Tag Archives: Eucharist

16 June – The simple Trinity

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Romans 5:1-5
Psalm 8
John 16:12-15

In a sentence:
Trinitarian faith expresses what God must be like if love is to be possible.

Despite the fact that Christian trinitarian doctrine has not often lent itself to comprehensive expression in less than several hundred pages, John’s gospel this morning puts all of the ‘dynamic’ of that doctrine into just a few words.

John can put it so briefly because is concerned only with the ‘What’ of the dynamic of salvation which eventually becomes fully developed and defended ‘doctrine’. Argued doctrine is usually about the ‘How’ of what is believed – how to make sense of God-things. This involves intersecting such simple statements as the New Testament makes about God with the vast and complex theories we bring with us about what the world is and what a god could be. In this way we sometimes seek to ‘prove’ trinitarian doctrine.

But we will stay with the simple What this morning: the Spirit will glorify Jesus by taking all that Jesus has – which is all that the Father has – and giving it to the disciples. To borrow from a chapter or so back: to see Jesus is to see the Father (John 14.9), and the Spirit makes it possible for us to see Jesus.

This pretty much sums up the church’s interest in trinitarian doctrine. Without Jesus there is nothing to look at, without the Father there is nothing to see, and without the Spirit we wouldn’t know what we were looking at in the first place.

In itself, this is straightforward as a set of connections, whether we believe it all or not. The question then becomes, what does it mean to believe it?

Believing, here, cannot mean simply reciting the creed happily as a set of things to which we give assent, agreement. This is because ‘the things of the Father’ which Jesus brings are not a series of beliefs. What Jesus has is the Father. This, then, is what we have.

Yet having this is not clearly relevant to every other thing we have, until we place flesh on those connections – our own flesh.

One way of doing this is to consider the Eucharist. Here we pray for the gift of the Spirit, that the elements of bread and wine might be for us ‘the body and the blood’ of Jesus. That is, we pray for what Jesus describes in our reading: when the Spirit comes, it will bring me. The prayer for the Spirit – for the ‘Remembrancer divine’, as we’ll sing later – is a prayer that the Spirit will ‘declare’ Jesus to us, make him and his benefits present to us through these elements and through our consuming of them together.

But there is one more thing to add to this. Eating the Eucharist does not ‘save’ us in the narrow sense that the elements might be a kind of medicine. Rather we eat and drink, as the prayer goes, that ‘he may evermore dwell in us, and we in him’. The ‘in him’ is the clincher. Clearly Jesus is ‘in us’ because we have eaten and drunk of him, if even in only a figurative sense. But this does not account for our being ‘in him’. To be ‘in him’ at this point is to speak of the effect of his being in us: ‘in him’ means becoming as he is.

This is the truly confronting thing of Christian faith. Cut apart from what Jesus promises with the Spirit, trinitarian doctrine looks quite foolish and unnecessary.

But there is something much more foolish at that heart of the matter, which is that the Word did not just become flesh – a couple of thousand years ago, around Christmas. It becomes flesh – our very flesh – here and now. The foolishness of faith is in the notion that God might lift human beings to such heights, for how could mere mortals as us be crowned with such honour, as our psalmist today wondered (Cf. Psalm 8)?

It is not only in the Eucharist that we encounter this understanding but the Eucharist is especially rich in language and symbol which make the point. We pray that the Spirit make Christ present to us in the elements, and we speak of becoming what we eat – Christ’s Body. This ‘Christ’s Body’ is ‘Word made flesh’, but now our very ordinary flesh lifted up, filled out. We become here what we have prayed for: an ‘on earth’ which is ‘as it is heaven’.

Jesus says, ‘When the Spirit comes it will announce to you all that I am. And I will be yours, and all that is the Father’s will be yours, in me’. This is not information about God. It is the promise of transformation of our bodies into the body of God in the world.

Now that is a foolish and even dangerous thing to say. And so it must seem that it cannot be true. And yet it is.

