaps happen, why does this one matter? These are, in fact, the same question: what has the life and death and life of Jesus got to do with any of us?

The answer is given in our short text this morning from Colossians (3.1-4). There Paul speaks of us as having our being not in ourselves, but of our being in Christ: your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ is revealed, so too are you.

This is true magic: our lives filled out, made whole, justified in the life of another.

Up to this point it is as if, in living our lives, we have performed a magic trick on ourselves, misleading even ourselves to look at the wrong hand. And we open that hand and see all the things we have done and all the things which have been done to us, and we think that what we hold there is all we are.

Dying as gods to live as creatures
But there is another hand which holds the secret of the trick we are. Scarred but strong, this hand holds us as we hold all we have been and desire to be. We are hidden in this strong hand, completed and made whole there, enclosed within Christ.

For this to become our reality, the gods we desire to be have to die so that we might emerge again from our tombs as human beings, re-imaged – re-imag-ined – in the humanity of Jesus. God dies on Good Friday so that a true humanity might rise at Easter. This humanity is created not to be divine but to be creaturely, not for fear but for love, not for selfishness but for service, not for self-justification but for grace and gift.

By sleight of hand God catches us, like a falling coin, to reveal in the end that we were looking in the wrong place.

‘He is not here!’ laughs the smiling magician, ‘and you should not be either. You are looking in the wrong place. He is risen and gone head. Run, and catch up to him. And all that is his will be yours’

7 April – Good Friday and the End of Tragedy

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Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13-15
John 18:33-19:16

In a sentence:
More than life after death, the gift of God is life before death: life which knows the tragic but overcomes it

So long ago

Good Friday – the Good Friday – seems now to be ‘so long ago.’ Why, of all the places we might turn to in this modern age for reflection or insight, should we turn to this place?

This question is not just a matter of time. A few years ago, the broadcaster SBS had a line in its advertisements, “Six billion stories, and counting”, later updated to “Seven billion”, and we’re now at eight billion. Considering on top of this the 100 billion or so other human beings who have lived, the narrowing of our interest to one dismal Friday two thousand years is the strangest of things.

Of all the endings of all the lives in all of history, why consider just this one?

Good Friday is only interesting if Jesus himself is interesting, and a certain kind of interesting. He is arrested and executed because the authorities find him interesting in problematic ways. To these, Jesus’ crucifixion was the death of an enemy. He was interesting to the crowds and the disciples in a different way. For these, his death was the death of a friend or a hope. These experiences are familiar and play out daily in nursing homes, on country roads and in Ukraine’s smashed villages and towns. As the story unfolds, this is ‘all’ Jesus is to those around him, and Good Friday is just plain tragic in the way human life can be.

Who are you?

‘Are you a king?’ asks Pilate of the accused Jesus, standing before him. ‘Where have you come from?’ That is, ‘Who are you’? Pilate can only understand these questions on his own terms – are you a king like Herod or the Emperor? This is fair enough, but any answer on these terms is almost irrelevant to why Jesus’ death might matter. Kings and emperors also die. At this point in the story, the end of Jesus is like the end of the rest of us: a lament, a death notice, a newspaper obituary. This is simple tragedy if, in Jesus’ case, tragedy in one of its nastier realisations.

Easter and the tragedy of tragedies

It is sometimes said on Good Friday that we shouldn’t jump too quickly to Easter, skipping over the pain and suffering of the day to what seems to be the happy ending. But we can’t keep Easter out of the picture here because Easter shifts the story beyond mere tragedy. Easter doesn’t ‘undo’ Good Friday, but it answers Pilate’s question, now on God’s own terms; Easter reveals the identity of this crucified one.

If Easter tells us anything which matters, it tells us who died, and we focus on this death among all deaths today because of this identification. And this is because Easter reveals that the bad news of Good Friday is worse than we first imagined. The bad news is not merely that tragedy continues to unfold, but that good people have crucified the ‘king’, the ‘son of God’, the ‘messiah’, the ‘lord of glory’. The bad news is that this tragedy is the tragedy of all tragedies. It doesn’t get any worse than this.

The God who does not look away

Easter, then, does not exceed or cancel Good Friday but points back to the cross as the true load-bearing event. The weight of Easter is here: today, Friday.

And what is that weight?

At the risk of wandering into the realm of exaggeration – but only just so – Easter faith is the conviction that the God of all things died on Good Friday. To believe in the resurrection of Jesus is to believe this: that this death, among all deaths, is the one which matters. For, here, God dies and all the world with him.

