Tag Archives: Mission

10 February – ‘Forgiven’ is ‘commissioned’

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Epiphany 5

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 138
Luke 5:1-11

In a sentence:
To be startled by the call to follow but not by the declaration of forgiveness – this is not yet to be forgiven.

The story of the call of the disciples must be one of the more terrifying passages of the New Testament: ‘…When [the fishermen] had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus’ (Luke 5.11).

If this is intended to demonstrate what it is to be a Christian, it is a very hard word for most people to hear, ourselves included. Yet it is Jesus who makes the call; and we have heard it – some of us – scores or even hundreds of times. To be free to follow – although we romanticise it hopelessly – would this not be marvellous? For many of us, our memories of Sunday School or similar are of heroes and heroines of the faith who seemed to do the kind of thing these disciples did. And yet many of us are not free, at least in the way that the disciples seem to be in the story.

Still we do not despair, for we can rationalise their response to Jesus. Perhaps they heard him many times before and it is just that it is this time, after a long period of reflection, that they happened to put everything down and follow him. Or perhaps it was their understanding of the nature of the world which made the difference. You would be much more likely to drop everything and follow the prophet of the impending doom if you believed that the world was soon coming to an end. Or perhaps the fact that these men didn’t have very much in the first place meant that it was easier for them to cast it all aside. With arguments like this we finally reach a comforting conclusion: they are freer than we because their situation and expectations were quite different from ours: there is no fair comparison to be made between them and us.

Yet this way of thinking denies the text of the Scripture as it stands. If we were supposed to understand that the disciples’ thinking along these lines we might expect that the Scripture would say this but it doesn’t. Instead of trying to explain away the actions of the disciples here we need to shift our focus from a timid hearing of the text to the theological centre of what happens when God meets the world in Christ.

It is our tendency to want to place conditions on our response to God’s call. Yet, while we approach God with our terms and conditions, the church declares that God approaches us unconditionally. There is no calculation on God’s part of achievement, no reckoning of debt or interest or repayment. This is the meaning of the word ‘grace’ which is so loved by Christians.

Now, the question is: despite all of our attempts to rationalise our response to it, can the call to follow – when it comes – also be a word of unconditional grace? When we try to rationalise our response to God’s call, we demonstrate that we hear it only as law – as mere demand, and so as bad news – for rationalisations are simply the application of laws. I suspect that this is typically how we approach the question of God, or God’s questions to us. We hear a command – perhaps to follow Jesus, or even ‘simply’ to believe – as bad news, and we seek to see whether, on balance, we can find any good news in it for ourselves; ‘balance’ is what it all comes to be about.

But, can the call of God be a word of grace and not merely a demanding command? Church talk about God’s ‘unconditional grace’ is usually talk about our access to God: by grace we are free to approach God. But unconditional grace is not about our access to God – our freedom to find salvation; it is about God’s freedom to find us. There are no conditions which might separate the love of God in Jesus Christ from us, and so no conditions which God has to meet before he may heal us; God’s ability to heal is simply a matter of his choosing to do so.

Now, if God is free to approach us to heal, he is also free to approach us to call; there are no conditions God needs to meet to call us to follow. So we must say not only the part which appeals – that ‘by grace we are saved’. We must also say what unsettles: by grace we are called – the same grace as that by which we are saved.

And it is the same grace. To defend ourselves against God’s freedom to make a claim on us is to deny that we are saved by grace. To say No to the call to obedience – whether it is obedience in dropping everything in response to a ‘special’ call or merely obedience in following God’s ‘standing orders’ – is to deny the salvation by grace we claim so strongly. To be startled by the call to follow but not by the declaration of forgiveness – this is not yet to be forgiven. To be uninspired by the direct call of God is to have become bored with his forgiveness.