The only safeguard in place is the consequence of such a claim for those of whom it is said – for us. It is not for nothing that John – the evangelist who most encourages this kind of problematic thought – is the one who states most explicitly and pointedly the ethic which corresponds to such thinking: Love one another. Why? Not because love is good. But so that ‘the world may know’. And may know what? That God has sent the Son, that we might find ourselves in him.

We don’t need several hundred pages of theological ‘How’ and all the necessary political and ethical qualifications to prove the gospel’s bold assertion about God’s trinitarian presence to the world in the Body of such bodies as ours. The proof of the gospel of God is in the love God’s body manifests. Trinitarian is a question to us as much as it is a statement we might make: Is there love here?

What leads to trinitarian thinking is the experience of that divine love which crowns even us with glory and honour. What flows from trinitarian thinking is an answering love which receives God’s embrace and, as the body of God, extends it towards others.

‘When the Spirit comes, it will declare to you all which is mine, which is all which is the Father’s. And your joy will be complete. And love will be the only response which can make sense of it all.’

Let us, then, strive ever more earnestly to prove what we confess, in love which startles, as God is startling.

By the grace of God, Amen.

31 March – Against wisdom (and foolishness)

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Lent 4

Ecclesiastes 2:1-11
Psalm 32
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

In a sentence:
Not what we do, but what God has done, is the heart of the matter

Qohelet is traditionally identified as King Solomon, not least because he claims to have been king in Jerusalem and the book is clearly a work of considerable wisdom, for which Solomon himself was famous. There are, however, other hints in the book which undermine this identification. Whatever the case, our writer was certainly a person of considerable means, and so he resolves to ‘make a test of pleasure’. He performs great works, acquires slaves and beautiful things and people: ‘I kept from my heart no pleasure.’ Yet, for all, that he determines again, ‘all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.’

His efforts then continue beyond what we heard this morning, although now in a different direction: he turns from material indulgence to wisdom and work.

12So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly… 13Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. 14The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. 15Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. 

17So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind. 18I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me 19—and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? … 22What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? 23For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

In the end, then, both profligacy and wisdom with serious hard work lead him to the same conclusion, to which he will return several times: all is vanity, and so

24There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 

What we have heard from Qohelet today has surprising parallels to Jesus’ parable of the two sons. In both there is extravagance, and hard work, and eating and drinking.

The parable is familiar to most of us – the irresponsible younger son who eventually comes to his senses, the waiting father who welcomes him home and the complaints of the older and hard-working brother about his father’s behaviour. The last time we considered this parable (March 3 2016), we noted that the two sons, despite who looks to be right and who wrong in the story, related to the father in the same way: according to an economy of exchange rather than of gift. Both are concerned with what the father owes them, the one hoping to earn a servant’s living and the other hoping to prove worthy of his inheritance.

The action of the father, however, reveals that – in Qohelet’s terms – each invests in a vain chasing after the wind. The foolishness of the younger son’s early behaviour is self-evident. Then he comes to his senses and wisely plots a course back to the safety of the family home, only to find that he has misread his situation. There is no folly in the behaviour of the older son but he employs much the same wisdom as his younger brother, which also indicates a misreading his own situation. In neither case do either receive what they think they are due, as their due, as an earned reward. The younger discovers that he need not earn his place with his father, and the older hears that he will inherit regardless of what he does.

The surprise here is that, despite their efforts, both in fact catch the wind, the ‘wind’ being here the father’s favour. Or perhaps, they are caught up in that wind.

And so we stumble upon a surprising amorality in the story of the two brothers, despite the strong moral overtones in the contrast between their behaviour and often drawn in reflections on this parable.

This amorality is in that, while wisdom is to foolishness as light is to darkness (as Qohelet admits, 2.14), both the foolish and the wise end up in the same place. A problem many have with Qohelet, and which will only be exacerbated in next week’s reflection, is that it’s not quite clear where right and wrong are located in the world as he describes it. More to the point, he questions whether we can actually locate them (cf. 6.12; 8.1,17). And, if that is the case, how do we orient ourselves towards the right, the good?