This is, of course, impossible (or, at least, without a good trinitarian theology, which might make it sustainable). To say ‘God died’ feels like an over-reach which is very difficult to allow. The mere saying of it can only be mystifying (which doesn’t hurt, from time to time). But we can wonder what would be the case if it were true, and what light such speculation might see.

If this is the death that matters among all deaths – the tragedy of all tragedies – and yet Easter follows, then we can say that on Good Friday God sees us. God sees us, becomes us, feels us in all our tragedy.

And, on the strength of the peace declared in the risen Jesus, we can also say that God, having seen us, did not look away.

God sees us and does not look away. God sees that we are tragic and does not look away. God sees you and does not look away. To look away would be to cringe before tragedy, finding it too much to bear, and so refusing to see or hear.

We know tragedy. We have been and caused tragedy, and we know the ease of looking away.

But God sees and doesn’t look away. And it is this sustained gaze which brings life. God’s gaze denies the tragic – not denying the suffering but denying its final power.

God looks, to deny that the last word will be death.

God refuses to turn away from seeing the deep and the void of the worldly inevitability of crucifixions and firing squads and genocides, of abuse and neglect and exploitation.

God sees, and this is the beginning of the end of tragedy because, from the perspective of Easter, we begin to see with God’s eyes.

Tragedy’s deathly grip weakens for us when resurrection’s light reveals our part in the dark and broken world and we can see, and repent, and become ourselves a new beginning to the end of tragedy.

‘Who are you?’, Pilate asks, and we ask with him, suspecting that the tragic is all there is to know. We have to listen for a night, and a day, and a night to hear Jesus’ answer:

‘I am the death of death, and hell’s destruction.

Open your eyes, and live’.

26 March – Stop being dead

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Lent 5

John 11:1-45

In a sentence:
More than life after death, the gift of God is life before death

Over the last few weeks we have watched as different characters have bumped into Jesus, and made their responses. Today, we meet two sisters, friends of Jesus, who grieve for their dead brother. We easily identify with the sister Martha, who has the most to say in the story. We know what is it like to lose someone we have loved. We know that pathos-filled longing: if only Jesus/God/whoever had been here, this might not have happened. Believers also know what it’s like to have the religious words for the occasion but for those words not to make a lot of sense in the context of loss and grief.

Like us, Martha made her confessions of faith: Jesus is the ‘Son of God’, ‘Messiah’ and ‘the one coming into the world’. The piteous edge is also here, as if Martha knows what she should say to Jesus because he is Jesus, but also knows that it doesn’t really hang together.

And yet, although she doesn’t even seem to think that she could have her brother back again, he is raised. Unlike for us, her faith-words become real in her being able to embrace Lazarus again. If this is how it happened, then we may rejoice for Martha, but our situation and ability to believe is not made any easier. We have similar doctrines to those Martha confesses which, as mere words, are easy to parrot and yet often have about them an air of unreality. Yet it seems that, in addition to those doctrines, we here and now have added the apparent invitation to believe what happened to Martha. What was doubtless a marvellous thing for Martha’s faith becomes, for us, just another thing we have to believe. Good news which is someone else’s good news is not really all that good for us! Martha’s abundance here is a scarcity to us. Do we not long for such miracles now?

And yet, at the risk of absurdity, there nothing particularly marvellous about the raising of Lazarus in itself, in one way of looking at it. Of course, it would be a surprising and remarkable thing to happen! But Lazarus will die again; indeed a plot by the religious leaders against Lazarus’ life is recounted in the next few verses. Grief has given way to joy, but only for a while. Martha or Mary or some other will again stand outside Lazarus’ tomb and grieve.

If all that happens is that Lazarus is resuscitated, then it is not enough. John’s point in telling the story is deeper. For the raising of Lazarus is not something for us to ‘believe’ as a sheer fact about a past event. Those extraordinary words, ‘Lazarus, come out’, are the same words which were spoken in last week to the man healed of his blindness: ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ (9.35). They are the same words spoken in the week before to the Samaritan woman by the well: ‘those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’ (4.14) They are the same words spoken to Nicodemus (the week before that): ‘You must be born from above’ (3.6).