To be called to follow, then – to be commissioned to ‘fish for people’ – this is the shape of healing and forgiveness from God. There is no forgiveness which then seeks an action in response – which looks for something to do – and actually might not get around to finding an action; the one who knows herself forgiven is the one who is free to respond to God’s call. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ cries the frightened Simon Peter after the great and unexpected haul of fish. But the decision of Simon to follow Jesus is the response of a confessed sinner who nevertheless has also heard that he is deemed fit for the service of God’s unfolding kingdom. That is, Simon has received God’s welcoming grace in the call to mission: he is commissioned to God’s mission in the word of forgiveness.

This is what we miss in our allergic reaction to the disciples’ following Jesus so seemingly carelessly. ‘From now on you will fish for people’ is not simply a task given to these disciples but the word of acceptance by God – the demonstration of forgiveness. What seems to us to be a careless and risky throwing away of their lives in launching after Jesus is in fact their taking up of the free offer of a share in God’s healing work in the world, a healing which begins with their acceptance of the invitation to participate.

In contrast to the idea that this commissioning is itself the word of forgiveness, our own reality is too often that we freely embrace what we consider the gracious gift of God – his forgiveness – and quickly name as an affliction what we consider the unreasonable conditions of discipleship: that we should follow.

But we explain away the first disciples’ response to Jesus at our own peril, for to save ourselves from participation in God’s mission is to insulate ourselves from God’s salvation. It is the call to be available to God which is the word of forgiveness.

Surprisingly, perhaps, what is needed to be able to say yes to God’s call is a greater sense of our unworthiness: ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner’. For the call to service in God’s kingdom would then entail a greater sense of forgiveness, and so of gratitude, and so of freedom to say yes to the one who has given without bounds.

We have heard the response of those few disciples to the call of Jesus, and now it is over to us.

May God’s people not baulk at the invitation to follow but embody the grace of God toward them in service towards others, and this not in fear or resentment but with joy. Amen.

3 February – God comes to us, to save another

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Epiphany 4

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71
Luke 4:21-30

In a sentence:
My neighbour is the shape of my salvation

Jesus stands before the good people of Nazareth and tells them: I have not come for you.

Things had started well: ‘all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth’ (v.22). But they have missed the point – not that we could blame them – and Jesus goes on the attack. First, we hear two proverbs as direct challenges thrown to the congregation: ‘Doctor, cure yourself’ and ‘no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s own town’. The first names the people’s not unreasonable expectation that Jesus would perform among them acts of power he had been said to have worked elsewhere. The second then accuses them of being unable to receive him.

As confronting as this might have been, the clincher is the two biblical stories Jesus retells. In both cases great prophets from Israel’s past – at times of great need in Israel – bring God’s healing power not to Israel but to Gentiles. And the crowd goes ballistic – or intends to – with Jesus!

But why does Jesus go on the attack in the first place? There is not here the holy righteousness of, say, his attack on the money-changers in the temple, or his anger against the attitudes of the Pharisees and scribes. This is not an attack on a moral failure – something the people had or hadn’t done.

Jesus’ assault is not on what the people had done but rather on what the people were – as the good people of Nazareth. Jesus accuses the people as a class. They have, in fact, not done anything yet – right or wrong – other than expect that what Jesus had done elsewhere he might also do at home. And so their initial response to him is not unbelief but actually what we might even call faith.[1] The expectation of the congregation seems to be that they will receive from God through Jesus and yet, in a manner seemingly uncalled for, Jesus tells them that not they but others will be blessed.[2]

What are we to make of this? Of the four evangelists, Luke is the most overtly ‘political’ to modern ears. It is Luke who most uncomfortably confronts the comfortable with what has been called God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’. And the class distinctions which Luke draws are unqualified. It is not a matter of some of the religious leaders having lost the plot, or some of the poor and outcast having received God’s favour. Rather, we hear from Luke (chap 6): blessed are the poor; blessed are the hungry; blessed are the weeping; and woe to the rich, those with full stomachs, and so on. There is no careful distinction between those who are poor because of the injustices of an economic system and those who are poor because of their own stupidity, and no distinction between those who have full stomachs because they have taken advantage of others and those who have full stomachs because of long and hard work.