For Qohelet, this orientation occurs in what he calls ‘enjoyment’ – there is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil, for this also is from God (2.24). This is not hedonism; it is life lived with a ‘serious lightness’. This is a hard-earned wisdom which allows that it might still be found, in the end, to have been foolish.

What this means, practically, is the pursuit of life ‘as if’ life depended on the pursuit, but knowing that it does not. It means hard work, loving service, costly sacrifice, careful consideration and refinement – in our relationships, in our discipleship, in our worship, in our studies and vocations. Qohelet calls us to a serious life, a ‘wise’ life.

But a life of serious lightness is all these things in the spirit of freedom – the freedom of those who already have what they work for.

What Qohelet sees we already have is life and God’s blessing on what we do (9.7). This he allows us to mark in the time of enjoyment, symbolised in the feast.

For Jesus’ parable today, the terms are different but the point is the same. The irresponsibility of the younger son and then his attempt to manipulate his father on the one hand, and the unhappy efforts of the older son on the other, are both shown to be far from the heart of things.

The heart of things is the father’s very own heart, which claims both of them regardless of what they do. This, too, is marked by a feast – to which the foolish and the wise both find themselves welcomed. The feast is the sign of the folly of those who are loved by God but do not yet know what that means.

While we are so concerned with what we are doing, the gospel draws attention to what has been done: we have been begun in the Father and completed in the Jesus the Son. All that remains in our meantime – in this life under the sun – is that we open ourselves to the Spirit for which we prayed in our opening hymn: the ‘blessed unction’ which is ‘comfort, life and fire of love’, which anoints and cheers our mortality, and teaches us to know our beginning and our end – here, in God.

And so we break bread and bless the cup, in order that we might begin to learn this lesson, to God’s greater glory and our richer humanity. Amen.

10 June – Outwardly in decay and day by day inwardly renewed

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Pentecost 3

Isaiah 61:1-3
2 Corinthians 4:13 – 5:1
Psalm 139
John 14: 1-14

Sermon preached by Rev. Em. Prof. Robert Gribben

Friday’s issue of the online journal The Conversation led with an essay entitled ‘What might heaven be like?’  It was a mild-mannered survey of the way the images of heaven and hell have softened, been brought down to earth, and the vision glorious relegated to history books or possible the Bible. The author didn’t seem to think that one could hold these views all at once – as we do in worship, especially with hymns, though they too are becoming more and more pedestrian. The article encourages me to think (since this sermon was largely composed before I saw it) that some consideration of our eternal reward might be helpful to ‘Christians who think’.

It was the set epistle which offered my theme, Paul’s reflection on the decay of the body and the promised glory. I’ve replaced the other readings with selections from the Funeral Service, which, I remind you, is not to be miserable and mournful, not for Christians anyway. In fact, part of my motivation was also a funeral, one I attended in the cemetery at Numurkah, surrounded by glorious gum trees, a graveside event only, for a cousin with no religion.

His hearse was preceded by a polished red firetruck, and the liturgy was the CFA farewell, which has borrowed something from Freemasonry and something from the RSL, but the impressive thing was that the civil celebrant, himself a member of the CFA, avoided the temptation to introduce any myths in the absence of any for a secular funeral. Few clergy, and fewer people at a wake, can avoid these sentimental and death-denying absurdities like the dead looking down on us from ‘up there’, or our loved one having just moved to the next room, or whatever. It is remarkable how little the Bible has to say in detail, indeed it largely encourages us to be agnostic. The Qu’ran’s heaven is much more explicit– and inviting, if you are an Alpha-male!

So, let me lead you through one of the New Testament’s brief and succinct discussions of the subject.

16 No wonder we do not lose heart!’ says Paul.[1] And both Isaiah and John agree. Losing heart is a temptation, a test for everyone with a heart who ponders the condition of the world we live in. I need not elaborate. This is not the world God wants; this is not even near the reign of God, and yet we daily pray for the coming of that kingdom – which was the burden of the sermon preached in St George’s Chapel a week or so ago. Bishop Michael Curry set forth exactly what our trust in the love of God promises in terms of a world in which human beings live together justly and therefore peacefully, a world in which there are no more tears, no reason for tears, no more suffering, and – and this is faithful to Paul – God means this world, not only something in heaven waiting for us. Curry laid before the powerful, the wealthy and the privileged the true Christian hope. No wonder they were disturbed. It’s not British to say such things in a church.