But there’s a difference here, in that while Jesus is turned towards the stinking tomb, he speaks as much to Martha as he does to the dead man. The lectionary epistle reading which complemented last week’s gospel ended with a quote, possibly referencing Isaiah 60.1:

‘Sleeper, awake,
rise from the dead
and Christ will shine on you’

Jesus’ words to the dead man, ‘Lazarus come out’ are just these words, yet spoken not only to Lazarus but also to Martha: ‘Awaken and rise, for Jesus shines upon you as the Christ’. More important than that a man who lived and died might live a little longer is that life might be breathed into those dead who are still breathing, entombed in a dark world. Martha is such a one, as is Mary, and as are we. We are distracted by the reported miracle of the raising of Lazarus, but that (like last week) is not the main point. Just as miraculous is the possibility that faith – and not just orthodoxy’s correct religious words – might be resurrected in Martha. As Lazarus is roused from ‘sleep’ (v.11f) so also is Martha called to faith. They are, in the story, both addressed with the same word. The story is told, then, not to suggest that we will believe all the more strongly in Jesus if he should raise one of our dead. The point is that we – still living – are dead with Lazarus, and Jesus would raise even us.

And so we need to be explicit about one further thing. Lazarus comes forth, not as a basis of Martha’s faith, not as a reason for her belief, but as the sign of what it means to come to confess Jesus as ‘Messiah’, and ‘Son of God’, and ‘the one coming into the world’, as she did earlier in the story (v.27). Or to put it differently, the point of the story is not that, by raising Lazarus, Jesus proves to Martha that her doctrines about him are true.[1] If that were the point then the point would be pointless(!), for it leaves us with nothing but a story about what happened to someone else, and implies that we couldn’t come to belief a without similar spectacle.

It is interesting – and even surprising – that, despite the lament of Martha and her sister, we don’t actually hear of their response to the raising of Lazarus. Perhaps it is obvious, at the personal and emotional level. Yet the whole exchange has not been about grief and joy, not about loss and restoration, but about unbelief and belief. Jesus rebukes Martha when she protests at the opening of the tomb: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ There is a promise made here to the faithful – ‘believing is seeing’ (which is not ‘seeing is believing’).

But we should push this a step further: to believe is not simply to see that glory, but more significantly to become, the glory of God. The human person unbound by death – whether our own or the death of those we love – such a person is ‘the glory of God’. This is what Jesus means when he declares, ‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die (11.25f)’. The hearts of such faithful ones will one day stop beating, but such death is as nothing(…) to those who are truly alive. It is the same Jesus who challenges Martha as calls out to Lazarus, and this challenge and call are the same – Sleeper, awake; stop being dead, for Christ shines upon you.

Lazarus, then, becomes the archetypal person of faith by making the faithful response to the call of God in Christ, awakening from his ‘sleep’. Lazarus is the true believer. His faithful response to Christ’s command models what should be Martha’s, and ours: to rise, to shine, to bask in the glory of the God who called us forth, and to become that glory in a world which cries out desperately, ‘Lord, if you had been here, death would have had no sting.’

Sleepers, awake; stop being dead, and become the glory of the God, which is the Body of Christ alive, dead and alive again.

[1] It’s worth noting that immediately following the undisputed ‘fact’ of the raising of Lazarus there is not only belief but also unbelief – not in the resuscitation of Lazarus but in Jesus – which results in a renewed vigor in the plot to kill Jesus. At the same time, v.46 goes on to speak of ‘many of the Jews’ who saw what happened subsequently coming to faith. The miracle is apparently the catalyst of their believing. Nevertheless, the miracle which is offered to us today is not the event which might stand behind this story but faith in the declaration that Jesus rouses life in the living dead.

19 March – Eyes to see

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Lent 4

Psalm 23
John 9:1-42

In a sentence:
To be seen by God is to be freed from the things we think we see

For the modern, scientifically-informed mind, a miracle constitutes a very particular problem: the violation of the ‘natural order’.

Faced with the claim that a miracle has occurred, the first modern response will typically be that the observation is wrong: what looked like a miracle was, in fact, not one at all. So, for example, a blindness or lameness ‘miraculously’ healed is explained as the releasing of the person from a psychosomatic condition through clever therapy. Certainly, some of the miracles attributed to Jesus have been accounted for in this way, casting him as a gifted therapist (in the modern sense).

If no particular explanation can be given for the miracle, we don’t immediately conclude that, indeed, God has been active. Instead, we are more likely to assume that our theories about how the world works are not yet extensive enough to cover all observed phenomena. This is no great crisis and is often the cause of great excitement as new scientific questions are opened up. In this way, we deal with the amazing and the (currently) unexplained by simply deferring understanding until more comprehensive theories are found. An apparent miracle would speak to the modern mind less about God’s power and more about our ignorance of the deeper workings of the world.

The point here is not to argue that miracles do not or cannot happen. For our present purposes, we can be happily agnostic about this. The point is that it would almost be a waste of God’s time for God to bother with miracles these days because we have built-in means of explaining them away. We are very, very hard to impress!