The obvious danger in this is that individuals are treated according to how we’ve sorted them, according to their ‘class’. But a Muslim is not, thereby, a terrorist; a poor person is not, thereby, righteous; a politician is not, thereby, unreliable; and to be sitting in the congregation at Nazareth when Jesus speaks is not, thereby, to be ruled out of God’s favour.

And yet this is what Jesus says: as a group, these will be overlooked, for the blessing of others. We could only avoid this conclusion by attributing what he says to the unbelief of the people, but the text itself – in Luke’s account – doesn’t do this (even if Matthew and Mark do). It is not that they have not believed, for they have been impressed by him. It is rather that they are the good, religious people of Israel.

Yet, while there exists here the very serious dangers of racism and classism, addressing the good folk of Nazareth in this way (as a whole) and contrasting them with the Gentiles as a whole enables a central aspect of the gospel to be put in the starkest of terms.

It is easy and tempting – now, as then – to focus on the justification and healing of the individual, or on the class of individuals, separate from other individuals and classes. This leads to a focus on personal or communal righteousness, individualised. Here I would be saved independently of you if, say, I am the righteous Jew and you the unclean Gentile. Or, within the class I, as the righteous Jew am saved independently of you, the unrighteous Jew. This leads to that kind of judgementalism which is one person or group standing divided from and over against another.

And this is what makes the offence taken by the congregation is understandable: Are we not the keepers of the tradition? Are we not the observers of the rules? Are we not the donors to the cause? The language of ‘fairness’ and the earning of blessing creeps in.

But earned blessings are always a saving out of the world: isolation and insulation from that which is not saved. Salvation for what we have earned is always finally salvation in solitude – salvation into aloneness, for I may be the only one who has earned it.

The blessing of God is never for our isolation, even if we think that is what we want or need. The blessing of God – a blessing which is not earned – is always reconciling, and so always communal. It levels and equalises, without making the same. The love of God comes to the chosen people, that those who are not chosen may know the love of God.

This is a difficult lesson. Not the synagogue nor the church are safe-place refuges, and neither is anywhere ‘outside’ these communities. It is perhaps too difficult a lesson even for Luke himself, who doesn’t include in his gospel the story which best complements Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth – that rather uncomfortable account of the Syrophoenician woman’s meeting with Jesus. That story, found in Mark (7.24-30) and Matthew (15.21-28), has Jesus saying to a Gentile what he says here to the synagogue – I have not come for you: ‘it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’. The difference – and perhaps the irony in Luke’s omission – is that she accepts this order of things (‘but bread has crumbs!’), and so receives the blessing Jesus was going to deny her. This is just what the Nazarenes do not do.

Jesus comes to us today to declare: ‘I have come to you in order to go to another. I have come not that you might be blessed, elevated and separated from the rest of the world. I have come to move beyond, to extend to, to open up. I have come to reconcile the Jew and the Gentile, the rich and the poor, the slave and the free. Your salvation begins today, in your midst, in this messily class‑ified world as it is; there is no plucking-out-of the world or a leaving-behind-of those you might think I do not love. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news, to announce liberty and a new vision, and to proclaim the Lord’s favour.’

The Lord’s favour is without bounds. If it were not so, we who imagine that God’s favour is ours would be without hope or salvation, because our imagination is just not broad enough. God comes to us to declare that he is leaving to bless our neighbour, and he declares to our neighbour just the same thing. It is only if this is so that we may speak with any sense of grace which is not reward and reconciliation in spite of what we have done: that we might be blessed through someone else being blessed. This is what it means truly to give and to receive, whether in the case of the grace of God, or a helping hand.

Jesus says, Your neighbour is the shape of your salvation. Let us, then, live as if that were the case: as if giving were receiving.