So, to continue with Paul:

17 Our troubles are slight and short-lived, and the outcome is an eternal glory which far outweighs them,18 provided our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen; for what is seen is transient, what is unseen is eternal.

We often take this as a diminution of our troubles, as if they didn’t matter. But this statement was made by a man who, a handful of verses earlier in this chapter wrote,

‘We are hard-pressed, but never cornered; bewildered, but never at our wit’s end; hunted, but never abandoned to our fate; struck down, but never killed. Wherever we go we carry with us in our body the death that Jesus died…’ (4:8-10a)

These are the troubles he regards as slight, and he did bear the wounds of an apostle in his very body, the wounds of the Crucified. He is not speaking of the creaks and groans of increasing old age! This is a gospel for every living human person!

When Paul speak of the inner person contrasted with the outer, or the transient with the eternal, he is not speaking of opposites. It is this burdened body which will be healed, not some outer husk encasing the heaven-bound part of us. The whole of who-we-are is caught up in this journey from death to life, and not death to ‘after-life’.  Paul is quite clear that the body that is all-of-us-now does decay and will die; but whatever we need for our shelter and our flourishing beyond what we know and understand is already promised, and in the hands of our God – outwardly in decay and inwardly renewed:

5:1 We know that if the earthly frame that houses us today is demolished, we possess a building which God has provided – a house not made by human hands, eternal and in heaven.

And he has said earlier,

 14 for we know that he who raised the Lord Jesus to life will with Jesus raise us too, and bring us to his presence, and you with us. 15 Indeed, all this is for your sake, so that, as the abounding grace of God is shared by more and more, the greater may be the chorus of thanksgiving that rises to the glory of God.

(I like the ‘and you with us’14 by which Paul includes his recalcitrant Corinthian congregation!) So, we are not raised alone, but with a great company, a company which, as it has grown, has known God’s grace more and more – so our eternal end is not individual but communal (and ‘ecumenical’?). There will be transformed congregations in heaven!

Let me point out a pun in Paul. I’ll give verse 15 in a more succinct translation:

Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. (NRSV)

The fruit of grace is thanksgiving. In the Greek, charis is grace, eu-charis-tia is thanksgiving. At the Lord’s Table, Sunday by Sunday, in our bodies, we give thanks with the sign of his body; we ‘make eucharist’, for the grace by which we are enabled to live our fragile and fruitful lives.

I have pointed out here before that the words at the giving of communion are: ‘The Body/Blood of Christ keep you in eternal life’. We have been in eternal life since our baptism, and every day, by grace, we have reason to be thankful, come what may. What we know in this fellowship, at this table, under this grace, is all we need to know for life and eternity. Part of God’s grace is to invite us Christians fitting-ourselves-for-the-kingdom-of-God to be washed in living water, and to partake of the bread of heaven. We need to be here, in this company, for this. To share the Spirit who, in Isaiah, promises,

to give [us] a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  [Isa. 61]

For whom

even the darkness is not dark …;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.   [Ps 139:12]

And the Son who promised,

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places…’ [John 14:1]

No wonder we do not lose heart!


[1] The translation read this morning, and quoted throughout here is the Revised English Bible, which updated the New English Bible in 1989.

18 March – Forgiveness as good as innocence

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Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51
John 12:20-33

…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

This is surely a prophecy most beautiful. It is perhaps surprising, then, given how moving Jeremiah’s account of the new covenant is, that the New Testament makes little use of Jeremiah’s saying. There is a reference to a new covenant in some of the sayings of Jesus around the last supper but this would make perfect sense if Jeremiah had never spoken of a new covenant. And the whole passage we have heard from Jeremiah today is quoted in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, but there it is used for the letter’s own particular polemical purposes.