Of course, the people in our focus text from John are not modern scientific thinkers. This does not mean, however, that they were fools. The Pharisees are the lead sceptics in the story, and they are rightly sceptical: the blind man’s story is not easily believable. Yet their investigation leads to them being unable to deny that something has happened which has all the feel of a miracle. To them, as would not be necessary for the modern mind, this implies the presence of God in or through the one who has done this.

Yet there is another dimension to their reading of this particular miracle which we do not usually feel today. While they cannot deny that something extraordinary has happened – and that this might well be a sign of God’s own presence and activity – it seems that this alleged work of God has occurred in a way which violates God’s own command. This is the reason for the controversy around Jesus’ having done this on the Sabbath.

We must forget here that we have heard from Jesus in another gospel tradition – that ‘the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.’ In John’s account, Jesus appeals to no happy humanism to justify what he has done. In fact, he quite simply does not justify what he has done. Whereas in the other Gospels Jesus often engages in arguments and proofs of his point with his opponents, in John’s gospel we don’t hear these arguments so much as simply see the disorienting impact Jesus has on those who meet him; their ‘sense of sense’ is undermined. There is no justification given here for Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath but only the confusion of the Pharisees, echoing Nicodemus’ exclamation a couple of weeks ago, ‘How can these things be’? The miracle points towards Jesus as important, but its performance on the Sabbath points away from him.

Part of the reason Christians might not feel what the Pharisees feel is that we have heard this story. We ‘know’ what the Pharisee does not know: the perspective of the gospel, that Jesus is in the right and they are not. In the same way, we know what the woman at the well did not know (last week, John 4), and what Nicodemus did not know (two seeks ago, John 3). They all effectively ask ‘How can it be?’ regarding things which seem easy for us. We ‘know’ of the wind-like character of the people of the Spirit (which Nicodemus did not). We know of worship in spirit and truth (which the Samaritan woman at the well did not), and we know about the Sabbath in Jesus’ teaching, which the Pharisees seem not to know. It is given to us who read these stories and have been formed by them to ‘know’, to ‘see’.

Yet all of this brings us to a consideration of where today’s Gospel text ends.

39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains.

Do we, in fact, see – simply because we have the benefit of having overheard Jesus’ clash with the Pharisees? Can we know? In a relative sense, this must be the case. We go to a mechanic because he knows cars, to a doctor because she knows bodies, and to accountants because they know money. But in the gospel story, the knowing and seeing are of the absolute variety: the knowledge of God and so the true knowledge of ourselves. In this instance, the Pharisees’ knowledge of God cannot accommodate Jesus because he exercises a freedom which seems to violate God’s command: he makes no ‘sense’. And because of this, nothing of what they know and by which they make judgements about the things of God amounts to anything. Your sin remains, Jesus says: you say you see, but you do not see, and so God is lost to you.

There is a kind of pessimism to be read from this story: it is as difficult to see the presence of God in the work of Jesus as it is for a man born blind to begin to see. Though their eyes and ears are open to see and hear everything that can be seen and heard, they do not see and hear.

The man who is healed in the story is, in fact, healed of two things: that which ailed him alone – his blindness – and that which he and Pharisees suffered in common: not seeing who Jesus was. His eyes begin to work as they should, and he sees the ‘Son of Man’ (9.35-37). Our reading today is only in a passing way about the healing of the eyes of a man whose eyes did not work. For the thing to see here is not eyes which now register light see but the presence of God in Jesus, which the eyes of the Pharisees both see and cannot see.

If there is a kind of pessimism in this story about our ability to see, it is met with the promise that eyes can be opened: that those born and living with what we might hesitatingly call ‘spiritual’ blindness can be healed even of that most dehumanising of conditions: seeing with only our own eyes and not as God sees. To be beginning to see as God sees – this is faith. Faith begins with knowing that we have been seen. And so faith is a kind of innocence which knows and yet does not, a humility which is open to being taught and so realises the gift of a freedom which comes from not having to know all things because God knows us, sees us and loves us. This is the true and life-giving ‘human condition’. Our condition is, properly, not what we think we see. It is not the great changes, the seemingly overwhelming challenges or the apparently insurmountable injustices. These matter, of course. But to see only things is to be limited and constrained.

To be seen by God in that space, however, is to be freed. What is the Sabbath when God is at stake? What is Curzon Street or the fraught nature of life together or the frailness of human bodies and minds? What is death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, powers, height, depth, or anything else in all creation? Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8.38f).

For God. Sees. Us, so that we might see and not be afraid.

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