For the good news of the gospel – that God can turn even what divides us from each other into the very means of our salvation – thanks be to God.

[1] Note the difference here from the way in which Mark (6.1-6) and Matthew (13.54-58) tell the story, attributing the few works Jesus does in Nazareth to a lack of faith.

[2] Note also, the issue is not really one of inclusion or exclusion – except for the possibility that the good people of Nazareth might themselves be excluded (some commentators seeing here an objection to the inclusion of the Gentiles).

5 August – The spacious God

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Pentecost 11

1 John 4:13-16
Psalm 78
John 6:24-35

In a sentence
God does not have context but is a context

Believers generally have in common with unbelievers a sense of where God would be, if God were anywhere. What is held in common here is not the particular place or time of God, but the thought that God might be ‘there’ – anywhere – at all.

‘There-ness’ – a location – seems a sensible thing to propose about God. Our religious language is loaded with this assumption: God is ‘in heaven’. It doesn’t matter precisely where heaven is, only that it has an implied ‘there’ which matches our ‘here’. With more sophistication, we might say God is in the ‘future’ – a ‘there’ which matches here-and-now. Or, more lamentably, God might be in the past – yet another ‘there’ which is located in relation to here.

Of course, that God is somewhere is how belief tends to put it. Unbelief understands where God might be in the same way, and simply asserts that, in fact, God is not in any such place.

Yet, the real difference between belief and unbelief is not that belief insists that God is there and that unbelief insists that God is not. The difference between belief and unbelief is that one holds that God does not have a ‘where’, and the other holds that God must have. Perhaps it will come as a surprise that I say that it is unbelief that holds that God must be somewhere, to be ‘related’ to, if God is to be all. Belief – Christian, trinitarianly-informed belief – does not require God to be ‘anywhere’.

How can this be so? The problem with a God who is ‘somewhere’ is that such a God tends to be either too small or too big.

Such a God is too small because if God exists in a space, there must be space ‘around’ God – a not-God space. So if, as believers like to do, we were to ‘meet’ this God, it would be like meeting a friend in a café: indeed we meet, but neither of us is the café. The meeting space – the ‘café’ – is a kind of ‘neutral’ zone in which we and God meet; think of God meeting Adam and Eve in the Garden after the Apple Incident.[1] The difference between the believer and the unbeliever on this understanding is that the unbeliever knows that she can drink coffee on her own and that sometimes coffee is better that way. Whether God is ‘there’ or not becomes a matter of mood and taste.

This is not a God to be taken seriously, which is why unbelievers and believers alike do not. Unbelievers don’t take such a God seriously because moods come and go but taste is eternal, and they have no taste for God.

Why believers don’t take the small God-in-a-space seriously is seen in the way that this God seems to want to grow bigger, threatening to take up too much space. We feel this whenever we sense that we are in competition with God for our lives in the world. When we rationalise to ourselves why we should be able to do or say as we would like – despite what someone might tell us God requires – we seek to limit God to God’s own proper space. Believers also find that coffee is often better enjoyed alone.

The God who is ‘there’ – the God ‘to’ whom we might relate at a place between ourselves and God – begins to look not much different from a questionable moral upbringing, a nagging conscience, a cultural formation which might have been different – an isolatable, dismissible thing.

But the properly Christian confession is that there is no space ‘around’ God. God does not have a context, has nothing by which to locate him. God, rather, is a context. God has no ‘where;’ God is a ‘where’. And this brings us, finally, to our reading from 1 John this morning and once more to John’s language of ‘abiding.’

We noted John’s interest in abiding a few weeks ago. We focussed then particularly on where we abide: the options we have to locate ourselves, and the call to rest in the present, in God. Our thinking this morning about the ‘where’ of God touches upon God’s abiding: Where does God abide?

The only answer of interest to the church is that which John gives: in us.