This is not to say Jeremiah’s prophecy is not known, or is largely forgotten by the New Testament, but to say that it is not necessary for the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament’s understanding of what happens with Jesus as much interprets Jeremiah, as Jeremiah might help to interpret Jesus. Put differently, Christians don’t get to God on the basis of the promise in Jeremiah alone; we have to read Jeremiah here through the cross.

Jeremiah promises a new covenant ‘unlike’ the first. The ‘unlikeness’ is that the first covenant was broken but this one will not be. The sign of the unbreakability of the new covenant is that the law will be written within the being of the covenant people: ‘I will write it on their hearts’. Alongside this we hear, ‘no longer shall they say to each other, “Know the Lord,”’ for all shall already know the Lord, because God will have forgiven ‘their iniquity, and [will] remember their sin no more.’

Jeremiah piles up a new covenant, an interior covenant, a heart covenant, a new kind of knowledge of God, and binds this up with forgiveness of sin. If we are to comprehend this, and find ourselves comprehended by it, then each element must carry its full weight: new, interior, heart, knowledge, forgiveness of sin.

We could tease out each of these elements one at a time, but instead we’ll come at Jeremiah’s new covenant from the angle of its unbreakability. How can the covenant be unbreakable when there is nothing new about the human covenant partners themselves?

The unbreakability is not in that the covenant is made of very tough stuff – a diamond standard covenant. The covenant cannot be broken because it is made of brokenness, of what is already broken. Jeremiah’s prophecy is not a utopic vision. It is spoken into the devastating fall of Jerusalem, interpreted as the cost of breaking the covenant with God. ‘I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more’ is the basis of the heart-covenant God promises. These are broken hearts, restored. And so the knowledge of God promised here is not immediate, direct-line awareness of God without reference to world or history. This intimate knowledge comes through the agony of the broken covenant. The heart which knows God in this way knows forgiveness, knows itself as a heart which has been torn apart but is now restored. Jeremiah does not speak a word of comfort to hurting people; he proclaims forgiveness to sinners.

The unbreakable covenant is unbreakable because it is made of such brokenness. This is the interiority of the new covenant; this is how the new covenant gets inside of us.

It is here the cross becomes important because, if nothing else, it stands for the harsh realities of human being. But this harsh reality is not the physical suffering of crucifixion. It is, rather, precisely the kind of covenant-breaking against which Jeremiah and the other prophets preached. The resurrection of Jesus presents to us that Jesus was the embodiment of the covenant, the presence of God actively reigning in a human life. The resurrection opens our eyes to the fact that the cross was sheer catastrophe: the rejection of the covenant embodied in Jesus. The fall of Jerusalem and the cross of Jesus are the same kind of thing: signs of the broken covenant.

In what way is the new covenant ‘in Jesus’ blood’ made from brokenness? Here the liturgy helps, and the breaking of bread and blessing of a cup in particular. In the distribution of the elements of bread and wine, we hear that they are the body and the blood of Christ broken and poured out ‘for you’ in a new covenant. In its own way, this is quite right. But it doesn’t mean that the body and the blood are a kind of ‘price’ God pays for us to be reconciled: ‘God did this for you’. If this were what it meant then we would be right to object to the cross and the body-and-blood language, although not for the reason many do.

We typically object to the notion that God might have killed someone on our behalf – particularly God’s own ‘Son’, and then to the ‘icky-ness’ of the implied cannibalism. But these are secondary distractions which arise from a more fundamental misunderstanding, which is to imagine that what happens between us and God is in fact external to us, a transaction between God and we’re-not-sure-who that doesn’t quite involve us even though we are the beneficiaries. This is the problem with the ‘for you’ language: it suggests that we are beneficiaries of a third-party exchange.

But if Jeremiah is right – if God does go to the heart of the matter in dealing with us – then the body and blood of Jesus are broken ‘for’ us only if they are also broken by us. Here is the ‘interiority’ of the new covenant. Our failure in our relationship with God – the cross, of which the bread and the wine is the sign – is the stuff out of which God builds a new relationship, a new “Body of Christ”. The new covenant is made of the broken shards of the old covenant.

This can be so only because this is the kind of God we are dealing with here. God is most God when creating something out of nothing. The nothing in Jeremiah’s preaching is the broken people of Judah. The nothing in the resurrection is the broken body of Jesus. The something created is the new covenant, the Body of Christ made again from the broken body of Christ.

To receive bread and wine at the Lord’s Table is to participate in an act of forgiveness. It is to be forgiven for what the bread and the wine represent – rejection of the law of love and the freedom of God.

Two thousand years later, of course, it is not possible for us to be personally accountable for the crucifixion of Jesus. But the demands of the law of love remain and we cannot be confident that we have lived, loved, given ‘enough’. (Even this way of putting the problem creates the problem again – as if there could be ‘enough’ love). And the terrifying freedom of God continues to rampage, asking more than we want to give, seemingly even breaking God’s own commandments.

The bread and the cup are all bodies broken by anger or neglect, all denied requests for love, all refusals of mercy. The bread and the cup are all fallings-short of the law of love.

But the bread and the cup are also employed in this space as the sign of God’s freedom to forgive – that most fundamental violation of demands of justice and the point at which love breaks free of law and is just love: God inside us, we inside God.

This prophecy most beautiful of Jeremiah is no sentimental longing to be over it all. It knows that we are caught up in ‘it all’ – as much perpetrators as victims. This being the case, it declares that forgiveness is as good as innocence and it invites us, then, to be forgiven, and to forgive.

This is the new covenant Jesus brings.

18 February – Living with a forgetful God

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Lent 1

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25
Mark 1:9-15

Noah-and-the-ark is perhaps the best known of all Bible stories, not least because it involves animals, and animals make great toys, and so nearly every kid gets to play Noah-and-the-ark at some stage or other. But what we all know about the story is typically the form and not the substance. The form of the story is Noah and the animals and the rainbow. The substance is, How to keep God under control or, perhaps better, Living with a forgetful God.

Of course, notions of keeping God under control, or God’s forgetting of his promises, are impious. But, as it happens, that such thoughts are necessary comes from God himself. We know well enough the flow of the Noah story. There is sinfulness across the face of the earth, except for Noah and his family; God resolves to wash away all humankind but them; the flood comes and goes; God resolves not to do this again and gives the rainbow as a sign of this resolution. It is the rainbow stage of the story which matters for God-control purposes.

As a sign, the rainbow is not a mere sign, in that it could have been something else. A rainbow bends in the way an archer’s bow bends; more than a sign, it is a symbol, in that it resembles and so reminds of an archer’s bow. The rainbow signs that God has laid down his weapon and will not attack again: “I have put my bow in the sky.”

But notice to whom the sign-symbol is given. Specifically, it is not given to us that we be reminded; it is given to God, in order that God not forget the promise, Never Again. The rainbow declares that the people stand only when God remembers the covenant; only God can control God. The point at which heaven and earth meet is marked with something of such scale that God cannot miss it, and in such a way that we know God cannot miss it.

This pre-historical story with its ancient mythological symbolism seems a long way from the much less mythical gospel narratives of the ministry of Jesus. Yet it is not so far as we might first think. For Jesus is himself the point at which heaven and earth meet; Jesus is himself the New Testament’s rainbow.

But at the same time Jesus’ ministry culminates in the cross, a crisis of divine forgetfulness: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, forgotten me? (Mark 15.34). It is all the more poignant that Jesus should cry out so with the baptismal declaration still ringing in his ears: You are my Son, the Beloved. The cry from the cross is precisely a challenge to God that a covenant has been forgotten, despite the faithfulness of Jesus. Such a death for Jesus ought to be impossible, for how can God forget the Beloved? Yet the chaotic flood of human politics, religion and morality washes him away. This was not “the plan” as if it were supposed to happen; nothing is supposed to happen except that God remembers.

Has God forgotten, forsaken here? Yes, and No, as it always is between us and God. Yes, for what else could the cross be but God turning away? No, for what else is a resurrection but God remembering a beloved? The cross and the resurrection, the forgetting and the remembering, have to be held together in this way.