God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 

God is not located abstractly in space or time, to go to or come away from as we or God choose. There is no Godless place from which God might be absent, or to which God might then become present. God is located in relation to us: where we are, there is God.

This is dangerous talk, of course, on account of the risk that we now turn God into what we are. This becomes not ‘God is love’ but ‘love is God’: how we love being how God loves. If we cordon off your community or bulldoze your homes, if we strand you on a distant island, or beat you, or limit your options for a full life, it is because God requires it, and this is God’s love for you.

This is not the faith of the church. To say that God abides only in relation to us is not to say that whatever we manifest is the manifestation of God. But it is to say that we need a shift in the metaphors which dominate how we think about our relationship to God. The metaphor of God in a space is what gives us the notion that God ‘sends’ – sends the Son, sends the Spirit, sends the church in mission. This gives us the notion that there are places where God is not, and that God comes to meet us or we go to take God somewhere new. This is the possibility of the heresy against which John writes – that the world, the body of Jesus, is not a place God can inhabit.

But let’s take up the thought from a moment ago – that God does not have a context but is a context. This is to say that God is not in a space but is, rather, spacious. God is not in the world somewhere; the world is in God.

It might not look that way, but this would change how we experience the world and what we understand the call of God to be. The world ceases to be a godless place; it is a place in God and so inherently Godly. And mission – being called to God and calling others to God – ceases to be about going to a place where God is not and bringing God there. Mission becomes ‘turning on the light’, that we might see what space it is which, in fact, we inhabit.

‘…this is the judgement,’ we hear in John’s gospel, ‘that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God’ (3.19-21).

Our deeds are done in God. Our lives are lived in God, whether they are yet capable of reflecting the divine light or not. We do not see God because God is not ‘there’ to be seen; we see by God. God is the eyes by which we see. These ‘eyes’ are the gift of God’s own Spirit, which speaks to us the meaning of Jesus, and so our very own meaning – who we are, where we are, the space we inhabit. This is much, much more than we have yet to see.

The call of the gospel – and its promise – is life in all its fullness: opening our eyes and conforming to our divine habitat, coming to be in the world as Jesus himself is – as light, as promise, as hope.

Let us, then, open our eyes to catch that quickening ray which is the light of God’s call and promise – this to God’s greater glory and our richer humanity. Amen.

[1] It is noteworthy that the mythological presentation of God in a space (the Garden) takes place after the Apple.

BasisBits – Paragraph 13: Gifts and Ministries


BasisBits Logo - 2 WITHOUT S

The Uniting Church affirms that every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant. It acknowledges with thanksgiving that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ. The Uniting Church, at the time of union, will recognise and accept the ministries of those who have been called to any task or responsibility in the uniting Churches. The Uniting Church will thereafter provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them, and will order its life in response to God’s call to enter more fully into mission.

From Paragraph 13 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 11: Scholarly Interpreters


BasisBits Logo - 2 WITHOUT S

The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. The Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.

From Paragraph 11 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 8: Holy Communion


BasisBits Logo - 2 WITHOUT S

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the continuing presence of Christ with his people is signified and sealed by Christ in the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Communion, constantly repeated in the life of the Church. In this sacrament of his broken body and outpoured blood the risen Lord feeds his baptized people on their way to the final inheritance of the Kingdom. Thus the people of God, through faith and the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, have communion with their Saviour, make their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, proclaim the Lord’s death, grow together into Christ, are strengthened for their participation in the mission of Christ in the world, and rejoice in the foretaste of the Kingdom which Christ will bring to consummation.