But it is a tight tangle of thought threads here, almost nonsensical. The language of forgetfulness and remembering makes no sense if we begin with the conviction that God knows everything and so cannot forget. But the Scriptures reduce neither God nor us to such simple notions. Simple ideas cannot reflect the experience of what passes between God and the world, between life and death, between remembrance and forgetfulness. These are never poles between which applies a strict logic; God-and-the-world requires its own way of thinking, part of which is a tangle of remembering-and-forgetting.

Jesus is baptised into our world, into the realm in which it is imagined – and so experienced – that God has forgotten. And so his being in the world is, specifically, as one of being forgotten and being remembered by God. The very baptism of Jesus at the outset of his ministry involves the recognition of Jesus by God – the re-cognition, the re-thinking, re-calling of him: You are my Son, the Beloved. God re‑cognises, remembers, Jesus as the Beloved, and this is the basis of Jesus’ own life and joy: the joy of finding himself thought again by God.

And us? God recognises us as beloved in another sign, given for divine and human remembrance. The sacrament of broken bread and blest cup is a drama of remembered forgottenness: a broken body, healed.

Do this for the remembrance of me.

The remembrance here is no mere “thinking about old stuff”; it is a more potently a making real and present here and now what Jesus is. What is Jesus? The forgotten, forsaken world, remembered. And, when remembered, healed, because healing is what happens when God remembers.

The rainbow is an enormous sign at the point where heaven and earth meet. God cannot not but see it and be reminded of how he has promised the two shall be related.

The enormity of the sign which is Jesus himself is not spatial but relational: My Son, the Beloved. This God cannot forget, and it is God’s remembrance of Jesus which is the sign given to us. We break bread and bless a cup, we eat and drink, that God’s remembering of the forsaken Jesus might again be among us, that we-in-him might know the joy of being remembered.

LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on the Call to Worship

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Litbit: The congregation gathers in response to a call to worship, which is the fundamental vocation of being human. God is calling out and constituting a people who will look “peculiar” in this broken world because they have been called to be renewed image bearers of God – to take and reembrace our creational vocation, now empowered by the Spirit to do so.

James K. A Smith, Desiring the Kingdom.


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17 December – The God who brings death and life

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Advent 3

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Good news to the oppressed, binding up of the broken-hearted, proclamation of liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners; a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit; the garments of salvation, a robe of righteousness, a garland, jewels…

The word of promise in this language is surely extraordinary in the ears of those who have lived through hell. Isaiah proclaims a great reversal, a turning upside-down of the experience of the people of God – the return of God to their midst as blessing.

But what about those for whom the world is not horrific, for whom life’s biggest challenge is along the lines of negotiating a shopping centre carpark a few days before Christmas or waiting out a kitchen renovation? What does Isaiah have to say to any whose life is largely devoid of oppression or ashes or unrighteousness? Because, for most of us – in and out of the church – life is mostly ok most of the time, and so Isaiah’s proclamation comes like icing on what was already a pretty good cake.

One way of hearing Isaiah under these circumstances is to imagine that he speaks not to us, but as us: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” or us. The word to us becomes our own word and, going further, we take it upon ourselves not simply to speak of the coming of God but to be those who realise God’s peace. We have received the Spirit, and we are to pay that forwards, for others.

Certainly, those who “have” are under a moral obligation to share and bless those who have not. But if this is all it’s about, then there is no possibility that God has anything more to say to us. Is there a word of the Lord – a blessing, heart-raising word – for the relaxed and mostly comfortable?

The question of our redemption is not pressing today, either in the church or in society more generally. Certainly we are constantly working towards something, and something better than we what we presently know but this kind of progress is not the business of Christian worship or faith. The heart of our confession is not the offer of a nudge from worse to bad, or bad to good, or good to better. We speak, rather, of life out death, of the creation of something out of nothing. Christian faith is, at heart, concerned with miracles, with the impossible. For when God comes, what he brings is not only the kind of healing we think we need but also revelation of the full extent of that need. In the breadth of Isaiah’s preaching God speaks such words of comfort as we read in worship this time of year, but also divine rage and accusation against the people for things about themselves they would scarcely recognise or be aware of.