From Paragraph 8 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

BasisBits – Paragraph 2: Of the Whole Church


BasisBits Logo - 2 WITHOUT S

The Uniting Church in Australia lives and works within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Uniting Church recognises that it is related to other Churches in ways which give expression, however partially, to that unity in faith and mission. Recalling the Ecumenical Councils of the early centuries, the Uniting Church looks forward to a time when the faith will be further elucidated, and the Church’s unity expressed, in similar Councils. It thankfully acknowledges that the uniting Churches were members of the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies, and will seek to maintain such membership. It remembers the special relationship which obtained between the several uniting Churches and other Churches of similar traditions, and will continue to learn from their witness and be strengthened by their fellowship. It is encouraged by the existence of United Churches in which these and other traditions have been incorporated, and wishes to learn from their experience. It believes that Christians in Australia are called to bear witness to a unity of faith and life in Christ which transcends cultural and economic, national and racial boundaries, and to this end the Uniting Church commits itself to seek special relationships with Churches in Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church declares its desire to enter more deeply into the faith and mission of the Church in Australia, by working together and seeking union with other Churches.

From Paragraph 2 of the Basis of Union (1992)


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BasisBits are intended particularly for congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia but could be easily adapted for general use by congregations of other denominations. The suggested use of BasisBits is as items in the “news” section of your Sunday pew sheets or regular congregational publications; some would lend themselves to incorporation into your liturgy order itself.

8 February – All things to all people

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Epiphany 5

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Our rights – as citizens, as individuals, as human beings – have been much in view over the last few years. Against governments responsible for limiting the behaviour of a few, the many wonder whether their own rights are also being unnecessarily limited. Against the forces of globalisation, big business and the greed of the developed world there is a growing concern for the rights of the “two-thirds” world which lags behind us in so many ways. Against the memory of a time when we were defined by our past, our gender, our race, our age, our religion or any other thing inflicted on us by fate, today we strongly assert our “rights”, our freedoms from all which might make a claim somehow to limit us.

At the same time, with increasing regularity, there is also talk heard about responsibilities although, over against the urgency of the talk about rights, talk about responsibilities seems to have a weariness or an irony about it. Once it was the other way around, but today responsibility is on the back foot and has to defend itself against right. Rights tend to win over responsibilities because it is part of our lot that my “right” to exist or prosper or be secure will eventually come into conflict with yours. When it does there enters another principle, “might is right”, and the conflict is intensified. Even so, if in practice one seems to have precedence over another, in our better moments we still seek to balance the two: rights imply responsibilities, and vice-versa.

The fundamental nature of talk about rights and responsibilities is legal. The attempt to balance my rights with yours – my rights with my responsibilities – takes on the character of a transaction, a social “contract” in which certain things are required of me, and certain other things guaranteed to me. Contracts reflect an economy of exchange. My responsibilities serve your rights; your rights imply corresponding responsibilities: balance without excess.

And this brings us to Paul, the apostle of excess.

Paul says of his preaching: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!!” (9.16). That is, there is no freedom here. There is an obligation or responsibility laid on him by God for the benefit of others. This responsibility, however, is to be met by the responsibility of his hearers to provide him a living. We might say that the congregation has the “right” (in a qualified sense) to hear the gospel, and it’s Paul’s responsibility to meet that right. Conversely, Paul has a right to eat, and it is his hearers’ responsibility to meet that right.

This is all well and good. Even if we think that hearing the gospel is no desirable thing, we know the logic of exchange and can follow Paul’s argument to this point. Yet Paul is not really interested in spelling out how the rights and responsibilities of preachers and their audience should be balanced. Rights and responsibilities are natural components of human existence, and not the content of the Christian ethic Paul goes on to describe. Christian existence does involve rights and responsibilities, but you don’t need to be a Christian to assent to them. If this were all Paul has to say to us, then the gospel is simply a particular flavour of law. It’s Jesus-flavoured law, but merely law nonetheless.

Paul is under obligation to God and to the world to preach, and he does. The crucial point, though, is that although he has this responsibility and the corresponding right to claim an income, he does not claim money for his work. While he speaks of rights and related responsibilities, he points beyond these merely legal, contractual requirements to the possibility of good news: news which is not legally necessary but surprising and liberating. For the good news is concerned not with what is due, but with over-payment, with what is in excess of what is due, with the delivery of more than is legally required.