When God comes, it is always as life out of death, as creation out of nothing. This means that when God comes it is always with bad news as well as with the good, the good revealing the bad. The broken-hearted may not know, or have acknowledged, that indeed their hopes have been dashed; the captives not know that they are imprisoned, the comfortable not know just how insecure they are.

We mark just this dynamic in our worship each week. We call on God, whether we are feeling we need God or not. We hear that we are forgiven, often of things we had not imagined we were guilty of. Perhaps quintessentially, we gather around a table at which is served a victim through whom salvation is somehow won.

All of this “works”, however, only to the extent that the bad comes with the good. If we speak of the coming of resurrection, we speak also about the coming of death. But we have to be careful here. The proclamation of resurrection is not for the dying but for the dead. We noted last week that we all know that we are dying. This knowledge, however – our mere mortality – is not the question answered by resurrection. Resurrection reveals death – a death we do not yet know – it does not merely nudge us through what we already know. Resurrection doesn’t answer our sense for death because we have not yet asked the question well enough, despite our mourning and ashes, as real as they are. The resurrection with which the church is concerned is that which identifies who is dead, including us dead who are still walking.

This is enacted also in the Eucharist. The Eucharist “works” only to the extent that we who receive the body and blood admit a culpability in its having been broken and spilt. There is no “nudge” here into a better life by taking a spiritual medicine which treats some disease in us, and so which could be substituted for a generic brand which is not called “body” and “blood”. The ritual kills in the accusation of our complicity in death, and raises in the creative grace of God. Death is but a means by which God can bless; the Eucharist is death and resurrection – Jesus’, and our own.

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Isaiah proclaims, with the emphasis falling on the spirit, and not on the “me”. For it is the spirit of the Lord which creates and renews the face of the earth. This is the light John announced, which enlightens everyone (John 1.9), even those who do not yet know they are living in shadows. When God comes, the dark places appear and are flooded with light. And God is coming.

For this spirit, this light, all thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always. Amen.

LitBit Commentary – James K A Smith on Worship 2

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LitBit: One of the things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is. To engage in worship requires a body—with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell, tongues to taste, ears to hear, hands to hold and raise. Christian worship is not the sort of thing disembodied spirits could engage in…The rhythms and rituals of Christian worship invoke and feed off of our embodiment and traffic in the stuff of a material world: water, bread, and wine, each of which point us to their earthy emergence: the curvature of the riverbed, the shimmering fields that give forth grain, the grapes that hint of a unique terroir. It does not take much imagination for these in turn to evoke an entire environment: The gurgling water in the riverbed calls to mind the reeds and pussy willows along its edge, muskrats slinking quietly from the edge under the water’s surface, as the water wends its way to twist the crank of a gristmill or a hydroelectric turbine, both providing sustenance for a civilization of culture. The bread evokes images of Kansas wheat fields or of parched African expanses that have failed to yield grain for years. The bread has not made it to this table without much labor, without hands (and machines) harvesting, sometimes toiling and despoiling in the process. The wine in the cup has its own rich history of grapes drooping on the ground, rescued from rot by caring hands of husbandry, perhaps also just escaping an early frost that threatened their ripe skins. So right here in Christian worship we have a sort of microcosm of creation—the “world in a wafer.”

James K. A Smith, Desiring the Kingdom


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LitBit Commentary – William Cavanaugh on the Eucharist 2

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LitBit: The Eucharist diffuses the false theology and the false anthropology of will and right by the stunning ‘public’ leitourgia in which humans are made members of God’s very Body. “Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so who ever eats me will live because of me” (John 6.57). Augustine envisions Jesus saying, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”

William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, p.47

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LitBit Commentary – William Cavanaugh on the Eucharist 1

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LitBit: … gathering in solidarity and love was not a Christian innovation. Members of Roman collegia addressed each other as brethren and often held goods in common. What distinguished the Christian Eucharistic community was the way that it transcended natural and social divisions. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3.28).

William Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, p.115f


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