In the first instance, this means for Paul the exercise of ministry without claiming the payment it is his right to claim. But he opens the issue right up with the language of freedom and slavery which is so much a part of his way of thinking about the gospel.

Although free in the gospel to claim his rights from others, instead he denies himself these rights and so makes himself subject to those to whom he ministers: to the Jews he is as a Jew; to the Gentiles, he is as a Gentile; to those under or outside the law, he becomes as one under or outside the law. God has embraced Paul as he is and sent him with a commission to preach as he is, and so Paul can rightly expect of others that they accept him as he is. Yet, for the sake of the gospel Paul becomes as they are, that there may be as few obstacles as possible preventing them from receiving the gospel.

Yet, we have to push still further than this. He is not simply being helpful or accommodating here. Paul turns his way of relating to others into the gospel itself. In another place he exhorts his readers: be as Jesus was, who, although he possessed all the rights of God, did not think them things to cling to but set them aside, taking on the form of a servant, humbling himself to the point of losing himself – even through the cross (Philippians 2).

This Paul does himself. He does not merely speak of what God has done in Christ, as if it were some piece of historical information to be delivered to the ignorant. God’s work shapes the way Paul himself works. Becoming all things to all people is not a missionary strategy, although we quickly turn it into that. The point is not that evangelism works best if we become like those we seek to evangelise. The point is that evangelism is excessive service, responsibility which does not claim its right. Evangelism then becomes not the presentation of information, but the very expression and embodiment of the gospel itself – a giving of self in excess of what might justly be required. The message becomes the medium.

In his closing remark in our passage this morning, there is one final point Paul lets us in on: “I do all this on account of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings…” (v.23). “I do this, so that I may share in the blessings of the gospel…” Not only does Paul embody, or realize, the gospel in the way in which he relates to those who have a “right” to hear the gospel. Paul also experiences the gospel himself through his excessive and unbalanced service to them.

There are clues here for churches like ours. Our Synod’s Major Strategic Review springs from a concern for sustainability, realised through strategy. Yet sustainability is an ecological concept, ecology being a profoundly “legal” (here: natural law) space of predetermined cause and effect. Strategy is a military concept, again the realm of cause and effect: bigger guns, cleverer plans and sneakier commandos win the day. Strategy unto sustainability is a commitment to balance and not to the excess of the gospel. It assumes that we already “have” the gospel, and that the question at hand is one of delivery; for Paul, the delivery itself is the possibility of further experience of the gospel.

But this is not just “their” problem: we too, as a congregation, have to resolve how to move into the future: what to do with the enormous resources at our disposal. None of what I have said pre-determines what we decide because gospel excess is not a natural, legal – determined – category: it is an historical one, a question of decision, a casting of ourselves in trust in the one who looks and waits to see what we will choose, and promises to work with that. While we might – perhaps even must – be as clever and careful as we can as we make these plans, we need to be aware that in fact we are more “forcing” God’s hand, so to speak, than reading it. This would be an appalling thing to say were it not that this God can take our worst excesses – even crucifying the Lord of life – and make of them something life-giving.

The empty economy of right and responsibility cannot bring us life, but only a precarious balance and, with it, anxiety. The good news about Jesus tells instead of an excess of love which is undeserved, but nevertheless is pressed down and flows over through his disciples into a cascade of hope.

Paul finds himself caught up in the whirlpool of the gospel. Having been drawn into the current, he uses its force and power as the means of reaching others, and yet that same force again swirls him around, shifting, buffeting, cleansing and empowering for more such work. This is our calling, and the promise which carries it to us.

May God’s people ever continue to hear the call and trust the promise, for their own sake and for the sake of those who do not yet know themselves to be daughters and sons of this God and Father, sisters and brothers of this Christ, women and men sustained by this Spirit. Amen.